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Relationship Series:   When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Personality differences can complicate relationships. You may start out feeling like opposites attract and really fall in love with some of the things that are different about your partner. Over time though, personality differences can impact your relationship and cause conflict, especially when there is a lack of understanding about your different needs and how you think about the world around you.

Does Personality Matter in Relationships?

Sometimes. The research on the topic is complicated. Studies have found that people tend to pursue relationships with people that are similar to them in some areas such as age, religion, education, and political orientation.  However, when it comes to fixed personality traits, some traits are more predictive of relationship satisfaction than others.

Some couples have different personalities but similar interests, so they find lots of ways to have fun together and bond as a couple. Other couples really don’t share a lot of interests, but they love each other and so the other strengths they have in their relationship help them to establish and maintain emotional intimacy.

How To Manage Personality Differences in Relationships

Couples may differ in their traits of introversion vs extroversion, their style of thinking, their openness to new experiences, their empathic tendencies, and other traits.  Here is how some of these differences manifest in relationships and how couples can manage these differences as they build their partnership.

  1. Introversion vs. Extroversion

These traits exist on a scale, so some people will be highly extroverted and some people may be very introverted, and many people fall somewhere in between.  When you are a couple in a relationship where you’re very far apart on this scale, you will need to understand that you have different needs and work together to make sure both of you are getting your needs met for social connections and personal time.

This means understanding that sometimes your partner might need more time spent out with their friends because they thrive on the energy they get from social relationships. The other partner may need time spent alone to recharge and renew their energy, because too much time around a lot of people drains them of their energy. As a couple, you need to find a balance and understand that your partner isn’t rejecting you if they need either of these things. Making sure you dedicate couple time together will help both partner feel more connected to each other.

  1. Engineers vs. Artists (Left or Right Brain Thinking Style)

This has to do with thinking style. People who think like an engineer are very logical, solutions-oriented, and not always very emotionally perceptive.  People who think like an artist are not rigid, they focus on beauty as much as function, and they like to use creativity to solve problems or come up with new solutions. This traits are both valuable in different situations, so partner who differ in these traits need to find ways to utilize the strengths of both people.  This might come down to who does what things better, and learning to allow the strengths of each person to shine in different areas.  This may mean one person always does the taxes, and the other person decorates the home or plans time spent together in ways that express their creativity. These couples can thrive together if they learn how to use each person’s strengths to make them stronger as a couple.

  1. Adventurers vs. Homebodies

This has to do with people’s individual comfort level with new experiences.  Some people love new adventures and crave the thrill they get from trying something new.  This doesn’t have to mean they’re out cliff-hanging every weekend, but they are more likely to want to try new things, go new places, and experience things that excite the. Other people love the safety and comfort of their routine, their home, and their normal activities.  This doesn’t make them boring, it just means they know what they like and they prefer to stick to what they know.

When these two different personalities get together in a relationship, it’s not uncommon to have some conflict over what to do and when.  This is where compromise is a key strength to develop. The more adventurous of the couple will need to respect their partner’s discomfort with certain activities, and recognize that they may have to plan some activities with other people who share similar interests.  The homebody folks also need to recognize that stepping out of their comfort zone can be a great way to bond, but it’s okay to set limits when needed and know how to communicate those limits.

  1. Empaths vs. Psychopaths

Okay so getting involved with a psychopath is not recommended. But seriously, empathy exists on a scale too. Some people are very empathic, meaning they are highly perceptive of other’s feelings and are emotionally affected by the people they meet and the situations they experience and witness.  Psychopaths are the opposite end of the spectrum, with no empathy for others and an inability to understand or care about other people’s feelings. As with introversion and extroversion, though, there are many people who fall somewhere in between, and that doesn’t make them bad people. Many people empathize and care about other people, but it doesn’t affect them or their mood as much as it does with very empathic people.

In a relationship, empaths may be sensitive to their partner’s needs and moods, but someone less empathic may have a hard time understanding why their very empathic partner always gets so upset or affected by things. They may be less likely to perceive when or why their partner is upset, which makes conflict resolution hard sometimes. In this situation, empaths need to understand that a difference in sensitivity doesn’t mean your partner doesn’t care about you, they just might need more direct communication to understand how you’re feeling. The people who are partner with a very empathic person need to understand that their partner’s personality makes them more sensitive, and they don’t need to grow a thicker skin or be different. Empaths feel things deeply, so talking to them and validating their expression of feelings is a key way to connect with them.

