The thing I love most about being a therapist is helping people grow. It’s an honor to sit with someone as they expand themselves, take risks, learn to connect more deeply, and find new ways to fully inhabit their lives.
But life is not an eternally upward spiral of positive change. It also contains loss, misfortune, diminishment, regret, and heart-shattering things that can never be undone. As much as I love guiding people along life’s upward trajectory, I also know that’s only one dimension of the human experience. We live in a culture that tries to tell us otherwise, but grief and loss are a part of life, and they compel us to suffer tremendously.
In his memoir on grieving his wife, the writer Julian Barnes wrote that “In grief, nature is so exact. It hurts just as much as it is worth.” I believe that grief is the price we pay for loving deeply and living fully. It’s a price none of us wants to pay, but the alternative is so much worse.
This Memorial Day, as our country mourns 31 people killed senselessly in two mass shootings, 19 of them children, I wanted to re-release this episode on life after loss. I hope it offers guidance and comfort to anyone who’s missing someone this holiday.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we experienced losses great and small. Some losses feel sad but manageable, such as the loss of the ability to go out, meet with friends, enjoy a coffee at your favorite haunt. [Read, “Coping With Coronavirus Life” for more]
Some losses feel existential, like the loss of an identity defined by the things we do. There is also the poignant loss of having to scrap future plans or even the trajectory of a life-path that once felt so clear. Even more troubling is the loss of the sense of basic safety in the world.
Other losses are harder to cope with, like losing your job, having to cancel a wedding, missing once-in-a-lifetime milestones that you'll never get to re-do, or even giving birth to a child without the support of your partner.
How to Heal From Grief
But the worst loss of all, and the one too many around the world are facing, is the loss of a cherished, irreplaceable loved one. There are no words to describe the enormity of the devastation that losing a loved one brings. The grief is overwhelming, and it feels endless. But it also contains the seeds of powerful growth.
How can you cope with grief? How do you manage the waves of sadness? Most importantly, how do you heal and rebuild your life after loss?
Life After Loss: Grief Counseling Experts Weigh In
In this episode, we’re covering important topics related to grief and loss, like:
Why ideas about the “5 stages of grief” are misleading, and what you can really expect when you're coping with loss.
How to use mindful self-compassion to release the idea of “getting over it” and instead find ways of deepening your relationship with a loved one, even after they're physically gone.
We offer all this information with a sincere hope that it provides you with comfort, compassion and direction that supports you in your journey of healing.
Life After Loss: Episode Show Notes
We can also feel grief from losing things important to us, such as time and experiences.
This lack of control can make us feel anxious and powerless.
To combat this feeling, we can set routines and think of new things to look forward to.
Embracing Dark Emotions
We will feel the full force of our dark emotions if we suppress them.
Like a wave, we should allow these to lift us up and eventually set us back down.
We may have to set our emotions aside in order to function, but we will eventually need to face them at some point.
There is no right way to grieve, so do not judge yourself.
Reimagining the Stages of Grief
Grieving is not linear.
Rather than expecting ours to follow five stages, we can expect to feel all of these five emotions at one period of time.
Grief is more like a cycle: we can go from acceptance and then back to anger.
The older we get and more experience we have, the more we realize that it is possible to move on.
Losing a Loved One
Feel free to think that your loved one is still with you. As long as you live, your memories of them will continue to live on.
Connect with your community and find support however you can.
When a loved one is at the end of their life, the most essential things you can say are:
I love you.
I’m sorry, I forgive you.
I’ll miss you, goodbye.
Music in this episode is Midnight Door, with their song “My Land.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here. 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: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby and you're listening to The Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.
[Intro Song: My Land by Midnight Door]
Dr. Lisa: Midnight Door with My Land. I thought that it was a nicer atmospheric introduction to our topic today because today we're actually talking about something difficult, but also necessary under the circumstances. We are going to have an honest and hopefully helpful conversation, about loss and grief because, at this time, we have all last something. There have been losses of small things that may be in hindsight are inconsequential, but at the moment, they're still disappointments and they feel hard. It is also our reality that people are dying. There are 1000s of people that have lost their lives in Coronavirus. There will almost certainly be 1000s more before the dust settles and many, many 10s of 1000s of people who have lost loved ones because of this. We need to face this fearlessly and talk about what it means and how to cope in a healthy way. To that end, I have invited a couple of very special guests to visit with us today. My dear colleagues Anastacia Sams and Lisa Jordan. They both work with me here at Growing Self and I'm so excited that they're here to visit with you today too. Lisa and Ana, thank you so much for joining us today.
