Loving in a Love-Starved World

A few weeks ago, I bought a very small but deeply impactful book: “How to Love” by Thich Naht Hanh.  In case you haven’t heard of him, the author, Thich Nhat Hanh, is a wise Buddhist master, scholar, and teacher who has written dozens of books aimed at reducing suffering and bringing joy into people’s lives.  Of all his books, this one strikes me in particular because it is a very digestible, readable little tome that tells us, in small bites, the simple, basic truth of how to love and honor each other.

“How to Love” offers a small tidbit of wisdom and instruction on each of its 100 pages.  Thich Nhat Hanh interweaves into his teaching the importance of loving and honoring oneself, in order to have a greater capacity to love and honor another person, helping them to suffer less.  He goes back-and-forth between the importance of healing your suffering and helping others to heal.  I read his book with enthusiasm, because I have felt lately that our capacity to love and to heal each other has diminished, especially as our society becomes more and more technologically “advanced,” and we are increasingly stressed out, short on time, traumatized, and emotionally malnourished.  These circumstances set us up for living in a more narcissistic, self-serving manner and being so caught up in ourselves that we can’t take into account the needs of anyone else.  Nhat Hanh offers hope that we can each get enough emotional fuel within ourselves that we can begin to help others to regenerate.

“Each of us can learn the art of nourishing happiness and love.  Everything needs food to live, even love.  If we don’t know how to nourish our love, it withers.  When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love.  That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness. ”                        -Naht Hanh, “How to Love”

In my psychology practice, patients often tell me that they have discovered that someone they know or love is a narcissist. Often, they want to talk about this because he/she has hurt them, and they want to find a way of understanding what happened.  Typically, they have read descriptions of narcissism on the internet and are certain that this person “has it.”  In this situation, my aim is to eventually help my patient to understand that narcissism, while it looks like a problem of excessive ego, is actually a problem of diminished self-worth.  At their core, people who could be described as “narcissistic” are deeply insecure and emotionally starving.  In their own lives, their healthy narcissistic needs have not been met and for a complex set of reasons, they have developed a defensive coping style that protects their wounds but makes them seem ego-driven.   (Of course, like any other character trait, narcissism exists on a continuum and people vary in terms of degree and severity of narcissistic qualities.)  I’d like to argue here that our society is becoming increasingly narcissistic not because people are becoming more into themselves, but because they are increasingly emotionally starved.  And as people’s healthy narcissistic needs remain unmet, they get hungrier and hungrier.  And this leads to a world that Thich Nhat Hanh might warn us against:  a world where we are all too love-starved to be able to offer love to each other.

For many years now, I have felt that the only way to heal problems of excessive narcissistic hunger is with emotional generosity.  (I wrote about this in my 2014 blog, Relieving Relational Poverty.)  And this seems to be the same idea espoused by Thich Nhat Hanh.  Love, he tells us, has the profound ability to heal suffering.  He offers us straightforward directions, too, for how to use love to have better relationships.

Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person.  Understanding is love’s other name.  If you don’t understand, you can’t love.                -Nhat Hanh, “How to Love”

In a world where, for a variety of complicated sociological and political reasons, people are becoming more emotionally hungry as their healthy narcissistic needs are met less and less often, I invite you to read and practice the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh.  Don’t look at the selfish and harmful actions of others in your life as representing a narcissistic disorder; instead, try looking at them as manifestations of unacknowledged suffering. This is not to say that you have to stay in a close relationship with someone who is actively hurting you, but if you practice patience, understanding, and deep love, in addition to coming to know, accept, and heal your own suffering (on your own or with the help of a therapist), then there is the chance that your relationships can be transformed.

From time to time, sit close to the one you love, hold his or her hand and ask, “Darling, do I understand you enough?  Or am I making you suffer?  Please tell me so that I can learn to love you properly.  I don’t want to make you suffer, and if I do so because of my ignorance, please tell me so that I can love you better, so that you can be happy.”  If you say this in a voice that communicates your real openness to understand, the other person may cry.  That is a good sign, because it means the door of understanding is open and everything will be possible again.”                           -Nhat Hanh, “Peace is in Every Step”



Pain and the Capacity to Love

“Our capacity for whole-heartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted.” -Brene Brown

I recently listened to two different NPR interview podcasts. The first was an interview of Brene Brown, who researches and writes about vulnerability. The second was a discussion with Tich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk, teacher, author, and advocate for peace. Both interviews shared one common theme: that suffering is necessary for meaningful human connection. Tich Nhat Hanh said, quite plainly, “I would not want to live in a world without suffering.” Why? Because, he said, there can be no compassion without suffering.

