On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
If you’ve grown up feeling like something was missing, you may have been emotionally neglected. You may not identify as being neglected if your physical needs were met, but the lack of emotional support left you emotionally isolated.
You may have felt invisible, dismissed, or unaccepted the way you are. This is a commonly overlooked experience among children of emotionally unavailable parents. These children grow up suffering in silence, feeling empty but not necessarily knowing what’s wrong, often blaming themselves.
Being told they are too sensitive, these children often feel dismissed and rejected, learning to avoid going to their emotionally unavailable parents for support.
They learn their parents are a source of stress rather than support. They can be unpredictable, unreliable, or too self-involved to attend to the child’s emotional needs.
From an early age, these children may take on adult responsibilities or find themselves parenting their parents. As they grow up, this behavior can lead to self-neglect by constantly putting others first.
Finding themselves repeatedly involved in lopsided relationships, doing all of the emotional labor, with people who exploit their generous nature, the fantasy of emotional connection is withheld like the ever-elusive carrot on a stick.
“If I do more, maybe I’ll finally be enough, and they will meet my emotional needs,” you may tell yourself, as you run on the endless treadmill of others’ demands.
The starved need to be needed results in constant emotional repression, masking your true nature. Toxic shame leads to lowering personal boundaries and resentment of others who constantly cross them. This repressed anger is concealed by a mask of cheeriness and determination.
If you or someone you know is burnt out and looking to heal from the distress instilled by emotionally unavailable parents, there is a way out.
I recently discovered the following book, which gives powerful insights and practical tips on how to recover from this exact issue:
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD.
It has quickly become one of my favorite psychology books. Immediately after reading it, I was compelled to reread it and summarize the insights.
As a counselor, I talk to a wide range of people, and this has been one of the most common invisible injuries. Since I couldn’t find a good summary of this book, I thought I would create one.
If you’re interested in reading the full book but can’t find the time, you can check out the audiobook version I linked above and listen to it while you’re driving or doing household work.
Otherwise, enjoy the summary!
What is Emotional Immaturity?
Throughout the book, Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD demonstrates how emotional immaturity among parents leads to emotional neglect among children. She proposes several traits associated with emotional immaturity, which can be summarized as the following:
Emotional Immaturity is characterized by a fear of emotional involvement resulting in emotional distance, emotional instability, psychological inflexibility, and self-centeredness.
Emotional distance often presents as holding back from emotional closeness, fear of emotional involvement, and lacking the ability to provide emotional support to persons in need of genuine connection.
Emotional Instability presents as unpredictable emotional states and unreliability. A person may fluctuate between anger, engagement, and coldness, keeping others walking on eggshells.
Psychological Inflexibility presents as having rigid beliefs. Rather than dealing with reality, a person relies on coping mechanisms that resist reality.
Self-centeredness presents as blindness to the needs of others, using others, boundary issues, and emotional manipulation. At the extreme end, there may be diagnosable narcissism or sociopathy.
Emotional Immaturity Test
In her self-assessment tool, Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD lists the traits of emotionally immature parents, which I organized into four clusters for ease of use.
She states that you may be dealing with an emotionally immature parent if you can check off more than one of the following statements.
- My parent didn’t express much empathy or emotional awareness.
- When it came to emotional closeness and feelings, my parent seemed uncomfortable and didn’t go there.
- I didn’t get much attention or sympathy from my parent, except maybe when I was really sick.
- My parent often overreacted to relatively minor things.
- My parent was inconsistent—sometimes wise, sometimes unreasonable.
- If I became upset, my parent either said something superficial and unhelpful or got angry and sarcastic.
- My parent was often irritated by individual differences or different points of view.
- Even polite disagreement could make my parent very defensive.
- Facts and logic were no match for my parent’s opinions.
- My parent wasn’t self-reflective and rarely looked at his or her role in a problem.
- My parent tended to be a black-and-white thinker, and unreceptive to new ideas.
- When I was growing up, my parent used me as a confidant but wasn’t a confidant for me.
- My parent often said and did things without thinking about people’s feelings.
- Conversations mostly centered on my parent’s interests.
- It was deflating to tell my parent about my successes because it didn’t seem to matter.
Types of Emotionally Immature Parents
Emotional immaturity tends to manifest as four general types:
- The emotional parent
- The driven parent
- The passive parent
- The rejecting parent
One or both of your parents may fall into one of these general categories. Let’s take a deeper look at what each of these types entails.
The emotional parent instills feelings of instability, producing nervousness and anxiety for all those who have to walk on eggshells. They have “stormy emotional weather,” and you never know the forecast.
Intoxication amplifies the instability, perhaps leading to intimidation. These individuals are easily thrown off their emotional balance by mild distress and are primarily governed by emotional impulsivity.
The driven parent stays busy trying to make everything and everyone perfect. They appear to be quite normal and well-adjusted, but under the surface, they show their emotional immaturity by believing they have all the answers and they know what others what.
They appear supportive of your success but make assumptions about your desires, often pushing things on you. Their driven support comes from their own need to live up to high internal standards rooted in their own emotionally deprived upbringing. They may fear embarrassment if you underperform, leading to you feeling constantly evaluated in school or hobbies.
Driven parents are always keeping busy and worrying about getting things done. This added pressure makes you feel like you should always be doing more or doing something other than what you are currently doing. This can lead to thoughts of not being enough or insecurity regarding evaluation.
Driven parents often cross personal boundaries. Making assumptions or invalidating your interests, they often do things for you without asking for permission and become overly involved in your life, extinguishing a sense of independence.
The passive parent avoids dealing with anything upsetting. They can be easygoing, playful, affectionate, and often in good spirits but fail to protect their children when they need it emotionally.
If a passive parent gives you affection, it often comes from a self-centered place of using you to feel loved or needed, meeting their own emotional needs. Without recognizing this, you may naturally gravitate to the attention given by this parent, perhaps thinking of them as the “favorite parent.” Despite potential positive experiences, you may feel like this parent is not there in an essential way.
Passive parents turn a blind eye to abuse or neglect, retreating when times are tough. They may even leave the family if they get a chance at a better life, leaving their children feeling deeply rejected.
The rejecting parent is withdrawn, dismissive, and derogatory. They openly reject attention from their children, appearing irritated and dismissive of children in general.
They constantly have a wall around them, lack empathy, and can appear menacing and aloof. At the extreme end, they may have sociopathic tendencies and are capable of physical attack.
If you have a rejecting parent, you may find it hard to ask for what you need, resulting in an avoidant attachment style.
The Two Reactions to Emotional Immaturity
Children of emotionally immature parents commonly react in two general ways, depending on the child’s temperament:
Externalizers have an external locus of control when things go wrong, whereas internalizers have an internal locus of control. In simple terms, externalizers blame others, and internalizers blame themselves.
Although you may generally fall into one of the two categories, there may be mixed reactions since it is a spectrum rather than a binary.
Let’s take a closer look at what each of these reactions entails.
Externalizers blame others when things go wrong. They may act out, and people generally label these children as having behavioral problems. This may involve substance use, reckless behavior, or rebellion.
These children may also take on characteristics similar to emotional immaturity. Growing up, they force their needs on others, using emotional manipulation such as guilt and blame.
Externalizers present as having a visible issue, and their struggles are not easily overlooked, causing others to recommend treatment. Although they are the most likely to be confronted by others to seek treatment, they are often the least likely to get support because they tend to externalize blame.
Internalizers look within themselves for why things go wrong. They are highly sensitive and attuned to their environment, keeping strong emotions bottled inside. Wearing a mask when engaging with others, they fear truly opening up and being genuine because they believe their very nature is a problem.