Lisa J.:Thank you, you too.
Dr. Lisa: Well, before we dive in, would you guys mind just taking a moment to share a little bit about yourselves and your background and your experience just for the benefit of my listeners who haven't met you before? Anastacia, so talk a little bit about your something. You and I have worked together for years now. But how would you describe your work and your expertise here?
Anastacia S.: Definitely couples and family and working with individuals around different issues, from communication to grief and loss and self-esteem issues as well.
Dr. Lisa: A lot of work with couples, but I've always been such a big admirer of you and the way that you work because you have such a nice, emotionally focused approach. Just such an affirming style for, I think, individual clients especially can bloom with you.
Lisa, you're newer to our team but you have a lot of experience, particularly around grief and loss from physicians that you had before you joined Growing Self.
Lisa J.: Yes, yeah. My background was working in grief support in a hospice and palliative care organization. Primarily dealing with what is usually the biggest loss that a person experiences, which is the loss of life, the loss of a loved one. Supporting people individually, as well as in groups, support groups, and also seeing some people through private practice as well who had had specific losses that they were working on. It's a very challenging thing for anyone and nobody avoids it. Everyone experiences it. We all have loss and it's one of the biggest, I think, impacts to a person's life. It may be sometimes the first time that they come to find support because they've never probably felt as out of control as to when that happens.
Dr. Lisa: Understandably so. Well, let's talk about loss for a minute. Just a big picture because I think that we're in a situation where many people are facing end-of-life issues. They're losing loved ones. It's real. It's happening and even people who aren't grappling with someone that they love dying are also experiencing big losses in other ways. I mean, I've talked to people. When you compare it with a loss of life, it's a different thing, right?
But having to cancel a wedding or having to give birth to a child without your partner in the room or having other life experiences that were really personally important to you that aren't there anymore. Again, I don't want to minimize those kinds of losses, even though again, they're different than death. I think that we're allowed to be sad with those losses. The loss of a job, the loss of a home. I mean, the loss of retirement even. Maybe we could start there a little bit. I mean, if we talk about general losses, what are some things that you would, in your experience, expect people to be feeling or dealing with? What's normal? How about that?
Anastacia: I think something that I've been thinking about with everything going on is even just at the very base level, there's a loss of control. Because, I think, you are used to being able to control things even as small as our schedules. Even that, right now is taken away. I think that can create quite a bit of anxiety as well.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I could see that. Just that sense of unease or fear that it's something bigger than you has just taken away your decision-making, in some ways. I am at the mercy of whatever this says.
Lisa J.: Yeah, I would agree with that. I mean, I think what, Anastacia, what you're saying is that real lack of control over the future and what we perceive as our control, right? People are kind of confronted with the fact that “Well, maybe I didn't really have that control, to begin with. If I didn't, what does that mean, for all these plans that I've made?” I think for a lot of people, there is the—you're talking about other losses. Absolutely the basic loss of my intention for my future. As you said, that could be that maybe I have to postpone my wedding, it may have to be that I was planning, I saved up all this money because we were going to buy a house or we were going to take this vacation. It can be just so many losses, loss of what I was hoping for my own future that just changes people's mindset. Then I think that leads people to feel so much more insecure. There's just a sense, as you say, Dr. Lisa, heightened anxiety for people in the what-ifs.
Dr. Lisa: Anastacia, that was something that you pinpointed. When you work with your clients who are grappling with that almost existential awareness, they don't have that much control. Are there ideas or practices that you have found to be helpful to your clients that are going through uncertainty and the what-ifs?
Anastacia: I think one of the things that I talk about is creating a routine and that just helps create that sense of security. I think that's a big one and then focusing on the things that are controllable, or that you do have control over. Whatever that may be, whether it's taking care of your mind and using an app like Headspace, being intentional and that kind of recentering, or things like that.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, that's a great suggestion. As we're talking, I was just kind of reflecting on my own life. My summer plans have also been thoroughly blown to bits, which is completely fine. But I think I found some comfort in reshifting from being disappointed about that, to try to make different plans that are something to look forward to. It sounds so dumb but we signed up for the CSA. We have an organic farm with a community-supported agriculture kind of thing. We got a CSA share and so thinking about salad, which is really different than how we planned for this summer. We can have some really good salad. It's something. I don't know if that's the right way to handle this but that's what I'm actually doing. We’re planting flowers in my yard.
Anastacia: I like that. It kind of forces you to practice gratitude for the little things.