Recently, a supervisee of mine made an astute observation. She was reflecting on the work we do as psychologists, and remarked that one thing that sucks about our shared career is that our own pain is a requirement of the work. It is impossible to help another person to heal if you have not suffered yourself.  What she meant is that we relate better to people’s pain by having felt our own.  When we can bear our own suffering, it is easier to endure another’s.

Of course, this is true outside of the consulting room as well. When I am having a hard time, it is only people who have allowed themselves to feel their pain who help me to feel better. People who know suffering, those who have not shied away from it but have let it move through them, are the ones we know we can turn to when times are tough. These brave and strong souls always have the courage to walk with us through our hardest times. You can rely on them. They know pain. They do not fear pain. They know pain is a part of life. They know pain is never permanent. They know that pain makes us stronger. And they sympathize with a strength you can trust.

As I have thought more about this, it strikes me that one of the great outcomes of our own suffering is that it builds our capacity for love.  The more difficulties we endure and overcome in our own lives, the more patient and compassionate we become with others.  Our pain helps us to relate.  This thought brings me a great peace of mind, for it means that our hardships, awful as they may be, can lead us to greater connectedness with each other.  If we do not run from our painful feelings, but instead experience them, we will help each other to heal.

This is the wise message of Brene Brown and Tich Naht Hahn.  And it is deeply true.  Don’t flee your pain.  Instead, allow yourself to feel it and to heal.  Because your healing heals us all.

© 2015 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.


Ugly Feelings

Yesterday, I attended a lecture given by renowned relational psychoanalyst Jody Davies. Her talk focused on what she calls “the dark side of psychoanalysis.” In it, she made the point that therapists can only help their patients to heal when they are able to accompany them into their darkest places and resonate with their hardest feelings. And this can only happen, she said, when the therapist herself knows and accepts her own darkness; only then is she able to help her patient face and overcome his own.

While I was listening to Dr. Davies, I started to think about how this is true in all relationships (not just therapeutic ones). I wondered: what impact does it have when Person A views herself as only “nice” or “good” when she is in a relationship? What does it do to her partner, Person B, especially when they disagree or argue? From what I have seen in my life and work, Person B is left in a terrible position. When Person A denies or disavows her bad or mean parts, then Person B is stuck with all of the negativity and blame that can’t be shared between them. But, when Person A comes to accept her own negativity or destructiveness, the picture changes. Once this happens, no one is only nice, and no one is only mean. Things even out. And the relationship typically improves.

Being familiar with our darker selves unburdens our relationships and connects us more deeply to each other. For this to happen, though, we need to allow ourselves to feel tough emotions such as anger, fear, envy, greed, sadism, irritation, contempt, and disgust (to name a few). Only through experiencing and owning our so-called “ugly feelings” (Ngai, 2007) will we be able to bear and forgive them in others.  (Owning them also prevents us from acting them out destructively!)  And, what is more, experiencing and accepting our own dark ugliness makes our relationships more equal and free.

My mentor, Nancy McWilliams, frequently reminds me and her other mentees that “we all have the capacity for all of it.” What she means is that we are all capable of having any kind of feeling, be it good, bad, easy, or painful. It is this capacity that makes us human, after all. And I would argue that the more we know and accept this truth–that we all can feel all of it–the better we will get along.

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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Relieving Relational Poverty

              “It is our nature to nurture and to be nurtured.” -Bruce Perry, MD, PhD

In his book “Born for Love”, Dr. Bruce Perry describes a form of poverty that impacts us all, regardless of race, gender, age, or socioeconomic status: relational poverty.

Perry’s “relational poverty” is just what it sounds like; it is a deep lack of the connectedness with others that we all need to survive and to be well. Perry describes how modern American society, with its technologies, impaired values, financial obsessiveness, broken social structures, and self-centeredness has created a massive, massive problem for people’s ability to relate to each other.  And, according to Perry, relational poverty is “a form of poverty far more destructive than economic poverty.”

Perry writes:  “Simply stated, the human brain is not designed for the modern world–despite the fact that the modern world is a ‘product’ of the human brain’s remarkable capacities for invention, communication, and adaptation.  We are now living in a world that is disconnected from the rhythms of nature (i.e., climate controlled, light-dark manipulated, overstimulating to our auditory and visual senses); we raise and educate our children in social environments at once more complex and demanding on our social neurobiology (e.g., hundreds of day-by-day interactions with acquaintances or strangers) yet oddly impoverished of complex somatosensory-rich, relational interactions (i.e., touch, holding, rocking, conversation, or intergenerational interactions).”