  1. Organizers vs. Free Rangers

Similar to engineers and artists, organizers and free thinkers both have strengths, but they thrive on different things. The highly organized person needs structure and tidiness to feel in control and able to handle all of life’s craziness. When the home or their personal space is in disarray, they feel out of control and this causes anxiety. Free-rangers are people who feel overwhelmed with the prospect of having to keep everything looking perfect all the time. These are people who know exactly where to find something, but it might be in a place that doesn’t make sense to an organized person. They don’t necessarily prefer symmetry, and they don’t feel bothered when everything is not in it’s perfect place. This doesn’t mean they have to be messy or cluttered, they just have a different tolerance for disarray that might cause a highly organized person to feel anxious.

These people can be in a relationship together, but there needs to be some understanding about this personality difference. If you are a highly organized person who needs the structure and stability that good organization provides, but your partner is not similarly oriented, you may need to accept that you will be doing more of the organizational  tasks, because it matters more to you. Likewise, if you are a free-ranger, you need to understand the anxiety that disarray can cause in your partner, and be prepared to respect your mutual space by participating in keeping things maintained. It’s always a good idea as well, to both have even a small space of your own that can organized, or not, according to personal preferences.

Why It Is Important To Understand Personality Differences in Relationships

Personality differences do not have to mean constant conflict and struggles.  It is worthwhile, however, to talk about the personality differences you do have, and what they mean to how you function as a couple. Understanding each other’s needs and respecting the personality traits that you each have can help you as couple learn how to use your strengths to build a great partnership.

Compromise and understanding are part of all healthy relationships, but you can’t change your personality. Of course people grow and change over time, but there are some personality traits and preferences, like the ones listed above, that remain pretty constant over a lifetime. Couples can absolutely function and thrive with these personality differences, but it does take some communication and respect for those differences.

If you have identified some of the traits about where you think that there are some significant personality difference that impact your relationship, talk about these differences with your partner! Think about how your personality impacts what you need from your partner and where there are some areas for compromise. Talk about how the different personality traits can be a strength at different times and who is better at what when it comes to shared responsibilities.

When you understand your partner’s personality and how it affects their needs, you will be able to be a better partner as well. Communication and respect for your differences will help you use those personality traits to your advantage and build a stronger partnership along the way.

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For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship”  and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

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For more posts in this series, please see:

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Emotional intimacy is the feeling that brings us closer to one another and allows us to be vulnerable and build trust with our partner.  Yet this is often the most difficult part of building a relationship for many people, precisely because of the vulnerability that building emotional intimacy requires.

Building emotional intimacy in your relationship is something that happens over time, but it can wax and wane over time during the course of a long-term partnership. Sometimes a couple may feel very close to one another in the early stages of a relationship, only to find that the intimacy is drained over time as life’s responsibilities take precedence and tensions heighten due to conflicts. Other times, there may be conflicts that arise in the course of building a partnership that have roots in a fear of vulnerability and an unwillingness to open up and be vulnerable with your partner.

Establishing and nurturing the emotional intimacy in your relationship is a key part of having healthy communication, healthy conflict resolutions skills, and restoring trust in times of turmoil.  Building emotional intimacy requires a few things though, including:

  1. Facing the fear of vulnerability
  2. Understanding your feelings
  3. Taking responsibility for your own feelings
  4. Knowing your own value
  5. Being willing to take risks

Understanding the power of vulnerability and the work that you need to do as an individual to be ready for emotional intimacy can help you strengthen your bonds as a couple and build trust and partnership.

Facing Your Fears: Why Is Vulnerability So Hard?

Vulnerability is very difficult for us as human beings because we have an innate need to protect ourselves, which includes protecting ourselves from emotional pain.  None of us want to risk being emotionally vulnerable with someone only to have them violate your trust and hurt you in some way.  We protect our emotional vulnerability because it hurts so bad when someone rejects or mocks or exploits that vulnerability. This can make it hard to build trust in our relationships, especially if you have been hurt by someone in the past, which is true for many of us.

