Self-Limiting Beliefs

Self-Limiting Beliefs

Self-Limiting Beliefs

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: “Gaga” by Julian St. Nightmare

How to Overcome Your Limiting Beliefs

What you believe about yourself holds so much power. But it's easy to get tricked into believing the devil inside — your self-limiting beliefs. Self-limiting beliefs are so dangerous because they often masquerade as “truth.” But buying into them only creates pain, and damages your self-esteem, your career, and your relationships. On this episode of the podcast, I'm teaching you how to identify your limiting beliefs and overcome them.

The Devil Inside — Self-Limiting Beliefs

As a Denver therapist and online life coach, I work with clients to overcome their limiting beliefs and tap into new and healthier beliefs that support the lifestyle they actually want to live. And I know that this work isn’t easy. Our beliefs hold so much power. Beyond our external circumstances, which we sometimes have no control over, what we think and believe can dictate the paths we take. We have so much freedom and control over our choices, and we can make decisions that will help us grow and thrive in every area of our lives.

However, we may forget the power we hold because of the insidious little devil inside us: telling us that something’s impossible by virtue of us not being good enough. Alternatively, we may have these personal rules that govern our everyday lives. While functional, they may not really be serving our highest good. It’s time to reexamine these self-limiting beliefs and open yourself up to the possibilities outside of the space you’ve boxed yourself into.

In this episode, we’ll be unpacking self-limiting beliefs and their effects on our lives. We’ll start by highlighting why it’s important to be aware of these oftentimes unconscious beliefs. Then, we’ll give several examples of self-limiting beliefs. Finally, we’ll map out the steps to identify, examine, and shift these beliefs so that you can live a happy and fulfilling life.

If you want to learn how you can grow and affect positive change in your life, then tune in to this episode! 

In This Episode: Self-Limiting Beliefs, You Will…

  • Discover the power of your thoughts and beliefs and how they contribute to positive change and growth.
  • Uncover the reasons why your thoughts and beliefs can hold you back.
  • Learn what self-limiting beliefs are and how they impact your self-esteem.
  • Understand that self-limiting beliefs can be challenged and shifted. 
  • Find out why emotional safety is necessary for growth.
  • Identify examples of self-limiting behavior.
  • Learn how you can overcome your self-limiting beliefs.

Self-Limiting Beliefs

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Self-Limiting Beliefs: Episode Highlights

Why It’s Important to Be Aware of Your Self-Limiting Beliefs

While external circumstances in our lives can prove challenging to our journey towards personal growth and positive change, we often struggle more with the subconscious limiting beliefs we hold. These devils inside of us bombard us with a toxic inner narrative. They tell us that we’re not good enough, why something won’t work, or why we can’t do something.

Although these self-limiting beliefs don’t have a basis in truth, they can still hold you back. They keep us from thriving and growing into what we were meant to be. Because of these self-critical thoughts, we can think that there is no path forward. Now, don’t be discouraged. It may take work, but you are entirely capable of recognizing and challenging your limiting beliefs. Once you shift your limiting beliefs or incorporate new beliefs, you’ll find that there actually is a path forward.

What Are Limiting Beliefs?

Can you think back over your life and pinpoint a time where you could have done something that you were genuinely interested in and might have always wanted to do – but you didn’t? Chances are, a big part of why you didn’t take the chance is because you mentally set yourself on fire. You identified many reasons why that amazing opportunity wouldn’t work out for you… and that caused paralysis. This negative stream of self-talk and self-criticism held you back from even trying.

However, the “could-haves” aren’t even the worst of it: limiting beliefs can even burrow themselves into our day-to-day lives. They come in the form of expectations of how we should be and how we compare ourselves to others. The narrative can look a lot like the following: 

  • I need to be perfect.
  • I need to have friends, success, and certain personality traits.
  • I didn’t get the results I wanted; therefore, I’m a failure.

Here, we can see that self-limiting beliefs are tied to self-esteem. At the core of low self-esteem are these highly negative self-limiting beliefs about who you are and how that compares to what those self-limiting beliefs tell you you should be. Can you relate? We’ve all experienced self-limiting beliefs holding us back from time to time. It’s time to change that. 

Overcoming Limiting Beliefs

In essence, self-limiting beliefs tell you that you’re not good enough now and that you can be better. This may sound like a positive thing. But don’t be fooled. Beating yourself up and criticizing yourself isn’t helping you. It’s actually limiting your growth.

Instead of being overly self-critical, try creating a space for emotional safety through self-compassion. This can look like: 

  • Supporting yourself in difficult moments.
  • Having compassionate understanding for why you do the things you do.
  • Honoring your feelings, needs, and rights.

As you learn to hold space for emotional safety, you also foster a growth mindset. You learn how to love yourself even if you sometimes experience non-ideal outcomes.

The Power of Belief

Aside from impeding our growth, self-limiting beliefs also impact how we connect with others. If you feel as if you’re not worthy of love, you can end up being hyper-vigilant in your relationships. You may also tend to reject others before they can reject you. After all, you believe that they’ll do so eventually.

We’re all vulnerable to self-limiting beliefs. We all have these rules about what should happen and what needs to happen. And once you have set an idea of what’s possible and what’s not, it’s difficult to veer away from those beliefs. That’s why it’s important to build relationships with others that can help you see things more clearly. As friends, family, and coworkers challenge your beliefs, you may begin to realize that your “truths” aren’t necessarily the same truth for others. It's also for this reason that life coaching is valuable – working with a really good life coach can provide you impeccable insight into your self-limiting beliefs and what you can do to overcome them. At some point, we need to have a mirror held up to us so that we can take a look. This mirror allows us to rethink our beliefs and challenge the belief’s truthfulness.

How to Overcome Your Limiting Beliefs

The first step to overcoming limiting beliefs is being aware of their existence. 

Step two is understanding the self-limiting belief’s function. These self-limiting beliefs may seem ridiculous as you examine them. However, if you want to overcome your limiting beliefs, it won’t do you any good to dismiss them or get mad at them. Acknowledging that these beliefs have a function and uncovering what that role may be can help you overcome them. Oftentimes, these self-limiting beliefs serve a protective function. 

Identifying Your Limiting Beliefs

Say someone gives you advice about something you’ve been complaining about. You may be inclined to argue or become indignant. Instead of insisting on your idea, take the feedback in and think about your reaction to others’ advice. Your reaction may be because you have a limiting core belief that was put in the spotlight. Others may see the possibilities that you either don’t see or that you feel is impossible. 

Another indication that you have a limiting belief is when a thought or idea leads to: 

  • Inhibition
  • Paralysis
  • Inaction
  • Feeling trapped
  • Feeling like you can’t move forward

When we are in this space, we actively think about the impossibilities or the negative outcomes that may come about. A common example of this is saying that you don’t have time to exercise regularly because of your circumstances. However, we all have 1440 minutes in a day to do as we wish, and when you realize that the choices you make and what you prioritize play a role in your circumstances, you can start to make real, lasting change.

The dynamic then shifts from “I can’t” to “I am making different choices.” At the end of this reflection, you may still choose not to exercise. What’s important here is the choice. You bring back power and personal responsibility to yourself.

Finally, any idea that makes you feel bad about yourself is a powerful core belief that leads to an emotional spiral. If you understand the driver of this negative internal dialogue, you can create space for a kinder, more helpful one. 

It’s important to note that it takes hard work to unpack your core beliefs, figure out their functions, and find a way to shift them. This is where a good therapist or coach can help support you traverse paths that were previously blocked.

Resources for Self-Limiting Beliefs

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[Intro music: Gaga by Julian St. Nightmare]

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: That is Julian St. Nightmare with Gaga, kinda reminds me of old Bauhaus, but better. I like it. I love to do a Halloween-themed episode every year, not just because it gives me an excuse to resurrect old gothy music or new gothy music. But because, I don't know this time of year, it's just like an invitation for you and I to dive in to some deeper, even darker, aspects of the human psyche together. 

Today, we're talking about something incredibly important for all of us, which is the devil inside. Yes, friends, self-limiting beliefs, and the havoc they can wreak on our lives, and how to manage them successfully so that they are no longer obstacles in your way. That's what we're doing together on today's episode of the podcast. I'm so excited to talk about this because unchallenged self-limiting beliefs are a major problem for a lot of people. So my hope is that by the end of today's show, you'll get some clarity, perhaps even some insight into your own self-limiting beliefs and also some strategies for how to work with them. 

If this is your first time listening to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, I'm so glad you're here. I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching, which is a group practice with all kinds of extremely cool people. We have so much fun together. We do marriage counseling, relationship coaching, individual therapy, life coaching, and career coaching. Hence, Love, Happiness and Success. 

Every week I'm here in your ear, talking about hopefully helpful ideas and tips and strategies that can help you, support you rather, I should say, on the path of creating love, happiness, and success in your life. So I always want to talk about you and what is important to you. If you have questions for me or topic ideas for the show, please get in touch. You can track me down at growingself.com, on Instagram at drlisamariebobby. You can even send an old-fashioned email. You can even call us on the phone. Heck, we do answer the phone. So get in touch, let me know what's going on and what you'd like to hear about on the podcast. And thank you for being here today. 

Why It’s Important to Be Aware of Your Self-Limiting Beliefs

Let's dive into this juicy topic of self-limiting beliefs. First of all, we need to talk about why it is so important to be aware of your self-limiting beliefs. I've been a therapist for a long time, a coach, I have also been a human, and like seeing this at work in my own life, and what I have seen time and time again, is that the number one biggest obstacle for people that they really struggle to overcome on their path of personal growth or positive change or improving their relationship or pivoting in their career are not their external circumstances. 

Although things going on in our lives can be objectively challenging and very real, a much bigger issue for most people are the beliefs that they carry in the sight of themselves about who they are, and what is possible for them. And if the beliefs they're carrying are negative, or pessimistic, or tell themselves that they can't do it, or it isn't going to work if they try, or these are all the reasons why it's not gonna work out, they will never experiment. They won't take risks. They won't try to create positive change because they don't believe it's possible. Because of that, they remain very, very stuck in these old ways of being that are no longer serving them and also can feel like they are just surrounded by obstacles just hemmed in by a fence on all sides, not because they always are in reality, but because their self-limiting beliefs tell them they are. So that is what they experience. 

A lot of the work that I find myself doing with clients over and over and over again is helping them identify these self-limiting beliefs. Just even knowing that they're there is work because they feel true, right? These ideas that we're all carrying around like the world and us they just, they feel like the truth. But so to realize them, and then also learn how to understand them, and then work with them a little bit differently. It is challenging work. But when people are able to set aside or kind of shift some of those beliefs or incorporate new beliefs, all of a sudden, things that felt so hard, feel much easier than when it had felt like there's walls and obstacles all around you. All of a sudden, there's a path forward. And it's really amazing to watch that happen. 

That is my hope for you because the alternative is just so awful. If we do not believe that we can create better outcomes, or if we have all of the list of reasons why things won't work, we don't try. Instead, we just feel paralyzed. We feel stuck. Things feel hard. There is no path forward. And again, not because there is truly, literally no path forward but because of that devil inside, the story, we're telling ourselves and the self-limiting beliefs that go unchallenged. So it's a very real issue. And if you're on the path of growth, it has to be dealt with, sooner or later. We all carry these things. 

I'm glad we're here together today. I wanted to subtitle this episode, “the devil inside” because that is often, not like you're actually possessed by a demon, but that's kind of what it feels like when people first start becoming aware of self-limiting beliefs and this internal dialogue in their mind. Sometimes, I've had clients who are almost horrified when they're able to really understand the way that they have been talking to themselves, this inner narrative is quite toxic. It's mean to them. It's telling them about all of the reasons why things won't work, or why they're not good enough, or that they can't trust people, or bad things always happen. And it really can be very damaging. 

Again, it's a beautiful thing when people can understand what is happening because it is often subconscious. It is unconscious. Again, if we don't fully understand when something is happening, we do not have any opportunity to change it because you don't know it's there. It makes you feel bad. It influences your behaviors, but it's like this invisible force in our lives. Understanding what our filter is, what our personal narrative is, what that voice is, is really like three-quarters of the battle.

On the bright side, it is a battle that is winnable, not sure if that's a word, but you can be victorious over self-limiting ideas and beliefs and self-criticism when you are able to shift into a more supportive relationship with yourself and very intentionally create a more helpful and supportive inner narrative, a more personal narrative that has hope, an inner dialogue that is more positive or more helpful, but again, like more compassionate towards you. 

I don't want to lead you to believe that the opposite of self-limiting beliefs or difficult inner critic is swapping that out with a bunch of positive thoughts because that's not always helpful. What is always helpful is having a different kind of relationship with yourself, a relationship that's based on honesty, but also authenticity, and compassion, and compassionate support, but also reality-based support. We have to start being a little bit skeptical of our thoughts to make this happen. 

What Are Limiting Beliefs?

Let’s go into this a little bit more deeply. What are limiting beliefs? What does this look like in someone's life? I think that it can be helpful to think about… I think it's easier to see in other people sometimes than it is in ourselves. An example, and you might know somebody like this in your own life, but I know a person, mid-career creative type who had an opportunity to take a year away from their full-time job and focus entirely on their art. It's amazing. Maybe they could start a new business or do some freelance artwork. They actually had been doing some freelance design work that they had already had some success with. So, not outside the realm of possibility, but really this opportunity to live this, lifetime dream of living as an artist, and just being able to make art every day. That's like the holy grail for a lot of creatives. Right? 

They were given this opportunity and lined everything up, financially. They would be okay, objectively. Everything was alright, and they finally had time and space to pursue their art and just see what happened. And then, mentally, basically set themselves on fire, just torturing themselves with these self-limiting beliefs around, “I can't do this. I'm not talented enough. I don't have the right skills. This is a super competitive industry. There are so many people just like me. They're probably more talented than I am. I'm mediocre.”

Also, telling themselves stories about how difficult it is to get this kind of freelance work: “I'll be rejected. Oh, these people don't want to hear from me. They have hundreds of pitches all the time. I'm just another person bothering them.” But also going into: “I ruined my life. What did I do by taking this time off? This was terrible. My former coworkers are going to hate me. What was I thinking that I could even do this? I just ruined my career for nothing.” 

It's really bad, just this monologue of just really negative self-limiting beliefs, negative self-talk, self-criticism to the point where it paralyzed this person. They had this really cool opportunity to live the dream, but so bound up by what they are telling themselves about the situation, that not only can they not do any creative work, but it's just totally stuck of like, “Should I go back to my job? Should I try?” Just feeling so bad, not even being able to try to take some time and see what might be possible. I mean, it's just awful. 

I think on some level, we can all relate to that, maybe not in such a clear and dramatic example, but moments in our own lives when we've had chances or looking back could have done something, and we didn't. That’s often why is because of what we were telling ourselves about this situation. It is very inhibiting. It creates paralysis. We don't take action when we have that going on. 

Self-limiting ideas can show up in a lot of other ways. Certainly, when we have opportunities to try things or take chances, that's when self-limiting ideas can be activated, but even day-to-day, around our expectations for who we should be and how we compare to others. It's often some variation of this quite subconscious, but the narrative is, “I need to be perfect. I need to not make mistakes. I need to have all of these friends, or successes, or things going on in my life, or personality, just like, all of these things.” And any kind of anything, almost, can be interpreted as a failure or not quite good enough. “Somebody else is doing it better. I didn't get the results that I wanted; therefore, I suck.” 

When you go into the core of self-esteem, which we have talked about on other podcasts, you can go back in my feed and look at look for some of the self-esteem-related podcasts that I've put together for you. But really, that is at the core of low self-esteem are these highly negative self-limiting beliefs about who you are and how that compares to what those self-limiting beliefs tell you you should be. And it's so tricky. This is what really messes people up is that in these situations, self-limiting beliefs that tell you that you should be different, you should be better, you should be more, you should be… At the core of it, the message is, “Cuz you're not good enough the way you are now.” Right? But they're sort of this frenemy. 

You have this voice in your head that's telling you that you should be better or that you could be better. It’s like this weird mean-girl thing because it almost sounds good. It sounds like somebody is encouraging you to be better, to grow, to work on self-improvement, to attain these personal goals, right? It's easy to get tricked into believing that it's helpful to you, that it's motivating you in some ways. Sometimes, that is also one of the very sneaky, self-limiting beliefs that people are carrying without even realizing it is this idea that “Me beating myself up and criticizing myself is actually helping me. If I stop doing that, I'll stop moving forward. I won't be motivated. I won't even try if I stopped screaming at myself on the inside. I have to do this or otherwise, I will definitely be a failure.” It's like having this “friend” that’s super mean to you. But it's like your only friend. And somehow you've gotten tricked into believing that it's here to help you. 

Overcoming Limiting Beliefs

I am here to tell you that it isn't helping you. It is actually impairing growth. Because being self-critical, it's like having this bully, this abusive thing that lives in your mind. It's always putting you down. It's beating you up for not making mistakes or making mistakes. It tells you that you're wrong when you're too vulnerable. It tells you that you're wrong when you're not vulnerable enough. Anything you try, it's wrong. Other people are better than you. You don't know what you're doing. It's never gonna work out. If you've ever listened to other podcasts of mine, you'll know that this kind of internal hostility is essentially the opposite of what is necessary for growth, which is emotional safety

Growth is fertilized, it is cultivated through the opposite of self-criticism, which is self-compassion, and being able to support yourself in difficult moments, and understand compassionately why you do the things that you do, and honor your feelings, and your needs, and your rights. That kind of internal emotional safety fosters a growth mindset that allows you to try things, and take chances, and get up and dust yourself off, and say, “Okay, what did I learn from that? I'm going to try this again.” It’s like having this internal supportive coach, or a parent, or a real friend that is able to love you, and care about you, and encourage you, even if you make mistakes along the way. 

It's the voice that reminds you that that is actually how people learn, is by trying things and putting yourself out there. “What happened when I did this, and what can I learn? How do I support my growth, instead of beating myself up and feeling terrible every time I put my little head out and try something different, or feeling like I should already know this? Therefore, I'm not going to read a book or listen to a podcast. Because what's wrong with me that I don't know how to do this already, everybody else knows how to do this?” It's really just not helpful. 

If growth, I'd like you to imagine it's like this little, little leaf unfurling itself in the sun, right? It has roots in fertile soil. It requires warmth, and sunlight, and support, and hope. This kind of inner hatred, this mean-girl self-limiting belief thing is exactly the opposite of that. It's like walking up to that little leaf and just spraying it with bleach, or round up, or some kind of toxic, whatever horrible chemical kills plants. That’s the internal effect of really negative self-limiting beliefs on growth. It impedes growth. Because of that, that is why our self-limiting beliefs make it really impossible to move forward or to grow while they're active. 

Because when you have this list of really powerful, unchallenged, or subconscious, self-limiting beliefs, you will, A, feel like you're incapable of doing anything anyway. So what's the point? Or you will talk yourself out of everything. You will have all of these reasons why things won't work. “Oh, I tried that before that didn't work. I can't do that. It's going to be futile to try. Or it isn't going to end well. Or these are all the rules I have in my head about what needs to be happening for X, Y, Z to happen.” 

Sometimes, you might have non-ideal outcomes. That is a thing. When you have self-limiting beliefs, you will never find out what might have happened because you already know that it won't work. “Why bother trying? I'm not good enough. I can't do that.” And so these beliefs will just create so many obstacles, and hurdles, and rules, and complications, and things just feel so darn hard that people give up. They just feel so painted into a corner. “I guess this is my life.” Even though they want more, it's this inner experience that is just truly, truly limiting. 

The Power of Belief

The other piece here, though, that's important is that these kinds of ideas do not just make us feel badly about ourselves or destroy our ability to grow or create change. They also impact our relationships. When we have self-limiting beliefs, they are terrible for relationships because these beliefs will tell us that we are not worthy or lovable, which can make us feel very anxious about whether or not we're being loved and hyper-vigilant about what our partner is doing or not doing and what that means about us and their relationship with us. Or it can make us do other kinds of weird things, like reject other people before they reject us because they're going to. We've all seen that play out in people's lives. 

These self-fulfilling beliefs about ourselves, and what to expect in relationships can really become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We either wind up getting super reactive and strangling relationships to death, or we reject people and are so self-protective and avoidant that we don't even give people a chance. More on the subject, if you'd like to cruise back and listen to a podcast that I did a while ago about trust issues, and what to do with trust issues and relationships. It's a lot about that. In that podcast, though, I'm talking about the outcome of these self-limiting beliefs. Sometimes, to be fair, people have had legitimately traumatizing life experiences, or past experiences in relationships were really hurtful. So, that is definitely a thing that needs to be to be worked through. 

Many times though, these early experiences have become these beliefs about what I can expect from humans. And what is true about me that we can carry with us for many, many years into the future, and unexamined, unexplored, unchallenged. So we then act as if these things are true, these things that we are telling ourselves, the things that we believe are true, with sometimes devastating consequences to our relationships. So it's very important to examine our self-limiting beliefs in the context of our relationships in order to be able to ferret some of this out, especially if your goal is to have healthy relationships. 

I also just want to add, I'm going to out myself here, but we are all vulnerable to self-limiting beliefs. We all carry them. I am not talking about other people's self-limiting beliefs, right now. I am talking about your self-limiting beliefs. I'm talking about my self-limiting beliefs because we literally all have them. It was so interesting. I participate in a coaching group. I love coaching. I can't get enough of it. But I thought I'd do a group coaching thing for people who have businesses like me. In this one group event, we all… There's like five or six of us we’re sitting in a circle, a virtual circle. This was by Zoom but still was a circle. We took turns talking about a business issue, like a stressor or a pain point that we were having. 

We talk about the issue, and then everybody had the opportunity to get feedback from the group. This is a group of really, quite successful business people, people who really had a lot of good ideas and good guidance. And it was so interesting. Because every single person, I was one of the last ones, but I watched every single person talk about a problem they were facing, and the things they tried, and all these things that didn't work. And then, the group gave feedback. Every single person was like, “Yeah, but here's why that won't work.” Or, “Well, but with our system, here's what we do.” It was so interesting because they were all getting really good advice. And I just sat there watching this process. 

It was like every person actively repelling really good advice. And I realized, it was because they were clinging to these ideas about the way things should be, ideas about what was possible, and what was not possible. They had already pre-decided the outcomes of trying different things and had all these reasons why they didn't work. It was just fascinating. 

For one person, it was like, “Well, this is what we look for in an employee.” After, he'd been spending quite a bit of time telling us about the struggles that he was having hiring people, by the way. “So this is what we're looking for.” And so, ideas about maybe different kinds of people, or different personality traits, or different characteristics. He's like, “No, these are the kinds of people that work well in our business,” after he had just told us that it wasn't working well in his business. So, over and over again, and it was, for all of them, rules around, “This is what it should look like. I already know what it should look like. And so this is what I've been trying to do. It's not working. But this is how it should work according to my, my rules.” Right? These self-limiting ideas. 

Then the group, made its way around to me, and I told them all about my most stressful business situation, and they gave me advice. And I couldn't even help myself. I was giving them all the reasons why that wouldn't work in my situation. “No, my business is different. Let me tell you why.” I was like, “Ah, dang.” Could all of a sudden see it. It's like, “I, too, had all these rules that I was carrying in me about what should be happening and what needed to happen.” They were this kind, intelligent group was trying to pry these self-limiting beliefs away from me, and I could feel myself clinging to them, even though I, on some level, knew what was happening. But thankfully, after that group, which was so interesting, I was able to take some time and journal and be like, “Yeah, they're right.” But having those ideas challenged is difficult, but it's important. And that's the way it is, right? 

We all have these ideas that are just so deeply ingrained. They are baked in, and they feel so true that we can't even see them. We're like little fishes swimming around in tanks full of water that we have no idea is even there because it's the water that we swim in, right? It just feels like the truth. We're so close to these ideas that we cannot even tell that they are our truth, our specific, unique truth that is not actually true for a lot of other people. Other people can look at us and see that we're doing something that is not in our best interests. But we're just wrapped around these ideas. We’re intertwined with them without even realizing it. This is the power of self-limiting beliefs. I just wanted to share that because this, again, is true for everyone. We all have them. I wanted to come clean about mine, just so we can all be authentic. 

Let's talk about this, then. Because the problem with self-limiting beliefs is that we cannot see them very easily ourselves. Figuring out how to ferret them out, like coaxing a little animal out of the cave. Who are you? That's, again, a lot of the work. I think that that is one of the benefits of doing a group experience where you have people challenging you or having relationships with people who love you enough to be honest with you. 

Also, what can be very helpful about sometimes being in therapy, or I think, more commonly, life coaching with people like me, who have a more active approach, I don't think it's super helpful to just sit there and free associate to somebody who agrees with everything that you say because you don't get that feedback. You have to have a relationship with a therapist or a coach who cares about you enough and is active enough to challenge you and say, “Really?” Not like a checked-out one who just lets you go on and on, but a good therapist, a good coach will challenge you, and sometimes, that feels uncomfortable. 

I have been in that situation. I'm like, “What do you mean I'm not 100% right about everything? How dare you?” So I know, I know. But at some point, it's like we have to have this mirror held up to us so that we can take a look and really see what we are telling ourselves about particular situations, what we are telling ourselves about ourselves, and then have the opportunity just to think through whether or not these things are actually, factually true. I do this all the time with clients, just to help them gain that self-awareness around the beliefs that they're holding on to because you have to know they're there. 

Let's talk about examples of self-limiting core beliefs. And here's some examples of things that I have heard people say to me with absolute sincerity and straight faces. I have said some of these things, and I'm sure that you have, too. Things like, “I don't have enough time. I can't possibly do that.” Or “I cannot advance in my career unless I go back to school and get this very expensive degree. Impossible. There's no other way.” “There aren't opportunities for me to fill in the blank, meet someone, get a job, buy a house, whatever it is, in the town that I live in. Impossible. It cannot be done.” “All the good partners are taken.” Does that one resonate with any of you out there? “All the good ones are already gone. I can't trust anyone.” There's another good one. 

Here's one that can sneakily mess people up: “If I find the perfect person, then I will not have a disappointing relationship.” Or “If I had the perfect job, I wouldn't feel this way anymore.” Or “If I lived in this different place, then I would have all these different results. Everything that is not happening the way that I want it to is because of these circumstances. And if I change these circumstances, which I can't, because let me tell you all the reasons why. But if I could, then everything would be different for me. I would feel happier.” 