Dr. Lisa: Are you guys having any go-to’s for that you’re hauling out of your back pocket? I'm always so interested because I know a lot of therapists, right? Not only do I work with 500 zillion therapists, not 500 million, a couple of dozen, but a lot of my personal friends are therapists. It's so interesting because sometimes the things that they do with their clients and then what they do personally. That is interesting. Can I put you on the spot and be like, “What are you guys doing?”
Anastacia: Yeah, well, I have been creating a daily routine and just trying to have slower, easy mornings to ease into the day. But then, and this might sound silly, but I kill any plant that I try to grow. I'm just not gifted in that area but I picked up a little basil plant. I'm going to attempt to grow it. That is exciting to me to see what happens.
Dr. Lisa: I had to switch to succulents at a certain point. Just neglect them for basically weeks. Just sharing. What about you, Lisa? I know that you’ve had big changes.
Lisa J.: I have. Like so many other people, right now millions of people, I feel very connected to people because my full-time role was eliminated as part of what is happening everywhere with workforce reduction and just changes in the economy. I think I have been—it's humbling to practice what you preach. Working with people and telling them to really lean into the experiences that they're having, and to accept what's happening because that is your strength. It’s to allow yourself to acknowledge because part of the process of grieving any losses is acceptance. We kind of jump into it, and then out of it, and then into it, and then out of it. I've been fascinated watching myself do the same thing.
I have had a number of pity parties for myself and in allowing that to happen, then I kind of move out of it. It's like, “Okay. Well, I did it. I gave it to myself.” I think being nonjudgmental toward yourself is so important because we'll all go there naturally. I think, practicing this for myself, and still working with clients through Growing Self and seeing what they're going through. I feel very much in it with them. Feeling like I'm recommending things that I do for myself as well. Again, like Anastacia, you said gratitude. Well, I'm noticing some of the unexpected things that are delightful. I have a dog who has never been happier in his life. Now, this dog got used to being home alone all the time. I mean, his personality, and he's just so engaged. It's like, “Wow. This is something I would not have experienced had I not been home so much.”
The dog is really happy. I don't know for people who—my kids are grown, so they're out of the house. But for people who have children at home, I mean, this can be a mixed bag, right? Having them around all the time, examining what are some of the positives, what are some of the cherished memories that we're going to make now that we will have moving forward. New traditions, new rituals, right? Look for opportunity.
Embracing Dark Emotions
Dr. Lisa: That's good advice. I like the way that both of you were also talking about making sure that you are, in addition to shifting into gratitude and looking for maybe new things that are nice. Really not just giving yourself permission but almost encouraging yourself to also go into the dark emotions because I think a lot of people do that. I see clients that do that. They don't like to feel sad. It feels like depression in a lot of ways. There's just this heavy, dark emotion of sadness. People are uncomfortable, it feels unpleasant, and people want to shift out of that as quickly as possible.
Or they're also, I think you were saying Lisa, this inner narrative of what is wrong with me that I am feeling this way? Because look at how happy my dog is and I have this great basil plant and so I shouldn't, but you know what I mean? They want to minimize and be like, “Okay, I'm done.” But you're saying like, “Come back” and let it. Why is that important? I actually don't like that either. When I have something big, I’m like, “I'm going to feel this later.” But why would you say that it’s so important to go there and feel the feels? Yeah, why?
Anastacia: I think it's important because if you don't, it'll just come back full force later on. Allowing yourself to do it, it allows you to process what's going on. I think that even for me personally, if I don't process it, then it comes out in other ways, usually physically. I think that it's very important. Now with a lot of distractions being taken away, it does create that opportunity to allow yourself to go into those places. I think it also allows for a lot of healing too when that happens.
Dr. Lisa: What do you mean by that? That it allows for healing when you go into the dark places?
Anastacia: I think, let's see, that's a good question. Allowing yourself to go into the dark places, I think it allows you to accept what's going on. I think, and maybe even experience really all of those stages of grief, but in a way where once you come out. I don't want to say it's okay but it's in a way—
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, it has sort of mended in the process. I think that that is such an important idea for people to hear because I think that there can be so much rejection of dark emotions. The intense feelings of sadness or loss or regret and that people want to not do that. But not understanding that allowing those feelings is actually the path to repair, as weird as it sounds. Like the waves metaphor, you're standing in the ocean and there's this wave coming. If you just let it lift you up and you don't fight it and then it sets you back down again. If you fight it and try to get away, you could actually drown. You can do all kinds of sideways things to get away from grief, that creates bigger problems. Just allowing that feeling and then once it sets you back down, it always does, there has been a little mending. Maybe not all the mending. You might have to do that 87 times but a little bit.