Internalizers have a deep need for connection and feel painfully lonely, constantly seeking genuine emotional connection. They believe the best way to find connection is to become a likable person, putting others first, constantly over-extending themselves for others. Self-neglect is seen as the cost of connection.
Fueled by the thought of “not being enough,” internalizers seek to make up this lack of “being” through constant “doing.” They believe their value depends on how much they do, not who they are. The fantasy of winning the affection of others keeps them on this treadmill of self-neglect.
Unable to say “no,” internalizers do most of the emotional work in relationships, often feeling resentful of those for whom they have taken responsibility. Instead of expressing their anger, they wear a mask of cheeriness or a determined can-do attitude.
Since emotionally immature parents rejected their feelings, they internalize the voice of rejection, taking a rejecting attitude toward their own feelings. They downplay their suffering, often apologizing for their emotions. Feeling guilty for taking other people’s time, they feel like a burden when asking for help.
Internalizers may also internalize the voice of judgment. Harshly criticizing themselves, they remain closed off to sharing their needs or struggles, fearing judgment by others for being inadequate. This leads to feeling further isolation and embarrassment if requiring support.
If an an internalizer’s emotions are taken seriously, they are often surprised since they are used to “getting by on vapors” regarding affection from others.
Unlike externalizers, internalizers can go unnoticed. They are often high-performing and focused on achievement. Therefore, an emotionally immature parent may see them as having no needs. If an internalizer has an externalizer sibling, this may also cause jealousy or criticism from the externalizer, due to the social comparison.
Internalizers focus a great deal of their energy on fixing and rescuing others. The greater the difficulty, the more they try. The more they try, the greater the difficulty. This spiraling effort is often spent trying to change people who don’t want to change themselves, leading to burnout and resentment.
Healing from Emotionally Immature Parents
You were not born to fix your parents’ unhealed trauma.From @selfhealth3
Healing from emotionally immature parents requires discovering your healing fantasy, stepping out of your role self, clarifying your values, setting personal boundaries, taking an observational perspective, and engaging in self-care.
The healing process may take time since old habits are deeply engrained, but there are things you can start doing today to begin the process.
Discover Your Healing Fantasy
Throughout the book, Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD uses the concept of the “healing fantasy” to describe an internalizer’s attempt to win the affection of their emotionally immature parent.
The healing fantasy generally consists of thoughts that perhaps they will change if only you can do more. This can lead to the ineffective helping behaviors described above, overachievement, perfectionism, or falling into old patterns in relationships with romantic partners.
The first step to healing from an emotionally immature parent requires identifying your healing fantasy.
Where are you acting like a gambler chasing their losses, holding out for a jackpot that will fix everything? Take a moment to reflect on where you hold onto false hope.
Where do you tell yourself, “if only…”?
Where are you tapping the metaphorical slot machine button, constantly hoping for a different result?
What forms of endless striving are you engaged in to win the approval of others?
Letting go of your healing fantasy, you recognize their rejection is more about their past trauma or experiences with an emotionally immature parent than about your worth as a person.
It is helpful to view emotionally immature parents as emotionally phobic. If you have a fear of spiders, snakes, heights, or public speaking, consider how you would feel if someone told you that you had to engage with one of these things. This is the experience of the emotionally phobic person.
Discarding the healing fantasy requires accepting your parents for their emotionally phobic selves. This does not excuse their behavior; instead, it allows you to manage your expectations and work with reality.
Emotionally immature people may appear distressed, cynical, and constantly complain, but perhaps they don’t want to change. And in your own experience, how have attempts to change them worked out so far?
Once you have identified your healing fantasy, you can let it go and accept you are dealing with someone who is emotionally phobic.
Step Out of Your Role Self
The role self is the role you played within the family dynamic. Were you a fixer, an avoider, a comedian, an overachiever, or a rebel?
In enmeshed families where emotions are not discussed, playing rigid roles holds the family together. It is a form of dysfunctional homeostasis. By playing your role, you have a place in the family system, but your belonging comes at the cost of your genuine feelings.
Like a stage performance, everyone puts on their costume and stays in character. Talking about the deeper issues requires breaking character, threatening the tenuous sense of belonging provided by the enmeshed system.
Stepping out of your role-self requires noticing the role you play and making a conscious decision to be your true self. This does not mean opening up emotionally to emotionally phobic people. Instead, it means clarifying your genuine values and acting in alignment with this true self.
Clarify Your Values and Your True Self
Stepping out of the role self and into the true self requires trusting your gut feelings and intuition. When do you find yourself in a flow-state where time disappears? What were you like as a young child? What types of things did you naturally gravitate to? What did you enjoy doing? When do you experience moments of true joy? Clarifying your true values provides a compass for how you want to engage with others.
When stepping out of the role self, you may uncover suppressed anger. If you’re an internalizer, you may be perceived anger as unacceptable and dangerous. Since our emotions are like internal check-engine lights, repressed anger leads to unmet needs. The sense of “getting by on fumes” fits well with this metaphor.
Allowing yourself to feel anger does not mean switching into rage and resentment. Anger can focus your attention on unmet needs and motivate action to meet those needs through assertive communication or personal boundaries.
You may have grown up believing certain emotions are “good” or “bad.” Instead, viewing emotions as information, you step outside the need to repress the “bad” ones. There are comfortable and uncomfortable emotions, but they are all there to convey useful information regarding your underlying needs.
Set Personal Boundaries
Setting personal boundaries means saying “no” when you find yourself helping others at the cost of your health. It means recognizing and communicating your needs through assertive communication. Lastly, it means disengaging from toxic relationships.
In another great book on the subject, When the Body Says No, Dr. Gabor Maté says when given a choice between guilt and resentment, choose the guilt. This means noticing when guilt drives your decision to do things for others that you will eventually resent them for.
Choosing guilt means caring for yourself enough to say no. Although there may be a temporary deeply engrained guilt response, this step toward self-care heals underlying shame.
Guilt says, “I did something bad,” whereas shame says, “I’m bad.”
Choosing short-term guilt heals long-term shame. This allows you to gain a sense of self-worth, in turn, healing the constant guilt.
As you build momentum, notice the amount of “shoulds” you tell yourself. Notice how this is potentially the internalized critical voice of a parent. Setting boundaries with your parents means setting boundaries with your own inner-critic, as well.
You can give yourself the compassion you never received. Practicing self-compassion may consist of imagining what you would tell someone you care about who is going through the same situation. Being kind to yourself allows you to heal underlying shame and step back from your thoughts during moments where the inner-critic tries to lower your personal boundaries through the “shoulds” that lead to guilt.
Take an Observational Perspective
After gaining some perspective regarding the nature of underlying shame, guilt, and the inner-critic, it can be helpful to use an observational perspective when engaging with an emotionally immature parent.
An observational perspective means stepping back from interactions within your family system and viewing the situation like a scientist. Perhaps you can imagine you’re an anthropologist like Jane Goodall, studying primate interactions. Get curious about the various roles, reactions, and scripts being acted out. How is everyone falling into their usual role selves?
With this new perspective, you can gain emotional distance from heated situations, noticing your conditioned thoughts and emotions rather than merely reacting. Rather than reacting, you now have space to respond appropriately.
Perhaps this means taking a timeout, politely saying you cannot do something, or maybe it means just doing nothing, accepting you are dealing with an emotionally phobic person stuck in a role self. Whatever the situation calls for, you are free to choose your response based on your core values.
Taking this observational perspective breaks old reactive emotional habits that keep you locked into a toxic dynamic. It allows you to step back and recognize what is really going on. Lastly, it allows you to manage your expectations and deal with reality rather than a non-productive healing fantasy.
