What Would You Say to Your Young Self?

Sometimes I imagine being able to visit myself in the past, usually my anxious or sad teenaged self, and wonder how I could be the most helpful to him and the rest of his-future/my-past selves. One thing I like about this fantasy is that it reminds me how lucky I am. There are people who would probably want to tell their young selves something like, “It’s very important that you do not use X drug because it will ruin your life,” or “It is never OK for a romantic partner to hit you. Dump them and go immediately to the authorities.”

I usually imagine delivering a convincing version of, “If you are scared or sad, it’s because scary or sad stuff is happening, and that’s the way life is. Know, though that this all works out. Your next several decades are much better than you can imagine. Yes, there will be scary and painful stuff, but remember that it works out great.” I can vividly imagine beaming at my young self, delivering this message.

There is something comforting about this fantasy, like my young, internal Nathen benefits from hearing it. This led me to taking the question a step further: Given my life so far, what might my 80-year-old self want me to know now? I like to imagine my old, wrinkly self beaming at me, saying, “This works out even better than you can imagine…” As far as I can tell it is likely true, and it is quite calming to imagine.

It strikes me that this is something like what I do in my therapy work. Yes, there is the occasional need for advice, but the biggest part of what I do is let clients know with my mind, body, and soul that their current struggle is a small, if poignant, part of their life story. I welcome their sadness, anger, and anxiety as appropriate, given the circumstances, and I have confidence in their goodness, their strength, their resourcefulness. I try to know and show that this works out for them. It can and they deserve it.

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Husbands, Stop Rehearsing Distress-Maintaining Attributions

One of the ways that John Gottman says people talk themselves out of their marriages is “rehearsing distress-maintaining attributions” in between arguments. That is, instead of making up stories about how their troubles are passing and circumstantial, they make up stories about how their troubles have to do with permanent flaws in their partner’s character. Over time, this version of the story solidifies and they reinterpret the entire history of the relationship using that filter.

This is another of Gottman’s gendered findings; it is mostly a problem because the men (in heterosexual marriages, at least) do it. It’s a problem when women do it, too, they just don’t tend to as much.

The alternative to rehearsing distress-maintaining attributions is rehearsing relationship-enhancing attributions, and this is exactly what Gottman found that the people in marriages that ended up happy and stable did. It’s probably a good idea, then, to practice rehearsing relationship-enhancing attributions if you can. Try thinking about the strengths of your relationship, good times, things you are proud of, ways that current conflict is passing and circumstantial. If that is difficult to do, think instead about couples counseling.  If you want to keep your relationship, you probably need help.

[First published on Nathen’s Miraculous Escape, March 2, 2011.]