Lisa J.: It’s a good description and I think the wave metaphor is really useful. It's useful, even just visually in one's own mind. The people who may feel like they're escalating with “No, there's no end.” That they won't allow themselves to go there because they think that’s just a starting point. Then what happens, it just escalates forever. It isn’t that. It is a wave kind of a process and you're absolutely right about it. It will come back. But generally, when you start like this, when it comes back, it's more like that.
That's the healing process that you're talking about, which is that if I allow myself to have the feeling, then I get done with the feeling. I don't have to keep having that. If I tell myself I can't have a feeling, it will wait for you. It will morph. It will do something else but we're not raised in a culture that says, “Feel those feelings. Go right into that.” It's been, “I'm tough. I'm strong. No, I can put this aside” You can for a while. I mean, I would say right now, what we're going through, people do in some ways have to compartmentalize their grief.
Grief about things that can't take the front burner and have to go on the back burner. That's okay, we're built to do that. That's a survival strategy and that's okay. But that understanding about allow yourself to go there at some point. Some people, it's not a major deep process, they don't go into a deep depression. It is just allowing oneself to even journal about what was lost and to be able to put that into a safe place so that they can go function and do what they need to do. I love that, that metaphor of the waves.
Dr. Lisa: Well, thank you for bringing up that compartmentalization and a survival strategy—I totally do that. When I have had big losses in my life, which I have, I am totally like, “I'm just gonna do something else.” I eventually will go there but I need a week or two of literal time.
Dr. Lisa: It feels too tender to even think about. I think it is because I'm a mom, I do have clients, I feel like I have to function. If I let myself go there, I wouldn't be capable of doing anything. It’s like this, “I will not.” For a while. But then I do have a response. I'm great in a crisis.
Lisa J.: That's fine with people who are great in crises and all of our healthcare workers.
Dr. Lisa: Three weeks later.
Lisa J.: Yeah. Thank goodness that we're built that way because that's why we're able to survive anything. We have to be able to. People who can't compartmentalize have to deal with things in a very different way. Those who are there for others have learned how to do that and do it pretty effectively.
Reimagining the Stages of Grief
Dr. Lisa: But again, the takeaway is, do not judge yourself. If you are feeling the feelings, don't judge. If you are compartmentalizing, don't judge. It’s all okay but there's no right way.
Okay, here's another question for you guys. We hear a lot about the stages of grief and I know that people put a lot of stock into that. In your experience, do those pan out? Do you see clients going through that? Or do you think it's actually a little bit different than the idea that people should go through these stages of grief? Does that actually happen?
Anastacia: I would say in my experience, I've seen people go through stages of grief. It's certainly not linear. I think there's this expectation that it's—
Dr. Lisa: Checklist. I want a checklist.
Anastacia: That even once you get to acceptance, then you've made it. Really, you can get to acceptance and then go right back into anger. I think that's probably the way that I've seen it. Maybe, you might only feel a few things out of that list and that's okay. But, yeah.
Dr. Lisa: It is what? Denial? Bargaining? Anger? Depression? Acceptance? I'm missing something.
Lisa J.: Well, from my vantage point, it's okay for you to miss all of that. Because what we know and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who is probably—she's my idol. I think she did amazing research in what people in the grief support community understand now is that stages are probably a challenging way of looking at grief because it does encourage people to think about it that way when actual grieving is probably pretty, unlike stages.
I think that those five descriptors are great for identifying what you're feeling in any given moment but they are scrambled. They, as you say, in stage, and they repeat. I think that they found that less useful. That was originally, that whole description of the five stages, originated from her work in identifying what a person goes through when they themselves are in a life-limiting illness. If I'm dying, those are the stages that a human being would go through as they come to an acceptance of their own death.
I think the grieving process, though, looks very different. Working with clients and running groups, certainly, more people have lost loved ones. It looks a little different. It’s different. It starts with that acceptance piece. People are in denial, that's okay. That's our natural inclination, that's how we sometimes get out of bed in the morning. We can't actually accept that this person is gone. People may hear them talking to them or they don't quite remember that they're not there. This is again, just with the death of a person but you can think about this the same as your earlier examples of someone whose wedding is canceled.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I think about the high school senior not going to graduate or have that experience. Again, different levels.