Engage in Self-care
Many people have heard about the common self-care tips such as diet, nutrition, sleep, and making time for things you enjoy. These are pretty obvious, and if someone is an internalizer, they’ve probably been told to do these things many times. So why isn’t it enough to simply give this advice?
As you may have noticed by now, internalizers prioritize helping others over helping themselves. The ability to engage in self-care is perhaps part of the healing fantasy, perpetually postponed because there are more urgent matters regarding the needs of others. You may unconsciously tell yourself you’ll deserve self-care when you can finally fix everyone else.
Getting into the classic list of self-care tips is irrelevant if these underlying issues block motivation to engage in self-care. So why would someone continue to engage in self-neglect, even after recognizing this fact?
The most simple answer is because familiarity feels safe. We are creatures of habit, and it is very common to take self-destructive paths because they feel familiar. The sense of uncertainty and fear of the unknown keeps people stuck in suboptimal situations, settling for the scraps rather than taking the bigger, better offer of a new way of life.
If you grew up with an emotionally immature parent, emotional immaturity feels familiar. As a result, you may find yourself attracted to these types of people in other areas of your life. The people we find most charismatic are often triggering us. Therefore, instant chemistry might be a red flag that you are falling into old family patterns.
Before you can think about self-care, you’ll need to let go of these underlying attachments to unhealthy relational dynamics.
Whose validation are you seeking? Do you really need their validation, or do they need you to need their validation? Do you need to be needed? If so, are your attempts to meet this need getting you closer to genuine belonging, or are they keeping you meeting someone else’s need to be needed at your own expense.
For more on this theme, see my article, The Need to be Needed.
Characteristics of Emotional Maturity
If you’ve made it this far, you can probably relate to the sense of feeling trapped in constant emotional turmoil and unhealthy relational dynamics. Once you’ve applied some of the principles listed in the previous section, you may realize these patterns are so familiar and deeply ingrained, it is challenging to spot emotional maturity.
Although we’ve covered the red flags indicating emotional immaturity, here are the positive signs of emotionally mature individuals:
Emotional maturity consists of being realistic, reliable, flexible, non-judgmental, respectful, empathetic, level-tempered, genuine, reciprocal, and having an overall positive vibe.
Emotionally mature people are like a well-designed house. When everything is working the way it should, you almost don’t even know it’s there. If you’re used to constant flooding and leaking, you may initially feel a sense of calm and ease.
Interactions with emotionally mature people are lighter and more effortless. They are generally even-tempered, reliable, consistent, and can meet your basic emotional needs.
They are psychologically flexible and work with reality rather than fighting against it. If you decide to change plans, they respond flexibly, sharing their input and working out a mutually beneficial way forward.
They can use both reason and emotion in a balanced way, depending on the needs of a specific situation.
Emotionally mature people are not perfectionistic and recognize everyone is imperfect. This perspective allows them to demonstrate genuine compassion for others and themselves.
They treat others with respect, honoring your boundaries, and maintain your individuality.
When you need their emotional support, they listen non-judgmentally and empathetically, not assuming they know you better than you know yourself.
They approach life with a win-win mentality. They don’t want to use others, nor do they want to be used by others.
When conflict arises in a relationship, they are willing to deal with it effectively and bring it to a close rather than using emotional manipulation or long-term silent treatment.
Emotionally mature people are willing to consider your perspective and have a secure sense of self, allowing them to approach others with a non-defensive natural curiosity.
They are truthful, genuine, and forthcoming about their thoughts and intentions.
When they make a mistake, emotionally mature people are willing to genuinely apologize, demonstrating careful attention regarding your concern and describe how they intend to do things differently next time, following through with these intentions.
They are genuinely interested in you, remembering specific details regarding your interests and passions, referencing these topics in future conversations. They celebrate your individuality rather than expecting you to conform to their interests.
Emotionally mature people see you positively, allowing you to be yourself, free of the fear of judgment. When you share your emotional needs or discomforts, they take you seriously.
If you share personal details, they reciprocate, building mutual intimacy.
Although they are generally even-tempered, they can laugh and be playful. Their sense of humor is used to connect and bond rather than using it to gossip and ostracize others.
In general, they are enjoyable to be around and have an overall positive vibe.
Most importantly, they make you feel seen and understood for who you really are, not who you pretend to be.
How to Build Genuine Relationships
If you’ve never experienced a deep relationship with emotionally mature people, this kind of relationship may seem like a pipe dream.
You may be conditioned to settle, take emotional scraps, or be led on by a trail of emotional breadcrumbs. Besides the healing fantasy, it can be hard to let go of these relationships because you may think it’s all you’ll ever get. The thought of being alone forever induces fear, keeping you locked into familiar patterns.
Before letting go of toxic relationships, it can be helpful to assess those in your life, considering who fits the description of emotional maturity. Of course, no one is perfect, but the above description can offer guidance in making this assessment.
If you’ve determined there is someone in your life who is relatively emotionally mature, and you’ve been afraid to reach out for support, notice how the fear of judgment, rejection, or feeling like a burden is keeping you from doing so. Notice how although these reasons may have served you growing up, they are no longer useful when engaging with emotionally mature people.
Taking off the mask and opening up to emotionally mature people helps build an emotional safety net, allowing you to let go of unhealthy relationships.
Emotionally mature people can help you practice being yourself, so you can take this practice into interactions with others who are less emotionally mature. Rather than reacting based on old patterns, you can pause, maintain self-composure, and be true to yourself, whether people accept it or not.
You are not responsible for being parented by an emotionally immature parent, but you are responsible for the recovery process. This means recognizing others are responsible for their own feelings and communicating their needs, just as you are.
Trusting your emotions as offering useful information regarding unmet needs, you can have compassion for yourself. You can then accept that emotionally mature persons will likely respond to you with this same compassion if you reach out for support.
Letting go of old mental habits instilled by an emotionally immature parent gives you the freedom to live by your genuine thoughts and feelings. With this newfound sense of empowerment, wholeness, and self-reclamation, life feels lighter and easier.
Although you can’t make others change, you can change. You do get to start over, almost as if you’re rebirthing yourself, giving yourself the gift of living twice in one life.
This article has been an in-depth summary of the book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson PsyD.
If you want even more tools on how to heal from an emotionally unavailable parent, you can check out her follow-up book, Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents: Practical Tools to Establish Boundaries and Reclaim Your Emotional Autonomy.
As you can probably tell, I have been pretty obsessed with her book, given the time it took to write this summary. As a counselor, this is one of the most common themes I encounter in my conversations with clients.
This issue can often go unnoticed since there may not necessarily be a specific event identified as “traumatic.” Adverse childhood experiences do not need to be physically abusive or neglectful. As you can see, emotional neglect can have significant negative consequences and is often perceived as “normal” by those who have experienced it.
The issue is often made even more invisible because internalizers often blame themselves, carrying significant guilt or shame regarding unhealthy dynamics.
The book provides an insightful perspective, allowing the reader to see the bigger picture, giving practical tools to heal from emotionally immature parents. In the near-perfect 5546 reviews, many people share they found it life-changing, and I can see why.
If you know someone struggling with the issues outlined in this article, feel free to share it with them. Healing invisible wounds starts with awareness of the problem.
I’ve been on an audiobook binge over the last few weeks and have read a series of great books that would make the perfect follow-up to this article, so I’ve listed them below—in addition to a few others.