I always like to take a look at the sociological reasons behind many of our behaviors, problems, and needs.  In this case, the fear of vulnerability can be trace to our deepest instincts for survival.  As humankind evolved over the millennia, being vulnerable or too trusting could be dangerous.  If you put misplaced trust in someone, it could mean death.  We have evolved to look for threats and make calculations about when we should trust someone and when it could be too dangerous.

This translates into our relationships now in many different ways. You may not want to tell your partner about something in your past because you fear being judged harshly. You may also fear that they will look at you differently or treat you differently.  You may not want to talk to your partner about your insecurities, because you worry they will see you as weak, or perhaps violate your trust by using your insecurities against you.

There are many ways that our fear of vulnerability factors into our relationships, but ultimately the cost is that emotional intimacy is not as strong as it could be and this could cause conflicts.  Facing the fear of vulnerability and recognizing how important being vulnerable with your partner is will help move you forwards to building stronger bonds as a couple.

Understanding Your Feelings

If you don’t understand your own feelings, it will be impossible to communicate them to your partner.  Learning to identify how you feel and communicate that feeling is a key step in building emotional intimacy. This may involve you really looking deeper into your own emotional life to examine and express your feelings to your partner.

This is where it becomes important to distinguish between a thought and a feeling. “You’re being an asshole” is not a feeling. This statement is a thought or an opinion, not a feeling.  So when you say “I feel like you’re being an asshole” you are actually not expressing your feelings at all. Try to examine how you actually feel before you communicate those feelings to your partner.  “I feel disrespected when you speak to me in that way” is a better way to communicate and express what you’re really feeling.

You need to know how you are feeling when conflicts arise so that you can actually say what that feeling is.  Many conflicts can be resolved not by deciding who is right or wrong, but by listening to how an event or statement impacted both partners on an emotional level.

Taking Responsibility for Your Feelings

Part of building a strong emotional bond with your partner is taking responsibility for your own feelings, as well as understanding the limits of your partner’s impact on you.  This means that while your partner’s words and behaviors certainly have an impact on your emotional life, you are ultimately responsible for how you handle your own feelings.

Your partner cannot be responsible for making you happy. You have to take responsibility for your own happiness, because if you leave it up to anyone else, you will always be disappointed.  Of course our relationships impact our mood and our general life satisfaction. Relationships with others in general are arguably the # 1 most important factor in how happy people are. You can have all the money in the world but if your relationships with other people are terrible, you will still be lonely and unhappy.

However, it is not your partner’s responsibility to fill you up and make you happy. I have seen some couples where one person is bending over backwards to make their partner happy and yet there is still conflict and tension because the other person is ultimately not happy with themselves.  You have to own your feelings and take responsibility for your own emotional health rather than requiring your partner to always say or do the exact thing you need in order to feel happy.

Sometimes this means expressing your needs rather than expecting your partner to know what your needs are. You may have to be really clear about what your needs are, because your partner may sincerely not know. If you want more verbal reassurance from your partner, you need to be able to say “Sometimes I just need you to listen and tell me it’s going to be okay because we’ll get through things together”.  Expecting them to know exactly what you need to hear to feel better is not always a fair expectation.

Knowing Your Own Value

Another important building block of emotional intimacy is knowing your own value.  Sometimes, those feelings of insecurity and fear of vulnerability brings conflicts into our relationships when we don’t know our own value and want others to show us that we are valuable.

Certainly you want a partner that values you and expresses that to you.  However, just as with owning your own feelings, you ultimately have to know your value and be able to feed yourself the confidence you crave rather than expecting your partner to fill that void. Being confident in yourself allows you to create emotional intimacy because it helps mitigate the risk you take when you open yourself up to be vulnerable. When you know that you can be vulnerable because no matter what you still love and value yourself, then it is easier to open up to others, especially your partner.

Willingness To Take Risks

Once you understand and own your feelings and feel confident in your own value, then you need to be prepared to take risks with your partner to create that emotional intimacy you want.  This means actually doing the work of facing your fear of vulnerability to let someone know when you feel hurt or devalued in reaction to something that has happened.

Opening up to your partner to be vulnerable is a risk, because it is always risky to let your guard down and let someone else into your emotional space. Yet it is precisely this act of being vulnerable and open with your partner, even when it hurts and you fear they may not give you what you need, that the deep emotional bonds are created. The beauty of this risk is that sometimes you will take that risk and be vulnerable, which allows you to find out that your partner not only validates your feelings, but also opens up in return.