If you think back to the Love Your Body podcast I did a while ago with my colleague, Stephanie, we talked a lot about that really insidious, self-limiting belief that a lot of people carry around, “I will be happy when I am a certain weight, or a certain clothing size, or when I look a certain way, or when this thing happens in my life, or when I have a partner or what. Whatever it is, then I will be happy. But until that happens, I cannot be happy.” These are really difficult beliefs to get out. And they can be big beliefs, like the ones that I shared. They can also be small beliefs that are just creating garden variety annoyances, but enough of them that it can start to feel stifling. 

I've talked to people, “I can't cook if all of the dishes aren't done and put away, and my kitchen is perfectly clean. Therefore, I never cook. Therefore, I eat microwaved burritos pretty much every day of the week.” It's like the beliefs that are attached to why they can or can't do things like the rules. Really, really interesting. It may be worth if you wanted to, pausing me for a second and just taking a second to scribble down any thoughts that have just popped up to you, as I've been sharing some of my self-limiting beliefs or some of the things that I've had people say. There are many, many more. We can come up with hundreds of them if we had the time. But if any come to mind, just make a note. 

How to Overcome Your Limiting Beliefs

Sometimes, many times, again, it's not that easy to be aware of them. And that is the first step in overcoming self-limiting beliefs is that you do have to be aware of them. Step one is, “I am aware of you. I see you, self-limiting belief.” Then, that's step two, is understanding their function. And that can be really interesting because oftentimes, these self-limiting beliefs, they seem like they're just ridiculous when we look at them, when we can get them out in the open in the cold light of day. It's like, “That is not true.” 

Do not underestimate the power of a self-limiting belief because they are often very, very functional. They are serving a purpose in your life that you don't even know about yet. And that takes some exploration in order to figure out too, and not try to shut them down with some positive pep talk. But let's say, “Okay, let's get to know you. Why are you here? How do you make sense? Where did you come from?” Like really having a relationship with it. Because that is actually like the first step in practicing having a different kind of relationship with yourself is not being mad at yourself for having self-limiting beliefs, not being mad at that belief. 

It's like just this much more compassionate like, “Okay, I see you. I know you're there. How do you make sense?” It's just like this totally different way of approaching yourself and just having respect for the fact that they have been serving a purpose. Oftentimes, they're very protective, to be completely honest with you. So we have to do some of that work. 

Once it is making sense, then it becomes much more easy to shift into a different way of being with yourself, one that is potentially more open, more reality-based, and more empowering, moving towards that self-compassionate growth mindset that really helps you feel comfortable enough to take risks or take chances and helps you grow and develop instead of beating yourself up for it. Also, I think that really helps make you feel much more secure in relationships, which then, when you have a secure relationship that is reinforced that you are having secure relationships, and that tends to build on itself, too. 

Identifying Your Limiting Beliefs

So let's talk first, just a little bit about that step one. How do you know they’re there?  Because it is really like luring a wild animal out of a game. So here are just a few tips to help you, like the rustle in the bushes. Like, “Oh, there's a self-limiting belief over there.” Because again, they can be so, so easy to miss. But first of all, and this is one for me that I'm like, “Okay, self-limiting belief just got poked.” If you find yourself arguing with or getting defensive with someone who you haven't just been complaining to about something, and they have given you advice, or “What about this? Or try to approach it this way?” And you're like, “No, that won't work. Here are all the reasons why that won't work.” 

They have just poked you in a self-limiting belief of some kind. They see possibilities for you that either you can't see or that feel impossible for you. Because why? And this is the work of figuring out what that is like, asking yourself, “What is the reason that I am so passionately convinced that this won't work?” And I'm not saying that you have to take everybody else's advice. Maybe it's bad advice. Maybe it actually won't work. But if this is a pattern for you, this is just evidence that it may be a self-limiting belief at the core. 

For me, like my business group, I shared that my problem, this pain point was just a super slow progress on this huge project that we've been working on internally that has taken the better part of a year. This has just been a monster. And I've been frustrated with it. Some of the feedback I got from my coaching group was around, maybe my standards are too high. Maybe I am trying to do too much. Maybe I'm not delegating enough, and so, took that in. But I was like, “No, it has to be really good. And let me tell you why it really, really actually needs to be really good. And let me tell you why we're doing it this way. Because these are all the reasons why this makes sense.”

What I had so much trouble taking in was this idea that they were trying to share with me that maybe it's not bad to have high standards. I am a recovering perfectionist. So believe it or not, I am attached to my high standards. But that, maybe all of these negative outcomes that I had been envisioning, if it wasn't really good, if it wasn't perfect, maybe those weren't all realistic fears. And maybe there actually was a way to do this a little bit faster, or to do it in stages, or to kind of prioritize more important parts of the work just to get this out there, and then go back and continue working on it over time in an organized way. 

That's what I needed to journal through because I have this core idea, this self-limiting belief that things really do have to be like to some, very, very high standard, and that it's actually not okay for me to be slack about things or not do my very best. This would always happen to me in school. I would over-study. I would over-prepare. I would work too hard on papers. And then, I finally had to be like, “No, I am a B student. It is perfectly acceptable to get a B. I can get a B and be just fine. Lots of people get Bs.” And it helped me actually step back enough that not only did I feel less stressed out, and I got more done, I did what I thought was B-level work on my papers, and I still got A's.

That was the thing that I had to be reminded of by this group is that when I feel like I'm doing 80, or 90% of a good job, it is actually a good job. But my core belief tells me that it is not good enough. And that makes me do extra stuff and get obsessive about things that maybe I don't need to be doing. So that is what I needed to hear. But the initial reaction to that was a lot of like, “No, you don't understand. Let me tell you.” 

If you notice that happening inside of you, I would just like you to note it, and then just spend some time being like, “What ideas am I so passionately defending right now? And are those actually true? What would it mean if they weren't true, if I could actually get this project out the door much more easily than I have been telling myself is possible?” Or like the artist that I was telling you about, like, if she were to tell you about the struggles that she has, and you are to say, “You know what, this is a great opportunity. Use this time. Build up your portfolio. See about getting representation. Do some networking. Get listed on some freelancer sites,” like this is all very reasonable advice, right? 

But I imagine that she would say, “No, that will never work because I don't know some of these new digital design programs. And that is what they're looking for. So I am never going to get one of these jobs. So I have to go back to school and get a second master's degree in graphic design. And that's going to cost 10s and 1000s of dollars and several years. So thanks for the advice, but no.” That's what she would say. When we really unpack this and look at like, okay, so, the core belief is that the way you are operating now isn't good enough, and you need to do extensive additional education to make anything happen, this person has been quite successful without any of that, and many people in her field have been quite successful without those things. So it's possible that success is in the realm of possibility, right? Possible possibilities.

Let's just take a look about function for a second. Because if that were true, if she could actually just start making her art, and putting herself out there, and seeing what would happen, that would be incredibly vulnerable. I think me overdoing things is also managing my anxiety about not quite being good enough, right? If I put something major out the door that I feel is like 80 or 90% good enough, I have all this anxiety about, “Oh, it's not good enough.” So, me, like, “No, it has to be better,” I am protecting myself in those moments. I am obstructing all possible progress, but I am making myself feel better. 

There's an emotional function for these things. It's often around vulnerability, anxiety. There's this very protective function to a lot of our self-limiting internal beliefs. So that's one thing to pay attention to, like, “Who are you fighting with and why?” So there's that. 

Another indication that you have a powerful self-limiting belief in your life is any thought or idea that leads to inhibition, paralysis, inaction, feeling trapped, feeling like you can't move forward. Because when we feel that way, when we're not trying things, or we feel like we can't make a decision, when we crack that open, there are often all these reasons why, why I can’t, why this won't work. When we are in that space of paralysis and inaction, we're often actively talking ourselves out of doing things or narrating to ourselves all of the negative outcomes or all the reasons why it won't work.

Here's an example that I think, again, we can all relate to, the not taking action category of, “I can't exercise regularly because I don't have enough time. I can't do it. I'm too busy. Cannot do it. So I don't. I would like to, but it's impossible just by virtue of my circumstances.” So we are not taking positive action. And this is a simple example. But who hasn't said that to themselves, right? But when we look at what that's doing for us, and we also look at a more reality-based idea, which is, here's a new one, that when I actually first heard this idea, it was like, “Oh, my God, I felt struck by lightning, actually.” 

Because the idea is, the truth is that you and me and everybody else on this entire planet, including the most insanely productive, disruptive people in the history of the world, like Elon Musk, writers, musicians, inspirational leaders, everyone has, ready? 1440 minutes a day to do with as they will. We all have exactly the same number of minutes allotted to us on a day. And the only difference is that we are making different choices about how we spend that time. Sometimes, we are in circumstances that have been shaped by choices that we made a while ago that are now impacting how we are spending our time. But 1440 minutes are all of ours.

I read somewhere that Vladimir Putin, who I am guessing is a fairly productive person, for better or for worse, spends something like three hours a day exercising, like every day. So, how you choose to spend that time may be different. But what would change for you if you just begin challenging that idea of “I don't have enough time,” with this new idea, which is actually, “I have exactly as much time as literally everyone else in the world, including Vlad, and I am prioritizing spending my time doing other things besides exercising.” When you do that, it's an interesting dynamic. Because the power totally shifts when you change that language from, “I can't,” to, “I am making different choices. And here are the reasons why.” 

You could still totally decide not to exercise. “I would actually rather not exercise. I do not feel like exercising. I don't enjoy exercising. I don't want to. I would rather do something different.” But when we shift away from that self-limiting idea that tells us we cannot, “It is literally impossible, you cannot do that,” into a new idea, “You could if you wanted to.” All of a sudden, the spotlight of personal responsibility is back on ‘lil old us. And that is anxiety-provoking because you're like, “Crap, I guess I could exercise if I wanted to. And I don't want to. So, what does that mean about me?” So again, that's the function of all these rules and limitations, right? It's protecting ourselves in some way from the reality of our own freedom, which is not always comfortable. It isn’t. Empowering, but not comfortable. So that's a big one. 

Lastly, one other ringer that you have just stumbled upon a really strong, juicy self-limiting core belief that is doing all kinds of things in your life is pretty much any idea that makes you feel really bad about yourself. If you were just listening to what I was describing above, around: “Yeah, I actually don't want to exercise.” If, for you, that turned into this, “Oh my god, I'm not exercising. I could be. I should be. I have as much time as anybody else. What's wrong with me that I'm not doing that? Other people exercise. And clearly, they are superior humans because I'm not doing that. I should make it a priority. I'm terrible.” 

If it turns into that for you, that is a really powerful core belief of, I think, the worst kind, these self-limiting core beliefs that tell us about who we are and that who we are is not as worthy, or capable, or able to do things. That's the worst. Because when it turns into calling yourself names, and, “I'm a failure. I'm miserable. I have no motivation. I have no willpower, and I never will.” It just turns into this spiral of just bad feelings. Can you down the drain of just, there's so much to unpack here. 

One thing that I work with my clients around a lot is identifying these kinds of thoughts that lead to this emotional spiral that just makes people feel like collapsing, right, when you're in the grips of that internal dialogue, just laying on the floor. To understand really consciously the inner narrative that is driving that, then they have the opportunity to intentionally and deliberately learn how to treat themselves with more kindness, like more of a friend. It takes energy. 

To actively create a more helpful internal dialogue, which is, “Maybe there are reasons why I am not exercising. Part of me believes that I want to and that I should but, I know, from listening to Dr. Lisa's podcasts that we have many different parts of ourselves, and there are such things as overt goals that we are aware of. And there are also covert goals that we are not aware of, and just maybe, I have actually been achieving a covert goal through not exercising, which is actually the fact that I feel tired. I feel like I need to rest, sometimes. I feel like I just need to stop and just rest. Maybe I actually do need to be compassionate with myself for my need for nurturing, and quiet time, and rest. Maybe that's valid. Maybe there's a different relationship that I can have with that need, where maybe some of these things can coexist. Maybe I can get that rest, and comfort, and nurturing, and relaxation and just feeling calm for once, and also find a way to take care of my body, which needs me to move around a little bit sometimes.” 

Again, there is so, so much to unpack here. This is a huge topic. These ideas go very deep. Sometimes, highly entrenched, self-limiting beliefs can have roots in our earliest childhood experiences. And sometimes not. Sometimes, they are actually much easier to change than you would think they are once you know that they're there, and you have some new skills and strategies for working with them differently, and managing them differently. 

Just want to challenge one core belief that may be may be percolating inside of you, which is that, “Okay, now I have listened to this podcast, and I should be able to know how to do this from this day forward.” I would just like to say very, very authentically, that that is not how this works. People can and do often spend quite a bit of time in therapy and life coaching unpacking this, developing the self-awareness, these core beliefs, figuring out their functions, figuring out how to deal with them differently, and it's not easy work. 

It is very, very valuable work. Because once you really identify those and figure out what to do with them a little bit differently, so many things can open up for you. I've seen people really just feel like they break free from paralysis. They see it, doors that are open to them that they literally did not see before, or if they did see would never have dared walk through. And they can really begin to try things and start learning and growing, and as a result, have new experiences that confirm these new ideas and prove against those old core beliefs that they had been harboring. 

So once you get these juices flowing and start growing again, it's very common to have all kinds of new evidence that support the new, more reality-based, more compassionate ideas. Because when you try things, you'll find that is often the case is that things actually do work out, and they're not as hard as you thought they would be. And you can do so many things. 

We're going to glide to a halt, park this conversation. Thank you for staying with me, and I hope that these ideas were helpful to you. I hope that they gave you some direction and maybe even some things to continue thinking about or journaling about until we meet again next week for another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. Until then, here's more Nightmare St. Julian. I like these guys.

[Outro song: Gaga by Julian St. Nightmare]


Feeling Lonely in a Relationship

Feeling Lonely in a Relationship

Feeling Lonely in a Relationship

Feeling Lonely in a Relationship

“Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone. It has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.” — Ursula K. Le Guin

Why Do I Feel Lonely in My Relationship?

Most of the couples who see me for marriage counseling or couples therapy are not in the middle of an acute relationship crisis. They are not lobbing vicious words around the dinner table. No one is sleeping with their boss, or gambling away the kids’ college fund at the casino. 

More often, when couples land on my couch, it’s because nothing is happening between them. Over the years, their relationship’s life force has dripped away, so gradually that they didn’t notice it happening. They’re in each other’s presence day after day, but they feel alone, and they don’t know what to do about it. 

Feeling lonely in a marriage or a long-term relationship is more common than you might expect. And it’s not an indication that you chose the wrong partner, or that some supernatural “spark” has gone out and can’t ever be reignited. It’s simply what happens to everything we create, without proactive intervention: dust settles on the shelf, weeds overtake the garden, and our strong connections to each other slowly wither away. 

The good news is, you do have the power to intervene, and on this episode of the podcast, I’m going to tell you how. You’ll learn all about what makes a relationship feel lonely, and how you can close the gap between yourself and your partner and create a closer, more satisfying connection.

I hope you’ll tune in, on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Feeling Lonely in a Relationship

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Feeling Lonely in a Relationship: Episode Highlights

Loneliness happens when we don’t have as much felt love and connection as we would like to have. It’s a pain signal that our brains emit, letting us know that we have emotional needs that are not being met. When we’re feeling lonely in a relationship, it doesn’t mean we’re with the wrong person, or that our relationship has died and can’t be revived. It simply means we need to find a way to connect more deeply with our partner. 

Reasons for Being Lonely in a Relationship

Once you get to the point of disconnection, you’re not constantly fighting with your partner — you probably long ago “agreed to disagree” — but by blocking out the conflict, you’ve also blocked out emotional intimacy and all the joy, love, and connection that comes with it. 

Most often, feeling lonely in a relationship is a sign that you and your partner are not having a real emotional exchange. You might be having daily conversations about relatively superficial topics, but rarely sharing your deeper feelings with each other. 

It’s the difference between informing your partner that you’re starting a new project at work, and sharing with them that you’re feeling worried about performing well on the project, and about what could happen if you don’t. When you’re open about your feelings, your partner has an opportunity to see you, validate you, and offer support, helping you feel more connected and less alone. 

When you aren’t having a real emotional exchange with your partner, you feel unheard and unseen. And since your partner is the person you’re counting on more than anyone else to see you and hear you, going without that emotional intimacy will leave you feeling incredibly lonely. 

Another possible culprit behind lonely relationships? Speaking a different love language than your partner. 

If you feel close and connected when you’re having intimate conversations, and they feel close and connected when you’re doing fun activities together, a relationship that’s full of camping trips and motorcycle excursions, but devoid of deeper conversations, will probably leave you feeling lonely, while your partner feels great. When you broach the topic, they might respond by saying something like, “What do you mean you’re feeling lonely? We had so much fun together this weekend!” You’re simply speaking different love languages. 

Finally, feeling lonely in a relationship can mean that there’s a conflict you’ve been unable to resolve, or sources of pain between you that have not been fully addressed. Once you get to the point of disconnection, you’re not constantly fighting with your partner — you probably long ago “agreed to disagree” — but by blocking out the conflict, you’ve also blocked out emotional intimacy and all the joy, love, and connection that comes with it. 

Relationships with untreated wounds are more than hollow, they have something painful sitting in their center. Having productive, healing conversations can help you and your partner dislodge it once and for all. 

How to Stop Feeling Sad and Lonely in a Relationship

Many couples think that the antidote to disconnection is spending more time together. When they plan elaborate date nights hoping it will bring them closer together, only to sit across from each other chewing in awkward silence and feeling worse than before, they believe they’ve tried everything. Too often, divorce is the next step. 

This is a mistake. There is a path to changing a lonely relationship, and it’s restoring emotional intimacy between yourself and your partner, not simply “spending time” together. This requires being vulnerable and authentic about how you’re feeling, and that doesn’t necessarily happen just because you’re physically together. 

Restoring Emotional Intimacy

When you’re falling in love, a flood of dopamine and oxytocin make bonding easy. But those feel-good chemicals don’t keep flooding your system forever. To maintain an emotional connection for years, you and your partner have to intentionally cultivate emotional intimacy. 

This does not happen automatically; it’s something all couples have to work at. Every long-term couple has periods where they’re feeling less connected, and they need to find their way back together. If they haven’t developed the skills to keep their relationship healthy, things get increasingly disconnected until the relationship feels hollow and lonely. 

Start here: What conversation are you avoiding? You might be avoiding an emotionally charged conflict because you’re afraid of damaging the relationship, but not having the conflict has created a block to connection. You might be afraid to express how you’re feeling, because you risk being rejected, dismissed, or invalidated

At the very least, you and your partner have your feelings of loneliness to discuss. Start by telling them how you’re feeling. Tell them you miss them, that you’re feeling lonely, and that you are longing to feel closer. This can be scary, but if the conversation doesn’t go well the first time, keep trying. This is where working with a marriage counselor can be incredibly helpful. 

Often, when we’re feeling hurt or sad, we express those feelings as anger or resentment, because it’s less scary than showing our soft underbelly and risking a painful rejection. You might be having weird little fights about petty stuff, while dancing around the true problems: feelings of emotional abandonment, and the uneasiness that comes with having an attachment bond that you’re not confident is secure. 

If you can resist the urge to lead with anger or criticism, which will only provoke defensiveness and anger from your partner, you can have a productive conversation rather than another fight. Tell them how you’ve been feeling, and ask them how they’ve been feeling about your relationship. Then it will be your turn to practice listening non-defensively. 

Relationships with untreated wounds are more than hollow, they have something painful sitting in their center. Having productive, healing conversations can help you and your partner dislodge it once and for all.

The Risks of a Lonely Relationship

A lonely relationship is not a weird or uncommon occurrence, but it is something you need to address sooner rather than later. Not only because you deserve to have the closeness and connection that every human needs, but because, if you allow this to drift, the disconnection will only get worse, and reconnecting with your partner will only be more difficult. 

When people aren’t getting their emotional needs met in their relationships, they’re vulnerable to turning to emotional affairs to meet those needs. They may try to alleviate their loneliness by striking up a Facebook affair, or developing a crush on somebody else. These relationships can easily snowball into full-blown sexual affairs that make salvaging your relationship a thousand times more difficult. 

Infidelity is often the language of the emotionally starved. Communicate your feelings directly, before they come out in a deeply damaging way. 

Show Notes

[3:27] Being Lonely in a Relationship

  • Even couples in healthy relationships have fluctuations in their connections.
  • Especially in long-term relationships, couples drift apart and then have to find their way back to each other.
  • Feeling lonely in a can happen even when couples are physically together. 

[8:52] Why You Feel Lonely in a Relationship

  • Loneliness in a relationship stems from a lack of deep, meaningful connection.
  • This lonely feeling can also be due to differences in love languages.
  • It's important to understand that what you're feeling is not necessarily the same as what your partner is feeling ⁠— people have different needs.

[11:51] What to Do When You're Lonely in a Relationship

  • Have conversations with your partner where you're both vulnerable and authentic to restore the emotional connection and intimacy. 
  • Restoring this connection doesn't mean spending more time together. Rather, it is putting energy into connecting on a deeper level. 
  • If your partner opens up to you, don't be defensive and dismissive of their side. 

[21:06] When You Are Lonely in a Marriage

  • If discussions with your partner about loneliness turn into arguments, seek help from a couples counselor specializing in marriage and family therapy. 
  • A qualified therapist can help create a safe space for you and your partner to discuss matters and guide you toward conflict resolution.
  • It's better to acknowledge problems in your marriage rather than to minimize or downplay them. Remember that issues are common in any relationship, but they need to be resolved. 

[35:30] Lonely Marriages and Relationships: Conflict Resolution

  • Buried trauma should be resolved so that it does not resurface in your current relationship.
  • Avoiding conflict is only a short-term solution. In the end, the problems in your relationship are still there. 
  • If you're fighting and going around in circles with your partner, get professional help. A marriage and family therapist will assist you through difficult times.

Music in this episode is by Idealism with their song “Lonely.” 

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://idealismus.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. Uh-oh. Yeah, we're talking today about loneliness in relationships, and how difficult it can feel if you are with someone that is absent, and you're both kind of floating around wanting more. It's a difficult place to be in, but we're going to tackle it together on today's podcast. 

Our intro music today, I think, is a perfect mood setter for our topic. This is the song Lonely by Idealism. Thanks to Chillhop Music. You can check it out, Chillhop—find them on Bandcamp. 

All right, so let's turn to our topic today about lonely marriages or lonely relationships, why they happen, and most importantly, what to do to restore the connection in your relationship if you're in one. If this is your first time listening to the show, I'm so glad you're here and that you've found us.

I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I'm a licensed psychologist; I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist; I'm a board-certified coach. But truly, I love working with people around healthy relationships the most. Of all three of those qualifications, I most identify as being a marriage and family therapist, and I'll tell you why.

Our ability to have healthy, secure, positive relationships is just so vital to our lives. I know it is for me personally, for other people I know, certainly for my clients. I also get so many questions from you, my listeners, related to your relationships. Thank you so much, by the way, if you've gotten in touch with me lately on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby, or through our website growingself.com, with your relationship questions. 

Lately, many of them have been centering around this topic of lonely marriages and just how painful it is. I just wanted to acknowledge this and how real it is. I mean, so many of the couples that I've worked with throughout the years for couples counseling, that is, at the core, one of the biggest things that drives people into marriage counseling or couples therapy in the first place. It's not screaming, drag-out fights, or some dramatic betrayals of trust—it is this sense of being alone and disconnected in a relationship with your partner.

Like they're there, you're sitting next to them on a couch. But there is not an emotional connection; that’s one you can feel and that is just so fundamentally painful. My hope with today's show is to just help you understand what might be going on, and to offer some ideas for how to potentially resolve this with or without professional support. But first of all, I did want to validate how common this is, and that if you're feeling this way, it is not just you. 

Being Lonely in a Relationship

I will also say that even in fundamentally healthy, strong, enduring relationships, there can be an ebb and flow in feelings of connection, right? It's not a straight line. We drift apart. We find ways back towards each other again, over and over again, through a long-term relationship. Just because you're having this experience does not mean your relationship is doomed. Just know that, but it also does need to be resolved, right? I mean, we don't want to stay here. 

I think it's also, too, important to address the concept of loneliness, because I think sometimes that word conveys, like, being alone, literally, in our minds. It's not the same thing as social isolation, you know? So, social isolation could be literally alone, like an elderly person who lives alone, and does not have anybody there, doesn't have visitors—could go for weeks or longer without talking to somebody. Single people can sometimes have this experience.

There's a Japanese term, apparently it's becoming an issue in Japan, called hikikomori, where young people completely withdraw from society and become reclusive. They don't talk to anybody, and that is being alone. Being alone is not the same thing as feeling lonely. Feeling lonely—loneliness—can happen even when we aren't literally isolated. It can happen when you're talking to people all day long; it can happen in your friendships; and it can also certainly happen within a relationship.

It can look like a lot of different things. That hypothetical couple, sitting in a restaurant, just sort of chewing your food and not talking about anything. But also not a comfortable silence, because that's different. We can also have comfortable silences. It could also look like just going about life, sitting in the same room night after night, not talking, just kind of watching a program or doing life stuff, taking care of kids, going through the motions, right? Sitting next to each other in bed and sort of flipping through your phones night after night. 

But it can even just look like never scratching the surface. I think some people can routinely be talking to their partner about things: schedules for your week, “What are we doing this summer?” But it never kind of gets down to that deeper level where emotional connection happens. Even if you're living with people, you're talking with them, you are interacting, you can still feel very lonely on an attachment kind of core level. 

When you're in a relationship that leaves you feeling lonely, and it's felt that way for a while, it can be really hard to know how to fix it, and how to try to get that closeness that you want. I also just want to validate for you the fact that feeling like you need it, like you need connection, you're not wrong, you do actually need it. We know from scientific research, if you want to get all official, that loneliness is bad for you. Like, there are consequences to physical health, mental health, if you experience chronic loneliness.

But also, it is a foundational need of humans to have positive connections to others. If it feels like your connection, particularly with your most important person, is, like, hollow in the center, your really wanting that to be different is not a statement about you. I think we have a myth in our culture that we need to be happy by ourselves. If we love ourselves, we won't need things from other people. This western ideal of independence is very much a myth. 