If you find yourself struggling with the inner critic, causing you to experience guilt and beat yourself up over “not being enough,” here are my best book recommendations:
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff PhD
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach PhD
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown PhD
The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel MD
When the Body Says No by Gabor Maté MD
If you have further recommendations, feel free to share them in the comments! I am always looking for new audiobooks to devour while driving or doing housework!
On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
As an addiction counselor, I’ve learned the importance of considering a person’s underlying needs. Addictions, as well as other mental health issues, are often the result of unmet needs. There are various theories of fundamental human needs, including Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the basic psychological needs theory. The approach I present here is based on the core yearnings in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
This approach is supported by over 330 clinical trials, providing a comprehensive understanding of our human needs that encompasses those provided in the previously mentioned theoretical models.
Our underlying needs consist of the following:
- Belonging and connection
- Meaning and self-direction
- Coherence and understanding
- Feeling and experience
Let’s delve into each of these six areas, exploring what each of them means and how we can meet these needs in more effective ways.
We need belonging and connection
Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. The need for belonging and connection is crucial for our mental wellness. Being one of the main themes in my articles, I’ve often discussed the power of social connection.
According to a Harvard study that followed a group of individuals for 80 years, the quality of one’s relationships is the best predictor of overall health and happiness:
“…people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.”
When this need is not met, we often attempt to fill the relational void through ego identification. Inflating our sense of self through stories about our own “specialness,” continually comparing ourselves to others. As described in my article, Is Social Media Making us Less Social:
“Social Media is making us less social when used to compare oneself to others, contributing to higher levels of loneliness and lower levels of well-being among frequent users. It can be social when used to connect with others.”
Our attempts to compensate for the connection through comparison drives us further apart. “I am” statements require social comparison, making us feel even more cut off from others. Clinging to the idea of our specialness gives us a seductive illusion of connection at the expense of genuinely meeting this need in the long term.
According to ACT, the yearning for belonging and connection underlies the process of “self as content” vs “self as context.” Rather than trying to fill ourselves with more identity content, we can more effectively meet our need for connection by letting go of the rigid ego identification. This requires recognizing we are not the contents of our thoughts, but rather, we are the space where the thoughts occur.
A useful metaphor consists of seeing ourselves as the sky rather than the weather. The sky is not the weather. Rather, it is the ever-present blue space that contains the weather. The sky does not attempt to control clouds as they come and go, nor does it identify with the clouds.
Sometimes our thoughts are like storm clouds, while other times they are like fluffy stuffed animals. We can more effectively meet our need for connection by simply noticing when you are having these difficult thoughts based on social comparison and letting them go. As Eckhart Tolle asks, “Can I be the space for this?“.
We need meaning and self-direction
Without a sense of meaning and self-direction, we feel apathetic, lacking motivation. As described in my articles on Veterans in Transition, This is a common theme among persons leaving the military where they gained a deep sense of meaning in their roles compared to the relative sense of meaninglessness in civilian life.
Others may experience a lack of meaning and self-direction in soul-destroying jobs where you feel like a robot, just going through the motions for a paycheque. Working in these deserts of meaning, we may feel tired all the time, only gaining the strength to complete the most basic tasks out of fear of punishment.
Meaning and self-direction are the most fundamental ingredients of motivation. As an addiction counselor, motivation is one of the most important variables I focus on. As described in my article on, How Motivation Works, we feel motivated when we have a sense of being in control of our actions.
When someone takes away your sense of control by telling you what to do, it provokes a reaction to do the opposite. This is why the collaborative technique of motivational interviewing is used in addiction counseling. Rather than telling someone what to do, we can help someone meet their need for a sense of self-directed meaning by evoking their values and collaborating with them to create an effective plan.
In ACT, the yearning for meaning and self-direction underlies the process of having a values orientation. This means gaining a clear understanding of what you value. Although many people tend to immediately focus on goals, they are distinct from values. Values are a “way of being” without a particular end-point. For example, if you value being “compassionate,” there is no end-point. You can always turn to your values to fill the motivational fuel-tank. As stated by Viktor E. Frankl:
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
Finding your “why” provides motivational momentum in difficult times. Gaining clarity on one’s core values allows for ongoing motivation, independent of one’s specific goals.
We need a sense of competence
A sense of competence, mastery, or feeling that we are progressing is another key underlying feature of motivation. Feeling stagnate in our lives deprives us of the natural rewards we receive when seeing progress.
Fundamentally rooted in the dopaminergic reward-centres of our brains, we experience pleasure when correctly solving a problem. This explains why we experience satisfaction after completing a check-list, solving a puzzle, or winning a game.
These tasks are engaging so long as they are challenging, but not so challenging that it begins to evoke feelings of incompetence. We naturally enjoy what we are good at, which is the core of developing a passion. As stated by Cal Newport in my article on What it Means to Follow Your Passion:
“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
We are often told to find our passion through soul searching, but this can often have the opposite effect. Rather than finding our bliss, we end up living in our heads, continually planning or strategizing without taking action. Without taking action, we cannot know what we genuinely enjoy since this enjoyment is dependent on developing skill in a particular area.
My personal experience with this occurred as I developed more skill in writing. I used to be terrified of a blank page, never knowing what to write. Throughout school, I would only write the bare minimum word-count for the assignment and always relied on several quotes to add more fluff.
Throughout the last decade of blogging, in addition to writing a doctoral dissertation, I’ve gained quite a bit of practice writing. This practice has led to quite a bit more competence, leading to an increased sense of reward and enjoyment.
In ACT, the yearning for competence underlies the process of committed action. This means building patterns of committed action, integrating them into your life over time. The most common barrier to committed action is procrastination, based on perfectionistic ideas.
Procrastination is perhaps more rooted in fear than laziness. Rather than beating ourselves up for not taking action, it could be more helpful to consider the underlying fears preventing action toward your valued goals.
We need a sense of coherence
A sense of coherence and understanding allows us to make sense of ourselves and the world. When this need is not met, we feel uncertainty and fear. A common way to cope with a lack of coherence is to impose false order, retreating into your head, and treating life like a problem to be solved. Common defense mechanisms include rationalization and intellectualization.
When the problem-solving mind takes over, we become fused to our thoughts, making it difficult to take a step back from them. For example, if a driver cuts you off, it is easy to immediately rationalize that this person is selfish and careless. Imposing false order onto the character of the other person allows the world to make sense again, amidst the driving chaos, neatly dividing the everyone into judgmental categories of “good” vs “evil”.
Although this form of black and white thinking provides an immediate sense of coherence, it causes us to react in anger, perhaps putting ourselves in further danger. Flexibly looking at the situation without clinging to our initial judgments allows us to be open to the uncertainty inherent in the situation.
For example, the seemingly “bad” driver may have recently received news that a loved one is passing away, and they are rushing to the hospital. Although this does not excuse dangerous driving, being open to these potential alternatives allows us to gain enough distance from our judgmental mind to be able to choose the most effective path forward, rather than merely reacting.
The purpose of stepping back from your thoughts about a situation does not have to do with the accuracy of those thoughts. Maybe you are right that the driver is doing something dangerous. Maybe you are right that what the driver did was illegal. Maybe you are right that they need to be taught a lesson. But at what cost?
Rightness does not equal effectiveness. If you’ve ever tried to change someone’s behavior by telling them that they are wrong, you will quickly see how your rightness does not translate into effectiveness. As described in my article on Motivational Interviewing, we can’t make people change by being more right. This same logic applies to our own minds. We may be right, but at what cost.
In ACT, the yearning for a sense of coherence and understanding underlies the process of cognitive defusion. When we are fused to our thoughts, we are entangled with them, unable to make space for potential alternatives. We create rigid versions of reality, supported by unconscious rules about the way things ought to be. Rather than genuinely meeting our need for coherence, we become further frustrated by a reality that refuses to conform to our expectations.