This shared expression of vulnerability is the process by which emotional intimacy is built and strengthened. When you have more of these intimate moments together, you will create a stronger bond together as couple and will feel safer with each other because you understand each other on a deeper level.  That is what most couples are seeking when they are looking for someone to share their life with, and that is what the power of vulnerability will bring you.

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For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship”  and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

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For more posts in the Relationship Series, check out:

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

 

Relationship Series: Shared Values

Relationship Series: Shared Values

This is the second post in my Relationship Series and will cover the importance of shared values in your relationship.  Values are important in your partnership because values are going to help define what is important to you as individuals and as a couple.  This doesn’t mean that you have to agree on everything, but it is important that you agree on the issues that you define as most important.

We get our values from many different places.  Our parents, our communities, our beliefs, and our broader culture all help to shape our value systems. The great thing about values though, is that as you grow and learn more about yourself and the world we live in you will get to decide what your own most important values are.

When you enter into a relationship with another person, you might find that you share a lot of common values and beliefs, or you may find that you clash on some issues.  However, learning to refine and validate your own value systems will help clarify for you as a couple what is most important for your future together.

When I work with couples in therapy, we often spend time defining those shared values and learning how to use those values to strengthen the relationship and find common ground to work through conflicts. We do this by going through a few steps to explore and clarify those values. You can also work on clarifying values with your partner by processing what your most important values are, exploring how you developed those values, and deciding how important your individual values are to your relationship as a couple.

Clarifying Values

Look over the following values and number them 1 through 10 as to what is most important to you. You should do this individually, and then talk together about your responses and see if you both have similar priorities.

  • Love
  • Financial Wealth
  • Respect
  • Career Success
  • Education
  • Family
  • Power
  • Friends
  • Freedom
  • Independence
  • Spirituality
  • Religion
  • Political beliefs
  • Peace
  • Fun
  • Beauty
  • Free time
  • Morals
  • Honesty
  • Humor
  • Stability
  • Fairness
  • Achievement
  • Recognition
  • Nature
  • Wisdom
  • Relaxation
  • Safety
  • Popularity
  • Intimacy
  • Trust
  • Adventure
  • Loyalty
  • Reason
  • Variety
  • Discipline
  • Self-expression
  • _________
  • _________
  • _________

 

If you share a lot of these values and rank them similarly, this means that you have a great strength in your relationship that you can use to guide you when you have conflicts.  If you find that your answers are extremely divergent, then this tells you that as a couple you may often have clashes over significant value differences, and it may be difficult to reconcile those divergent values.

How To Know What Is Important

Clarifying your own values can help you figure out if there are conflicts that you have been having as a couple that are not really in line with what your most important values are.  For example, if Peace is a really important value to you, but you find that you are having a lot of arguments over things that are less important to you than peace, then this tells you that perhaps you have been placing too much emphasis and wasting too much energy on those conflicts.

Alternatively, if you are having significant conflict over perhaps the division of chores in the home, you may discover that Fairness is really important to one or both of you. While arguing over chores may seem petty from afar, if this is a value that is not being upheld in the home, this presents an opportunity to talk as a couple about how that value can be better incorporated into your relationship so that there are fewer conflicts in this area.

The good news is that you as a couple get to decide what is most important to both of you.  Understanding what is most important to your partner as well can help you to find common ground and understand each other better, which will lead to better conflict resolution.

Where Do Your Values Come From?

Another important step in understand your shared values is to understand where your values came from.  You may have learned to value certain things because of your parent’s values, or because of certain experiences you have had in your life.

For example, if you have ever experienced poverty or economic instability in your life, this could be an important part of why financial stability is important to you. While some people may say or believe that money is not important to the relationship, you may find that your individual experiences shape why your values may be different in some areas.

You may also discover that your own values do not necessarily line up with the values that society imparts on all of us, or you might discover that while your parents may have upheld certain values when you were growing up but you no longer share all their beliefs or values.

Ask yourself what values are important for you to live by, and then ask yourself if you are actually living by those values.  If you find that you value respect, but you know that you have not always been respectful to your partner, then this is an area that you can start to work on so that you are more closely living by your own values.