“You might have 100 friends on Facebook, but you might not have one single person to have dinner with.”                                       -Bruce Perry, MD, PhD

This is bad for us, he says, because we humans need relationships to “survive and thrive.”  Relationships with each other are critical not only to our own individual survival and wellbeing, but also to the survival of our species.  Perry also argues that relational poverty is wrecking our ability to empathize with each other, which further alienates us from one another.

So, what can we do about this?  I propose that we, as individuals, we can diminish relational poverty by ramping up our emotional generosity.  

By “emotional generosity” I am referring to a willingness to be kind and giving to others, even when you’re not in the mood.  You are being emotionally generous when you smile at your barista, even if it took a while for her to make your latte.  You’re emotionally generous when you give a surprise compliment to a stranger.  You’re being emotionally generous when you make time to take another person’s perspective, and feel for them.  You’re being emotionally generous when you find a way to calm your tantruming child, or offer help or sympathy to a mother whose child is tantruming.

Our society is flooded with connection-wrecking technologies, many of us live far away from or have damaged relationships with our families-of-origin, and our lives are busy and time is in short supply.  We can’t necessarily change those things, at least not easily.  But what we can do is look each other in the eye, offer a kind word or a smile, hold the door, and be understanding.  Through these small gestures, we can replenish each other.  It’s that simple.

                   “A healthy human being is a related human being.” -Bruce Perry

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.


Ten Ways to Curb Your Narcissism

As I’ve written before, we live in a narcissistic society. And, of course, this means that we ourselves are all at least a little narcissistic.

A little narcissism is not necessarily a bad thing–we need it in order to keep ourselves in mind and to get our own needs met. However, our narcissism can, when it gets the better of us, hinder or damage our relationships. So, I thought I’d take a minute to give you a few tips about how to keep your narcissism in check.

My mentor, Nancy McWilliams, wrote a paper called “Narcissistic Pathology of Everyday Life” which has become somewhat of a cult classic in the psychology world. She describes the small ways that people with a primarily narcissistic character subtly demean and devalue others in order to protect their underlying fragile self-esteem. Although my character is not primarily narcissistic, I find that the paper is a good reminder of how to treat people better. So, I thought I’d rework it a little here…and use her work as inspiration for a list of small things that we could all do to be less “all about me” and more involved and emotionally generous with each other.

1. Apologize. When you hurt or wrong someone, say you’re sorry. Preferably with feeling.

2. Compliment. Give gratuitous compliments, freely and often. People will love you.

3. Empathize. Take the time to see a perspective other than your own.

4. Help. Pitch in whenever you can. Any small effort to aid another person goes a long way.

5. Thank. Express gratitude when someone shows you kindness.

6. Accept. Acceptance starts with yourself: the more you know and accept yourself, the easier it is to tolerate others.

7. Communicate. Openly talking about your thoughts creates a dialogue, which by definition allows room for more than just your own perspective.
Don’t ruminate. Communicate.

8. Praise. When you see someone doing a great job, let them know!
Everyone needs a good “high five” every now and then.

9. Relax. Stress and pressure can wreck interactions with others. Try relaxing a little before you engage.

10. Replenish. Take care of yourself instead of expecting others to do it for you.
(Unless you’re under the age of 18–then you still have a right to having your basic needs met by others!)

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.


Man For Others

A few of my patients have recently discovered a key component to mental health: giving to others. This probably sounds trite, but, trust me, giving to others has a BIG, RESOUNDING impact for us all. Yet, it is not always as simple to do as it sounds.

Many people struggle to find some way out of depression and anxiety. It can be automatic, if you are depressed or anxious or worried or paranoid, to become consumed with yourself and your perspective. There is an element of narcissistic self-focus in each of these states. Ironically, though, this kind of self-focus drives us deeper into our depression or anxiety or worry or paranoia. It does not help us to get out of it.

A patient said to me lately that he wants to start thinking about other people’s needs instead of his own. He has been realizing, through our work, that his psychology keeps him so preoccupied with himself that he isn’t available to connect with others. He spontaneously suggested that he might benefit from finding ways to help other people instead of spending his time ruminating. We talked about the multifaceted benefits of this plan. He would get some relief from his self-preoccupied thoughts. The other person would feel cared for. He would have moments of connection. He might build a meaningful relationship. Or, if not, the other person would feel better and would hopefully treat others better in return. All of this sounded like a good antidepressant to him. How can I do this, he asked? It sounded great, and yet he anticipated many internal road blocks. This is not his usual way of being, after all.