Stepping back from our thoughts requires opening up to a space of uncertainty in a way that allows for more practical ways to choose one’s path forward. My article on How to Stop Living in Your Head delves more into common thought patterns, in addition to offering some helpful exercises.
We need a sense of orientation
The need for orientation gives us a sense of place in the world. When suffering from a chaotic past, it is common to lose this sense of orientation, taking us out of the present moment. Constant thoughts of the past or worries about the future occupy our attention as we try to gain a sense of security in the present.
The more we live in the past or the future, the further we get away from the present, amplifying a sense of disorientation and disconnection. We may dwell on why something happed in the past, what we could do better in the future, and how it’s not safe to focus on the present moment because getting out of our head might result in some kind of danger.
In ACT, this yearning for orientation is based on the process of present-moment awareness. Mindful attention to the present moment allows us to meet our need for orientation because we can more effectively attend to actual events in the here and now rather than getting caught up in rumination.
The GPS metaphor is helpful to make sense of this underlying need. Imagine you are driving with a GPS and it tells you that you will need to turn right up ahead. Rather than looking at your current location on the road, you fixate on the GPS screen, missing all of the events happing around you in real-time. When you look up, you fixate on the rear-view mirror, analyzing all of the things you nearly hit while you were distracted. Realizing that turn is coming up, you turn your eyes back to the GPS screen, focused on the exact distance left before the turn.
Although it is useful to plan for the future, like using a GPS, and consider the past, like using a rear-view mirror, it can take away from genuine orientation by taking us away from the present moment, making us less effective as we navigate our path in life. My article on The Benefits of Meditation for Addiction delves into the power of mindfulness practice.
We need a sense of feeling
Our final underlying desire is the need to feel and experience life. Sometimes we feel pleasant emotions while other times we feel unpleasant ones. When the desire to avoid unpleasant ones takes over, we avoid situations that could potentially evoke discomfort. This means also avoiding pleasant situations.
For example, a person may avoid the joy of close relationships due to avoiding the potential pain that might result if the relationship fails. A person who values social connection may avoid the pleasure of connecting with others due to the risk rejection and the resulting disappointment.
In ACT, this yearning for feeling underlies the Acceptance process. A helpful metaphor includes having a tug-of-war with your unhelpful emotions. You may tell yourself, “Don’t feel anxious… Don’t feel anxious… Don’t feel anxious….” As you engage in this fruitless struggle, you become more anxious. Rather than choosing to do a particular meaningful task, you decide to avoid it, fearing these feelings will get out of control.
Avoiding situations reinforces the potential danger to your mind, strengthening its association with a fear response. Your mind says, “If you’re avoiding this situation, it must be dangerous.” Like an addiction, avoidance offers the temptation of a short-term gain at a long-term cost. Genuinely meeting one’s need to feel joy requires a sense of openness to feel painful emotions.
An openness and willingness to experience discomfort does not mean resignation or masochism. Instead, it means dropping the rope in the metaphorical tug-of-war, letting the uncomfortable entity stay where it is, and deciding to pivot toward a valued direction. Discomfort may come and go, but your ability to choose your way forward remains unchanging.
When considering the underlying factors driving addiction and other mental health issues, it is crucial to keep these needs in mind. Without considering a person’s unmet needs, we only see the symptoms of these unmet needs. Trying to treat the symptoms rather than the underlying needs does not get to the root cause of the problem.
A person can be supported in stopping an addictive substance or behavior, but they may still act in ways that a destructive to themselves and their relationships. When underlying needs are not attended to, a person attempts to fulfil these needs in ways that are ineffective, leading these needs to be even further unmet.
Here is a summary of the information conveyed in this article, describing the ineffective and effective ways one may attempt to meet each underlying need:
The need for belonging and connection
Ineffective approach: Constructing ego identities to demonstrate your superiority and receive external validation.
Effective approach: Noticing you are having self-critical thoughts rather than identifying with these thoughts.
Meaning and self-direction
Ineffective approach: Following what you think you “should” be doing, according to social standards.
Effective approach: Asking yourself what you value and what you want your life to be about.
Ineffective approach: Procrastination to avoid failure, protecting a perfectionistic ideal of your envisioned future self.
Effective approach: Building habits of committed action, developing skills over time, despite short-term setbacks.
Coherence and understanding
Ineffective approach: Engaging in rigid debates, focused on being right.
Effective approach: Stepping back from your thoughts/ judgments, flexibly attending to the present moment.
Ineffective approach: Analyzing past situations and worrying about the future.
Effective approach: Mindfully bringing your attention to the present moment.
Feeling and experience
Ineffective approach: Avoiding painful feelings and the situations that may evoke them.
Effective approach: Being willing to experience painful feelings and the situations that may evoke them.
For an in-depth exploration of these underlying needs in the context of the six processes of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), you can check out my article How to Improve Psychological Flexibility. In that article, I share more metaphors and exercises designed to help you meet your underlying needs more effectively.
If you are interested in taking a deep dive into ACT, I highly recommend the online ACT Immersion course by Dr. Steven Heyes, the founder of ACT. This course has been an invaluable resource for me personally and has informed many of the explanations provided in this article. If you are serious about learning ACT, this is the course for you. Check it out here for more information.
The Big Book of ACT Metaphors is another great resource I would recommend. It is a highly practical book full of explanations, metaphors, exercises, and ACT worksheets, ready to use in your everyday practice.
ACT Made Simple by Dr. Russ Harris is another excellent resource, offering an easy-to-read summary of ACT. This book has recently been updated to include an ACT understanding of self-compassion and trauma, translating complex ideas into simple language.
If you would like to connect with a specialized ACT therapist, view the directory on the official ACBS website here.
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As an addiction counselor, I have been fascinated by the psychology of motivation. I’ve always wondered what motivates human behavior, spending a significant amount of time researching our underlying drives, and how motivation works.
With recent scientific advances into the science of how motivation works, we are still failing to apply these lessons in our daily lives. In this article, I translate the science into a practical guide to understanding motivation. So how does motivation work?
Motivation works though a dopaminergic neural process whereby our brains reward us when we carry out a task that meets our internal human need for a sense of autonomy, competence, relatedness, or basic survival needs such as food, safety, or relief from pain.
Let’s unpack what this means.
What is Motivation?
Motivation is the desire to engage in a particular behavior. This behavior may meet a specific psychological or physical need or avoid a specific harmful outcome.
Motivation is an adaptive mechanism, helping us survive. Without motivation, we would have no drive to eat, drink, procreate, or engage in any other kind of activity that would maintain our survival.
There are two general types of motivation: extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.
This is motivation based on an external reward. This type of motivation works through external rewards such as money, food, or possessions. For example, giving your child money for doing their homework is an extrinsic reward. If you take away the reward, the child no longer has the motivation to engage in the task. This is why this form of motivation is great for short-term tasks, but it does not maintain the long-term behavior.
This type of motivation consists of behavior driven by one’s internal sense of reward for engaging in the task. A person may feel a sense of passion, engagement, and a sense of deep psychological satisfaction when engaging in the task, even without external reward. For example, a writer may have a passion for engaging in the task of writing, independent of praise or monetary gain.
At first, psychologists assumed extrinsic rewards could increase intrinsic motivation, but studies later confirmed this is not true. A 1971 study on The Effects of Externally Mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation demonstrates that extrinsic rewards decrease intrinsic motivation.
For example, if your child enjoys practicing the piano and you introduce a monetary reward each time they practice, their internal motivation to practice decreases, making them less likely to practice when you take away the external reward. This is why getting paid for your passion can risk making the task begin to feel like work.