Using Shared Values to Resolve Conflict

Once you have talked as a couple about what your individual and shared values are, then you can move on to discussing how to apply those values to the conflicts that you are having. Have a discussion about how any conflicts that you have had related to the values that you have decided are most important to you.

This may also mean that you recognize that a conflict you’ve had actually doesn’t reflect your values, which means that you can use that information to change how you resolve conflict in the future.

For example, let’s say an argument occurs because one partner brought home some friends late at night that their partner didn’t know or feel comfortable around.  One partner may rationalize that they should be able to bring home whomever they want to their home, and feel irritated at their partner for getting upset. However, if through a discussion they can recognize that this act didn’t live up to their shared values of safety and respect, then they may be able to better understand their partner’s discomfort at the situation. Understanding the importance of shared values and the role they play in the strength of your relationship can help you both make decisions that are a good reflection of the values you want to uphold.

No one feels good when they fall short of their own values.  We can often feel shame, embarrassment, or defensiveness when our actions do not match our own values.  Recognizing that your values are an important part of who you are and making conscious attempts with your partner to center your shared values in your relationship will help strengthen your partnership and resolve conflict in a healthier way.

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For more information about relationships and building a strong partnership, check out my author page for a link to my book for couples “Work It Out: A Survival Guide to the Modern Relationship”  and if you want more resources for building a healthy relationship, subscribe here and I’ll send you the free Couples Communication Toolkit that I designed to get you on the right track with your relationship communication.

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For other posts in this series, check out:

Relationship Series: Couples’ Communication

Relationship Series: Emotional Intimacy

Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership

Relationship Series: How to Stop Past Pain from Damaging Your Relationship

Relationship Series: When Opposites Attract- How to Manage Personality Differences

Relationship Series: Sexual Compatibility and Your Partnership

Un-Resolving in the New Year

Un-Resolving in the New Year

New Year’s resolutions can be a great way to set goals for the upcoming months and assess your progress from the past year, but many people have become exhausted and cynical about new year’s resolutions, and it’s not hard to see why.

“New Year, New You!” messages bombard us in the media, imploring us to better ourselves and stop using excuses for not achieving our goals. It’s tempting to jump into the latest weight loss challenge or resolve to magically change your life by tidying up.  But maybe you didn’t follow through with last year’s resolutions, so this year you don’t even want to try. Or perhaps you just don’t like the pressure of having to declare victory or failure at the end of the year and announce your determination to try again.

I’ve seen many people saying they don’t like new year’s resolutions because they don’t follow through or because it feels like a competition, but they still have goals that they are striving towards. For some, it seems like there’s just a semantics issue that doesn’t change the spirit of practicing reflection and striving for new goals. I think all of us, however, can agree that setting goals and letting go of past mistakes is a good thing.

Personally, I love New Year’s resolutions, despite the fact that I’ve fallen short of many of mine. Sometimes I don’t even remember what it was by March. That doesn’t stop me from continuing to work on my goals every year, I just seem to decide to put the ones I won’t really get to under the title of “New Year’s Resolution”. Maybe that makes it seem less impactful when I don’t accomplish it. Because sure, I fell short of my New Year’s Resolution, but doesn’t everybody? If I put it on my goals list, though, I won’t put it on the back burner.

That being said, I still love the whole spirit of the New Year because it is a chance to step back and reflect on the past year and see how things have changed, and set your sights to making the next year an improvement in one way or another.

It can be hard to reflect on your year and see that you’ve fallen behind in your goals, or realize that your life has changed in a profound way, perhaps not by your own choosing, such as when you lose a loved one. But reflection doesn’t have to be about measuring progress or failures.  It can also be about recognizing your strengths and acknowledging your weaknesses.  Not because you want to overcome every flaw and become a more perfect version of yourself, but because recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses is part of being your own authentic self.

So for those of you out there who are ready to set your resolutions and smash them this year- resolve away! I will always encourage you to set high goals for yourself and go for them. Just make sure that your goals are centered around what you really want, and not what you think you should be doing to present a picture perfect version of yourself to the world. You’ll be more likely to follow through if you set goals for yourself.