As I've said many times in this podcast, people are born to bond. We need connections with others in order to be well. The fact that you are missing closeness, that you are aware of the deficit, that you're longing for more closeness and connection would tell me that you are a normally functioning healthy human who is experiencing, essentially, a pain signal. 

Like your stomach rumbles when you're hungry or like it's too hot in here, so you take off your sweater. Those are physiological and, to a degree, emotional cues that you're supposed to listen to. You're supposed to listen to this one too. If you're feeling lonely in an uncomfortable way, that is a sign that it's time to try to fix it and find a way to move closer again.

Why You Feel Lonely in a Relationship

The experience of a lonely relationship is common. The core, the reason why it happens is when we don't have as much felt love and connection as we would like to have. While you can certainly feel this way while you're spending time with your spouse, it's often an indication that you don't feel seen or heard on a deep level—that you feel that there is a lack of exchange on an emotional level or on a meaningful level. 

It can also be related to even, like love languages. If you are in a relationship with somebody who, for them, the pinnacle of connection is running around doing fun things together, doing activities, and you are going on vacations, and going to the vintage coin collectors show, and going to the farmers’ market, and have plans every weekend. They might feel vibrantly happy because you and they in their mind are doing the things and having a fantastic relationship that is exactly what they want it to be.

If you are someone, for him, your love language is related to deep, intense conversations about intimate and personal things. And in all of the farmers’ markets and social nights and happy hours and camping trips, you're not doing that with them. You're going to have a very different experience of connection in that relationship than your partner will. You are going to feel like, disconnected, alone—a lack of intimacy that is very real for you, and that should be understood and respected.

But it is important to understand that it can feel different—just because—what I'm trying to say is that just because you are feeling lonely in your relationship does not mean that your partner is also feeling lonely in a relationship. They could be just fine. When you try to talk about your feelings, they could legitimately and honestly say, “What are you talking about? What? We did all these fun things. We're doing this next week.” 

It's just important to know that, and the reason why I want to bring this up, and we're going to be talking about more, related to this is that when people feel lonely, it is a subjective experience that is very much based on their expectations for what should be happening in a relationship—their love languages. People have different needs for closeness and connection. It shows up in many different ways.

What to Do When You're Lonely in a Relationship

While it can look very different, the path to changing this is to restore emotional intimacy, which means a scary thing. It means needing to be vulnerable and authentic in order to restore connection. 

Sometimes when I go in this direction, it surprises people because, I think, sometimes people expect to hear that you should be spending more time together, you should be doing mutually enjoyable activities together, or maybe it means you are fundamentally incompatible, you're never going to get your needs met in this relationship, and maybe whatever. I don't think that either of those things are true. 

What tends to happen in relationships, particularly when people are together for a long time, is that it's just really easy to go on autopilot. A lot of time can go by where we're not really thinking that much about it. We fall into habits, we fall into patterns, we fall into routines. 

If we're not intentionally putting energy back into our relationships in order to maintain and cultivate emotional connection and emotional intimacy with our partner, those things will always atrophy over time.

Like, okay, let's see here. What is one of the laws of thermodynamics? Things fall apart—the entropy, whatever that is. Relationships are very much the same. It doesn't mean that there's something fundamentally wrong because it's happening. It happens to every relationship. If you don't put energy in, things fall apart. 

What will also happen—and here's the hard part—when we are experiencing loneliness in a relationship, it means, kind of by definition, that we have gotten out of the habit of connecting on a deep level with our partner. We're not having the conversations that we should be having, and nothing is happening as a result, right? In order to change the situation, it requires you to notice what's happening in the absence of that connection.

Take a chance. Take a risk of being vulnerable, authentic, and courageous, and rocking that damn boat and saying to your partner, “I feel lonely, and I feel disconnected. Here's why,” in a non-accusatory way, by the way. But the reason why this is so hard is because in lonely relationships, nothing is happening, and so nothing is wrong a lot of times.

They're calm. They're quiet. Nothing bad is happening. It is not dramatic. It's just like you're sort of slowly starving to death emotionally. Many times, this is actually perpetuated by rationalizing away your feelings, “Oh, don't make a big deal out of it. It's just going to cause a fight.” 

Truly, avoidance of what feels like an emotionally charged, potentially dangerous conversation where you open up about how you're feeling in a vulnerable way and risk saying, “I miss you. I want more of you. I miss what we used to have together. I feel lonely. I like talking to you, and I want to talk to you more. Like, are you still there? Do you still care about me?” in a vulnerable way.

It's very scary. It's very hard to do that. Because when you do, you risk getting into a conflict, but also you risk rejection, right? If you say, “I miss you. I'm lonely. I need you,” and he’s like, “What are you talking about? It's fine.” That is wounding, isn't it? You’re like, “Okay, I'm just going to go back into my box, and we're not going to talk about this again.”

There is the risk, especially going back to that first idea. Like, if you're having a different experience in your relationship with your partner, and you broach the loneliness conversation, and they see things differently, it's very easy to take that as feeling minimized, invalidated, shut down—confirmation of the fact that they don't care and you are emotionally abandoned in this relationship. 

It's easy in that moment to give up and to say to yourself, “I tried. I tried talking about it, and they shut me down. They told me I was wrong. I am truly alone.” Like, kind of spin out into this narrative. Nobody would fault you for doing that because that was your experience in that conversation. So that's risk number one. We feel like we're trying to connect, and then we have the experience of being rejected, and then we give up.

When you do that, and it turns into, “I will always be lonely in this relationship. There is nothing here for me. You can't get blood from a stone.” That's where—next stop is the divorce lawyers' office if we keep going down that trajectory. Be very careful of what you're telling yourself and notice what is happening in your mind.

The other risk for broaching these topics and creating more emotional connection in your relationship is that it is very scary to be vulnerable in a relationship. Like, that door number one scenario that we were just talking about. It's much safer and more common, honestly, to be angry in a relationship. Like, if you have been feeling unloved, and uncared for and emotionally lonely in your relationship for a long time, it is likely that you are feeling resentful of your partner.

When we are feeling resentful of our partners, it's also very easy to get annoyed by them and all the things that they're doing or not doing. When we do broach the topic of feeling lonely in a relationship, it can often happen in the context of having lots of little skirmishes or weird fights about bacon, or what day the laundry should be washed on. “You said this,” “No, I didn't.” 

I mean, like, when couples start to have weird little fights about weird little things. It is because there is an emotional disconnection at the core of it. I don't know if you caught a recent podcast episode about attachment styles in relationships—is when there is kind of sniping and aggression or withdrawal in relationships, it is often a function of feeling that the attachment is unstable.

If you have been feeling lonely in your relationship, your attachment is no longer stable, and so that's likely been coming out in a variety of ways, right? When we have the conversation about feeling lonely, usually the person who initiates that conversation is feeling upset about it. It's very, very easy and common for that conversation to be very sincere and heartfelt and well-intentioned but to sound like criticism and accusations to the ear of the listener. 

Somebody who has been feeling lonely say, “We never do anything. You never talk to me. You don't ask me questions about my day. Let me tell you about all the things you're doing wrong, and why that is making me feel lonely in this relationship,” which will very predictably elicit feelings of defensiveness, “No, I'm not. That didn't happen.” All of a sudden, you're having a fight about what is or is not happening. 

So it's not a vulnerable moment where you're making a courageous bid for connection. It is now an actual argument that is also reinforcing this fundamental idea that you are lonely in this relationship, and that it is impossible to talk to your partner, and even when you try, they don't understand anyway. It's really hard to have a productive conversation about feeling lonely in a relationship, I'm not going to lie.

When You Are Lonely in a Marriage

That, I think, is one of the reasons why couples, so often and wisely so, by the way, come to marriage counseling for help with this, is because there are so many weird little, like, emotional and psychological things that can happen in the space in between two people. When there has been emotional disconnection and one person is trying to reconnect, it is vulnerable, there are a lot of emotions there, and it can very easily go sideways.

One of the biggest benefits of working with a couples counselor is that they can prevent you from having a fight in the room and instead help you have a productive conversation where you can say how you're really feeling and what it's really about. So in that vulnerable way, and where the other person is assisted in receiving that information in the way it was intended, and not react in a way that creates a fight.

There are, of course, many other things that good couples counselors do besides supervising couples to play nicely together. But that is one of the most important parts of having a third person in the room: is to facilitate the conversation in such a way that you're talking about the important things without having weird emotional reactions to each other. That when you're out in the wild together, it disintegrates. It just turns into an argument that perpetuates loneliness.

I am not saying this as an infomercial for couples counseling. You can absolutely have a conversation about this on your own, but be very careful that you are addressing this in a courageously vulnerable way. Try to create a lot of emotional safety for your partner when you bring this up, so that reduces the chance that they'll get really defensive and reactive. Also, make space for the fact that your partner may legitimately be experiencing this differently than you are. 

So that if they are, like, “What do you mean?” You don't interpret that as invalidation because that might not be what's happening. They might be sincerely surprised that you are experiencing the relationship this way. With those tips, try to talk about it with your partner. If it is consistently not going well, that would be a sign to call a good couples counselor for support. This is because if we just let it go—the easiest thing to do is always to not do something, right?

It takes so much courage to make it a big deal. Like, “No. We need to do something here.” It's much easier to just sort of, like, let it drift, “It's fine. It's not a big deal. I kind of like the show, too. It doesn't matter,” right? When we rationalize that to ourselves for too long, and it goes, couples can drift very, very, very far apart. When that happens, first of all, it's harder to reconnect the longer it goes, right, and weird things can also happen when people are too disconnected for too long. 

Again, some of it is just normal long-term relationship stuff. There is ebbs and flows in every relationship, and you will always go through periods with your partner where you feel more connected to them than others. Sometimes, if you are in one of those spaces where you're feeling alone, you want emotional connection, it feels like you've been trying to connect with your partner and they're just not getting it, or maybe you have a good conversation, but nothing is changing. It just sort of goes back to the way it was. 

It can create vulnerability to becoming attached or emotionally involved with somebody besides your partner. We haven't talked about emotional affairs in a while on the show, but it is related to the topic of lonely marriages, right? To think about being in this space and feels like you can't talk to your partner. You have stuff going on in your life that you want to share, and you want to connect around and for whatever reason, it's not happening in your relationship.

It can, understandably, feel like a breath of fresh air if you connect with somebody who is interested in what you have to say, who is excited about the same things that you are, it feels like there's a joining energetically—maybe you're into the same stuff or same activities that your partner doesn't seem to understand. It can be very easy to get seduced in some way—not in a sexual seduction sense. 

Although if you have listened to my podcast episode of married with a crush, you will understand that having that emotional connection is not infrequently the on-ramp to a more serious, like, a sexual affair. It always starts with a friendship, right? Or an infatuation. That's just one thing to be aware of. 

if you begin sort of comparing your partner to somebody else in your mind, or thinking about how you really enjoy your interactions with “Joe in Accounting” so much more than you do your partner—it's not anything bad about you. Nothing to be ashamed of, but it is important to recognize that that is happening. It can also be a sign that there is a significant disconnection in your relationship that really does need to be addressed. 

It would be a mistake to downplay it or not take these things seriously. It's easier to do in the moment, but that is also how real problems happen in a relationship when people have been minimizing or downplaying things for a while or not being fully conscious of the things that they're doing in their relationship.

To be lonely in a marriage is very common and normal and needs to be resolved. The path to connection is by extending yourself to connect. I once had an interesting conversation with somebody, and you may be aware, there's a lot of really trite advice that comes from, typically, a couple's—or I should say—therapists who are providing couples counseling but do not have specialized training and education in marriage and family therapy.

One of the things they'll often do is tell couples to go on a date night. So a couple will come in and say, so predictably, “We're feeling disconnected and lonely. We want to find our way back to each other.” So a therapist who does not specialize in couples and family therapy will say, “Great. Go on a date night. That's your homework assignment.”

The couple will dutifully go on the date night and not realize that just because you are spending time with somebody does not mean that you're going to connect on an emotionally meaningful level. In fact, many a date night has been spent in awkward silence with each person wishing something different would be happening than what it is, but neither feeling brave enough to either broach that vulnerably. If anything, it often comes out sideways in snippy comments, right? 

That turns into a fight, and they go, “That date sucked. I'm never doing that again,” right? Again, very important not to look for Band-Aid solutions if you're feeling lonely in a relationship. A much more reliably effective way to handle this is to see if you can have an open authentic relationship with your partner and talk about not just how you're feeling but ask them how they are feeling. 

Could go one of two ways. They could be like, “What? We're doing this tennis tournament, and we went shopping for whatever. It was great. I love you so much.” That could happen, or you may also have the experience where they tell you, “I've been feeling kind of bored and lonely, too. Let me tell you why.” If your partner is brave enough to go there, then it will be your turn to figure out how to listen to that non-defensively without saying, “No, I didn't,” right? 

Just to be open to hearing their thoughts and feelings. Ideally, it can turn into a really nice conversation about things like love languages. I did another podcast on the topic of love languages, if that's helpful for you guys to listen to together, because we feel connected in different ways, and those are important to understand. It could also turn into conversations about practical aspects of your relationship and routines and habits. 

Now, this is going to sound like trite advice, I will assure you it's not. It is trite to tell people to go on date nights, whatever. But when it comes to, like, lifestyles and routines, particularly couples who have crossed the threshold into parenthood and have demands of family and jobs and stuff, and are managing a lot of different things, it can become so easy to prioritize other stuff besides a relationship. 

It's really important every once in a while to just reassess our routines. What are we doing together as a couple and as a family that prioritizes our needs for authentic connection with each other, as well as with our kids, as well as with our friends? For some couples, it could be establishing a weekly date night or weekly lunch. It could be a new family routine of going for a walk after dinner or having opportunities to connect. It is often—it looks different for every family. 

It is a mistake to think that the routine itself, so the habit of spending more time doing something together, is not going to resolve this unless it is coupled with emotionally meaningful activities for one or both partners at the same time. That's where it ties into love languages. If your way of connecting is through deep, emotionally, intimate conversations, whatever routine you build into your life has to include that.

It doesn't have to be a date night at a fancy restaurant. It could be going on a walk and just having a conversation. For other people, it's sexuality—the emotional intimacy is really strongly correlated with physical intimacy. Even if you're talking all day about feelings, it is not really going to change things for you without that physical component. Being aware of specifically what that connection experience is for you and your partner is vital. 

If you find out that one of the ways of emotional connection that is super meaningful for one or both of you, but not both of you—I should say that. Wait, back up—the emotional connection through conversation is important. Well, no, actually, that's true for one or both of you, but that is not always easy to do. 

There are actually some training wheels to help this be more successful and easier. There are conversation topics. There are card decks. There are 100 questions for couples is an awesome article that I will link to in this podcast post. The Gottmans of the Gottman Research Institute put out an app that actually has open-ended questions for couples, so that you can, like, take turns asking each other questions that elicit authentic conversations about things that you wouldn't ordinarily think to talk about. 

That is, for many couples, the on-ramp to connection, so it's not just the time, it's the conversation. Now, it will also be remiss of me not to talk about another important thing that can and does create lonely relationships and also perpetuates lonely relationships. That is more than the drift that always happens, and it is also more than the miscommunication and rupture that happens when people try to address loneliness. Loneliness in relationships can also be a function of having unresolved perpetual problems that are painful and that feel impossible to resolve, but that are real.

Lonely Marriages and Relationships: Conflict Resolution

Conflict in relationships can be difficult to resolve effectively. It's also true that in every couple, there are what we call unresolvable problems. They're just differences in personality, of values, of ways of doing things, or core beliefs that are not resolvable and are also completely okay. We do not have to resolve them in order to have a positive relationship with somebody. 

But when there are sources of pain or hurt in a relationship that did not get addressed, or resolved well enough, even if it was finding a way to appreciate and tolerate each other anyway, and really, genuinely move on from it emotionally.

Having unresolved conflict in a relationship can kind of be like that grain of sand in an oyster, right? The original conflict was a grain of sand, and if it wasn't resolved, it starts to become calcified, like it builds up over time. We don't talk about it. We're not doing anything about it. It's still there, and now we're kind of avoiding it.

By proxy, avoiding each other in order to maintain the stability of our relationship because if we did have a serious conversation and try to attain emotional intimacy, whatever that was would come up. It is painful. It feels dangerous. Like on the map, there'd be dragons, we're not going to talk about that. We're not going to talk about anything as a kind of protective mechanism for the relationship.

It sounds weird to think about protecting a relationship by avoiding emotional intimacy. But, people can do a lot and go a long time just going through the motions. We can take care of the kids, we can go to work, we can make nutritious meals, we can have a house, we can have a social life, and we can do all the things. But in the core between us, it is not just hollow, there is a black pearl sitting in the center that is keeping us apart.

Because if we did go there and try to tackle that thing, it might turn into a really dangerous-feeling fight for us. It may feel painful. We do not know how to resolve this conflict. We've tried. We've had 27 fights about it, and none of them have ended well, so let's just agree to disagree. Keep on our own respective sides of the bed and the couch and the dining room table.

Pros and cons, right? You're not having the fight, but you're also having a lot of disconnection. If anything that I am saying right now feels true for you, that would also be an indication that it is really time to get professional help—to get an experienced marriage and family therapist who can help you come together. 

All three of you will look at that pearl together, whatever it is, and be able to have emotionally safe and productive conversations that will help you unearth those old, old layers of whatever happened, and be able to have productive healing conversations with each other that do really heal it for once and for all. 

Not only will that old conflict or old trauma or old wound be resolved—when it is resolved, it will also make it safe again to reconnect emotionally in the present moment and be emotionally vulnerable with each other, be authentic with each other, tell each other how you're feeling and what's going on. You will have had the opportunity to practice having emotionally safe conversations, so you'll be better able to do it.

But also, there isn't like that old abscess, that old infected thing that if we get down to two or three layers out, there it is again, right? It'll just be emotionally safer to stay connected. I think it was Brené Brown—all fonts of wisdom and good things go back to Brené Brown sooner or later, don't they?

But she has some kind of saying where when we numb ourselves to pain, we also numb ourselves to joy at the same time, unintentionally. The same thing happens in relationships. When we are avoiding things to prevent conflict or unpleasantness in a relationship, we're also blocking ourselves to emotional connection with our partner, and authentic joy, and love. We have to keep it all away. You can't choose one. 

Anyway, I hope that those ideas are helpful. Main takeaways. Emotional disconnection and loneliness in marriage is common. It goes in ebbs and flows. If it happens, just say, “Oh, time to reconnect.” That reconnection can happen through authentic and vulnerable conversation with your partner where you tell them how you feel, ask how they're feeling, and stay in the ring emotionally with each other to have a productive conversation that ideally will lead to changes. 

Sometimes those changes are based on love languages and doing more of what each of you feels like they need to feel loved and connected. If you cannot do this, and if it turns into a fight that leads to just increased disconnection or sort of reinforces disconnection, that would be one sign to get help. 

Another thing to know is that in a space of disconnection, you can be vulnerable to connecting with other people outside of your relationship. If that happens, just notice it and stop that. Cut it right off and come back to center. Focus on reconnecting with your partner. Get help if you need to. 

Then, thirdly, emotional disconnection can be a function of unresolved conflict. In order to stop feeling lonely in the here and now, we’re going to have to go back into the past and heal whatever hurt happened however long ago in order to reconnect emotionally with your partner in the present.

I really hope that those ideas are helpful and useful to you. I'll be interested to hear how things go. If you want to try this at home with your partner, resources we talked about were the attachment podcast, attachment styles in relationships. We also talked about the love language quiz. We also talked about married with a crush—that podcast if you think that might be happening.

Then also, I did a few podcasts, just communication techniques. Let's see what would be the best ones for you. Emotional safety in relationships is a really good one, because you're going to have to have a lot of emotional safety in this conversation in order for it to be productive. We also talked about feeling, oh, invalidated. You might want to check out that podcast as well if that is what is happening. 

Then, outside resources, check out the Gottman Card Deck for conversation starters and 100 conversation starters, no, 100 questions for couples—the article that I referenced. All will be available for you as links on the post for this podcast on growingself.com/lonelymarriages. It is all there for you. I hope you take advantage of it, and thank you so much for spending this time with me today. This was a good talk, and I will be back in touch with you next time with more love, happiness and success.

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

HOW TO STOP BEING A PEOPLE PLEASER: “Um, sure, I guess so,” Mia says, while her stomach churns and she feels a wave of exhaustion already at the prospect of picking her sister up from the airport at midnight on a Wednesday. She wants to say, “It’s a $30 Uber, and I need to get up for work early.” But she doesn’t. She’s annoyed all the way to the airport, all the way back, and irritable and sleep-deprived at work the next day. Why couldn’t she say no?

It’s because Mia is a people pleaser. Can you relate to this? Have you ever:

1) said “yes” when you really meant “no,” 

2) accepted an invitation you would have preferred to decline,

3)  or apologized because you couldn’t do something that wasn’t your responsibility? 

If so, you may be a people pleaser. This is no cause for alarm — we all do things on occasion just to make others happy, or to avoid potential conflict. Healthy relationships require a balance of give and take. When things are in balance, our relationships feel satisfying and mutual. We don’t need to keep score, but overall, we have the sense that we’re getting as much out of relationships as we’re putting in. 

But when we lean a little bit too far in the direction of people-pleasing, things can start to feel out of balance. Your relationships might be stressful and guilt-ridden if you have a tendency to people please. You might grow resentful toward the people in your life and feel powerless to stop them from encroaching on your time and energy. 

If you’ve noticed you’re doing a little too much pleasing lately, it’s time to take your power back. The “people pleasers” who arrive in counseling or coaching here at Growing Self to work on themselves around people-pleasing tend to be highly empathetic people, who understand and care deeply about other people’s feelings, wants, and needs. They know that it’s time to work on healthy boundaries and learn how to be appropriately assertive with confidence.

And that’s what we’re going to talk about on today’s episode of the podcast. My guest is Kathleen C., a therapist and life coach here at Growing Self who has helped so many people reclaim their priorities, draw their own boundaries, and tilt the balance away from people-pleasing and toward self-care. 

I hope you’ll listen, and put these insights to work in improving the quality of all of your relationships — including your relationship with YOU. You can find this episode on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, I hope you’ll subscribe!

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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How to Stop Being a People Pleaser

People pleasing is something we all do from time to time, and it’s not always a bad thing. But for some, the balance can tip a little too far in the direction of people pleasing, making it difficult to assert yourself, ask for what you need, or draw healthy boundaries with others. 

If you’ve noticed a pattern of people pleasing in your relationships, this conversation will help you take back your power and put your focus back where it belongs: on your own needs and desires. 

What is a People Pleaser

People pleasing is a pattern of putting other people ahead of yourself, at the expense of your own wellness. This could take many different forms. You might have trouble telling other people “no,” and so end up with a schedule so jam-packed with other people’s priorities that you have no time for the things that are important to you. 

Or, you might not feel able to ask for what you need to feel emotionally safe in a relationship, like regular communication from a partner, and so you endure relationships where your true needs aren’t met.   

Signs of People Pleasing

How can you know if people pleasing is an issue for you? Here are some signs that you may be doing a little bit too much people pleasing in your relationships: 

  • Feelings of anger and resentment toward the people in your life, especially when they ask you to do things for them. 
  • Feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, or drained by all of your commitments. 
  • Experiencing feelings of guilt when you need to tell someone “no.” 
  • Feeling inadequate, like you can never do enough. 
  • Feeling like you don’t really have a choice when someone asks you for something.  

The Danger of People Pleasing

To stop being a people pleaser, it helps to understand why you do it in the first place — as well as truly understanding the toll it takes on you and on your relationships.  

When was the last time you said “yes” when you really wanted to say “no,” or put someone else’s priorities ahead of your own? Can you remember what you were thinking and feeling at the time? Maybe you felt worried about some outcome if you asserted yourself, like losing a valued friendship or angering your boss. There may have been a story you were telling yourself, about how the other person would react if you didn’t go along with what they wanted — and what that reaction would mean about you. For example, you might think, “If I was a good partner/friend/employee/person, I would do this for them.” 

By reflecting on what feels difficult about not people pleasing, you can begin to question the beliefs that are making it hard for you to draw your own boundaries and speak up for your own needs. Doing so is not selfish; it’s taking care of yourself

It’s also essential. People who struggle with setting healthy boundaries for themselves will, over time, often start feeling very angry, resentful, and even depressed. Feeling like a doormat can damage your self-esteem, but also damage the very relationships that you’re working so hard to protect. 

Your feelings of anger and resentment will start to be *felt* by others – whether or not you’re saying how you feel out loud. If left unchecked, people pleasing can actually lead to passive aggressive behaviors, and increasing disconnection and distance in your relationships.

People Pleasing and Boundaries

The key to overcoming people pleasing is having a good sense of where your boundaries are. For all of us, this is easier said than done. Healthy boundaries are firm but flexible and can be negotiated depending on the relationship and your needs and the other person’s needs at any given time. 

But understanding where your own boundaries are will help you have clarity about what you actually want, so you can notice when your impulse to people please is creeping in. 

One key to understanding where your boundaries are is tuning into your feelings. If you’re feeling angry, resentful, pushed, or infringed upon, that’s a sign someone may be stepping on a boundary for you, even if your conscious mind is not aware that this is a boundary you need to hold.  

How Values Can Help People Pleasers

Values are crucial. They’re the lighthouse that guides you in the direction of the life you want, and being clear about them can help you overcome a tendency to people please. 

If you value your physical health, you won’t overcommit to too many responsibilities, spreading yourself thin and adding excessive stress to your life. If you value emotional honesty and authenticity, you’ll want to be open with others about how you really feel, and what you want and need. 

Stay in touch with your values and you’ll have more clarity about whether you’re doing something because it’s what you really want, or because it’s what someone else wants. 

How to Stop People Pleasing

For recovering people pleasers, there is plenty of reason to hope: You can get better at assertive communication, self-care, and staying in touch with your own boundaries and values. Many people benefit from working on themselves in therapy or life coaching, and this is especially helpful if you’re struggling to get clarity around your needs, rights, and feelings — and hope to confidently communicate those to others. 

People pleasing can be a hard habit to break, but once you do, you’ll be able to enjoy positive, mutually-fulfilling relationships, without all the stress, guilt, and resentment. You’ll feel happier, your relationships will improve, and you’ll feel the love and respect you’ve always wanted and deserved.