The Psychology of Motivation
Extrinsic motivation works through rewards and punishments. Rewards consist of pleasant external stimuli that evoke pleasure, like in laboratory models of operant conditioning. Early behavior modification techniques treated humans as if they were lab rats. This worked by reinforcing desired behaviors through rewards or extinguishing undesirable behaviors through punishment. Although this can work, it has it’s limitations, as stated above.
Intrinsic motivation works by meeting our fundamental human need for a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This is the basis of self-determination theory, an evidence-based model of intrinsic motivation. Autonomy is our need for a sense of independence and control over our lives. Competence is our need to feel like we are progressing in life. Lastly, relatedness is our need for a sense of social connection.
Although this is a highly simplified breakdown of the psychology of how extrinsic and intrinsic motivation works, it captures the aspects of motivation required for practical usage in everyday life.
How to Improve Motivation
Understanding the basics of how motivation works allows you to apply these lessons to yourself or others. Here are a few practical tips for improving motivation:
Focus on Small Wins
Gaining small wins over time works to enhance motivation by fostering an internal sense of competence. The sense of incremental progression over time builds motivational momentum. Like rolling a snowball, the power of small wins compounds over time.
Get Clear on Your Values
Getting clear on your values works to build motivation by giving you a sense of purpose and autonomy. This means we feel in control of our lives, deciding to act in alignment with our chosen values, rather than feeling constrained and controlled by external forces.
Be Accountable to Others
Being accountable to others works to build motivation by fostering a sense of relatedness. This means our need to connect with others is met through holding ourselves accountable to them. For example, many people use personal trainers for the sense of motivation built into the accountability provided by the relationship.
Recall these same lessons when helping others build motivation. When helping someone, it is tempting to take the lead, telling them exactly what to do. This violates the principle of autonomy, taking away their sense of control over the process, decreasing motivation. Instead, it is more effective to engage with empathy, evoking their reasons for making the change, and collaborating with them on a plan.
Motivation works on many levels, neurologically and psychologically. In simple terms, it works through external rewards and punishments or our internal need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Focusing on intrinsic motivations rather than extrinsic motivations allows for sustained motivation that is not dependent on external rewards or punishments. It is also important to note that introducing external rewards to behaviors that are already intrinsically motivated can decrease intrinsic motivation. In other words, be careful when getting paid for your passions.
We can build our intrinsic motivation by focusing on small wins, getting clear on our values, and being accountable to others. When helping others develop their motivation, we can use these same lessons, taking a collaborative approach that keeps the other person feeling in control of the process.
If you are interested in learning more about helping others build their motivation, I wrote an in-depth article on Motivational Interviewing here. This is a powerful conversation style, designed to overcome resistance, helping someone develop their motivation for change.
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Why is it important to have a sense of direction in life?
This is a question I have been thinking about since writing my dissertation on veterans in transition to civilian life. Losing a sense of purpose and direction can be disorienting for anyone experiencing major life transitions, sometimes even leading to issues with mental health and addiction.
This area has also been interesting for me personally since, for the last decade, I’ve changed roles several times while maintaining an underlying sense of direction. This sense of direction helped me navigate the challenging transition from grad school to university teaching and from teaching to the addiction field.
So why is having direction so important?
Having direction allows you to maintain mental resilience during transitions by facilitating a sense of underlying purpose, not dependent on the specific role one occupies. Also, having a sense of direction promotes better mental health and stronger adherence to long-term goals.
Let’s take a closer look at what this means and how you can facilitate a sense of direction in your own life.
Why we need direction in life
Most of us have some level of underlying direction, even if we’re feeling a bit lost. Feeling lost does not necessarily mean you don’t have a general sense of where you want to go.
Being lost does not mean you lack direction, it means you just need to reorient yourself on the journey. Consider this metaphor:
If you went on a long hike into the forest and found yourself lost, does this mean you no longer have the desire to return home? Having this general sense of where you want to go gives you the motivation to reorient yourself, improving the chances of survival.
If you’re between jobs or in a job you hate, you may feel lost, but this does not necessarily mean you’ve lost all sense of what you value and what you generally want your life to look like going forward.
We need direction in life to guide us through challenges and moments of transition, providing mental resilience and adherence to productive actions.
The risks of lacking direction in life
Lacking a sense of direction is risky because it creates a mental vulnerability during times of transition. Losing direction means losing hope. Like getting lost in the forest and deciding to lye down in the grass and wait for the inevitable, losing direction is a factor in suicidal risk.
Thomas Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of Suicidal Behavior states that suicidal desire is the result of thwarted belongingness, perceived burdensomeness, and hopelessness regarding these states. Losing direction can make a person feel cut off from others, in addition to feeling like a burden due to lacking a sense of contribution.
Losing a sense of direction makes it feel like nothing matters. This nihilistic state of mind can allow someone to rationalize reckless behavior or substance use to fill the void of purposelessness.
How to find direction in life
Even if you don’t currently feel like you have a strong sense of direction in life, you likely have an unconscious sense of direction, preventing the state of complete despair described above.
A large part of my role as an addiction counselor is to help people gain deeper insight into what motivates them, allowing them to strategically move toward a valued direction.
Focusing on values is one way to gain a sense of direction. I will share an exercise from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, designed to uncover core values. Here’s an exercise, quoted from my article, How to Stop Living in Your Head:
Imagine you have a mind-reading machine that can tell you the thoughts of someone close to you. Tune in to what that person is thinking about you.
What are they thinking about what you stand for?
What do they think are your personal strengths?
What do you mean to this person?
In an ideal world where you are the person you want to be, what do you hear this person thinking?
What theme do you see?
Come up with a few core values and keep them with you throughout the next week, being mindful of how they inform your actions.
Some examples of values include compassion, creativity, authenticity, community, order, justice, courage, curiosity, and loyalty.
Values are directions, not goals. Like “North” on a compass, directions have no endpoint. You never finally reach “North”. Values act like this, allowing you to indefinitely reorient yourself to align with your valued way of being.
You can never reach the endpoint where you’ve finally accomplished being loving, compassionate, creative, or curious. You might set specific goals, based on your values, but values can serve you infinitely, like a compass, guiding you through stormy seas.
How to maintain a purpose in transition
One’s role may change throughout one’s life, so it is crucial to reassess values and use them to reorient yourself.
When conducting my research on veterans in transition to civilian life, this was a major question I sought to answer. Coming out of the structured military context into civilian life was often profoundly disorienting, causing many to lose a sense of purpose and direction.
Those who were able to have smoother transitions were able to maintain their commitment to the value of service and found an opportunity to live by this value within a civilian role.
Although one’s role may change, one’s values can be eternal. The prominent psychologist, Victor Frankl, highlights this in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, where he tells his story of surviving several concentration camps. He states:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
When he was sent to the first concentration camp, his unfinished psychological manuscript was taken away from him. Despite the prolonged torture in these camps, he maintained his commitment to this unfinished work, coming out and publishing one of the most influential works in psychology.
I’ve had my own transitions, where a clear sense of direction allowed me to maintain resilience. In the last decade, I went from being a fitness instructor applying to be a police officer, to becoming an academic sociologist and course instructor, to working in the addiction field in various roles.
Although my role has changed several times, my commitment to the value of human thriving has stayed the same. At the beginning of this journey, I had learned about Maslow’s concept of self-actualization and immediately became inspired by it.
Looking around, it seemed like so many people were not developing their full potential, falling into poor health, crime, or addictions. In each of my roles, I’ve carried the value of promoting greater self-actualization in myself and others.