There are many blogs and articles out there that tell us we should be grateful for the lives we have; we should stop being so self-absorbed and greedy. They usually contain lists that highlight ways we ought to change our thoughts and behaviors to live in a state of acceptance and gratitude. I agree that these are good ideas. The problem, though, is that it is not so simple for people to just change. It’s not so simple to just decide that you want to be different, and then immediately to make it so. It’s not so easy to one day become a man for others, without doing some preliminary work.

It’s my opinion that we are freer to help others when we feel better about who we are. When our own emotional needs are met (from deep within ourselves), we have a lot to give. When we can accept ourselves more fully, and when we feel more comfortable in our own skin, we are more genuinely available to those around us. When we’re emotionally full, we’re able to fill others. And we’re less sensitive, less easily hurt, better able to roll with things, and more genuine. The goal is, ultimately, to get to this state.

But you gotta start somewhere. And giving to others can, in itself, be the start of a positive cycle. Good interactions help us all. So, give it a try…get out there and make someone’s day. They’ll feel better, you’ll feel better, and there will be a good ripple effect from all of that. The more you give and connect, the better you feel. The better you feel, the more you give and connect. And the less preoccupied you are with yourself. And if you find it too hard, then spend some quiet time working on yourself for a while. Then give it another shot.

See if it works.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.




Compassion in a Narcissistic World

There are times when I struggle to have compassion for others. Although it comes easier some days, many days I find myself in an “I’m right, you’re wrong” stance. This happens, of course, when people disagree with me. Or when I’m feeling victimized. Often those times occur simultaneously, which is no surprise.

Luckily, I’ve discovered that there are ways out of this bind. I’m working on building my skills in this area, so I’m writing about it now to organize my own thoughts.

Jessica Benjamin wrote a psychology paper about the “doer / done-to” dynamic that happens in relationships. She emphasized how easily (in our all-about-me society) we fall into a victim-perpetrator way of being together. You may know what I mean…this kind of togetherness consists of the one-way street of feeling used or attacked or taken for granted by someone else. It’s the forgetting that there is another side to every story. That there is more than just you. That the “perpetrator” has a one way-street of his own, and is likely feeling as “done-to” as you are. And, to complicate matters more, in any relationship, there is more than two one-way streets. There are two-way streets and, especially in families, highways! The psychology of how people come together is endlessly complex and multiply-determined. And, given that truth, how are we supposed to get along??

I recently found a minute to organize my kids’ clothes (new season, new sizes). The task of organizing hand-me-downs drives me nuts. I hate doing it. Yet it must be done (sigh of resignation). I do this (dreadful) chore in our guest room, where there is a bed to put the clothes on. I haven’t been in this room in months, and in my absence, our cat has moved in. And covered the entire bed, including blankets that don’t belong there, with her fur. And her puke. Yes. The bed and my collection of cute toddler naptime blankets are crusted in cat puke and fur. So, now my dreadful project just got worse, since I have to clean the bed, too.

Here is a sample of my internal victim monologue: “Who put these blankets here? I’ll bet it was my husband. He slept up here once. Can’t he tell baby blankets from adult blankets? Doesn’t he know the cat would wreck them?? And that stupid cat…I’m so done with her. Can you say lethal injection? And my kids…maybe they did it. Ugh! Why does everyone have to make my life HARDER??!? I am going to go wreck all of their stuff and puke all over everything! And I’m not making dinner ANY MORE!”

This is me being “done-to.” Being narcissistic. Driving wrecklessly down my one-way street. The trick in these moments is to flip my perspective. To imagine the tired, sick, delerious state my husband was in when he went to sleep in the guest room with too-small blankets. Or to imagine the fort my kids may have been building in there with the blankets. And (now here is a stretch) to imagine my old-lady cat gagging on furballs (delish). Essentially, the trick is to appreciate many perspectives at once. (While also trying to not lose my own, but that’s another blog.)

I do this better some days than others. But when I do, I feel more relaxed and connected to everyone. I feel the relief of intimacy, which is not possible when you’re being (mentally) victimized.

What’s that song “life is a highway”? That’s pretty much it.

Happy cruising.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.