People Pleaser Podcast Highlights

[02:27] The Signs of Being a People Pleaser

  • When you're people pleasing, you get into a space where you want to defend yourself, and you feel angry and resentful
  • Over time, you feel really exhausted, inadequate, overwhelmed, drained, and burnt out.
  • You feel that you can never do enough
  • People pleasers also talk about feelings of guilt and irritability.

[06:32] What Is a People Pleaser?

  • A person with a pattern of putting other people before themselves to the detriment of their personal well-being.
  • It is a pattern of doing things in conflict with your own value system, abandoning or betraying yourself, your mental health and physical health, and boundaries.
  • There is a loss of power and safety that makes an individual feel the need to prioritize others over themselves.
  • There are relationships where people are bullied into this behavior. It can also happen because of past experiences.

[11:26] Acknowledging a People Pleasing Personality

  • Recall a time when you felt pushed against a wall, guilty or resentful doing something that you didn't feel comfortable doing.
  • Be honest with yourself and reflect on the motivation behind your actions.
  • It’s not about self-judgment but holding a space for you to be clear about your feelings.
  • We sometimes fall into autopilot or find justifications for our actions.

[16:17] Finding Balance: Is Being a People Pleaser Bad?

  • People pleasing behavior can range from simply taking the path of least resistance, to being afraid of major consequences.
  • Finding balance and checking within yourself to know the pros and cons of your actions is an art.

[20:23] People Pleaser Anxiety and Anger

  • People pleasing can metastasize into insecurity and anxiety because there has been a pattern of feeling like you need to earn taking up space.
  • It can also show up as physical symptoms: headaches, digestive issues, muscle tension, fatigue.
  • These are the body's way of expressing that it has been holding a lot of stress, anxiety, fear, anger, or guilt.
  • Feelings give us information about ourselves, but not necessarily facts about the situation.
  • Connecting with yourself, including feelings like anger and resentment. It’s only human to feel angry when you’ve stretched yourself too thin.

[28:37] Guilty Feelings in People Pleasing

  • Guilt comes from a well-intentioned place of empathy.
  • It comes from that place of caring, but it gets distorted when we aren't able to hold that empathy and also hold space for our own needs at the same time.
  • People pleasing can also feel like love in the moment. However, there is always time and space to be compassionate and empathetic.

[33:10] Recovering People Pleaser: How to Get Over People Pleasing

  • Reflect on your motivations. Think about what you’ll feel and the consequences in the long and short-term.
  • Use your values as anchors. These values can also change over time and depending on your needs.
  • Take time to decide and think about what you need.
  • It's helpful to have scripts and assertiveness techniques that give us something to lean on and guide us as we're starting out.
  • Assertiveness opens up the lines of communication, and it is respectful. If someone chooses to escalate things in response instead of respecting your boundaries, it gives you good information about that relationship.

Music in this episode is by Austin Archer, with the song “People Pleaser.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: Austin Archer. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: I'm so glad you've joined us today because this is a very special episode. Today, we're going to be talking about people pleasing, which I know is something that we all struggle with from time to time. I'm guessing that if you're like basically everybody else in the universe, that every once in a while, you might agree to do things that you don't really want to do just to make somebody else happy. Or if you've ever accepted blame for something that you knew wasn't really your fault, just to keep the peace and put things behind you.

Things like that — many of us engage in those behaviors once in a while, and there's not anything terribly wrong with doing that sometimes. This can be kind of a social lubricant, right? People are good at relationships, pick their battles. And sometimes it's a good idea to avoid conflict or keep things pleasant and positive. But the problem arises when the balance tips too far in the direction of your people pleasing a lot of the time, when it starts to turn into a pattern for you and the way you engage with others. 

Because when that starts to happen, it stops being harmless. If you have a hard time telling people “No”, or disagreeing with other people, or sometimes even putting yourself first, it can start to feel like all of your time or energy is being swallowed up by other people's priorities. And that's not good for you. It can start to feel angry, or resentful, or might even spend so much of your time and energy taking care of other people that you're not doing a good job of taking care of yourself.

So if this is feeling a little bit familiar for you, I'm glad you're here listening to this episode, because today I am joined by my colleague, Kathleen, who is a therapist and a life coach here on our team at Growing Self. She is such an expert in helping people build happy, healthy relationships, improve their communication, build their self esteem, and especially strengthen their boundaries.

I know that she has so much insight into this people pleasing pattern to share with you today. So Kathleen, thank you so much for being here with me. This is such an important topic and it's hard. 

Kathleen: Yes, I love this topic. Thank you for having me. I'm here, excited to be here today.

The Signs of Being a People Pleaser

Lisa: Well, okay, first of all, can we just normalize this a little bit? I know that people pleasing is not something that is like, great for any of us to do, but I totally do this. I do this and I think that sometimes isn't there a time and a place for a little bit of people pleasing? Just a little bit?

Kathleen: Right, I really loved the way that you talked about that. Yeah, it's true. I mean, first of all, you mentioned so many examples, some of which I hadn't thought about in a while, like accepting blame. But yeah, it's necessary for lasting healthy relationships, too, to put your needs aside for someone else's sometimes. And I think that's part of what makes it hard to stop people pleasing, is telling the difference between healthy give and take and compromise and unhealthy people pleasing patterns. Yeah. So it's a good point.

Lisa: Let’s just start right there. I know that you do so much amazing work with people around this. And I guess, maybe just to begin, what are some of the things that you notice or that you listen for when you're working with clients and you start thinking to yourself, “I think I'm seeing an unhealthy people pleasing pattern,” like it's going too far. What are some of the things that you see people doing or saying or the impact maybe that it's having on them?

Kathleen: I think listeners can probably relate to this, too. A lot of times people will come to me, clients will come to me in this space, already feeling angry and resentful. So there's a lot of — they’ll come in initially complaining a lot about other people in their lives. I think that's one of the first signs I get to see from my point of view when I'm meeting with someone and feeling exhausted and overwhelmed and stretched to thin and really defending themselves a lot because it— I mean, I do people pleasing too, at times.

Lisa: Which is why we're such great friends with each other, Kathleen. Why our relationship works so well, we're both doing that.

Kathleen: When you're people pleasing you get into a space into a spot where you want to defend yourself, and you feel angry and resentful. You're kind of checking in with other people. “Hey, isn't this right, aren't I right? Didn't they do this wrong? Didn't I do enough?” Like those are sort of like the very early signs when I'm just getting to know someone like a client for example, right? So some of your listeners might relate to that.

But I think overtime, just feeling really exhausted, inadequate, overwhelmed, drained, burnt out, is one of it, the impact, like you can never do enough, never make everybody happy enough.

Lisa: I hear that. But it's interesting, what you were saying is that sort of the ringer, one of the key things that you listen for, as a therapist, and you're thinking “they may be people pleasing,” is actually that people are feeling angry and resentful, and like aggrieved and like, “okay, who's right, who's wrong here?” Which is sort of interesting to me, because I think I probably don't actually have that experience as much. But like that, there's an angry component to it.

Kathleen: And maybe that's because they're coming to see me and to vent. Because those are feelings and thoughts that they may not feel okay and safe to share. Guilt is the other side of that coin that they share a little bit more, I think, with other people in your life, but perhaps, when I get to meet with them, and if you're a people pleaser, you might search inside yourself and realize “I'm pissed off”, or know that you are already, but not necessarily talk about that as much. It's definitely a real piece of people pleasing. Irritability.

What Is a People Pleaser?

Lisa: We started talking about this, I realized that we probably skipped over a relatively important first step of this conversation, which is defining our terms. I mean, like, for somebody who may not be familiar with us, as deeply, professionally or personally, as you and I are, Kathleen, what is people pleasing? How would you define it?

Kathleen: Let's see, I think I would define it probably, as you know, a pattern of putting other people before yourself to the detriment of your well-being. So if there's a pattern of it conflicting with your own value system, or abandoning or betraying yourself, your own well-being, your mental health, your physical health, your boundaries, that you need to feel emotionally safe in a relationship. If we have patterns where we're violating those sort of foundational basic needs, in order to keep other people happy, or maintain relationships with other people. That was really long.  

Lisa: No, that was so good. It made perfect sense. You're saying that it's really like harming yourself to keep other people “happy” or to maintain a relationship. It's like you're hurting yourself because you feel like you have to, in some way.

Kathleen: Yeah, absolutely. There's that element where you feel like you don't have a choice, where you don't have power, where you're not accepted or safe or loved. And this isn't just personal relationships, this could transfer to family, work, where you don't feel safe, where you feel like you don't really have a choice to be a part of what's considered in the situation. Yeah, a lot of power loss there and safety loss. That's a big part of it.

Lisa: Yeah. Well, and you know what, your definition of this, too, is so helpful because I think it's really painting a very clear contrast. What we kind of talked about in the beginning of the show, which is those little social niceties, like, “Oh, no, no, it was completely my fault.” Or, “Oh, no, it's fine.” Like that you're not like under duress when you do those kinds of things. What you're talking about is this pattern where it's like you really feel like you don't have a choice, something bad will happen if you don't take the blame or make things better for somebody else. That's really different, isn't it?

Kathleen: Yeah. I think it's interesting, because you're making me think about, sometimes we are under duress. And other times, we think we're doing it to ourselves because of what we believe we need to do. So there are relationships where we really are bullied into people pleasing. And then there are others, especially if we've experienced that in the past, There are other situations where we feel we don't have a choice, we feel under duress. 

But we could safely assert ourselves and that's why being aware of how you're feeling and why you're choosing what you're choosing and owning that choice is such an important part of moving past people pleasing, which I'm sure we'll get to today, but that choice piece is important, is a big part of it. 

Lisa: Oh my gosh, this is so interesting. So you're saying like, sometimes this happens, because you're actually in a situation where maybe there are even like power control things happening, or it's really like a toxic relationship. Maybe you feel like you have to be overly pleasing or accommodating to your own detriment, not because of the current relationship you're in or the person that you're interacting with, but because of real, old historical core beliefs, or maybe previous relationships that have tricked you into believing you feel like you have to even if you don't really,

Kathleen: Absolutely, yeah. I hope that's good news that sometimes we might think “If I say no, I'm going to lose this relationship, they're gonna blow up at me, they're gonna hate my guts.” And that isn't necessarily the case. We could really feel like it might be. Sometimes it is and then we need to work on working those relationships out of your life, if possible. Hopefully, that's a whole other topic. But hopefully, that's good news that it doesn't — it isn't. Our feelings aren't always facts, as they say. 

Acknowledging Your People Pleasing Personality

Lisa: So we're gonna go with this. So you have somebody that you're working with, and they're describing feeling angry because they have been interacting with people from feeling like they have to, where do you even start? Like, if somebody is listening to this conversation right now thinking, “Yeah, that's me.” What would you encourage them to begin thinking about,

Kathleen: I would say right now, even if you're listening, and you have something in mind that you've experienced, maybe recently, or where you can think of an example, because it does feel familiar to you, maybe you can think of an example of a time recently, when you felt really pushed against a wall, and either guilty or resentful, ultimately doing something that you really didn't feel comfortable doing. 

What I would do with a client and what you could do, even now, as you listen is think back to that moment, and reflect on what you were feeling in your body, how you were experiencing those emotions and what you were telling yourself about it. “I have to do this because…” why? 

What did it mean for you? What were you afraid was going to happen if you stood your ground? If you could be honest with yourself for a moment and just search within and notice what your motivation was for doing that. 

And this isn't about self-judgment. This is about actually the opposite of that, taking a little time with yourself, holding space for you, and listening to yourself in a way that we don't get to when we're people pleasing. And really listening with some curiosity. “Okay, what was I afraid of? What was my main motivation for saying yes, when I really wanted to say no?” That's where I usually start in the process. 

Because then we can start exploring what's so hard about not people pleasing, other ways to get those fears addressed. And some of the thoughts and beliefs that keep that cycle going, and where they come from. That's where we start. Over time, we work through that part of the process. 

Lisa: What's coming up for me as I'm listening to this is just how hard it can be even to figure out what your own boundaries are, or should be like what you're not comfortable with or don't want to do. Like, I know that when I kind of get into people pleasing mode, I honestly just start like doing a bunch of things for people. I don't even think about it being a problem for me. And I think sometimes with like, naturally, not saying that I'm particularly competent and what I have observed and others is that people who are really competent, organized, it's easy for them to do things. 

They do it because it is easy, they can do it more quickly. They can just take something else off of somebody else's plate. As they're doing it, and I think I do this sometimes, it's not even realizing that I'm doing things that I shouldn't be like for other people. Like there needs to be clarity around what you want to do and what you don't want to do. And that sounds so weird, but it's like it's easy to just do all kinds of stuff without really being clear about “Should I be doing this? Do I want to be doing this?” It's easy just to go on autopilot and do all kinds of things. 

Kathleen: Especially when we get caught in getting all those tasks checked off the to-do-list, being in productivity mode, we just slip sort of unconsciously into “Yeah, I'll take that on. Yeah, I'll get that done. What's the next thing I'm going to get done.” That can happen. But as I was thinking about our meeting today, I was thinking about gosh, for me, when I've noticed my brain is sneaky and tricky. 

Sometimes, I will just immediately find a justification for why I can do this, or this is a good—I want to actually know what I do want to do this, that will convince myself because that can be when you've been in people pleasing habits that can be easier, it can be easier to convince yourself that you want to do something you really don't want to do, than to say no. And when you have really deeply-rooted beliefs around the risks that might be there if you don't people please. 

It's easier to just avoid those risks, suffer through it, push through, I'll just get this done, and by next week, by tomorrow, by next month, I'll have a little time for myself, or whatever it is, “I can get through this. You convince yourself and it can happen.” Sometimes, if you're not practicing that self awareness, automatically. You don't even realize you're doing it.

Finding Balance: Is Being a People Pleaser Bad?

Lisa: Where it comes up for me, and I think I wonder how true this is? Well, I've actually heard clients talking about this as parents, and really like, I think, to the detriment of our children, but  fold the laundry, there's laundry in the hamper, that needs to be put away, whatever, it would take me 30 seconds, just gonna put the crap away in the door, or like, pick the sock up off the bathroom floor and put it in the hamper because my kid didn't do it, that kind of thing. 

Because otherwise, it turns into this little mini, like, not conflict with a capital C, but a thing really “Come back in here, put your clothes in the hamper”, where it would just take me like, literally five seconds to do the thing. And it's almost like I don't even want to go through the trouble of it. But it's not— it can happen on autopilot. And I know it's to the detriment of my kid if I'm putting his stuff in the hamper. But it's like just doing those tiny little things for people as opposed to having it be a thing. And there are little ways, like what I was describing, but also what you were saying, which is that fear of big consequences. If you're like, “Actually, I'm not going to do this.” And that fear that it's going to turn into a fight. Is that right?

Kathleen: You're right, it can range anywhere from “this is just a little bit easier and more convenient for me right now even though it may not be best for me or the other person.” This is just the path of least resistance—

Lisa: The path of least resistance. Yeah, that was… I'm sorry, you were about to say it could go all the way to—

Kathleen: All the way to being afraid of major consequences if you're assertive instead of people pleasing. I think it's an art. I wish I had a handbook of rules where you had an index, and you could just search alphabetically file for…

Lisa: Page 43—

Kathleen: And follow the handbook. But I do think it's an art and that it does take energy to kind of be sensing and checking in with yourself and weighing, doing a sort of check and balance and weighing the pros and cons intuitively what you need, right? Then one day, you may have the energy to say, “You know what, it's best for my kiddo to learn to pick up the socks”. And on another day, you might need to spend that energy somewhere else and just pick up a sock.

There isn't a right answer when it comes to knowing your boundaries, even though we want them to be clear, they also need to be flexible. And it's very personal to you. That's another thing that's tough. Tough, but also gives us some wiggle room. 

Lisa: Well, that's good to know, though, that it doesn't have to be like super black and white. And these are the boundaries with a capital B and it turns into a list of rules that you ultimately get to decide and be flexible. But I think I'm hearing that that's one of really the biggest first pieces for somebody working on this is to get real clear around their own understanding of what they should be doing and what they should not be doing. Or would you say that in a different way where that kind of clarity comes from and I'm sure it's probably different for everybody?

Kathleen: Yeah, I mean, maybe I would say it's so helpful to have a good connected relationship to yourself so that you can be in touch with yourself throughout the day. And then you know what you need most, moment to moment. So you kind of manage that on a microcosmic level, day-to-day moment-to-moment.

And then big picture-wise, you kind of look at the overall pattern, which you mentioned pattern earlier. And I think that's a really important word with this kind of stuff with boundaries, with people pleasing. If you step back overall, am I taking care of my top priorities? Overall, pattern-wise, am I honoring my top values? We're not going to be perfect at all of it, ever. So it's kind of, what am I needing most right now? And then overall, how are things balancing out? 

People Pleaser Anxiety and Anger

Lisa: Like being connected to your feelings of that, like canary in the coal mine, like what we were talking about at the very beginning is that when people aren't staying connected to their values, and kind of being really intentional, they start to feel it emotionally, over time. First, it's anger and then it's just like this— what I think I heard you say is it sort of metastasizes into self-esteem, self-worth stuff? Is that true kind of progression if people keep ignoring their values and not setting limits with others as they should? Or would you say it differently?

Kathleen: No, I think that's exactly how I would say it. And yes, over time it can metastasize into “I just feel so insecure,” and just, “I feel so much anxiety when I go into work that day” because there has been a pattern of feeling like you need to earn or prove taking up space. So yeah, that's a great way of putting it. Then for those of us who don't necessarily—it's harder to be in touch with our feelings, or put words to them, it can sometimes show up in physical tension and exhaustion and digestive issues and things like that. Not to get too far off into the mind-body connection today.

Lisa: No, it's really important. So what were you thinking of just then?

Kathleen: Let's say that canary, for example, if your canary doesn't always speak the language of emotion for you, if your feelings are hard to identify, for you, it might show up, especially for people pleasers, we might stuff those things, sweep those feelings under the rug, and have got really used to ignoring them. So for you, sometimes it might show up as physical issues, digestive issues, fatigue, muscle tension, headaches.

All of those can be the body's way of expressing at it, that it has been holding a lot of stress, anxiety, or fear, anger, guilt. If we've sort of separated ourselves from feeling those emotions for so long, that we don't really become aware of them, or we don't know how to express what they are, put our finger on what they are, sometimes noticing how you feel in your body is just another way of practicing mindfulness and self-awareness. It's a different canary.

Lisa: That emotions can show up as— I think the technical term for it is somatic that like, the physical manifestations of feelings, that are not listened to, as in the form of emotions. Like maybe you won't listen to that feeling of anxiety in the pit of your stomach, and then your body's like, I'm going to give you a headache, and then maybe you'll listen to me.

Kathleen: Yeah, those emotions, they exist in your body. So they're there. Even if you're not acknowledging them. 

Lisa: So really getting tuned, if you want to make some changes around those people pleasing patterns is that getting tuned into your feelings is a huge piece of this.

Kathleen: Yeah, listening more to yourself. And look, we can start there, we don't even have to go straight into being assertive and saying no, and setting boundaries. If we can just start with hearing yourself more then already, we're making more conscious, aware choices about things. Even if where you need to start is “I'm going to choose to people please right now.” It feels safer and a little bit easier or less uncomfortable than this other option. That's okay. 

It takes time to break habits and to change our beliefs or heal old wounds that may be contributing to the people pleasing. So we start with just holding the space for yourself that you haven't felt like you've had permission to hold. That can be an internal process and experience before we start expressing that stuff externally. We can begin with steps that don't feel quite as scary. Just like anything else that new that you might be learning, you begin with the intro point.

Lisa: At the shallow end of the pool, right? What I'm just thinking about as you're saying this is, again, it sounds easy when we say be in contact with your emotions. And in my experience, many times, and not always I have known plenty of men who will fall into people pleasing kinds of patterns. But a lot of times it is more women who tend to fall into these patterns. And I think that one of the core emotions that you're saying we need to be connected to is an emotion of like anger, or resentment, or like, “Actually, I don't want to do that.”

And I think that those are dark emotions that are really powerful and important, but a lot of times I think women have been socialized out of. I think, for a lot of times, many women are uncomfortable making contact with their own anger, like it feels like something that we shouldn't feel. Do you work with clients around that like sort of legitimizing their own anger? Or do you see it manifest differently in your work with clients?

Kathleen: Oh, no, that's a really good— the answer's yes. I do work with clients around that and that's a really good point. Men, too, also yes, will feel a lot of guilt and not allow themselves to feel anger, not as commonly. You're right, but I definitely see that. Just for anybody out there who isn't aware that men feel guilty too right.

Lisa: Do yeah, especially nice men.

Kathleen: But yeah, looking at it differently than maybe you have before where it's like, “If I stretched myself farther than I can reasonably realistically sustain, it is a natural response to feel anger”. And I show up as resentment, irritability, all the various levels and forms of basically anger. Because anger is, like all the feelings, important. We have it for a reason. It's there just to start to get this information. And so really validating that if we've been through some experiences, and we've taken on some beliefs that now lead to certain habits that are hard to break, it is going to be sort of an inevitable conclusion that you're going to feel angry. So it kind of neutralizes that it takes away the stigma. It's human.

Lisa: Yeah, because I think for a lot of women, it's, “If I feel angry that I must be a bad person.” And there for you to be saying, no there's a reason why you feel angry, and it's most legitimate, it's healthy, for you to feel angry.

Kathleen: And sometimes dig under that, and we're really angry with ourselves, too. But it's there to give us information about what we need and what's going on that's not okay, and to move us to take better care of ourselves. So yeah, feeling angry doesn't mean you're a bad person or an aggressive person, or that you have anger issues. We all feel angry, it's one of the basic human emotions, but guilt too doesn't necessarily mean that you're a bad person or that you've done something wrong. Feelings give us information about ourselves, but not necessarily facts about the situation.

Guilty Feelings in People Pleasing

Lisa: Say more about guilt, because I'm hearing that normal reaction is that when you're really legitimately doing more for other people than you should be at the expense of yourself — yes, gonna feel angry. But also, I think that guilt is such a big component. Can you say more about your observations and the role that guilty feeling plays when it comes to people pleasing?

Kathleen: Oh, gosh, it's so powerful. I think we usually probably even start there before we feel angry. We're motivated to people please, first by guilt. I mean, that's what people have shared with me and it's what I've experienced. So I'm making a universal assessment there.

Lisa: I feel guilty too when I— yeah, that's part of what motivates me to go into that space.

Kathleen: Yeah, and it's so strong, it's so powerful. And it comes from such a good well intentioned place of empathy. I feel badly that you're struggling or that I could make this easier for you, or I could help you out or I could make you happy if I just sacrifice in this or that way. So it comes from that place of caring, but I think it gets distorted when we aren't able to hold that empathy and also hold space for our own needs at the same time. 

When we personalize, if I don't do this for this person, if I don't take care of them, make them happy, help them feel good, manage their emotions, take care of their responsibilities, whatever that might be, then I am not a good person or I don't really care about them. I'm not being a good employee, friend, spouse, partner. That's really wrong of me. That's really bad of me. That’s so selfish of me.

Lisa: Yeah, it's really such a little thing for me to do. Why not? It's so easy. 

Kathleen: Right. I mean, I believe that good people do those little things that sometimes I think we can. Sometimes we need to, again, it's an art, it depends on where you're at, in that moment, the pros and cons, your sense of choice and control your motivation. But it's quite a big jump and a black and white jump to go to if I was a good person, or if I were a good partner, friend, daughter, brother, husband, whatever, then I would say, yes, I think that's where the guilt comes from, is that assumption. Is that what you experienced?

Lisa: Let me think about that for a second. When I find myself doing things that I probably shouldn't be doing, what I think happens in my mind, I think it is that empathetic place. I think I connect with my either perceptions, or maybe even my own personal narrative about their suffering, they're having a hard time, this would make it easier for them, it would help them feel better. And so I think that it's that sort of motivation a lot of times is to ease, not pain, but to try to see the other person's perspective. But I think where I run into trouble is when the other person's perspective becomes more important, or more real than my own perspective and my own news.

I think the guilt feeling comes when I don't act on that, then I'm like, “I should have helped. I should have done something. I should have—,” but I think when I'm actually doing the people pleasing, it sort of feels like love in the moment and maybe sometimes it is like what you were saying there's that art that maybe there is a time and space to be compassionate and empathetic and loving. But then like, how do you know when you're sort of crossing that line? 

Kathleen: Exactly. Yeah, it's like you come from such a positive place, empathy, really being able to put yourself in their shoes and that can go into this beautiful direction of love and support.

Lisa: Yeah, but then it's like, but then I'll rearrange a meeting to accommodate somebody else's schedule, because somebody else's schedule is more important than my schedule or, like, then it starts after a while. 

Recovering People Pleaser: How to Get Over People Pleasing

Kathleen: There is a lot of— that's why I think it is important to check in and, okay, “What is my motivation here?” Here's a tool that I sometimes use, right? Okay, “How am I feeling right now? What am I telling myself about this?” If I do this thing, okay, picture yourself going through the steps, perhaps it is changing, moving around your schedule or something else. Doing whatever it is you need to do. Imagine that and see how it feels in it. Now, imagine yourself after the fact, how are you going to feel? What are the consequences going to be? Maybe even short term and long term. How am I going to feel immediately after, and then after some time has passed, because you'll get different information from this for different situations. 

It's going to feel a little uncomfortable to change my schedule around, but I will feel really good about the fact that this is going to have a major positive impact for them. Or perhaps this is about something bigger or more for you or you're actually overlooking bigger consequences for yourself in the heat of that emotional moment when you're caught up in the empathy. Kind of playing the tape all the way forward. Yeah, give you some information and figuring out where the balance is for you. Yeah.

Lisa: Well, and that's such a great strategy. And I'm sure that why I hope other people listening to this right now might experiment with that because like, as you were saying that I was thinking about what a nice exercise that is in pushing you into contact with the other values that are kind of in play. Going back to the example of the kid and the laundry. The big value is this needs to be a fully functioning adult man who is capable of putting away his laundry after a certain period of time. 

Or like if I'm pushing around to work meetings, and staying at work later, to the detriment of my family, like cutting into that personal time and like thinking about those big values and what they're connected to. So those are mine, of course. What are some of the other values that you have found your clients kind of connecting with, as you use that exercise with them? Where they're like, “Huh, wait a minute.”