For those of you who can’t stand the idea of making another failed New Year’s Resolution, keep pressing forward with your otherwise named goals and create plans to accomplish them year-round.  You don’t need pomp and circumstance and a Facebook announcement or a new challenge to sign up for to keep plugging away at your career/life/family/health goals.

I want to think our culture has broadly shifted away from the high pressure, high stakes, dogged commitment to presenting perfection as the ultimate goal and solution to all your problems in the New Year.  I have a tendency to think that’s true, but then I realize that the reason I don’t see those kinds of messages that much anymore is because I choose not to. I have, myself, shifted away from those kinds of high stakes pressures to be practically perfect in every way, so therefore I surround myself with like-minded social accounts and steer clear of any media, businesses, or product lines that cater to a self-critical mentality. Yet I realize that those kinds of messages are still glaringly present for many people, and we are all still susceptible to absorbing negative messages wrapped in a self-care package, particularly young people.

I’m choosing to UnResolve this year.  This just means that I’m planning to continue to work on all of the goals and plans that I have and I’m going to continue to value myself, my family, and my community this year.  I’m going to reflect on my past year with gratitude for everything I got to experience and accomplish, and I’m going to look forward to everything still to come and make concrete plans to make progress on my goals.  But I’m not going to set another arbitrary resolution that sits on the shelf and does nothing but stare at me, only for me to realize mid-June that I’ve been busy working on my goals.

My life continues to flow year in and year out. My goals will never be truly finished, because I will always look for new ways to move forward, and I constantly resolve to try something over again that I haven’t accomplished to my satisfaction, no matter what time of year it is. By the way, I haven’t read Marie Kondo’s book, but I did start watching her Netflix show “Tidying Up” and I find her totally adorable and I’m not sure why she gets so much flack for being tidy. I should probably go fold up my laundry now, though. Happy New Year everyone!

Do you Apologize Too Much?

Do you Apologize Too Much?

There is a tendency that some people have sometimes to apologize for things that do not require an apology, or to apologize for things that were not their fault.  This is a habit that comes from a place of wanting to be considerate of other people, which is a good trait and a good quality to have.  However, when we over-apologize, it can have the effect making you feel responsible for things that you shouldn’t be responsible for, and this pattern can contribute to a lack of confidence in how you feel and how you come across to other people.

Some people are so accustomed to apologizing for everything that happens, that they feel awkward when they make the effort to NOT apologize when it’s not needed. This can be a people-pleasing tendency that has become an ingrained habit. Other times it may be a response to anxiety or fear of judgement, but it can manifest itself in ways that merely serve to contribute to overall anxiety. The tendency to apologize for things when you have done nothing wrong may make you feel like you are in a constant state of needing to attend to other people’s feelings and comfort, leaving you feeling as though your own feelings and comfort do not matter.

What’s the Problem with Apologizing Too Much?

There is research that suggests that women tend to apologize more not because they are too sensitive or because men have more ego strength, but because women tend to perceive more wrongdoing in their own actions, whereas men tend to perceive smaller offenses as not worthy of requiring an apology.  In other words, women tend to judge their own behaviors more harshly, leading them to find more scenarios in which they feel an apology is merited. Over-apologizing is not a trait only women experience, but it may be more likely to be true if you are a woman, particularly one who has been taught to attend to other people’s feelings more than your own.

Here are some scenarios in which you may have become accustomed to apologizing, but that do not actually require an apology:

  • Expressing remorse for something that was out of your control
  • Apologizing for being in the way when someone else bumps into you
  • Apologizing for being offended at something someone else has done to you
  • Apologizing for having feelings or for crying when you are upset
  • Apologizing when someone else interrupts you
  • Apologizing for making a simple request such as asking the time or a small favor
  • Apologizing for apologizing

All of these situations are scenarios in which either someone else should actually give an apology, or in which there is no need for an apology at all because there has been no offense committed.

For example, have you ever been confiding in a friend about a painful experience, and then when you started to cry, you apologized to your friend for crying? This is an unfortunately common reaction that many people have when they start to cry, and the implication is that you have done something wrong by becoming emotional when talking about a painful experience. However, in this situation your friend is probably not offended at all that you started to cry, and in fact you have done nothing wrong; you are  reacting in a perfectly appropriate way to an expression of your emotions.  Why is an apology required? For disturbing the peace? No, you do not need to apologize in this situation.