Studying veterans in transition to civilian life gave me the ability to further contemplate self-actualization, especially since being “all you can be” is a common phrase associated with military service.
My interest in studying the transition to civilian life allowed me to better understand the relationship between the individual and the social context. Although Victor Frankl highlights the importance of choosing a purposeful attitude, no matter the circumstances, this does not necessarily come easy for most people, and we can’t simply blame them for falling into moments of despair.
Whether losing one’s job/ business, transitioning into retirement, or enduring a monumental shift in the global economy due to the current pandemic, we are vulnerable to losing a sense of purpose and direction. Merely telling someone to change their attitude and “think positive” is not necessarily helpful if they are suffering.
Victor Frankl understood this, despite his emphasis on individual freedom to choose one’s attitude. He developed a technique called Logotherapy, where he helped clients find a sense of meaning, allowing them to thrive despite the challenges they faced in life.
Motivational interviewing, a modern psychological approach to addiction counseling, draws on Logotherapy. This approach is designed to help clients regain motivation to pursue a life of meaning by clarifying their values, strengths, and desired direction.
I practice motivational interviewing in my own work with clients, and if you are interested in learning more about how it works, you can check out my article, “How Does Motivational Interviewing Work?“.
Gaining a strong sense of direction is important because it allows a person to maintain motivation and long-term productive action, as opposed to short-term coping behaviors, in the case of addiction.
With all of the social distancing measures over the last year, we have been repeatedly told by public health officials that it is our responsibility to stay home and flatten the curve.
You are not responsible for the problem, but you now find yourself responsible for part of the solution.
It can be frustrating, it can be isolating, and it might not seem fair.
Although we may sometimes want to resist the calls to take responsibility, consider the other areas of life where you are not responsible for the problem but still need to be part of the solution.
If you’ve experienced trauma leading to mental health issues, you are not responsible for the problem, but you are responsible for being part of the solution.
The same goes for a heredity illness. You are not responsible for the problem, but you are responsible for being part of the solution.
Falling into a victim mindset only serves to strengthen the problem.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
What is responsibility?
Responsibility is the ability to respond.
Not paralyzed by fear, plagued by anxiety, or procrastinating, pretending the problem doesn’t exist.
Responsibility means being prepared, but not panicked. It requires planning, but not perfectionistic plots to control the uncontrollable.
Responsibility consists of accepting uncertainty, knowing you will do what you can control, and letting go of the things you cannot.
Responsibility requires a response proportional to the problem, adapting to obstacles as they arise.
The psychologist Jordan Peterson says the physical posture of responsibility is standing up straight with your shoulders back, in 12 Rules for Life:
To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability, and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).
Why is responsibility important?
Responsibility is important because it provides a sense of purpose, in addition to building resilience amidst adversity on an individual and societal level.
Like an addiction, sidestepping responsibility may feel good in the short-term, but leads to exponentially worse pain and suffering in the long term.
A tiger metaphor by Steven Hayes seems fitting here.
Imagine you adopted a tiger cub into your home. It is cute, cuddly, and harmless. You notice it begins to purr loudly, and the only way you can make it stop is to feed it red meat. Over the months and years, you keep doing this, but the tiger is now several hundred pounds, requiring whole sides of beef. Rather than a cute purr, the tiger roars ferociously for its meat. You are terrified, so you keep giving him the meat so he will leave you alone. The more you feed it, the larger it gets, and the more trapped you become.
In this metaphor, feeding the tiger symbolizes sidestepping your responsibilities. There is temporary relief, but a long term cost. Each time you avoid responsibility, you are feeding the tiger, making the problem larger, giving up long term freedom and control.
Why do people choose to become trapped in troublesome tiger relations? Jordan Peterson explains one potential reason in 12 Rules for Life:
Sometimes, when people have a low opinion of their own worth or, perhaps, when they refuse responsibility for their lives they choose a new acquaintance, of precisely the type who proved troublesome in the past. Such people don’t believe that they deserve any better so they don’t go looking for it. Or, perhaps, they don’t want the trouble of better.”
Let’s go deeper into how low self-worth prevents responsibility and look at how to build a sense of purpose through responsibility to one’s self, one’s family, and one’s society.
Responsibility provides a sense of purpose
Avoiding responsibility destroys a sense of purpose. Purpose comes from a sense of contribution and connection to something larger than yourself. But first, it is necessary to take responsibility for yourself. By being the best version of yourself, you can then be the most helpful to others.
Being responsible for yourself
This requires taking care of your basic needs. In the recovery community, it is common to use the acronym, HALT. Are you hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? Regularly check in on your current state and address deficiencies where appropriate.
Another way to maintain self-responsibility is to organize the clutter in your physical environment and the chaos in your day-to-day life. Prioritize your sleep, nutrition, and exercise. If all of this sounds overwhelming, start small. As Jordan Peterson says, “Clean your damn room!” But as he also says, “Cleaning up your room involves cleaning up far more than your room.”
Doing something useful for yourself is the first step in reorienting yourself amidst the mental fog of purposelessness. As the fog begins to thin out, you can start to see beyond yourself. This leads to step two:
Being responsible within your family
Once you’re adequately useful to yourself and can help from a place of genuine giving, you can be useful to others close to you.
I mention genuine giving because many people try to be useful to others without addressing their own needs first. This often results in codependent relationships where you do things for others to fill a lack of self-esteem in yourself. It is an experience of toxic shame where we constantly feel the need to prove ourselves and receive external validation. This may feel like “taking responsibility,” but it is often unhelpful and is just feeding the internal tiger, masking underlying issues with self-worth.
See my article The Need to be Needed for an in-depth description of this interpersonal dynamic.
If you’ve worked through these personal areas and can engage in close interpersonal relationships based on genuine heartfelt giving, the next step is this:
Being responsible within the broader society
Being socially responsible can happen in various ways. Right now, it simply means staying home to prevent community spread of the viral infection.
During regular times, being socially responsible might take place in your work, volunteer roles, or leisure activities.
The key to maximizing your social responsibility is contributing in a way that fits your unique personal strengths. For example, if your strengths are working with people, and you value compassion, developing and applying these strengths allows you to maximally contribute socially.
A lack of fit between your strengths, values, and interests can hinder your level of usefulness in your work, resulting in a low sense of purpose within the role. Finding alignment between your abilities and your role requires first knowing your strengths and cultivating them.
Not cultivating and applying your unique strengths doesn’t just rob you of a sense of purpose, but it also robs the broader society of your potential contributions.
Although you may not be responsible for personal or social issues, you are still responsible for being part of the solution.
Avoiding responsibility comes with a short term gain at a long term cost.
Taking responsibility creates long term resilience and a sense of purpose.
This sense of purpose can be fostered by taking responsibility for one’s self by engaging in self-care. Responsibility can also be developed on a familial and societal level, offering a sense of purpose proportional to your ability to contribute your unique abilities.
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Lately, I have been thinking about narcissism and its relationship to self-esteem. There seem to be some mixed messages going around about whether or not narcissists actually have high self-esteem.
The conventional wisdom is that narcissists are masking an underlying sense of low self-esteem. But when psychologists measure the self-esteem of a narcissist, they actually score very high. So how can we make sense of this?
Digging deep into the research on narcissism, this is what I’ve found:
Narcissists have high self-esteem. But unlike individuals with a secure sense of high self-esteem, narcissists have what researchers call “fragile high self-esteem“. It is a form of high self-esteem dependent on external validation and self-deception.