Kathleen: Yeah, I mean, what might come up first, it's easier to access often, is just the value of relationships and connections of harmony that often drives people pleasing. But then as we dig into it a little deeper and go through this exercise, just peace of mind. Authenticity can come up. Physical health is a value, a big important value for a lot of people. Big one. But that's a good question.

Lisa: Those are great values, and just to like to find anchors in those values that can kind of help be a lighthouse, and how should I handle this moment? So that's a great intervention. 

Kathleen: And that's something you can explore and and sometimes I'll work with clients around is different exercises to help identify different values and what yours are. And again, that's not something we can check off of a to-do list. We’ll never be— we're not supposed to be perfect at all of our values all the time. It's about patterns and balance. If I step back, what is this about for me? What choice do I need to make in this moment?

This is also something I want to make sure that I mentioned is that this is not static. Your values even can change, that's okay, we go through different phases in our life. We also go through just different periods, where you may be able to give more or less depending on what you're going through and what you needed that time. That's why listening to yourself and being more mindful and connected to yourself is so important to stay in tune with that. It's not “Okay, this is what I've decided. And now this is what I have to stick to, or else I am failing at something.” It's okay to change your mind and to be in different places at different times. You're human. 

Lisa: That's a great reminder. And I know that this is a big topic. I mean, there are so many different elements of this here. There's like historical relationships. And then there's the  mindfulness component and values. I also know that when you do work with clients on these issues, this is months of work, sometimes years. So this isn't, you flip a switch and change things. It's not that simple and as you say it kind of changes over time, too. 

I'm curious — for our listeners who maybe they've done a lot of that clarification work, and they are more in touch with themselves and are more clear about their own boundaries — I would imagine that there's another kind of growth curve for people when they do begin practicing things like saying no or holding their boundaries or having limits or being more assertive. In our final few minutes, can you share any tips or ideas that could help somebody who's practicing that part of the work? Because that's hard.

Kathleen: Yeah, definitely. I think when we're starting out with that, it's helpful to have some scripts, some assertiveness techniques, or scripts that kind of gives us that — I don't want to say a crutch — but it gives us something to lean on and to guide us as we're starting out. Because it is an art form, it gives us a map as we start to figure out our own way of expressing assertiveness. So there are techniques and strategies that we can learn, but I think what a lot of them have in common is coming from a place of “I,” focusing on your own experience and not talking about the other person in an accusatory critical blaming way, right? 

This can neutralize it a little bit because, often, we will think that if I'm assertive, that means that I'm blaming them or I am trying to take control of the situation. There are all sorts of assumptions around it. When, really, we're just expressing some facts. Just kind of stating some facts. It's important to remember that perspective. “Right now I'm feeling really tired and I'm not able to give the focus and energy I would like to to this meeting. So I'm going to need to postpone it to next week.” I'm just stating the facts from a place of my own experience, my own needs, my own feelings. I think all of the assertiveness strategies sort of have that in common. It helps people to not get as defensive too, I think. Is that what you mean, just for, as one example?

Lisa: Yeah, totally just just how to set those boundaries, because I do think that that's hard for people. And I love the way you just said, just state the facts and sort of a neutral way and just to be clear about that. And also, I think I'm hearing in there and knowing ahead of time what you're going to do and what you're not going to do, so you're sort of informing people, as opposed to asking.

Kathleen: That being said, it's okay — and this is a part of being assertive, and moving away from people pleasing — to say, “I need some time. I need to think about this. I'm not ready to answer yet. I don't know. I need to think about it.” As you know, I see that a lot.

Lisa: I love that.

Kathleen: That's okay, too, because especially when we're practicing this, and we're just becoming more self aware. We may not know. I hear clients say to me a lot, “I'm just not good at thinking on my feet. I don't want to bring it up, because then they might say something or ask a question. And I'm not good at doing this on the fly, so I just don't do it at all.” It's okay to say, “That's a really good question. Can I get back to you on that?” Or the “I don't know how I feel about that right now. I need to think about it. I'll get back to you on that.”

Lisa: That's good. Well, and that's really interesting because if you think that a lot of the anxiety of people pleasing is that kind of fear of conflict. And I think a lot of times anxiety comes from not exactly knowing and feeling like you need to know what you're going to do or what's going to happen next. That can create a lot of anxiety for people is just sort of being prepared and giving yourself permission to say, “I don't know,” “I don't need to know,” “I'm going to think about that,” as sort of a way of helping them feel more competent to handle those situations if they do come up.

And then to that piece what if somebody does get mad at you? What would your advice be to them? For a listener who's like, “I don't know. If I say no, they're gonna get mad at me.” And like, actually, they might get mad at you. What would your advice be?

Kathleen: Yeah, okay, so there's two parts. One is, first of all, assertiveness, actual assertiveness opens up the lines of communication, it does not close it off. If we're using the tools and skills, like for example, taking a break and asking for time, it can manage and prevent escalated conflict. So that's part of the purpose of it. However, if you do all of that, and someone still gets upset, and that can range from “Jeez, I'm really disappointed. This isn't what I wanted to hear,” all the way to name calling and yelling at you. Because some people experience that. That's why sometimes we've become people pleasers if we've experienced that. 

Those things could happen. I think they give us good information. On the one end of the spectrum, we have now opened the lines of communication, which is what we wanted, we are now mutually holding space for each other. You are now learning how to hold space for yourself and create space for yourself in your relationships. And so we need to still do that for other people when they do have natural emotional reactions. “I'm disappointed. This isn't going to work out for me.” Okay, we need to know that. So kind of taking away some of the fear and the stigma around that. 

Relationships are — should be — always sort of connected and negotiating and open. On the other hand, if you use all of those tools, and you're respectful, because assertiveness is respectful, and someone escalates things in response. Then we really have some good information about that relationship. That can be a transitional period where you start to have awareness of things that you didn't look at before. And that's a process to sort of process that and decide which ones we want to keep. What are our options around that? Which is sort of a whole other topic, which we maybe will get more time to talk about if we meet again. 

Lisa: I love that.

Kathleen: But if the purpose is for everyone to have space, and for everyone to know what they're in for, then getting a negative reaction — “negative reaction” — is still getting that information. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have sort of screwed up on assertiveness, if that makes sense, or that you've done anything wrong. 

Lisa: I love that advice, Kathleen, that you just got new information about this person in this relationship and that if you're not willing to twist yourself into a pretzel and do things that aren't good for you in order to maintain this, or they're going to freak out, you need to know that you're. Thanks for talking about that.

Kathleen: Sometimes we can dodge some real bullets if we knew that sooner than later

Lisa:  Yeah. Oh, man, this definitely feels like a to-be-continued conversation to me. There's so much good stuff. I know we're out of time. But thank you so much for visiting with me today, Kathleen, this is wonderful.

Kathleen: Thank you. This was wonderful for me as well. Thanks for letting me be here to chat about it. Loved it.

Lisa: Thank you, so good. Well, we'll have to do this again sometime very soon. And I'll talk to you soon. 

Kathleen: All right.

How to Read People

How to Read People

How to Read People

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: “Nothing to Hide” by Allah-Las

How to Read People

Do you ever wonder how people really feel? Even if they’re saying something different? Learning how to read people can lead to greater happiness at work, in your love life, and improve your emotional intelligence. How can you tell what someone is truly feeling? Luckily, you have a window into their soul: their face. 

Believe it or not, every thought and feeling that we have flashes across our face before we’re even aware of it. Most people learn, at an early age, how to put their “masks” back on quickly when unintended expressions slip through. But if you know how to read someone, you can still understand them — sometimes even better than they understand themselves. 

Why are faces such a source of truth? Your face is the only place in your entire body where your muscles are attached directly to your skin. Fleeting feelings, stray thoughts, and even subconscious core beliefs will all reveal themselves through our facial expressions. The art of reading people is not just decoding body language, it’s learning how to decode facial expressions too.

If your goal is to increase your emotional intelligence, develop empathy for others, and improve your relationships, getting familiar with how to decode facial expressions is a worthy endeavor. 

Today’s podcast will help you learn how! My guest is author and researcher Dr. Dan Hill. Dr. Hill is the author of nine books, including “Emotionomics,” and a pioneer in the use of facial coding. Besides having spoken to audiences in over 25 countries, Dan has had media appearances ranging from ABC's Good Morning, America, to NBC's The Today Show, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, ESPN, and was also a regular guest on PBS’s Mental Engineering show. His advice has also been featured in The New York Times

And today, he’s here to share his insights about reading people with you.  

Listen to this episode to learn…

  • The science behind understanding emotions
  • The importance of understanding others in building relationships and connecting with others.
  • How to decipher emotions using facial coding — the beginning of knowing how to read people.
  • How to hone your emotional intelligence.

Tune in on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or listen right here. Show notes are below, and you’ll find a full transcript at the bottom of this post. Follow-up questions or comments for myself or Dr. Hill? Join the conversation in the comments section! 

All the best, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

How to Read People

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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How to Read People: Episode Highlights

Reading People

In our interview, Dr. Hill explained that 95 percent of our mental activity is not fully conscious. Because most of our brain activity is not known to us, it debunks the paradigm that we are in total control of the thoughts and emotions that pass through our heads. He added that our faces provide a wealth of information to other people, and that we’re constantly taking in data based on what we see in the faces of others.

These revelations are simultaneously humbling and liberating — they confirm that we don't need to pretend to be someone we aren't. “We are who we are, and accept it. Try to learn from it. Don't just give in to it necessarily,” Dan says. You might have emotional blind spots, but gaining awareness of them will help you learn how to read people better.

The Art of Reading People

Charles Darwin found that the face is the only human body part where the muscles attach directly to the skin. Interestingly, human beings have more facial muscles than any other species. While some triggers might differ based on cultural context, there are also some universalities. Dr. Hill observed these similarities in his travels around the world.

Dr. Paul Ekman conducted a study where he showed photographs to people in New Guinea and had them identify the emotions in their subjects. But emotions aren't that simple. There exist 23 expressions that reveal our seven basic emotions: happiness, surprise, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and contempt. But photos can't capture the nuances of all of them. When it comes to the art of reading people, Dr. Hill says, “It’s simple, but it’s not that simple. Because to be that simple would be ridiculous.”

Out of the seven basic emotions, six are core emotions that serve as our fundamental emotional building blocks. So emotional intelligence has three steps:

  1. Perceiving emotions in oneself and others
  2. Understanding the emotions
  3. Putting them together and managing the emotions

Emotional intelligence and understanding how to read people starts with perception. Often, we get so caught up in our own inner experiences, and fail to pick up on other people's emotions. Facial coding offers us a window into the emotional experiences of others so that we can understand how they’re feeling and respond appropriately.

Reading People: The Connection Between Words and Emotions

Reading people doesn't stop when you're able to surmise what a person is thinking or feeling. To understand why they're feeling specific emotions, it helps to ask questions and find behavioral patterns. Understanding facial expressions is not the end; it's merely a tool for reading people and connecting to what they're feeling. It can also help address what Dr. Hill calls the “feel gap,” or the chasm that opens up between ourselves and others when we feel one thing but say another. By becoming aware of it, we can better connect with people and help ourselves and others in becoming emotionally healthy.

In his research, Dr. Hill places the link between what people say and what they’re feeling into four possible categories:

  1. What is said is what is felt.
  2. What is said has some distance from what is felt.
  3. What is said is not what is felt.
  4. What is said is in complete contrast with what is felt.

Out of all the categories, the first one is the least common, according to Dr. Hill’s research. Understandably, some words don’t match up with emotions. We all work to get along with others and avoid conflicts, after all. Essentially, our motivations are to feel good about ourselves. We want to attract others romantically, platonically, and professionally, and sometimes that means “smoothing things over” by not expressing exactly how we feel. 

How to Tell When Someone is Lying

In a cover story from National Geographic, Dr. Hill remembers that 40 percent of all people tell five lies per day. These aren't white lies either; they're deceptions with substance, with real consequences. Dan dislikes the implications of that statistic, but says, “…mostly I try to be intrigued by it and say, ‘How can I do better? How can I understand this? How can I accept my fundamental humanity and accept that of the people I'm talking to?” For more on this topic, check out “Being Honest With Yourself.”

Communication Tip: Don’t Confront Directly (h3)

When you learn how to read people by picking up on facial cues, you’ll begin to observe contradictions between what people say and what they seem to feel. Think carefully about what you do with this information, as approaching it head-on with the person might not be helpful. The person you're talking to might feel embarrassed when you point it out. They might be actively trying to hide it, or they may not even be aware of the contradiction. 

On this point, Dr. Hill quotes Emily Dickinson: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant, lest everyone go blind.” It's best not to directly “call out” the person, or to push them to explore that emotion along with you. It's much better to let them connect the dots themselves, rather than telling them directly that their stated feelings don’t seem to match up with their expressions, which might seem like an attempt to tell them what they’re feeling.

People usually remember things tied to emotions. For example, when you hear something that hurts you, it sticks with you for a long time. Whether in personal or professional relationships, it's vital to understand how to read people's emotions, because there are real, long-lasting stakes.

Emotional Intelligence and Your Relationships

Emotional intelligence can teach you how to be more vulnerable in relationships, which can lead to closer connections, more satisfying bonds, improved leadership skills, and more. 

When you know how to read people, you can pick up cues that could make or break relationships. For example, decoding a smirk of contempt can help people in the business industry know if they are respected. For married couples, a smirk of contempt can be an early warning sign that the relationship is in trouble. 

These underlying emotions, when undetected and unaddressed, can even create financial headaches — contempt destroys respect and trust, which can erode business relationships over time. Ultimately, decoding those emotions leads you to be honest with yourself while forging stronger connections with others.

When coaching a CEO, Dr. Hill encourages vulnerability. It can sometimes feel risky, but the result is better relationships between leaders and employees. 

While there are many success stories about the benefits of learning how to read people, decoding emotions isn't a sure-fire thing. As Dr. Hill states, “You don’t make a hit every time, and you do have to live with that.” Part of emotional intelligence is not beating yourself or the other party up when feelings get messy or difficult to decipher. 

Projecting Emotions

When we’re trying to read people, it’s easy to project our own feelings onto others, a habit that impedes understanding and can be corrosive to relationships. Dr. Hill suggests two paths to avoiding emotional projection. 

First, ask yourself, “Am I making assumptions about other people’s behaviors?” Asking this question helps you avoid assumptions about someone else’s feelings.

Second, be open to new information. Even if someone has a habit of slipping into a particular emotional state, it does more harm than good to assume that an emotion or expression is a person's default and that it’s what is always going on under the surface. To break free from this habit, work on cultivating empathy and curiosity about others.

Controlling Your Own Facial Expressions

Dr. Hill says he doesn't consciously shift his facial expressions when he's talking to people. Once he entered this field, he decided he wouldn't review his tapes to preserve his emotional authenticity and avoid manipulation. Dan sees facial coding as a tool for reading people, and he wants to use it faithfully. He was also interested in restoring humanity to the business world and encouraging better treatment for employees, clients, and colleagues.

The Emotional Advantage

Cultivating emotional intelligence is more than an interesting hobby. It gives us real-world advantages at work, in romantic relationships, in friendships, and even with baristas or grocery store clerks. These little advantages add up to an improved quality of life, which Dr. Hill says, based on research, can actually be quantified as an overall six percent advantage. No kidding!

If six percent doesn’t sound like much, consider that sports stars like Serena Williams are only a percentage point or two better than other top competitors. When it makes the difference between winning and losing, six percent becomes a pretty meaningful advantage. 

Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence isn't fixed; it’s a skill that we can improve over time, in part by learning how to read people. Being intelligent is fantastic, but unless IQ is paired with some EQ, it’s hard to leverage those smarts to make positive changes in the world.  

While earning his Ph.D., Dr. Hill took a teaching course. He didn’t like that the course focused purely on IQ without any regard for EQ. It didn't teach him how to connect with students on an emotional level, a skill that would make any teacher far more effective than simply being smart. 

As the teaching example illustrates, “soft skills” like the ability to read people often get ahead at work and beyond. 

Resources for How to Read People:

  • Get Dr. Dan Hill’s books, “Famous Faces Decoded” and “Blah, Blah, Blah” on his website.
  • Improve Emotional Intelligence (Podcast)
  • The music in this episode is Nothing to Hide by Allah-Las from their album “Worship the Sun.” You can support them and their work by visiting their website.

Each portion of the music used in this episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Please refer to copyright.gov for more information.

Enjoy the Podcast?

Did you enjoy the podcast? What did you learn about emotional intelligence? How do you think these insights can help you get better at reading other people and understanding yourself? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Subscribe to us now to discover more episodes on living a life full of love, happiness, and success.

[Intro song: Nothing to Hide by Allah-Las]

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. That’s Alla-Las with the song, “Nothing to Hide”. I thought this was a perfect setup for our topic today because on today's show, we're talking about how to read people, so that you can understand with accuracy how others are really feeling, sometimes even before they know it themselves. This is a huge component of emotional intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is something that we have talked about numerous times on the show and the importance of it, the ability to be able to understand yourself, understand others, and then manage relationships with others and yourself accordingly, based on this awareness. I think many of our other episodes on the subject of emotional intelligence have really talked about your ability to understand and manage yourself.

Today's show is really all about how specifically, do we understand other people by using, what they're showing us about how they feel on their faces, in order to be able to decode their emotional experience accurately. Knowing how to do this gives you a huge advantage in any situation involving other humans, be it your personal relationships, your interactions with your partner, and even on the job. So I'm so excited that we're exploring this topic together today. My guest on today's show is a true expert on this subject.

On this episode of the podcast, I'm so thrilled to be speaking to Dr. Dan Hill, who is the author of nine books, including “Emotionomics”, and most recently, a book called “Blah, Blah, Blah: A Snarky Guide to Office Lingo”. He is an expert on – wait for it ​​– ​​understanding people's emotions by looking at their faces, among other things. He's done an enormous amount of research around the emotional impact of faces, the way we respond to art and photography. I'm so interested to get his insight into particularly his research into emotional intelligence and how you can use his ideas and what he's learned to help you be more confident and effective in all of your interpersonal relationships. I'm so pleased to be speaking with you today, Dan. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. Dan Hill: Oh, absolutely. Lisa, I'm so looking forward to it. I think it'll be a great conversation.

A Cosmic Joke

Dr. Lisa: Wonderful. Well, Dan, we have much to discuss. I mean, you do so many different things. You're an author. You're a researcher. You're a speaker. But why don't you if it's okay, let's just spend a couple of minutes and talk about, you know, how am I so interested to know like how you got interested in this field of study? And just tell us a little bit about your research?

Dan Hill: Sure. Well, I often joke that as a cosmic joke itself, that I would be an emotions expert, because I'm Scandinavian. And Scandinavians are not necessarily famous for being outgoing or emotional

Dr. Lisa: You do have a reputation.

Dan Hill: Yes, Gary Keillor, with his Prairie Home Companion show once said the joke about the Norwegian American man who loved his wife so dearly that he very nearly told her so. And I happen to be half Norwegian. The other cosmic joke here is that I have a PhD in English. Yet my specialty is not in that field. It's arguably in psychology, and it certainly in nonverbals, so we will converse in verbals. But yes, I rely a lot on what I learned about people from their facial expressions.

The way I got into this was someone I was working for a consulting firm, looking at the customer experience, trying to write a book for the company president. And he had me in contact with someone at IBM, who one day changed my life, sent over an article from a Cornell University publication called American demographics, talking about the breakthroughs in brain science, and how much we are intuitive, sensory emotional decision-makers with a killer statistic that the conservative estimation is that 95% of our mental activity is not fully conscious. which is actually probably about 98-99%.

That's what the science is kind of at these days.

Dr. Lisa: That’s so interesting.

A Scientific Approach to Emotions

Dan Hill: So I read the article, and yes, I had the same reaction. So interesting. My hands started trembling. I mean, literally started trembling, I went, “This is so cool”. I have no idea whether I can make a living at this. But it would be shameful if I didn't pursue it, because it's so striking. And so revolutionary, and the business world's not awake to the importance of emotions, and they're denying it. And I just have to go here, I decided to leave my job within five minutes of reading the article. That is an absolutely true story. 

Dr. Lisa: Wow. That’s like psychologically being struck by lightning kind of experience? That is remarkable.

Dan Hill: That exactly what it was. I mean, I was transfixed with excitement. I mean, it just, I couldn't believe it. I mean, it just happened.

Dr. Lisa: That is so cool. I mean, I think, so many people long for that kind of experience where this is why I'm here – that passion, that purpose, and how amazing that you had that. And we're open to it.

Dan Hill: Well, and then the journey had to start. So then I had to stay open, because then the question was, okay, so emotions are really valid. I mean, of course they are. But then the question was, well, how am I going to research this or capture metrics, because my father was in charge of 3M post-it notes production, sales and marketing.

I grew up in a household where the word innovation, being a tagline for 3M was bandied about just a little bit, shall we say, but knowing that would be my higher target market audience, someone I would have to sell into is like, Oh, my God, I'm gonna have to have science, I'm going to have a methodology, I'm going to have to have metrics. I can't show up and say emotions matter. They're going to call that “woowoo” and soft. And so what, and everything else under the sun.

That started the hunt. And the great thing is, I had a second bolt of lightning, a second Eureka. Because first, a friend blew me up, and was actually a favor. I spent half a year almost developing a methodology, sent it to my friend, Joe Rich — great name for a business person, by the way- and Joe said, “This is great stuff”. And I said, “well, Joe, there's a ‘but’ in your voice, I can detect it. We’re friends, I know”. He said, “Well, actually there is.” “So what's the problem?” He said, “The problem is if you follow these traditional methods, you're going to ask people to think their feelings. And guess what? They feel them.” I had to start over. That's how I came to facial coding, because I said, “Oh, my God, what is it going to be, a very lost month? I don't have much money. I gotta start earning some if at all possible here.”

At the University of California, San Diego, UCSD, they had a lot of PhDs and social sciences in town and psychology, all of that, and a great section on neurobiology. And I started checking out books. One day, I came across the fact that Charles Darwin, the Charles Darwin, came to realize that in your face, you best reflect and communicate your emotions. I read that about 10:45 in the morning, I can picture to this day, just like a picture where I read that fax from the IBM guy.

I can picture the very seat in the coffee house in San Diego where I was sitting when I came across that statement in one of the books I checked out from the library. I went, “Oh, I was an art history minor in college, I lived in Italy, as a boy, I had to read nonverbals my mom was an interior designer, I can do this, this fits, and this is exciting. I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life.” And I knew that just as instantaneously, as when I read the article where I decided to quit. So two of them within half a year. I mean, it's a blessing.

Dr. Lisa: Getting these sort of messages and just like the right information at the right time. And so the first message was most of our brainpower is not fully conscious. And then the second message was people understand and process so much from other people's faces. Those were the kind of the two messages and then taking those together.

Dan Hill: So the first one blew up the paradigm. Because the real paradigm we've lived with basically is really outmoded. It's Rene Descartes saying “I think therefore I am”. Yeah, I mean that that's obsolete as can be, but we still live by it very often. And so it's The Big Lie we tell ourselves. And then the second revelation to your point was, here's a tool.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Oh, that's so fast. And I'm so glad you're talking about this. Because I know I personally do this too. I think we all fall into that belief that we’re fully in command of what's going on in our heads and we're making sort of like thoughtful decisions that is not even remotely true. It's so humbling to be like, “No, actually, that is not what is driving your bus most of the time.”

Dan Hill: It is humbling. But I also think it's really liberating, as though we don't have to pretend to be something we aren't. Because we're not Mr. Spock, from Star Trek, we are Homer Simpson. And you know, and Maggie and everybody else in the family, it’s just, we are who we are, and accept it, try to learn from it. Don't just give in to it, necessarily. But yes, there are tremendous blind spots, and it's going to help you with other people. Because if you think they're rational players, you're off base and the vagaries of their behavior, and how you're going to connect with them most effectively. We'll certainly have a better shot if you're grounded correctly, which is to say, I'm around a lot of other people's blind spots and biases, too.

Dan Hill’s Discoveries

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Good reminder. And, and your research and where you started to go is this idea that our faces and other people's faces are kind of a window into what is really going on, if I'm understanding correctly, and I'd love to hear more about how that path unfolded. And if you could take our listeners into just, you know how, I mean, I am a card carrying nerd. And so I'm always interested in how you did the research, because I think it's super cool. But, of course, and again, you've written nine books on the topic. So there's so much to share. But it's, you know, some overviews, I guess, of some of the main themes that your research uncovered.

23 Facial Expressions and 7 Basic Emotions

Dan Hill: Sure, there's a lot to unpack there, but I'll try my pieces. And if I miss something, you can, you can redirect me back to what I missed. I guess the first thing I would go to is, obviously, Charles Darwin, not available for a conversation after I came across this revelation. But you know, I'm a researcher with a PhD. So I like to verify through multiple sources, and then I like to get to the most credible sources, or resources to draw on as possible.

First of all, Darwin's work, essentially arguing that the face is the only place in the body where the muscles attach right to the skin. We have more facial muscles than any other species on the planet. There's 44 sets of muscles, so there's a real richness of data there. It can also be argued that it's universal, that the display rules vary. Certainly, what could be the triggers, you know, can vary by cultural context. But there is a universality and I believe that because my company has done research for more than half the world's top 100 brands. We've done research in I think about 35 countries, I've spoken in more than 25, I have traveled to more than 80, myself. So you know, I have seen it across the world.

Now. There is someone, Lisa Barrett, who are used against that, but it's because Dr. Paul Ekman was kind of the expert in the field made — it was an early kind of rookie mistakes, I guess I would call it. So he went out to verify this. And he showed some photographs to people in the highlands of New Guinea, and tried to identify if they could pick out what the expression is. And she picks on that and says, Well, yeah, we tried to replicate this, in India and Africa. And it didn't work. 

My point is, of course, it didn't work and Paul Ekman never should’ve done it. In the first case, because we have 23 expressions that reveal our emotions. Let's just take anger, for instance, there are nine different ways you can show anger in the face. Some of those expressions just show anger. But some of the other expressions potentially based on Dr. Ekman’s research itself, indicates that it might go to more than one emotion, maybe two, maybe three, you can't possibly hold up a photograph that's going to be — is this anger, because you're not going to probably show all nine emotions or expressions for it. Plus, some of those expressions will also reveal another emotion.