When you begin to realize that you do not have to apologize for reacting to situations in perfectly normal ways, you will start to feel more confident in yourself. However, if you start to practice asking yourself whether an apology is needed before you issue one, you might find that you feel strange or uncomfortable when you stop yourself from apologizing.

Isn’t This Just Being Polite?

No, apologizing when it is not needed is not a form of being polite. Some people have this tendency because they have been taught or socialized to believe that they should always make sure other people are comfortable, even when they are personally uncomfortable.  This is true in those cases when someone bumps into you awkwardly, but then you apologize for being in the way.  Sure, you’re trying to just be polite and diffuse the awkwardness of the situation.

However, this is almost an invitation for people to walk all over you. Maybe this will not manifest immediately in the present moment, but over time, this tendency to always present yourself as the one who’s in the way can begin to undermine your own confidence in yourself and shows others that you are not going to stand up for yourself when someone has wronged you. This is most problematic in the way that this habit contributes to your overall demeanor around others. It doesn’t mean someone is going to start bullying you immediately, but over time it contributes to the perception that you will not fault others when they take advantage of or otherwise harm you. You can be polite and kind to others without apologizing for other people’s offenses.

The more assertive way to handle it when someone else bumps into you is to wait for them to apologize to you, which is what would be truly polite, and then accepting the apology with grace by saying simply “Thanks, but I’m okay”, or “You’re excused”. The thanks is for the apology, the reference to being okay or excusing the other person is a verbal forgiveness for the offense of bumping into you. If someone does not apologize for bumping into you, you can either choose to ignore it, or say “You’re excused”.  This way the implication is clear that you are not the one who has done something wrong, but you are gracefully excusing the error regardless of the offender’s reaction.

Practicing this new habit in more inconsequential situations such as an accidental bump in a social setting will help you gain confidence for when you need to stand up for yourself in more consequential situations.  When you really need to speak up for yourself because of unfair treatment in the workplace, or when a friend has said something hurtful to you, you will be better equipped to handle the scenario confidently because you have been practicing accepting responsibility only for the things you are actually responsible for, and not letting others off the hook for their own offenses by taking unnecessary responsibility.

When Is an Apology Really Required?

Genuine remorse is a different experience altogether.  When you have done something for which you are truly remorseful, you should apologize. A genuine apology is an art in itself, and giving a sincere apology is an important part of mending relationships and living up to your own values. A genuine apology should first be sincere, it should explain why what you did was wrong, it should include acceptance of responsibility, and it should include an offer to make amends if possible.

You might need to apologize for snapping at your friend when you were actually upset about something happening at work, or for being late to an appointment where someone was waiting on you, or for not following through with a commitment you made to help with a project. Being able to verbalize a sincere apology is an important skill to have, and can go a long way towards reducing hostility in a relationship or for preserving your reputation.

However, when you apologize for things that do not require an apology, it can undermine your confidence and leave you feeling powerless when others take advantage of you. If this feels like a familiar situation to you, start by beginning to notice all the times you apologize, and begin asking yourself whether that was necessary.  Then start by trying to reverse this habit in those smaller, inconsequential scenarios, so that you can begin to build confidence in your ability to assess when an apology is really needed.  Just taking these small steps can go a long way in boosting your overall confidence and helping you to become a more assertive person.

Cognitive Distortions 5.0: Control Fallacies

Cognitive Distortions 5.0: Control Fallacies

This will be the 5th post in my series on Cognitive Distortions. To read more about cognitive distortions and what they are, check out my first post in the series: Coping with Cognitive Distortions.

This post is about Control Fallacies, which are basically a distorted way of looking at how much control you have in a particular situation.  The reason that this cognitive distortion is unhealthy is because when we misjudge how much control we have in a situation, we can either blame ourselves excessively for something that has happened, or we can misplace our power by thinking that we have no control over a situation, when you might actually have more power than you think.

Control Fallacies work in two ways: you either think that events in your life are totally beyond your control, or you feel that you are responsible for everything, even things you could not control. Both aspects of this distortion can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and distress. These feelings can cause you to think negative thoughts about yourself, leading to more distress and negative thought patterns.

“I can’t control ANY of this! I feel so stuck!”