Let’s take a closer look at the research to unpack what this means. Also, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
How to Recognize Fragile High Self-esteem
Self-esteem can be understood as one’s valuation of one’s own worth. This sense of one’s value can rest on a secure foundation, or it can be fragile and dependant on constant external validation. Fragile high self-esteem can be distinguished by the following traits:
1. Defensiveness: this involves a defensive attitude toward preserving one’s self-image. A narcissistic fixation on image preservation can quickly result in defensive attacks if this image is threatened. Verbal defensiveness is one key indicator of fragile high self-esteem. It may feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells around someone with narcissistic fragile high self-esteem.
2. Validation Seeking: Research distinguishing fragile high self-esteem from secure high-self esteem also points out how fragile self-esteem is dependent on external factors. These factors can include the need for praise, compliments, or recognition. Without this validation, self-esteem begins to erode, triggering a narcissistic individual to seek out new sources of validation.
3. Unwillingness to learn from mistakes: Being able to listen and accept constructive feedback is a trait associated with secure high self-esteem. When self-esteem is fragile and dependant on constant validation, constructive feedback can be easily perceived as a slight against one’s image, often resulting in defensiveness and an unwillingness to accept the feedback.
4. A sense of superiority, dominance, or entitlement: Individuals with fragile high self-esteem often regard themselves as superior to others. This can manifest as attempts to display dominance or displays of entitlement where the individual believes they are owed special privileges.
Narcissism is an Addiction to Esteem
At its most extreme, narcissism can manifest as a narcissistic personality disorder, having severe consequences on one’s life, similar to an addiction. Researchers have actually argued that narcissism functions like an addiction in multiple ways:
The craving for esteem may lead to a cycle of escalating tolerance and occasional, bitter withdrawal. The instability of narcissists’ self-esteem and relationships could be understood as resulting from these cycles.
1. Cravings: Narcissistic cravings include the drive to constantly maintain an inflated grand view of oneself. This is a view of oneself is based on distorted thinking patterns, maintaining a positive self-evaluation that is unrealistic to the person’s interpersonal reality.
Like an addiction, narcissism is generally met with disapproval from others. Although this is the case, narcissistic individuals can distort their perception of what others think of them. In this way, they can falsely believe in the approval of others, effectively giving themselves the drug of validation.
2. Tolerance: Like an addiction, tolerance is also a feature of narcissism. Narcissists constantly seek out ways to raise their sense of specialness. There is never enough. Like an addiction, the person can chase the high provided by the substance into infinity. Opiate overdoses are often the result of this pursuit of the infinite. In the case of narcissism, the infinite pursuit of self-esteem can lead to extreme behaviors.
3. Withdrawal: Like an addiction, narcissists experience withdrawal when their fragile self-esteem begins to collapse. It can provoke aggressive hostile reactions or extreme defensiveness. In the midst of a collapse, some narcissists may even swing wildly between statements consistent with low self-esteem, validation seeking, and defensiveness.
How to Develop Non-narcissistic Secure Self-Esteem
Before considering how to develop secure self-esteem, we need to consider why self-esteem is important. There has been a recent backlash against the self-esteem movement due to its ineffectiveness.
The problem with critiques of self-esteem promotion is that they often neglect to define self-esteem. As described above, there are many different ways of defining the concept. Secure self-esteem and fragile self-esteem are radically different manifestations of self-esteem that cannot be equated.
Critiques of self-esteem promotion are accurate when discussing simple tactics like positive affirmations and participation ribbons. These tactics only work to promote fragile high self-esteem.
Rather than developing a fragile false sense of self-esteem, one can develop secure self-esteem through genuine connection with oneself and others.
In The Six Pillars of Self-esteem, Nathaniel Branden presents a concept of secure high self-esteem. He argues that self-esteem consists of the following practices:
1. The Practice of Living Consciously: This involves being more aware of what drives our actions, bringing mindful awareness to these underlying motivations so we can act in accordance with our values. Living unconsciously is like sleepwalking through life. You go through the motions, reacting to negative stimuli with a fight or flight response.
Fragile high self-esteem is built on living unconsciously. It is based on a form of self-deception regarding one’s own sense of self. Rather than seeing the underlying behavioral motives and the impact it has on others, fragile high self-esteem maintains unhealthy relational dynamics.
Ineffective patterns of behavior are maintained because bringing conscious awareness to the reality of the situation would threaten the narcissistic identity. It is easier to simply blame others for any hardships than to take responsibility for one’s actions.
Living consciously involves being able to accept feedback, remaining open to learning about your unconscious motives and shortcomings. It then involves acting mindfully, consciously choosing your reaction to situations, rather than simply reacting in the moment based on fear and anger.
2. The Practice of Self-Acceptance: This means letting go of an adversarial relationship to oneself. In The Confidence Gap, Russ Harris argues self-acceptance is the most important aspect of building true confidence. When we have an adversarial relationship with ourselves, we constantly battle or deny our uncomfortable thoughts or emotions. Self-acceptance means consciously being aware of the things you are resisting, in addition to letting go of this resistance.
Fragile high self-esteem is built on a foundation of denial and resistance. Rather than accepting one’s shortcomings, they are resisted through the armor of false self-worth. Self-acceptance requires letting go of this armor.
3. The Practice of Self-Responsibility: This can be understood by breaking the word into two parts, “response” and “ability”. It is the ability to respond appropriately to situations. For example, if you are responsible for your team at work, it means you must be able and ready to respond to the needs of the team to the best of your ability.
Before taking on responsibility for others, one must first take on self-responsibility. This means being able to respond to your own unmet needs. After being conscious of your own unmet need and acceptance of your situation, self-responsibility means having personal boundaries and working to take care of your own unmet needs so you can develop your skills and ability to be responsible for others.
4. The Practice of Self-Assertiveness: This means being able to speak the truth, as you understand it, rather than trying to deceive yourself or others. A lack of self-assertiveness could mean denying your needs, not communicating personal boundaries, and telling everyone that everything is okay when it is not.
Fragile high self-esteem, on the other hand, is aggressive rather than assertive. Assertiveness comes from a foundation of secure self-esteem whereas aggression comes from fear. Aggression is defensive and biting in tone whereas assertiveness is proactive and neutral in tone.
5. The Practice of Living Purposefully: This means having a sense of purpose. A sense of purpose built on secure self-esteem means having taken care of your own needs, then making yourself useful to others. This is something I explore further in my article, “What Does It Mean to Have a Purpose?“.
Low self-esteem can lead to codependency, which is a false sense of purpose consisting of constantly doing things for other people at the expense of your own needs. It prevents you from developing your potential since you are not focusing on developing your own skills or taking care of your own needs.
Insecure high self-esteem is also a form of false purpose since one’s purpose is completely intertwined with seeking validation and maintaining one’s image.
6. The Practice of Personal Integrity: This means living in alignment with your values. If your behaviors match your values then you are living with personal integrity. By living with integrity, you gain self-worth, knowing you have acted in accordance with your values. Although it may be easy to fool others, you cannot fool yourself. Deep down, we know when we have deceived ourselves.
In the book, Rethinking Narcissism, Craig Malkin argues that genuine connection is the antidote to narcissism. Since this site is dedicated to the power of social connection, this is something I completely agree with. If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend checking out his book. You can get the audiobook here.
Since narcissistic individuals have fragile high self-esteem, they are always on the defense against potential threats to their self-esteem, creating a barrier to genuine connection.
Codependent persons on the other end of the spectrum have the opposite issue, but the result is often the same. Due to fragile low self-esteem, they often constantly do things for others at their own expense, creating a barrier to genuine connection by not letting others help them.
Rather than viewing narcissism as high or low self-esteem, I have found it useful to distinguish between fragile and secure self-esteem instead.
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