It's simple, but it's not that simple. Because to be that simple, would be ridiculous. You know, when we'd all had to the Botox Center and the plastic surgeon, you know, to try to hide what we're revealing on our faces, potentially, if we did have something to hide. But the real point of that research is that there are these 23 expressions, and they cover seven emotions. 

The seven emotions are happiness, and surprise, and anger and fear, sadness, disgust, and contempt. Six of those most psychologists I think, would agree that there will be called basically core emotions or, the real fundamental building blocks. And that really sets up the proposition because emotional intelligence really has three steps to it.

In essence, I perceive what's going on for myself and others. Unless you got a mirror- its not going to be so good for that. But it could be, we will have seen your expressions, you can go back and look at your own photographs and video. But it gets you started by perception, then the question is, Do I understand these emotions? Or what do they actually mean? What's their significance? What may trigger them? What does it lead to in terms of behavior? And the third one is putting it all together and managing the emotions. 

You can't do the last one, of course, without the first two. And the game really starts with the perception. And that's why I love facial coding, because it gives you the chance to capture data and get a sense of what's going on for other people. Because one of the problems we have otherwise is we caught up in our own silo. And we do need to get outside of that to be effective.

Dr. Lisa: Yes, your silo meaning like so caught up in our own inner experience. Sometimes we don't fully recognize what's going on. 

Dan Hill: Or to quote my favorite New Yorker cartoon is I have more than once from the stage and so on. Two women are talking to each other one says to the other, “But enough about me, what do you think about me?” Yeah, that’s the silo.

The Feel Gap

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Okay, that's so interesting. And so that there are the 23 different facial expressions that are tied into variations of those, those basic emotions. And then it ties into emotional intelligence, because you're saying that when you can kind of clue into people's faces and understand what they are really potentially thinking, or feeling that you can have more insight psychologically and kind of know what's happening. And that, I'm guessing, it also might sometimes be different than what people are saying out loud, or perhaps, if we're going to get really deep, perhaps even different than what they are consciously aware of?

Dan Hill: Oh, absolutely. So, I mean, I'd make one small correction, what you said, which was, you said, what they're thinking and feeling. I can get a reasonable surmise, and nothing's infallible, and I'm not fallible as a facial coder, but you're looking for a leg up, you know, an opportunity to be better. So I can know, I think reasonably well, what they're feeling, whether they're aware of it or not, whether they're going to admit to it or not. How they're thinking, or why they're feeling that feeling- I can only get through probably through asking questions, trying to look for behavioral patterns that link up to this. So the detective work is not over yet. But yes, it gives you that chance to get to more end.

You mentioned the idea that might be a distance between what they say, and how they feel. And indeed, in my research, I get very quickly settled on the term, the say “feel gap”. They say one thing, but they feel another. What we've found in our work, and I think could be true in your personal relationships as well, we actually found four categories. One is- what they said and how they felt matched up. That's the least common of the categories. 

Dr. Lisa: That's so interesting. 

Dan Hill:  There's also, the lineup was some connection, but you know, some distance. Another one is that they say something, they don't feel it at all, you know, there's no muscle activity. They're just saying it, it's lip service. And the last one is the say-feel gap, where indeed, there is essentially a complete breakdown between what they say, and what I believe they're actually feeling on their face. Because yeah, we try to get along with other people that mean, it's understandable. We don't want to fight all day long have conflicts. And so essentially, our motivations in life are to feel good about ourselves, and to attract allies, whether it's romantically, in terms of our career, and so forth.

Neither one of those has to line up necessarily with being honest. And that being honest, might get us into trouble. The National Geographic had a cover story just a few years ago, about you know, called I think it was, “Why We Lie?” And of course, we went into all the reasons why we would lie, but what I remember is the statistic — 40% of us apparently, tell, on average, five lies a day and we're not talking about little white lies, but lies of some substance, some consequence. 40% of us five or more a day, and I went, “Okay, that's a lot.” But if it's good research, it could make some sense.

Yeah, we don't know what's going on. We do lie to ourselves, perhaps most of all. And it's probably why you know, life is a little messy. But I guess my approach is to be intrigued by it. Most days, there are days I despair about it. But mostly I try to be intrigued by and say how can I do better? How can I understand this? How can I accept my fundamental humanity and accept that of the people I'm talking to.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, that is sobering. And I'm, I'm sure we have people listening to this right now who, you know, might have trust issues and relationships. I mean, that's a thing. And that's very scary to consider that, humans routinely are saying things that are not fully true.

I like your point that sometimes that is a conscious deception that is motivated by you know, a desire for self-esteem or to manage relationships. But the other times, it is not fully conscious that even though people are saying something that isn't true in a moment, they may not be aware of that, they're lying to themselves. 

Dan Hill:  Yeah. And maybe the lie is altruistic. In some sense, you know, benign.

Dr. Lisa: “Your baby is so pretty.

Dan Hill:  Yeah, I think what really disturbed me in a relationship is when it's for malicious intent. And it's a pattern, pronounced pattern with real consequences. I mean, that's kind of a trifecta of poison, that one would be well advised to escape if possible.

Facial Coding

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Definitely. And so I guess what I'm curious to hear more about, so much of our brainpower is, you know, focused on people's faces. And there's such a wealth of this, I mean, kind of reading through the lines here, it seems like, if you become very skilled at kind of decoding people's emotions from their faces, you have a huge advantage and understanding what's really going on.

I'm curious to know that if somebody wanted to develop their skills in this area, to be able to read people more effectively, you know, not just to maybe see problems potentially coming down the line, but I think also just to develop their own emotional intelligence skills, like how do I become better able to reading people and understanding how they're feeling? And I'm curious to know what you would see as being like the sort of arc of that growth process for lack of a better term, like if somebody wanted to develop their skills in that area? What do you think works? 

Dan Hill: Well, I decided at this point in my life, I just published it just a couple, three years ago, I released a book called, “Famous Faces Decoded: A Guide to Reading Others”. And the reason I did that is because, I lived a couple times here in passing to Dr. Paul Ekman, so he's considered the modern expert on facial coding. Although in addition to Darwin, I could even go back as far as Leonardo Da Vinci.

If you look at his notebooks, they include drawings of faces because he was interested in their, you know, the muscularity and how the muscles moves and which emotions they showed. And I really think it's a big reason why Mona Lisa is such an intriguing painting, because it was informed by his interest in science, just like Michelangelo was contemporary was actually doing likewise, but more focused on the body. So one gave us Mona Lisa, one gave us the statue, David, because they had different areas of interest, so to speak, even they were parallel interests.

Dr. Ekman, simply picked up the baton and ran with it and figured out with a colleague of the School of Medicine in San Francisco, you know, these expressions. His manual was like 500 pages. So when I got it, I read through. I was a good student. And I think based on my art history, interests, and even frankly, the fact that I fell in love with Rembrandt at age seven, because my mom took me to the Rights Museum in Amsterdam, and Rembrandt is greater portraiture work.

I think I had some real built-in advantages. And that time in Italy, where we moved for my dad's career, and I didn't know the language at first and went to Italian first grade, and the fishing village, waited all day for the math unit. But Italians have a lot of body language. And you know, that kind of gave me away. And so I had some advantages.

What I'm doing is, is making it simpler for people. So my book is much more accessible than the 500-page manual, definitely shorter, but gives you the secret sauce. So I think the book is really kind of operating on three levels.

One is I said, for some people, you know, maybe learning isn't so easy or attractive. I'll make it real fun, because I'll give them celebrities. I'll give them celebrity examples where they can follow along, but learn something new about these celebrities, in terms of their life stories, little tidbits. And that's kind of the setup piece. And they're celebrities who are Americans and for the last, you know, a couple of generations, and the celebrities were actually did something with their career. They're not just famous for being famous. You know, by and large, they actually did something.

That's kind of the first layer of the cake. And then the next layer was really to try to explain the emotions because that's step number two of EQ. Emotional Intelligence is understanding what the emotions are. And so most emotions really have and there's not necessarily a negative emotion or positive emotions, they both have, all have upsides and downsides. But just understand what are the possible triggers and ramifications for behavior because emotions have a storyline and let me ground this for people by one example, disgust.

With disgust, some really obvious things that might happen to do is your nose wrinkles, or your upper lip curls, it's almost as if nature is very literally saying, it stinks, my nose curl or wrinkles, it tastes bad, my nose, my mouth kind of lifts up and away from the offending taste. Think about the evolutionary advantage of this. You pick a fruit off the tree, you are at the watering hole, you know, we're talking 1000s of years ago, and, of course of evolution and civilization. Well, Disgust can give you or reinforces for this feeling, “Oh my God, that's a bad idea.” This fruit is rotten, that water is toxic, it's polluted, I shouldn't drink it, I shouldn't eat this. And you back off, because that's the storyline of disgust essentially, is something's toxic, poisonous, bad for you. And I'm out of here.

So that that's the, kind of the understanding. So the second tier of the book or of the cake, as it were, is, you know, what do these emotions mean. And then I have diagrams and photographs to explain how you reveal those emotions. So I actually deliver all three of those things. And I think I've tried to make the book as successful as I can without, you know, making it too dummy down that it's not actually accurate, or useful to somebody. And, you know, did all that in a couple 100 pages with fun examples, as opposed to a 500 page manual. And I think that's, I'm not just saying this, because I wrote it. I really think that's probably the most helpful thing out there in this specialty.

Dr. Lisa: I mean, yes. And so again, this is “Famous Faces Decoded”, I will be ordering this immediately after our conversation ends sir, by the way, because it sounds so fascinating. But I could totally see how you would really have to, like, see examples that you present in your book to be able to kind of put it together and know what to look for.

Dan Hill: Yeah, we're visual creatures. And yeah, there's no way you're gonna learn facial coding, without visuals. So I have plenty in there.

Confronting Others About Their Facial Codings

Dr. Lisa: Got it. Okay. But now, I have another question for you. So. So say, it sounds like such a huge, useful thing to do is to really put time and energy into getting more clear around facial expressions and what they mean so that you're better able to read people.

I'm just sort of putting myself in the mind of like a client that I meet by be talking to as a therapist or a coach who does that, and is in tune and is picking up on some of these subtle facial cues, you know, maybe from a work colleague or a boss, or maybe even their partner, asks what do I do with that, like, I know that somebody is maybe having this feeling.

As you said, just so insightfully if human was before, is that, that humans have a tendency to conceal. Their faces say one thing, but that if you ask them or try respond to that, they may or may not be willing to engage with you on that level and say, “Yes, I am actually feeling XYZ.” Like, it's easy for people to blow things off. And I think that that feels frustrating sometimes for people who know, on some level, but can't like engage with it directly. Do you know what I mean?

Dan Hill: Oh, absolutely. It comes up all the time. I mean, my advice when asked a question or came in as part of a discussion is to say, you're right, I mean, it's, you bring it up directly to them and say, there's a contradiction here. They're gonna feel embarrassed, they may not even be aware of it, they're gonna deny and shut you down. It's very unlikely that that's a good approach, how helpful approach to moving things forward.

I said to cite the poet Emily Dickinson who said, tell the truth, but tell it slant lest everyone go blind. To take things on, you know, head on probably just doesn't work. It's got to be done on a slant. And so you know, if I see something I might say, well, that's interesting. And we just play that out a little bit. So I'm training separation from the comment that I think is obviously not quite on the up and up, and just try to let them talk it through and maybe they realize themselves, you know, that's not all of what the answer is here, that's a little more complicated, or may even though work themselves out and say, you know, what I said a moment ago isn't quite accurate. 

If they can get there themselves, and you don't have to push them, you might pull them a little bit or invite them to get there. That's a whole lot better. Or just say, I'm a little bit confused. You know, I, I kind of thought it was this, see, I'm trying to get these softening words in, no, I'm confused, you're taking agency on yourself. You're not making a declarative statement. Just ways that soften the path and see if you can keep them in the conversation, then maybe the revelation will come, the connecting of the dots, and it'll be a far nicer landing. That's what happens, as opposed to “you bloody liar.” That's not likely to go down well.

Dr. Lisa: No, I get it. That's just so helpful that, you know, it's a full frontal like very direct, I think maybe “you're feeling a little bit differently” will shut people down, they will feel attacked or defensive. And so what you're saying is that the advantage here is that if you, you have information, and then you can sort of move into a interpersonal stance, where you're helping them talk, cultivating emotional safety, and giving them you know, opportunities to sort of talk through with you because the other thing here, just based on what you were saying previously, is that they literally may not be consciously aware, in a moment of what their faces are telling you as the observer.

Dan Hill: Yeah. And I'm speaking from experience, I can tell you more than once I said to someone, you know, back in the day, you said something the other day, and you know, it kind of hurt my feelings. And I can't tell you how many times they deny they said it. And I have a pretty good memory. And you know, you do remember things, particularly when it's emotionally laden for you. But that's really how memory works in a lot of ways that it's something significant, and emotional, and you hold on to it. 

Maybe it wasn't significant for them, because there was just this little jibe they made. But it was for the person who received it and felt hurt very significant. So I have a hard time imagining that I was really wrong about them saying those things. But boy, they didn’t own up. And if they didn't own up that we couldn't have the conversation. Because if I was crazy for having imagined that they could have possibly said such a thing, even when I'm quite certain they did. So that's how it gets to be so difficult.

Een when I tried to circle back indirectly, sometimes and say, “Have we ever discussed this topic before”, and then see if it came back, even, that's not always been helpful, because the mind in a lot of ways, like a paper shredder, we just, we just dump stuff as fast as we can. I mean, you would know these statistics, the brain is 3% of our body mass, and consumes 20% of our calories.

It's all about metabolic costs, as the psychologist would say, we're trying to preserve mental energy, and not use up more than we have to because, you know, if the brain suddenly took 100% of our calories, well, then we can't even walk or breathe, or do anything else. So we're awfully determined to try to keep it to 20.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, so kind of shredding things that the brain doesn't perceive as being significant, even if it was highly significant to another person. And I think, you know, going back to one of the first things that you said is that we're all kind of stuck in our silos of, you know, being very aware of how we, well sometimes, you know, we're, we're caught up in our own inner experience and that if when you said to your friend, “Hey, that hurt my feelings.”

Now, like, “What are you talking about?” Like, they just experienced it so differently, it's very difficult to have that empathy for the validity of somebody else's experience when it is so different from how you experienced the same situation.

Dan Hill: It's one thing with friends it's another thing I mean, I can think of at least one instance where it was a boss. And now you got power dynamics in there because you know, one needs the job, and they're in charge of your career. And you really can't push very far there at all. And yet, you know, just like in a romantic situation or with one's parents or children you know, these are real stakes. These are serious stakes and yet you're kind of on this uneven and very flawed playing field you know, and the balls not rolling evenly.

Self- Awareness and Understanding Others

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well and that's a such a good reminder right there because I know that I'm so like in my practice we really have two specialties. We do Like couples counseling, relational coaching kinds of things, and then it's and it seems like it would be different, but it's really not the other sort of post of our practice is around career development and professional growth.

I think that the link there is really in emotional intelligence and being able to understand yourself and manage relationships in both of those domains. But because of that, I know that we have a lot of people who may be listening to this podcast, who are in leadership positions, and who are very interested to develop their skills as a leader. 

I'm just so glad that we're talking about this for their benefit, because what you're suggesting is that someone who is in a leadership position needs to become extremely careful to make sure that they are accurately reading the people that work for them or that they work with, because due to that power dynamic, the person in those sort of, you know, perhaps the employee position, may not feel able or even be able to bring up their feelings. 

Dan Hill: And that's in a particular relationship, even in general, I mean, most statistics would suggest that no more than 10 to 20% of employees in a company feel like they can speak truth to power, or be very candid or transparent. And to go back to your example.

I mentioned my father was an executive, but I was a Director- Executive Communications for a Fortune 200 company, which meant that I was helping him prepare for his speeches, whether it was to shareholders, to employees, to the press, potentially, to nonprofit groups. I've done executive coaching, using facial coding and EQ for those same purposes. So yeah, that's another situation where the stakes are high. Because you know, these can be large audiences. There's moneyed interests involved here. Do you predict the stock price and you handle the press conference well, when there's a crisis or a scandal, some people do that well, I'd say a lot, don't do it terribly well. Because, you know, executives are used to being in charge and power. 

One of the things that they can default to is anger, because now you're challenging my control, because I'm on the hot seat. And you're asking me to make an apology. I mean, the analogy I often make is, at least if you're like me, it's so much harder to back the car up than it is to go forward. I'm always afraid when I'm backing up that I'm going to hear that terrible crunch, where I hit the back bumper or worse of another car going forward. I don't, you know, it's the other driver’s mess. I don't really expect I'm going to cause a fender bender. You know, I can see more clearly that way.

Then, the combination of the rearview mirror and trying to turn around and look over my shoulder, which always leaves me feeling like, God, there must be a blind spot there somewhere. Some sliver of my vision field that I'm missing and haven't helped me if you know, it goes wrong.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. So you're saying to use this self-awareness and understanding of others to try to prevent problems as opposed to going back and then trying to fix them?

Dan Hill: Well, I'll give you an example. So we were talking about disgust and the poisoned waterhole earlier. It has a sister emotion or a male brother emotion whatever you want to say here. It would be contempt. Because, you know, it's also an aversive kind of backing off emotion in some ways. But contempt is really complicated because it's a smirk at the corner of the mouth. When we say Mona Lisa smile, she actually also smirks, although there's even more there than just the smirk. But there's a vast difference between a smirk and a smile.

In business, I sometimes say its profitability is the definition of that gap. Because contempt, a smirk means I don't trust you. I don't respect you. And it applies to both aspects of your practice, by the way, because, as you would know, with Dr. Gottman, John Gottman at the Love Lab of the University of Washington, Seattle, with 30 minutes of facial coding and 90% accuracy rate, if the couple will stay married.

Contempt is the most reliable indicator it will fail. But I also call it the, not just the emotion of divorce, but also of bankruptcy. Because now you have caused the target market not to trust you. And if trust is the emotion of business, I'm now in the wrong place. Because you know, I'm backing off from you, and I don't trust you, and I don't respect you. And therefore anything you say to me might seem like it's a lie. And you've created, you know, real problems.

I was once doing some executive coaching for a CEO and in the annual employee meetings, he was pretty given to contempt. But I'd said, you know, if you're trying to solicit their input, and feel like you're together with them, and that's what you're trying to convey, then contempt makes it feel like you're above them and removed from them. And it's kind of contrary to your goals. And that led to a really good conversation, it turns out, because he was a good person, and actually a psychology major as an undergraduate.

He appreciated the power of psychology and said, “No, it's not that at all. In fact, I do respect them. It's that I'm uncomfortable sometimes in the trappings of being a CEO. Sometimes I feel like I have to say things, feel things, to the shareholders, to the press.” He said, “I know the story's more complicated. We're not always without our blemishes.

Obviously, we're fallible like anyone else. And yet, I'm kind of told this line that I'm supposed to walk, and the things I'm supposed to say.” So he said, “to be really honest with you, Dan, I feel at times a little bit of contempt for myself, because I feel like I'm playing a role. And I'm not authentic.” And I said, “you know, if you told your employees that they would, they would understand you better, relate to you better.

It really be that kind of shining moment of truth that could really make them root for you as a leader.” And as you know, we met at a couple other occasions afterwards, down the road where he had got into some public speaking, and he did shift. And I'm not saying this, because I'm trying to Frankenstein people into someone they aren't or weren't or don't want to be. But I think it really actually reflected who he genuinely was. But he felt that trapped in a role.

Dr. Lisa: Well, how wonderful though, that you were able to kind of like see that in him and get him to talk about it in an authentic way with you and to be able to provide coaching. I'm thinking of the work of Brene Brown right now, like the power of vulnerability. 

Dan Hill: Oh, absolutely.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, to be able to say, I'm not comfortable with this, because I think so often, you know, we feel like we need to, like a project this image that we have it all together. But you're saying and what your research, it sounds like that it sort of seeps through anyway, even if you're trying to, like maintain this facade. And that, and that the real way of creating those connections is to just be honest, well, I also heard you say that sometimes being direct is not always the best course of action

Dan Hill: Well, in this case, I try to reach my audience and the way I really framed it initially, because I didn't know what reception I would get was to say, you know, I think these are your goals, because I said, I've been a Director of Executive Communications. And I know, this is what you'd be trying to achieve, is to motivate, galvanize, engage your employees, so they, you have more productivity, that's the business goal. I said, so the business goal is being harmed by the communications goal. And even not the words, but the nonverbals. So really, I just laid out that contradiction first.

I kind of sat back in the woods and waited to see, you know, how the bear responded when they found the meat, you know, and the campsite. And, you know, all respect to him. He took it on. He said, yeah, that is a problem, that he admitted what he admitted to me, which is, you know, allowing for vulnerability, wanting authenticity, revealing what his value system was, he didn't have to do that for me. I, you know, I'm just a consultant, and not his wife. I'm not on the board of directors, he didn't have to do those things.

But he did do them. And it allowed him to grow, in my opinion, and the results we saw, and it's a real nice success story, without ever, you know, exactly putting him under the gun. I mean, I know the person who was his chief of staff was like, all nervous, you know, what are you going to tell him? You know, what did you see?

They were on pins and needles and I said, “I'm a good diplomat, you know, I'm a constructive person here. I'm not out to flame anybody diss anybody, destroy anybody's ego or career. That's not what this is about. So if you'll allow me the latitude, I need to do my work. I think I can ensure that you know, I will take it forward to the extent that, you know, the CEO is willing to take it forward. But I won't impinge.”

Dr. Lisa: Wow, yeah, that masterfully so I'm thinking of like the Montessori kind of philosophy right now like you creating a prepared environment and then it allows the student or the participant to engage and clearly this person was motivated toward growth and took the opportunity that you provided, but how lovely it must have felt good for you.

Dan Hill: It certainly did. I mean, I'm still here to talk about it today. So it was years ago, but it stuck with me. And I was really happy for the occasion. And you know, and then you just have to accept that. Sometimes it may not work that way. I mean, you know, I'm not the biggest baseball fan in the world, and I know the World Series is starting.

The truth of the matter is, you know, a great hitter, maybe gets the 300, and very few do, that means they're not getting to first base or beyond most times. So you just don't, you don't make a hit every time. And you do have to live with that. That's part of emotional intelligence actually, is not beating yourself or the other party up. Or the fact that not every time is, is that kind of success story, it just, sometimes it is what it is for now. It doesn’t mean it couldn't change later, they may even sleep on it, and come back. But you can't assume that everything's going to suddenly make the doors swing open, and the world looks different. It just doesn't tend to work that way necessarily.

The Power of Projection

Dr. Lisa: Well, good, good reminders, such interesting stories. And I know, I know, we probably don't have a ton of time left, but I have two other questions for you, if I may. And so one of them — and I hope that this is okay to ask.

As we've been sitting here talking, one of the things that I have been thinking about in that, you know, the facial decoding and reading other people is also the power of projection, and, how you are what you've observed about that, even potentially, in our research, and so I'm sure that you understand this well, but for the benefit of our listeners, so that the idea of of projection is that, particularly when it comes to how we interpret other humans is largely based on many of our early life experiences, attachment styles, and back in the day.

Like Sigmund Freud, and those guys would practice actually a form of therapy called psychoanalysis where the therapist was a blank canvas, they did not offer thoughts or, you know, they would just be that person sitting behind you scribbling notes in the chair and and that the person in therapy would sort of free associate for an hour, five days a week, and in doing so, would start to project all of these ideas and interpretations and personalities and thoughts and feelings on their therapist like so they would imagine that the therapist was angry with them, or hostile to them or in love with them. I mean, like could be all kinds of things. 

But the idea of projection is also very real, that we tend to see in other people many times what we do experience in ourselves. And I'm curious what your research has uncovered about the interplay there, or how to even like, manage some of that. Does that make sense? 

Dan Hill: Sure. Well, I think the way I approach that, at least, is kind of two levels. One is I'm in the moment, and am I projecting assumptions about why they're behaving this way? Why they thought this, why they feel that and I try to be really gingerly about that, because you don't know.

It is a wonderful comment from Bekenstein, no, it’s Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard said, “Out of the twisted timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

Dr. Lisa: No what was ever made?

Dan Hill: No straight thing was ever made. There's warps in the wood. There are knots. You just, you know, and I use that quote, sometimes to just remind myself do not project, do not assume. You know, because you can't know I have some glimmerings of what's their feeling. I can restate the question, go back with a topic. They may feel more than one emotion.

What's the interplay of those emotions? What's the sequence of the emotions even? Do they go from sadness to anger? Do they feel this is a really common one, someone could be afraid, then they get angry because they are uncomfortable being afraid. Or they're a guy and they want to mask the fear with anger? Because they think you know, men don't feel afraid, which of course is absurd. Naturally they do. So yeah, the blend that sequence of emotions, whether it comes back in another situation, so I see a recurring pattern. There's so many things there that I think you are alert to or need to recognize you can't jump in and make the assumptions.

On the other hand, for me, at least, I admit, it's a little tempting, not in the short term, but over time to say, Ah, is that kind of a signature expression of theirs? Because George Orwell, the writer said by the age of 50, a man has the face he deserves. We do have muscle memory. We do have patterns as human beings. We're very habitual creatures after all. And so it can be tempting to think I've got to make it really simple. I've got a hothead, they're rarely given to anger, I have a sad sack and they struggle with sadness.

Whatever the case may be, I've got a nervous Nellie, they're always afraid. But those are stereotypes, of course. And it's very unlikely that they fit the one budge bucket. And then the question is, if that is true, you know, what cost? You know, is it me? Is it a boss? Is that a primary relationship, including from earlier in their life? Yeah, you'd hope that it creates empathy, and the curiosity to understand the person as opposed to a judgment and potentially put down or a verdict.

I think I do well, in terms of trying to stay away from the put down. But it is tempting for me as an analyst, to just try to see if I think I can get there and unlock the clue on somebody. And so yeah, I don't want to say it's a parlor game or something. But when I watch people on TV being interviewed, having been on national TV myself, do I get tempted to try to kind of figure out this person, it's like, a 60 minutes episode, I got 20 minutes with them. Yeah, that's enough time, they're like, Oh, let's see if I can, you know, come away with a real sense of who this person is. So you know, that's fun. But you still have to be aware of the stakes and the risk availability.

Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, well, and you're so clearly like approaching this with a, like scientists mind, like, of I have a hypothesis, but I don't want to assume and I think I'm also reading through the lines here that your own self-awareness of those habitual patterns, because I'm just thinking to myself, like, over the years, one of the things that I have learned about myself, is it because it can be very tempting to like do mind-reading, and particularly in relationships, you know, people can run into trouble when they're like, I know how you feel.

What we're talking about is, you know, taking a more scientific approach, and really like looking at people's faces and trying to read their emotions to get that accurate information. But like, one of the things that I've learned is that, you know, it's easy for me to assume that people are upset with me, somebody is mad at me, or doesn't think well of me. Not to blame parents, but me, I had a kind of a critical dad. And so that was often true in childhood.

So now I sort of even have to like talk through that, like, you don't know that, you know, and just kind of like back away from that idea. But, I think, I think that self-awareness, just even just knowing that you have a tendency to make, like kind of key assumptions, could be helpful in staying in that reality-based place that you're talking about is like the taking more scientific approach of uncoding people's faces and understanding them.

Dan Hill: Yeah. Well, I think I can relate to what you just said. I think my father is a very smart and honorable person. 

Dr. Lisa: Yes. I love my dad. 

Dan Hill: Yeah. But in, in my case, I would say my dad was, could be given to a little bit of condescension, since he was smart and industrious. And so I'm particularly adept at picking up smirks and you're sensitive to them. And who's to say, you know, I don't know myself, but who's to say that the nine books that I've fathered, and all this work that I've done is in some way to try to gain the respect I don’t get in childhood easily. It could be, you know, yeah, I couldn't prove it in a court of law. But, you know, if I was on trial, I would have to confess that there was a distinct possibility that that's at least a part of the explanation

Dr. Lisa:  Was your dad, the Norwegian one? 

Dan Hill: Yes. 

Dr. Lisa:  Okay. My dad, Belgian. I'm a first-generation Belgian American, and I think there is something to that, Dan, I really do. Yeah, I really do. Well, then, so the other question that I had for you. So there's one side of this, I'm imagining, which is really learning how to understand what other people are showing through their faces.

I'm so curious to know about the other side, because I would imagine that people might want to use this knowledge to manage their own facial expressions in such a way that they are being careful about what they're kind of communicating to others. I'm curious to know if and maybe we could talk about your clients but I'm also curious about you. Have you noticed yourself kind of consciously shifting what you are doing with your face when you're talking to people?

Dan Hill: The answer is absolutely no, because I decided almost immediately once I got into this that I was not going to go back and look at my videotape, my TV appearances from my speech. at conferences, I didn't want to put myself in a fishbowl.

I wanted to highlight authenticity. The reason I became a facial coder is because I liked it is that an objective tool, or at least I can say quasi-objective, since there's probably nothing that's truly, utterly objective in the world. But to try to faithfully use the tool with the researcher, Dr. Ekman to try to get a lens on what's happening, it could be to make companies more efficient. But honestly, my interest in business had almost entirely to do now with, you know, bottom-line profitability. I do, like I do like to have, you know, efforts that are fruitful, as opposed to stupid and wasteful.

I was interested in restoring humanity to business, and getting recognized that whether it's your customers or your employees, your colleagues, that why don't you treat them better. I mean, I've been to enough office politics, you know, it's probably why I wrote the “Blah, Blah, Blah” book, like, I'm thinking of office, politics, and bullies, and all those head games that go on. But I know I never wanted to look at myself, but I do know, because I just, I can't avoid it sometimes.

I gave a speech once where it was the chairman of Nokia, Nokia kind of imploded. It was the chairman of Nokia and the CFO of Nokia, and then me, three of us on the stage back to back to back 15,000 People in the hall in Barcelona. The screens behind me were like I was born out with a YouTube concert. I mean, they were, I think, I'd guess roughly 52 screens, each of them 50 feet high, and 100 feet wide, behind me. So could I avoid seeing myself? Not so much.

I do know at least one thing, but I don't harbor it or belabor it, I can be given to showing a lot of surprise. And I guess, therefore some fear on my face, because those two emotions are quite similar. And I think there's an explanation for it in part, which is, I wasn't always that aware of human nature growing up.

I was pretty isolated as a boy, in Italy, you know, the boys I did play with were older than me. And so when you got a big age gap, at that point, it's a little difficult. They didn’t definitely want to hang with a younger boy. The one boy who was my age was, you know, not very athletic, and maybe not as lively, even intellectually, so he wasn't a companion, I was seeking out. Especially I spent a lot of time going on long walks along the Italian Riviera, up in the hills in the olive orchards on my own.

I read copiously and read a lot of books as a kid. So I think to this very day, there are times where human nature just shocks me, baffles me, leaves me bewildered because I expect higher standard, I expect more thoughtfulness, more sensitivity, more owning up to something that actually happens. And so I seem to be potentially always in a state of being “Oh, really?”

But at least I guess the upside of that is that also indicates that I'm willing to be very curious, and continue to learn, which is true. So just like every emotion has an upside and a downside. That can be the two coins, or sides of the coin in this case. So I know that much about myself. I do think that in the progress of understanding emotions, I probably made by and large and adjustment to being more calm.

When you run a company as I have, it's a lot of stress. And you either buckle under it, or you learn to cope with it better. And I think I got, yeah, I'm not perfect, but I think my ability to cope with snafus and stress and things that come up is vastly improved. And I think one of the motivations I have to be a tennis player, and I'm almost exactly at this very close within half a year of being the same age as John McEnroe.

We're both lefties. Now am I as good as John, not even close. But I did watch John's career and at some point, I started feeling embarrassed for John because he was a great champion. But he was out of control. He got tossed from tournaments, he got fined, he undercut himself. He's a great commentator now for the US Open. I mean, he just, you know, really cuts through and has some insightful things. And he really knows the game and you never know he's going to quite say. So it's really exciting to listen to him.

But there was a point in his career. I was like, No, John, you know, you're maybe when you're 23 and you haven't matured. I can cut you some slack. But now you're a 32-year-old player. And you're still getting into these kinds of shenanigans. Yeah, it's wrong. It's embarrassing.

Dr. Lisa:  Just for the benefit of some of our some of our younger listeners. So John McEnroe was a very famous tennis player back in the day who was legendary for like freaking out on the tennis court like, straight up tantrums, like throwing his racket, like stomping off, like all kinds of things.

Dan Hill: Once in the tournament in Sweden in a year where he went like, I think at three and four, he lost four matches in the entire year. In a match that I think he went on to lose, maybe didn't, but anyway went berserk yelling at the ref and everybody else, he whacked a tennis ball at one point into the stands and barely avoided hitting, I think it was the king of Sweden, in the face, with the tennis ball. So he's the number one player in the world for several years, you know, a legend in the sport. Did he reach his full potential? I don't think he did.

Dr. Lisa:  Yeah. Well, and so there's certainly a benefit to being able to control your own emotions. But I also just, I want to recognize what you said. Because when I asked you, you know, if you've used this information to kind of, I mean, I can't, this is a terrible word, but it's the right word to almost like, manipulate how other people see you, I heard you say that you made deliberately a conscious choice to use these superpowers, so to speak, for the purpose of good and just like sitting with you and talking with you, Dan, you seem just like a very genuine, ethical, like, just good.

I don't know that you and we don't know each other that well. But that's the energy that you give. And I'm just, I'm so glad that you are sort of the steward of this information, these things that you've learned about it? Because I would imagine as you're teaching them to others, it's for the purpose of helping them be more effective and more empathetic in relationships, as opposed to using the information.

Dan Hill: Yeah, be that's yeah, that's all true. And if I just close my eyes for a moment, there's we're talking, which is a sign of sadness, because, there are, of course, people who use it for other reasons. Just to pick up on one, the Chinese government, there's a very large company. All the companies in Silicon Valley are basically at work automating facial coding, they're not very accurate so far, but they're at work doing this.

But so true for a Chinese company, worth billions tied into the Chinese government and using this to monitor the Uighurs. Rather, it's how you say it, the Uighurs in northwest China, who are Muslim. So it's being used as a tool of oppression in that case, because it's monitoring their emotions and behavior and trying to indoctrinate them. So this can have very large stakes. But yes, I am trying to be benign, beneficent, positive, ethical, and my use of the tool, whether involves myself or others. That's, you know, that's my purpose. But I'm aware that it could be used for other reasons.

EQ: Emotional Quotient

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, well, but that I mean, my takeaway is just how much good it can do to to be more aware of the needs and rights and feelings of the people around you, so that you can have closer and more connected relationships with them. And really, like more emotional intimacy is like my big takeaway is that when you become good at understanding how other people are feeling, by that you can open the door for those really emotionally intimate moments like the ones that you discussed, you know, with, with your coaching clients and other situations.

Dan Hill: Yeah, I mean, it's all about EQ. And I wrote the book, you know, “Famous Faces Decoded.” I was lucky that I talked to him about an endorsement from John Mayer, who's one of the three founders of EQ movement. The other two are both at Yale University, and he's up in New Hampshire. And he pointed out gives you probably there's a lot of inflated claims as to what EQ could do for you, he said, but it's a very solid like 6% advantage.

I went well, because I know being a tennis player, and having been on Tennis Channel twice with Mary Carillo, interviewing me that the greatest players in the world are Roger Federer, or Serena Williams, on average, even when they're number one in the world, they were in 53% of their points, on average. That's it. So the margin to winning you lose, even when you're the very best in the world is not very large. So 6% advantage, you might go. That's not much. That's a lot. That's an awful lot. And it's the separation between EQ and IQ. IQ is relatively fixed. That's my understanding of it. EQ isn't fixed. It can grow, it can embellish. And they should work together as opposed to just EQ being silent now give you maybe one last instance here as we're wrapping up.

So I'm at Rutgers. I'm getting my PhD, and I'm going to be teaching courses now in my case. I'd already taught both at Brown University Of course, and for two years full time at a state university before I came back for the PhD so I was versed as a teacher but my fellow classmates were not. The truth of matters, the students at, you know, even at Rutgers, they pay a good amount of money for the tuition. The chorus is the time and the money, and yet, you're gonna put me in a classroom. And maybe I know the content, and maybe I got the IQ part down.

But do I know how to teach? Do I know how to interact with the students? There wasn't one second that I can think of that we spent on EQ skills, even though that particular course was supposed to be a training course, to prepare us to be, you know, in the classroom, as teachers. It's kind of absurd. And if you look at where the economy is headed, skill sets will evaporate.

Technology is such that, you know, things get overturned immediately. So I know your podcast, one of the words in the title, and we didn't talk nearly enough about love, and relationships. But if you want to just end it for a moment on success, success is going to depend a lot on soft skills going forward. Yeah, I think your ethics, your flexibility, agility, you know, all those things that get poo pooed sometimes, because those are permanent, and they can be built on and your so-called hard skills, those are actually the soft ones.

They may be the erased skills, the invisible skills, the obsolete skills. So what was wrong about how we got prepared for the classroom at Rutgers is a problem that all sorts of classrooms are making, and all sorts of companies are making universities, colleges, businesses, organizations in general, should never underestimate the importance of EQ.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, what a powerful message that culturally, we've been kind of over-prioritizing intellectual informational IQ type of knowledge. And what I'm hearing you say, is that the robots are coming for us all and all of the informational things, that's the part that we like, can't come things change so fast. But the soft skills, the compassion, emotional intelligence, flexibility, those are the things that are going to endure. And so that to your point, that it's really worth if you're going to invest in anything to be successful in, professionally and relationally, it's to really develop your skills in that area, because that's what matters.

Dan Hill: Yeah, I mean, if he just follows the progression, I mean, yeah, machinery, you know, started to step in and take over and do as well, what our backs could do, and our arms and our legs, lifting and making things work. And now we work in conjunction with them, but they do the bulk of it. The same thing is going to happen with the IQ side, we can supplement the robots, we can fill in, collaborate, but the robots are going to be better at some point, maybe even now, at times in that area.

Probably the one thing we can hold on to best actually is our hearts and our creativity and ingenuity, and ability to collaborate. And that's why this is also important. And facial coding can help you because it's right in the moment. It's what's happening. And you can pivot it and respond and utilize it. And that’s the opportunity. I think it's a real sweet spot where people could be and believe me the same they can help in your personal relationships, too. So anyway, we'll leave it at that.

Dr. Lisa:  Oh, what a beautiful idea for us to glide to a halt. And, and a beautiful segue for me to remind everybody where they can find your books, if they like me are going to be. I, as soon as we hang up, I'm going to be getting all of these books that you mentioned from Amazon, because I really want to learn about this. But the one is “Famous Faces Decoded” to learn how to understand facial expressions, and another, what the most recent book is “Blah, Blah, Blah: A Snarky Guide to Office Lingo.” 

If you want to get a handle on how to manage some office politics, and I mean, again, you've written nine books and so there's all kinds of information and guidance that you offer. But you can find all of it on Dan's website, which is sensorylogic.com Access to his books and you have a podcast as well.

Dan Hill: I do. It's called Dan Hill’s EQ Spotlight. It's on the New Books Network. It's the largest book review site in the world gets about 1,000,007 downloads a month, not just me, but for everybody who's on it, and set up by a former Harvard Russian studies professor who is best I understand it had tenure, but walked away because he didn't think it was interesting enough anymore.

He was going through the motions too much and wanted a different way to bring knowledge to people in the world. So you can check that out of the new books network, Dan Hill's EQ spotlight, and you're right there are the books the ones you've already mentioned, other business books, and even a book called Art, a book on democracy and political leaders getting all the US presidents that I've facially coded. So I can't say I've covered everything under the waterfront but I hit a number of topics over time.

Dr. Lisa: Definitely an authority. But thank you so much for just coming and, and sharing your wisdom with us today. This has been a fascinating conversation. I really enjoyed speaking with you. So thank you for doing this with me. 

Dan Hill: Absolutely, thanks for the good conversation.

[Outro song: Nothing to Hide by Allah-Las]


Emotional Flooding

Emotional Flooding

Emotional Flooding

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music Credits: “Urgent Blowout” by Brandy

Emotional Flooding

Emotional flooding is impacting communication in your relationships — whether or not you’re consciously aware of it. Have you ever wondered why you lose it sometimes, and say things you regret later? Or why you get to a certain point with people where you just cannot talk anymore, and shut down or withdraw? These are both examples of emotional flooding: Lashing out and shutting down are two sides of the same coin. 

Flooding Psychology

Anytime we tangle with someone, we become physiologically elevated. Whether or not you’re aware of it, your body is dumping stress hormones out into your bloodstream that increase your heart rate, narrow your perspective, and energize your body to effectively fight, flee, or freeze. 

This biologically-based, completely normal reaction does strange things to your brain: It makes the “human” part stop working very well. Your compassionate, self-aware, rational, and well-spoken self gets hijacked by your entirely emotional mid-brain. That part of you gives no craps about consequences, is not particularly rational or articulate, and is here to win or die trying.

Emotional Flooding in Relationships

If you’re in a knife fight, that’s a good thing. But if it’s happening when you and your partner are trying to decide between pizza or burritos… that’s not going to bode well for your relationship. Unless! Unless you’re aware that emotional flooding is happening inside you (or your partner), and you know how to effectively manage it so that it doesn’t damage your relationship.

Everyone gets flooded emotionally, and that’s okay. The trick is to recognize when it’s happening and help everybody calm back down before things get nasty. How? That, my friend, is what we’re talking about on today’s episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

With me is my dear friend and colleague, Lisa Jordan. Lisa is a therapist and a level two Gottman-certified marriage counselor at Growing Self. Listen to this episode to hear her insights about flooding psychology. She delves into what it means to be emotionally flooded and how it can impact relationships and discusses different manifestations of emotional flooding to help you see it coming. Her advice in keeping our emotions from overflowing will be helpful for every couple out there, and I hope you listen!

Listen to “Emotional Flooding” To…

  • Learn what emotional flooding is about.
  • Recognize when you're becoming emotionally flooded.
  • Find out the science behind being emotionally overwhelmed.
  • Understand the secret gift behind the “perpetual problems” in most relationships.
  • Discover ways of becoming emotionally healthy with your partner.
  • Realize the importance of self-compassion and emotional safety in a relationship.
  • Challenge yourself in creating a healthy space for yourself and your partner.

You can listen to this podcast episode on Spotify, on Apple Podcasts (don’t forget to subscribe!), or right here on the page. If you’re more of a reader, show notes and a full transcript are below. For more on the subject, be sure to check out this article about emotional flooding from Lisa!

Thanks for joining us today, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Emotional Flooding

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Emotional Flooding: Episode Highlights

Emotional Flooding – Defined

Many do not realize that they are emotionally flooded. When people get involved in a conflict, each escalation contributes to a state of fight, flight, or freeze. Emotional flooding is a mix of the biology and chemistry happening in the brain when stress transitions into conflict. It is a physiological activation that occurs in a fight. It escalates rapidly, which disables you from thinking rationally and communicating with your partner.

Emotional flooding can make small things feel so big. We tend to say and do things haphazardly when in a state of overwhelm. Words can become like knives thrown to assert dominance in an argument. The sad thing about this is that we may not even remember why there was a conflict in the first place. We continue to fight since we feel threatened by our partner. However, as everything intensifies, we don't notice the rift that slowly develops in the relationship. Over time, being in constant emotional flood leads to irreparable damage to trust and emotional safety. Emotional flooding can cause relationships to seriously go downhill.

Draining The Emotional Flood

When two people in a conflict are both emotionally flooded, both lose the capacity to back down. The self-awareness to know when you are emotionally flooded will help you get on top of things and understand the situation. Recognizing emotional flooding can even help couples recover faster from the aftermath of the conflict. Additionally, having the heart to apologize is also key to keeping a long-standing, healthy relationship.

Taking breaks is essential for de-escalating emotions. Physical checks (e.g., heart pounding, shortness of breath, rising blood pressure) can help you to recognize if it's a good time to rest and drain the flood. Taking a break is not just time off. It's “bringing yourself back to a place of calm.”

Instead of being busy planning on your rebuttal, take the time to listen to your partner. Think first: “Is there anything that you can acknowledge for your partner that they have a legitimate point about?”

Spending your time listening, focusing, and being with them is a way to both stop and even prevent both of you from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

Fight or Flight Response In Marriage

Our limbic system has been with us for millions of years. It has accompanied us as an adaptive tool responsible for the fight or flight response: We needed it to survive. But now, in modern times, we rarely have situations that require us to fight or flee. The brain, however, still makes use of our survival instincts. The rational part of the brain can still go offline, leaving us overwhelmed. The brain translates the things our partner says or does as something dangerous, which shuts down our rationality and leads to emotional flooding.

Impacts Of Emotional Flooding

In Lisa’s marriage counseling sessions, she’s had numerous couples share their experiences with her – with many of them having stories of emotional flooding. Many of the couples she's worked with had conflicts that lasted days. These continued to a point where they no longer communicated with each other. Lisa shares, “In my experience, when couples are escalated and they're having conflict, they may be yelling, [and] they may be saying hurtful things. They move away from each other. And both feel abandoned, but maybe for different reasons.”Couples find it difficult to finish arguments because there’s not enough safety for them to stay. However, it is vital in a relationship to address conflicts right away. These moments are when self-awareness is critical. We should assess if we are becoming overwhelmed and if we need to take a break. But we also need to be responsible enough to come back to an argument – all calm and collected. Leaving a conflict hanging can make your partner feel abandoned and invalidated.Continuously keeping conflicts unresolved may also make them think that their partner can't or won't meet their expectations and needs.

The Perpetual Problem

Even great relationships have problems and conflicts. It’s all about the attitude, trust, and commitment to the relationship that make it work. Younger couples may attach themselves to a fairytale version of what a relationship is. And experiencing it, with all its realities, can make them feel disappointed. They start losing confidence as conflicts arise, which can easily lead to being emotionally flooded.

However, disagreements will happen in a relationship — it's normal. Lisa even goes on to say that “69% of our disagreements are perpetual”. It can be lifestyle issues like one of you being a messy person while the other one is a neat person. Since things like this are hard to change, we’ll just have to be accepting.

Lisa advises, “If we know that the two-thirds of what we go through in life are the problems of just being in relation with other people, we might as well focus our attention on that 1/3 of problems that are actually solvable. Creating some space around the rest of the stuff, making it more workable, or negotiating how we want to deal with things.”

Build Up Your Relationship With Yourself

One of the most significant steps in having a healthy marriage is to have a healthy relationship with yourself. By being kind to yourself and developing that self-compassion, you can create a kind of emotional safety inside of you. When you feel emotionally safe by yourself, you become less reactive and more understanding. You become a person who can transmit emotional safety and compassion to your partner as well.

Resources: Emotional Flooding

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[Intro Song: Urgent Blowout by Brandy]

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Today, we're talking about a very important concept when it comes to relationships. But one that is not well understood by many people. That is emotional flooding and what it does to us. I tell you what, when I have worked with couples in counseling, who really get what emotional flooding is and the impact that can have on communication, so many things changed for them. This is a very important thing to understand, and that is what we're doing on today's episode of the podcast. 

I am so pleased to be talking today with my colleague, Lisa Jordan. Lisa is a couple's counselor on our team, who has a lot of training in this area. She has a ton of expertise in helping couples identify different areas of communication that are problematic and improving them, and in particular, around emotional flooding. I'm so excited to talk with her about this today and to get her to share her great advice with you. Lisa, thank you.

Lisa Jordan: Oh, thank you so much for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

How Hidden Emotional Flooding Is

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, I really wanted to talk with you about this. Because lately, I have been doing episodes on these. I almost think of them as like hidden rocks or obstacles. Have you ever had that experience like you're in a stream or something, and there's this stone that you don't see and that's the one that you slip on or that you bump your shin on? There are these things that happen in relationships that are kind of like that. There are these things that you don't see coming. 

I think a lot of people don't understand in the moment what is happening and the major significance of these things. Recently, I recorded an episode around invalidation and how very easy it is to respond to your partner in a way that makes them feel really bad. You don't mean to, and it can really damage trust and emotional safety over time. I think that emotional flooding is really one of those. People just don't even know that it's there and it is ruining their relationship nonetheless. 

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I do think that the emotional flooding, that whole term, and that idea, is something that people wouldn't initially think about. They just consider that they're in conflict. They don't necessarily understand how it's part of the dance that they're doing. Each person is doing something that pushes it further and further along until all of a sudden, it's something that it wasn't in the beginning.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Chairs are getting thrown out, people are screeching off in their cars very dramatically. I know. All kinds of different places. 

What Emotional Flooding Is

Dr. Lisa: To orient our listeners, because emotional flooding, I think, it is such a weird and in some ways, clinical term, emotional flooding. Let's just start with the basics. What does emotional flooding mean? What is emotional flooding?

Lisa Jordan: When I talk about emotional flooding, what I mean is that when people are engaged in something that will eventually be conflictual, it starts at a point where the emotions are not particularly involved. With each escalation, blood pressure’s going up; the heart starts pounding. That escalated state where we move into that fight, flight, or freeze, creates something that's very different. 

Whenever I'm working with a couple and they say, “We got to this place where some very mean things were said, and our feelings got hurt,” I know that we're talking about emotional flooding. Because when you're not in that state, you're not even in a position to be saying and doing the things that ultimately happen when you're elevated like that. Emotional flooding is when you think about the biology and the chemistry. It's where all that science comes in. 

Most people have heard of fight, flight. Everyone is a little bit stressed right now. So I think we're all living from time to time in fight, flight, freeze. But that's where the emotional flooding comes from. If you never are able to discharge that excess stress, and then, you move into something that's conflict with your partner, it escalates very quickly so that you're no longer using the rational, more well-thought-out part of your brain and thinking about the things that you and I are always trying to teach in couples communication, which is to talk to each other with kindness and respect.

“Talk to me as though I love you, and you love me.” Those kinds of qualities have gone completely out the door. Emotional flooding is when that is gone and you don't even know who you are fighting with in that moment. It's not the same loving person that you knew when things were feeling calm.

The Importance of Self-Awareness When Being Flooded

Dr. Lisa: Oh, my God. Yeah. Can everybody relate to this? I can relate to this. I've had that experience. What you're describing is this physiological activation that happens to us in conflict. It's this fight or flight thing. Our rational, thinking brains just go out the window and we can say and do things that are shocking, even to us. 

Lisa Jordan: Yes. I think everyone has been there. Everyone has gone there. I consider in my 30-year marriage that I have a nice, good relationship. We rarely go there. Of course, we've gone there. That's why I know what it feels like to be emotionally flooded, like sitting in that moment where you're just sure that your partner is doing something that's just making it worse and worse and worse. 

If you could take away that, what's called the sympathetic nervous system, right, the one that's escalating. If you could calm that down, you would be able to let in some other possibilities, which is, “Maybe they're really not trying to do this. Maybe I'm actually not hearing this correctly. Maybe I'm not understanding well what's going on.” But when two people are emotionally flooded, neither one has the capacity to back down. That's why it's so important to become self-aware if you are emotionally flooded. Because if one or the other partner isn't getting on top of that, nobody's going to be the wise voice to bring you back down again. 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, and it's so hard to do. Let's just get real for a second. We are both marriage counselors. We have both been married for a long time, overall, good relationships. Matt and I have done so much work over the years, and it's been very positive. But I will still, from time to time, have these moments where I just lose it. There's this other part of my brain like, “I'm a marriage counselor. I know all of these things.” 

There's a little part of my brain that’s like, “Don't say that. Don't do that. You're doing it.” But even in those moments, even though I have all of this information, there's this other part of your mind that is just like, “Yes, I don't care and I'm mad right now. I'm going to tell you all about it. I'm going to be mean and say all these things.” It's like, you can't help yourself. Yeah, no, it really is.

Lisa Jordan: I think it's actually a good thing because when it happens, I recognize in myself how easy it is to go there if just a couple things aren't going well. We're all that close. Maybe you and I, maybe we recover a teeny bit faster just because we're recognizing it. I don't know. But we can go there just as much as anybody, and I think it's just about having those tools. 

I will say that that optimism, that confidence that comes from long-term relationships is “Wow, we have been through this and we've weathered this, so this is very familiar. Then, we can laugh about it.” I think also having that really strong muscle to apologize. I can apologize a lot better now than I could when I was married for a year or two, and I was sure that I was right about everything. The longer I stay married, the less right I am about everything, which has been really healthy. 