 The trouble with the first kind, thinking that things are totally beyond your control, can start to happen when you feel helpless and stuck.  Perhaps you feel that you are stuck in a job that you hate, but you feel that you have no choice but to remain there. Or maybe you feel repeatedly taken advantage of by others who have used you, and you feel that this is just something that will continue to happen because you are a nice person.

The fallacy in this kind of thinking is that you are actually able of making changes in these kinds of situations, but you have convinced yourself that everything is out of your control, so why bother changing?  This is problematic because by not changing and taking control of the areas of your life where you can, you may just be extending your own misery and missing out on the confidence you will gain from taking power back when you can.

Sure, there are going to be times that you really need to stick with your current job, because you haven’t been able to find a better option and you need the money or the benefits.  That’s understandable.  Sometimes, though, a person may just not have really put in the work to make a change, and then they tell themselves that they have no options.  This is a way of avoiding doing the work by claiming that you cannot change anything. I’m not saying this is always the case, because there will be times when you truly don’t have any control. This may be the case if you have a contract for a certain amount of time, such as for those in military service, or those who do not have many job opportunities in the area they live in. For others, though, they may be avoiding making the changes they need to make because it feels too overwhelming, or they are not sure where to start.

Similarly, if you have noticed that certain things continue to happen to you, such as feeling like people are using you or taking advantage of your kindness, you may also have some control in the situation that you can exercise. This might be a matter of learning to set better boundaries with others, which can be difficult but necessary. Setting boundaries can be hard to do if you are not used to being assertive or telling people NO when necessary. However, when you trick yourself into thinking that you can’t change things because you have no control over other people’s behavior, you may be engaging in a control fallacy.

“This is all my fault! I should have done something more!”

The flip side of this problem is when you feel that you are responsible for things that are actually outside of your control, and thus you feel that you have constantly made mistakes or are always letting other people down. For example, you may feel guilty for not noticing a mistake that a colleague made, and then feel accountable when that mistake turns into a bigger problem. Or, you may feel responsible for your partner’s behavior, because you tell yourself that you weren’t supportive enough or didn’t make sure they took their medicine.

When you notice that you are taking responsibility for things that you actually had no control over, this is a sign that you are not assigning blame in the appropriate ways, or you are not giving others the responsibility that they should have. This can lead you to feel guilty about things you didn’t control, or that you couldn’t have avoided. These feelings of guilt can lead to inappropriate feelings or shame or a sense of overcompensation you try to apologize for things that were not your fault.  For more on that, see this post on over-apologizing.

In this case, you need to learn to stop taking responsibility for problems that you didn’t create, and recognize that you are not responsible for everyone else’s behavior.  It doesn’t mean that you relinquish all sense of responsibility for things in your life, just that you try to look at a situation and figure out if there was something you could’ve done, whereby you learn something that you can use to make better decisions in the future, or you let go of any sense of shame or guilt involved in situations that you couldn’t control. This might mean that you have to practice not apologizing for things that were not your fault, or it may mean that you have to give yourself permission to let go of the guilt and shame about events that you have associated as being your fault when they really were not.

How can I change these patterns?

When you start to recognize these control fallacy patterns in your thought process, you can work to change them so that you feel more in control of your mentality and more confident about your decisions. If you notice that your thoughts feel self-defeating, if you notice that you constantly think about all the barriers you have instead of all the opportunities you can look for, remind yourself that you have to make small changes before you make big changes.  Look for the opportunities to make small changes first, such as setting better boundaries with the people in your life, or making a plan to change your career path.  Recognize that while you may not be able to control all of your circumstances, you can still control your personal decisions and where you direct your mental energy.

If you have the opposite problem with this control fallacy and you find yourself blaming yourself for things inappropriately, practice asking yourself some questions to get a better understanding of if there was really anything you could have done differently. Ask yourself: “How could I have known what the outcome would be? Is there really anything I could have done differently? Is this a problem that is out of my personal control? Is there someone else in this situation that needs to take responsibility for their own behavior or choices?” Recognizing your own power in these situations and figuring out what you can do differently in the future will benefit you if you learn to stop this pattern of cognitive distortion and look at the situation more objectively.

For more on cognitive distortions, check out these other posts:

Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive

Cognitive Distortions 3.0: Personalization

Cognitive Distortions 4.0: Emotional Reasoning