Dr. Lisa: I really love it.

Lisa Jordan: To be less certain about your rightness and things is tremendously healing in a relationship.

Changes in the Brain During Mental Flooding, When Your Mind is Overwhelmed

Dr. Lisa: I couldn't agree more. I think of it as healthy humility, and I can so relate. I agree. I think I'm much better than I used to be, too. I think that self-awareness that you're describing and understanding when you are starting to get elevated is hugely helpful. I do want to talk about those strategies because I don't want to leave people with this idea that this is going to happen no matter what. It really does get better. But it's so easy, so easy to fall into. 

Going back to one of your points, because I think this is important to talk about more, is what actually changes in our brains and in our internal process. I remember once being at a training… Did I ever tell you that Matt and I, for a while, were foster parents? Did I ever tell you that? Yeah, we did it. We did it for a few years. It was an incredible experience. I remember being at this one training, which was so good, where the trainers were explaining these concepts. 

I, having been to counseling school, had learned about it in a different way. But they talked about this in such an, I think, accessible way because they were trying to educate foster parents about what happens, particularly with traumatized children who can really have big responses. I know that this is audio, but right now, I am holding up my closed fist. If you can imagine my fingers are facing Lisa, and my thumb is closed in my hand. 

What they talked about is that our lids get flipped. I just lifted up my fingers. What they were trying to illustrate is that there's actually this part of your brain, I believe, it is the amygdala. Fact check me on that. When we become in this super fight or flight space, the amygdala becomes where you're operating from, which is the seat of emotion. 

This other part of your brain, the neocortex, which is usually the part of you that is in control, it is the part of us that thinks rationally. It is the part of us that processes language. It is the part of us that is the most human part of us in some ways. It has compassion for other people. That part goes offline. It's like you're totally operating from your lizard brain, basically in that moment, and wanna kill everybody.

Lisa Jordan: That's exactly right. Because we have those different parts, that whole limbic system that's there, the survival piece of us that for millions and millions of years has been there, when we had to flee from the saber-toothed tiger, we needed to have that fight/flight response, or we wouldn't survive. It's adaptive. 

Now, in modern times, we rarely have situations where we have to flee. But our brains are still doing it. They're still going there. As you say, the prefrontal cortex, that part that is developed that is rational, it really goes offline, and we're left with overwhelm. When that flooding happens, our brains are searching for the danger. The danger, unfortunately, gets interpreted as being, sometimes, what my partner is saying, or doing, or not feeling safe in the relationship at that moment. 

Gottman Flooding and Shutting Down When Overwhelmed

Lisa Jordan: I think one thing that I didn't mention about flooding is that it's not always looking like escalating conflict. We have people who dissociate, who become so shut down that they can't speak at all. That also is escalating for the partner who wants to fight more. It's not just that there's escalation and both people are name-calling and becoming hurt, it's that one person is starting to shut down, and the other partner is thinking, “You're doing that on purpose. You're abandoning me.” That is a very triggering thing as well. 

You're right. It's chemistry. It's biology. We've got all this operating at the same time. Based on what one's reaction is, when you go out of that resilient zone, up above it, you may get panic attacks, or anxiety, or extreme anger. If you get bumped out, down the other way, for some people, that looks more like depression, or dissociation, or not really being able to engage at all in conversation. People are shut down in different ways.

Dr. Lisa: That's interesting. I think, if I'm remembering correctly, you would probably have a lot of insight into this because I know that you're a Gottman-certified couples counselor. For our listeners who may not be familiar with their work, the Gottmans have done just an enormous amount of research into relationships and healthy relationships versus the kinds of behaviors or ways of communicating in relationships that are known to create issues

Can you speak a little bit… I believe that they did some research around the impact of emotional flooding in those relationships, and particularly, in the piece of shutting down that some people really, when they start to experience this internal flooding, just stop interacting. Can you talk more about that and what you've seen happen with that and your couples?

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, so it's not unusual that when a client, partner, and a couple is talking about what happens to them when there's a lot of conflict, is that they will say, “I get to the point where I can't talk anymore, and I go away. I don't come back for three, four days.” They're just not speaking to their partner for days. They don't know how to reconnect. They get lost in finding their way back. 

I think what the Gottmans did so well and gave us all these tools to help couples with, is how to find your way back without using the strategy that you have because it's the only one you've got and using something else so that you don't have to suffer. Because the relationships are suffering so much from that kind of shutdown or moving away from each other. 

In my experience, when couples are escalated, and they're having conflict, they may be yelling. They may be saying hurtful things. They move away from each other. Both feel abandoned but maybe for different reasons. One, because there's just not enough safety in the relationship to stay present. They have to check out. The other, because their partner walks out of the room and won't stay to, as they say, finish the argument. But worse, what does that mean to finish the argument? 

The Gottmans talked about having a blood pressure cuff so that you could be tracking your own blood pressure if you became aware of the fact that though that was the way that you became overwhelmed, and we know if your heart rate is going up and your blood pressure is raising and your tone of voice, the volume of your voice is going up, is that you're getting overwhelmed. 

That's for someone who moves in that direction, that kind of fight direction, is to be self-aware, and then, take responsibility for taking a break, or saying like, “Okay, I'm getting overwhelmed. I know this is when we get into some trouble. So I'm going to take an hour off and I will come back to you.” You don't get to just walk away, and then, it's all over. You have to come back at a certain time or else your partner still feels abandoned. But it's then their responsibility to go away and do self-care, self-soothing. 

I know you're talking about tools and tips and what can we help people to do. That's specifically what they need to do is to each take care of themselves in whatever ways are appropriate to help them soothe themselves so that they can come back together when that prefrontal cortex and the cortex is online and functioning, and they're back in what we think of as more of their adult self, the self that loves the partner and wants to make amends and reconnect and create that safety again.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Just a quick aside, you've used the word safety a couple of times in this conversation. What I hear when you say that, we're talking about emotional safety right now and the kind of conflict that comes when people are upset with each other that we can all relate to. Physical safety is a different animal, so just wanted to make that super clear. 

Because if you are actually literally unsafe in your relationship, I always advise to go over to a really great website. There's a resource. It's called thehotline.org. All one word, thehotline.org. It's completely free. You can connect with local resources, safe houses, domestic-violence counselors, even in your area. If somebody is actually in danger, please take care of yourself. Lisa and I are talking about that emotional safety, which is very common.

How to Diffuse Physiological Arousal in Emotional Flooding

Dr. Lisa: Just as you're talking, I think so many people can relate to this experience. I think it's so interesting to consider that some people, when emotional flooding happens, they become escalated. They get yell-y. They say mean things, and other people really withdraw into themselves. But what is fascinating is just what you brought up about the Gottmans actually making people wear blood pressure cuffs. 

Because what it implies is that people don't actually recognize how physiologically elevated they are becoming without that data, like, “Oh, my blood pressure is 140 over 90 right now.” Is that what they're doing with that? That the people needed to see that? Because they didn't know it was happening? Tell me more about that.

Lisa Jordan: I think that's a reflection of how we're not as self-aware as we may hope we are. 

Dr. Lisa: How dare you?

Lisa Jordan: It's just that we can get there. We can go there so quickly without self-awareness, and maybe this slows down the process enough that someone is really forced to be conscious of what's happening in their body. So many people are living in their cognitive self, the thinking brain so much of the time that the physiological piece that felt sense being back in your body. We know that for people who've had traumas that they leave their body very quickly, right? So they're out of there very fast. 

I think that the idea of a blood pressure cuff is great. I think just the suggestion of it might be enough for people to check in with themselves. “Is my heart pounding? Is my breathing short? What am I feeling?” To just really check back in with your body. What's happening in your body right now? So that, ideally, people don't have to go out and buy the blood pressure cuff. But it's enough of a suggestion to sort of say, “Hey, we're, where are you at right now, physically?” Because that's gonna have a lot to do with what comes out of your mouth next.

Dr. Lisa: Totally. That is such a great suggestion. When I even reflect back on my evolution over the years, I think that that is the biggest difference compared to when I was probably in my 20s. There would be an external circumstance that would make me feel angry or upset, and then, I would react to it and not have that self-awareness in the middle. Now, as an older person, I think what I can do is say, “I am getting really elevated, and I'm probably not in a good place to have a productive conversation right now.” 

I'm having that internal conversation with myself. I stop trusting the ideas that I'm having. I stop trusting that “Oh, I should say this” like there’s psychological distance. But not with a blood pressure cuff. Maybe I should be like, “What are you doing?” Can I throw the blood pressure cuff at him? If I get..? No, okay.

Lisa Jordan: Instead of the blood pressure cuff, what I think is like a half step in that direction is to start paying attention to what the internal narrative is. As you say, when we tell people to take a break, if you take a break, and you're planning your rebuttal, you're not actually doing any self-soothing. What are you doing? You’re trying to bring yourself back to a place of calm. 

You are committing to your partner, “That's what I'm going to go off and do. I'm going to go watch something funny on YouTube, or I'm going to read a good book. But I am not going to plan my rebuttal for what I say to you.” 

When you're used to having frequent or perpetual disagreements, and we all have them in marriage, you start to become a little bit more wise about not always defending your position because you know what the other person's position is, and you can kind of slow yourself down. I think for younger couples, as they are discovering that they have perpetual problems, they don't know that that's going to stick around. 

They think that they can fight their way through it. Teally, it's to agree that these things are going to be there. We can create a much healthier relationship with those issues. We can do it in a way that's very self-aware. Hopefully, it makes these escalations kind of diminish. That gives people confidence that it won't always be so hard.

Dealing with Perpetual Problems

Dr. Lisa: Wow. Okay, so you're talking about something so profound right now. I want to make sure that our listeners because we sort of shifted into this other really important idea that's come out of Gottman research, which is the idea that all couples, the happiest, healthiest, strongest, most brilliant couples in the universe, have perpetual problems. You can talk about it better than I can. What is a perpetual problem?

Lisa Jordan: Those are just the things that we all have in relationships. We don't think of that as what's wrong with the relationship. It's that if you're in a relationship with another human being — the Gottmans are so good at this — 69% of our disagreements are perpetual. That just runs along the lines of, “Maybe I'm a very neat person, and my partner is very messy, and we're never going to be different people. So we're always going to have that on the back burner, whether or not that's entering into our issues. We can do things about that, accepting that that may be a perpetual piece of what we're dealing with.” 

Also, have a little bit of a sense of humor around it. It's not that it works 100%. But that if we know that 2/3 of what we go through in life are the problems of just being in relation with other people, we might as well focus our attention on that 1/3 of problems that are actually solvable and create some space around the rest of the stuff and make it more workable or negotiate for how we want to deal with things. 

I tend to be very focused on the financial piece and making sure our bills are paid. All of those things that I've learned throughout the years that if I'm better at it, and I don't mind it, why don't I just do that, right? It has created such peace of mind in my household. That's what I recommend to other people is if there's something that you're good at, and you don't mind doing it, go ahead and take it because you don't have to make everything 50/50 out of this sense of obligation that we're demonstrating that everything is split down the middle.

Accepting Reality and Your Partner 

Dr. Lisa: Going to war, trying to make your partner be like you and be good at doing bills and things. This is so funny. I did a podcast episode recently that spoke about this. I think the title was How to Appreciate The Partner That You Have. It was on this topic of how do we just accept the humanity of our partners for who and what they are and learn how to appreciate it, as opposed to being angry with them for not being different. 

This is so significant. Because if 69% of all the conflict that couples have is due to these unsolvable problems, just knowing that, helps you put down the battleax and look at it differently. I just was so struck by what you said when you were like, “So many young couples think they can fight their way through that.” Would you say more about what you see happening with people who just haven't understood what's going on in the way that you see just by virtue of your wisdom and perspective?

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, I think that we all are products of our environment, our early environment. We only know what we witnessed, what we learned. Maybe we got a few extra bits and pieces from extended family members or our best friends, hanging out in their households. But by and large, we're limited by what we've seen. We tend to employ the practices for good or otherwise of our parents and what was modeled for us. If those resources aren't really good, or if they left something to be desired, we're still operating that way. 

I find that with younger couples or couples, it's not an age thing, maybe couples who have been married a shorter period of time, there's kind of that honeymoon period. Then, there's a real disappointment. There's a real drop-off in that expectation that we fall in love, and we live happily ever after. We love a good fairy tale in this country. That's just not fair to people because that's not what real life looks like. 

Great relationships have problems and conflict. It has so much more to do with attitude and trust in the commitment that we have in relationships. I think that early, young couples or couples who have not been together as long may start to lose some of their confidence as they see some of the conflict escalating around things that feel like they are problems that have to be solved. It can be really a relief and very freeing to understand that all couples have disagreements and problems. 

It's more about the process of working through and partnering and deciding how you want to navigate, than the content itself. If you can accept that it's always going to be there, and you have a greater sense of optimism about how you navigate things, that can be really uplifting and very positive for couples who are becoming a little bit hopeless or even questioning, “Is this the right person? Did I marry the wrong person?” 

Dr. Lisa: That's what messes people up is this idea that like, “Oh, if I were with a different person, or if I was in the right ‘relationship,’ this wouldn't be happening.” I love what you're saying, Lisa. This is just so positive. I don't even think of them as problems anymore. I think of them as differences. Potentially complementary strengths, even, when I'm feeling very generous, but yeah, it's just they're these differences. This isn't a bug. It's a feature. How do we move into acceptance and finding workarounds so that we can enjoy the positive parts of each other? 

The Myth About Fight or Flight in a Relationship

Dr. Lisa: I could totally see how this ties back into what you were saying about that emotional flooding. Because before you've done that work, I think, you can interpret those differences as attacks, or being disrespected, or something very negative connotations. Is that part of what you see that makes people go into that space of elevation, that physiological flooding that is associated with danger? Is that what this is? 

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, I think that that's right. That's maybe the unspoken belief that we have to fight our way through this. I can't back down, or I can't deescalate, or I'm actually not going to get my needs met, or I'm not going to have my voice heard. The way through it is, and again, this ties back to whatever you might have seen in your household growing up, is if you saw parents who fought. 

As a young child, you believe that your parents are perfect, and they're showing you perfect examples of love and what love looks like. That must be what we do to work through our differences. I think what we're there to do is to help people see, as you say, that there's a totally different way of approaching it and perceiving it. I love the idea that you described about differences because that absolutely is such a healthy way to embody what it means to be in a partnership is let's look for the positives. 

These are the very things that you fell in love with. Because these things that we sometimes get annoyed with and find ourselves in couples coaching and counseling to talk about are the very things that attracted people in the first place. Most people become aware of that when they start talking about, “Oh, yeah, really. I really love that about them.” There's no hard and fast rule about something being a problem as much as how is it playing out in our relationship and what do we want to do with this?

Dr. Lisa: I think that's a real goal that we can all work towards in our relationships. What you're describing is like that golden place that I think really healthy long-term couples do finally arrive into, or there's a space of understanding and acceptance and even appreciation for those differences. Even though our ‘perpetual conflict’ maybe is still there, it's no longer a problem because it's just who they are. I'm not going to take that personally.

There's this real shift into this more unconditional love space. But that takes time and effort to create. Along the way, emotional flooding can be a real problem for many couples, when they're going into that big emotional reaction where they're feeling disrespected, or hurt, or frustrated, or rejected even by their partners. So it's really important to have a toolset to be able to cope with those moments while you're still working on these bigger relational goals, I guess I should say. 

Self-Soothing After Self-Awareness

Dr. Lisa: I know that we have talked about a couple of tools that you recommend, when you're working with couples in counseling, and one, I think the first one that I heard was self-awareness, with or without the blood pressure cuff, but to be able to say, “Okay, I am starting to get elevated now,” or to say, “I feel like I'm so upset that I can't participate in this conversation, and I'm withdrawing now.” Have that self-awareness. 

I also heard you start to talk about self-soothing would be the next step. Once you have that self-awareness, now it is time to self-soothe. You also brought up something I thought that was so insightful, which is that many times in a conflict or after the conflict, even if we're taking a break, we are, even if we're like doing self-care behaviors, like taking a shower or going on a walk or petting your cat or whatever, we are still ruminating about what I said, what they said, and how I was right, and how they were wrong, and here's what I'm gonna say to them. 

I think that's… Because anybody, you can always take a shower, right? Do you have any insight for what to do with that cognitive component to help people really step away from…? Because that's what emotional flooding is about, is the story, right? What do you do with couples that go there?

Lisa Jordan: You're right. The piece that continues on where the flooding that perpetuates there is when we carry it forward with our own ruminating. You could take that and be far removed from the argument or the conflict and still be perseverating and really bringing that back over and over and over again, and even working yourself up and becoming more fixed in your position. Doing things to challenge that, this is very popular right now. 

But mindfulness and meditation, can't be understated how powerful this can be. Because it's available. Mindfulness, in particular, using your five senses, getting out of your head, out of your thoughts and into your body, is an instantaneous and immediate way to just at least disconnect the circuit that's ramping you up. “What do I see in front of me? What do I hear? What do I smell, taste, touch?” All of that is neutral, right? 

If I'm looking out the window, or I'm in the shower, and I feel this nice, warm water flowing, and I can get into this sense of what that feels like in my body, I am literally putting a break on that stress, all that cortisol, that hormone that makes us feel so bad, and putting some space in there so that you can calm down, and you will, because we're built to do that. We're built to calm back down again if we only can get out of our own way and allow ourselves to do that. I think that that's something that you can do. That's that self-care outside of a disagreement. 

How to Avoid Being Overwhelmed by Emotions

Lisa Jordan: But while you're with your partner, if you notice in the beginning that you're becoming engaged, it's to really use this reflective listening that we teach couples. Because if I'm fully occupied with listening to you, I'm not busy defending or planning my next thought. What I'm doing is devoting myself 100%, empathically, to understanding how you feel and what your position is. 

That doesn't mean that I agree with you. But if I'm spending all of my attention and time and focus to really hear you, I'm not escalating an argument. I am being with you. We want people to be able to do that long before they're becoming emotionally flooded. Because if they're there, you're not going to get emotionally flooded. It's kind of a prevention routine as well.

Dr. Lisa: That's beautiful. I think that's really the beauty of what you do, Lisa, that couples counseling and relationship coaching. Because you are, I think, having experiences with couples with you, because you, your presence, you're just like this warm, comforting person. I think that that can really be the benefit of doing couples work is that you are, at first, keeping people emotionally safe with each other so that they can practice doing that. 

Like, “Okay, I'm just gonna listen to you right now.” Because when they're at home in their living room, it goes immediately into that rebuttal mode. It turns into a fight. But you're slowing it down, and helping people listen, and being able to practice doing that so that it is possible to do that before that emotional flooding place happens because it's so hard to have empathy for other people when you get to that rage-y place.

Lisa Jordan: Absolutely. It's the last place we are once we're in that heightened state. You can’t access it then. Then, it's all about self-soothing and doing things, splashing cold water on your face, or taking a warm shower. Actually, temperature changes tend to pull people out of that. 

Dr. Lisa: Interesting, temperature changes. 

Lisa Jordan: Bumping yourself back into that zone where you're not escalated, or where you're not dissociating, or highly anxious, or rageful is about doing something physically to bump you back in.  We know like singing, dancing, gargling, there's all these things that have to do with the vagus nerve. That vagus nerve is what's connected to that fight, flight, freeze. Doing things to jostle your way back out, physiologically, can help be a reset.

Dr. Lisa: That's amazing. That is such a good tip just to almost shift. Although it's so funny. As you're talking, I'm imagining in my mind, like, have you ever seen the videos of the Scandinavians jumping into the frozen water? Then, going into the sauna? I'm like, maybe that's what…

Lisa Jordan: I don't think I'd survive that one. But that sounds like a really good one for those hardy types.

Dr. Lisa: My heart would stop. But yeah, though, for other people. For other people.

Understanding Those Who Shut Down When Overwhelmed

Dr. Lisa: Now, would you say that this works best for people who go into that elevated place? Because there's also people that are shutting down. I don't know about you, but I've seen that be just as problematic is that when people go into that withdrawal? Because they think especially when their partner doesn't realize that they are actually emotionally flooding? Because from the outside, they just look like they're sitting in a chair? Like they don't… Have you seen that?

Lisa Jordan: Yes. Exactly. That can create a lot of conflict in couples. Because as you said, it looks to the outside as though it could be gaslighting, that term that we sometimes use, that “This person, my partner, is doing this to me on purpose. They're just shutting down, and they're ignoring me. They're not going to talk to me. They're not going to listen.” What we know is that people can get into that frame of mind where they no longer have words. 

They really are so overwhelmed that they cannot respond anymore. Being able to understand that that is emotional flooding as well. It just looks very different from the kind of emotional flooding that might cause someone to be rageful, or yelling, or crying. That is a very real thing. People can become so emotionally shut down or dissociate because this could be very frightening for them or just extremely uncomfortable. That's where they go, when things get emotionally flooded, is that they go offline and in that direction.

Dr. Lisa: Go offline. Wow, I think I've heard it said that that can be more common for men than women. Has that been your experience? Or have you seen it differently?

Lisa Jordan: I think it is more common for men because we do live in a culture that tends to give women a much fuller range of emotional language and expression. We kind of welcome them. We don't give men the same permission or freedom to become really good at expressing themselves verbally or emotionally. I think they can get backed into a corner, feeling like they have nowhere to go, and the words leave them. Then, the partners who are observing that will feel abandoned. So yes, I do think that happens for men a lot.

Dr. Lisa: I'm just thinking of that really classic, pursue-withdraw cycle that we talk about a lot in the context of Emotionally Focused Therapy. What often happens systemically in those moments is that if one person is withdrawing and becoming less responsive, then the other person goes into attack mode. I can just see how this would make that so much worse for somebody who's feeling overwhelmed to begin with. That's impossible at that point.

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, there's such misunderstanding taking place, and there's really nowhere to go. That's when a lot of those hurt feelings get developed. But when you hear couples talking about that, that's typically where they've gone, which is it's gone really deep, emotionally, and we need to do a little repair work around what has happened. 

Dr. Lisa: Oh, my goodness. I'm so glad that we're talking about this, Lisa. Because I could just imagine somebody hopefully hearing this and maybe understanding in a new way, what is going on for their partner in those moments, is to develop that empathy of “Oh, he's not ignoring me. He's like, so overwhelmed, he can't talk, and I need to stop.” 

Lisa Jordan: That's the first lesson I think that we teach is, “Hey, if you're going there, and you're getting that place, turn to your partner and say, ‘I'm getting overwhelmed. I really need a break. I promise I will come back.’” Right? Because that's the only risk is that you'll go away and never bring up the issue again, and it's forgotten. To say, “I need an hour to just really calm myself down. I will come back, and we're going to discuss this some more.” We want people to develop those resources, that skill to do that before they're completely overwhelmed and always shut down. To ask for what they need.

Strategies for Dealing with Emotional Flooding

Dr. Lisa: That's wonderful advice. I know that we've been talking for a while, and you're just such a joy to talk to, I could literally talk to you all day, and I wanna be respectful of your time. What are some other strategies or ideas that you have found to be important when working with your couples over the years that you might share with our listeners, so they have additional takeaways?

Lisa Jordan: I think what tends to work really well, in my experience with couples, is to see if there is a little bit of a window that we can open for questioning one's own absolute beliefs. Right? If you can, even when couples are very polarized in their beliefs about something, if you can allow yourself to think about the situation that you're in and believe for a moment that it might not be true, the way you're seeing it, that it might not be 100% accurate, that gives you this potential for softening around something that may feel completely intractable. Right? 

To work with someone around the belief that “Maybe, I'm not 100% right.” Even if you're 98% right, what's that 2% look like? Is there anything that you can acknowledge for your partner that they have a legitimate point about that immediately makes the partner feel at least heard? They have a foot in the door for negotiating. Then, to kind of take that the next step further, which is, how does it feel to think that maybe there's some rightness on both sides? Right? 

I think when couples are really entrenched, it's to work to try to create a little bit more gray area. To lessen the black and white viewing of what a problem is like and what the situation is, just to enable people to question their own beliefs. Because I think it's the things that we don't question or the things that we are not aware of that are the biggest problems in relationships. Being able to tolerate the thought that “My subjective view is not necessarily the whole truth,” gives us somewhere to go.

Dr. Lisa: It makes perfect sense. It's hard. It's hard to do this. But to be able to almost question some of your core beliefs, and maybe don't believe everything that you think, and open the door for empathy, and trying to understand someone else's perspective, that's really that heart of being able to validate the other person's point of view, and just calming everybody back down and creating safety where listening and understanding can happen again. Because it's like the opposite of emotional flooding.

Lisa Jordan: Even having that kind of ability to have that relationship with yourself, right? I also work with individuals, and people are so hard on themselves. If you can sit with the things that you do, from that vantage point of, “Why am I doing this,” there's probably a good reason why you're doing the things you're doing. Instead of just completely tearing yourself apart and beating yourself up for what your habits are, what you've done in the past, is to sort of look at that and say, how has that been a help? 

How has that been adaptive? How did that help you survive? How did that help you stay in this relationship? You may choose not to engage in that anymore. But there's something about that that helped you to get by, and so helping people to just feel more comfortable in themselves for showing up and bringing up whatever is coming up, I think that's part of the job that we do is to help people accept themselves and appreciate all the parts for being there for a reason.

Dr. Lisa: That's so beautiful that by working on yourself, and developing that self-compassion, and creating emotional safety inside of yourself, that you can become less emotionally reactive and more emotionally safe and compassionate with your partner too. 

What a beautiful idea for us to glide to a halt on today. I love it. This has been just such a great conversation. Thank you so much for just sharing not just your perspective, but your story and also so many good strategies. I hope that some of our listeners were taking notes because there's some actionable stuff I didn't know about, like changing your temperature. I mean, that's just for singing, gargling. I’m gonna try that.

Lisa Jordan: Yeah, give it a try. Well, thank you. This has been so wonderful. 

Dr. Lisa: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for being here. 

To my listeners, if you would like to learn more about Lisa or her practice and also read some of the wonderful articles that you have on our blog at growingself.com. You have so much wisdom to share, and thank you again for coming on today's show. But there's more Lisa for everyone at growingself.com if people come and read more. A wonderful idea. So thank you.

[Outro song: Urgent Blowout by Brandy]


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