Lisa J.: Yes. You wake up in the morning and it’s like: “Wait. Is it true that I'm not going to be going off to campus? I forgot all over again. When I fell asleep and I woke up in the morning and I was happy and then I realized all over again, that's not happening.” Then there's anger, right? A little anger might come in and then sort of denial like, “Let's reach out and see if well, maybe, they think that the dorm is gonna open. Maybe it will open in time. It will open in time. Let's start. Let's go get boxes. Let’s pack.” Then a little bit of hopelessness about, “What? Wait, they are not in. They're not answering back.” Or, “I can't get any news. This is not going to work and my friends are all planning on staying home, I guess this is going to be that.”
That sort of process just cycles through over and over. What always happens is, as time goes on, is that at some point, for everyone at a different rate, there's a new adjustment process for the new reality. For everyone that looks different, feels different. But in that cycling, all of a sudden, something will trickle in about, “Well, you know, this wouldn't be so bad.” Or, “If I did this, I could live with this person that I was going to miss so much when I was going to be out of town. Maybe I can make a new plan. Okay, this new plan. It's not what I wanted because it wouldn't be so bad.”
Starting to wake up in the morning realizing that the old plan isn't happening. I'm not thinking about it as much as I used to. I'm not railing against the unfairness of it all and thinking, “What do I want to do now?” Then this momentum toward getting a little more excited about this new plan getting, “Now, I'm thinking about the details and putting myself into it 100%. I’m thinking this is going to be good. This is okay. Other people don't even have this to turn to, I'm so glad I have this new plan. This is a great new plan. I'm gonna be okay. I like this plan.” You know what I mean?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, but I love the way that you describe that. It’s being upset—and also I just want to say, I really like the way that you describe the, maybe the outdated term would be stages of grief. I heard what you were saying is, these are all of the feelings that you can expect to have. They may all occur in the space of the same 20 minutes. This is what you're going to feel. But that cycling through is like you are able to emotionally process and I almost like envisioned what you were talking about. It's like a bubble that’s sort of floating away like in The Wizard of Oz. The bubble floats away and then it's saying hello to a new thing that wasn't what you wanted, but then when you get to know it better, you're like, “You are my thing. This is what have and I like you and I'm going to do this.”
Lisa J.: The older we get and the more we've actually done that in our lives, I think the more we believe that that's possible. Because if I talk to my 19-year-old or my 22-year-old, it's just everything's black and white. I get that because I remember that. But as you live through things and you realize that what you would initially think is the worst thing that could ever happen to you, you realize, a year, five years, 10 years later, that was a good thing that that didn't happen. I mean I think you temper it over time with realizing this happens in life and we can do this because we've done it before.
Dr. Lisa: That. Yes, we can do it because we've done it before but you also bring it up, and I have experienced this, I don't know if you have to, Anastacia, but like things that destroyed me when I was younger, like a teenager or in my 20s. Now looking back, I'm like, “Oh, thank God.” Because out of that destruction grew something that was ultimately so much better for me and the trajectory of my life. Can you relate to that too, Ana?
Anastacia: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. It's so hard being in the middle of it because that's where you experience all of those emotions. But then once you’re out and you can look back.
Losing a Loved One
Dr. Lisa: Right. You don't know what's going to happen, you’re like, “What will become of me now that I no longer have this thing?” It's only after that new thing grows. You're like, “Oh, well, that was better.” Those are good messages.
Now, we have been talking about losses, generally. But there is a very special and I think the worst, the worst loss that is possible, is losing a loved one. As we're talking, that is happening to people all over our country, all over the world. What is different about losing a loved one than changing your life plan kind of loss? Would you say?
Lisa J.: I think that that is probably the most feared thing for all of us and the most challenging because we don't, recovery from some things, we can talk about it, we can even sometimes joke about it. But the end of life is something that we just typically don't have a comfort level with, in our culture. I'm not suggesting that we should, I think right now, the times that we're going through are unprecedented. This to me, in my own mindset, thinking this must be what it feels like to be going through a war. So many lives are lost and that we feel powerless to do something about it. But I do think that what's going to happen is, it's going to be even more important for people who are losing a loved one to create rituals around what is happening and to understand that there's going to need to be a much more—a new way of managing losses so that there's a longer period of time in which to grieve. People who are not getting to have wakes or funerals in the traditional sense.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah,I thought about that. Those closure rituals are not happening.
Lisa J.: We need those. I think everyone that I know of who is thinking through these kinds of things right now are saying like, “A year from now, we're going to have a memorial that this person so needs and that we all need in order to process the loss.” Not saying that because it is horrendous, that we're all reading the stories about people not being able to hold the hand of a loved one. To be there and making the best of it that they can with smartphones and communicating in whatever ways they can, but with the understanding that this is a new kind of grieving.
But this is the initial step of grieving and honoring the person who has died is going to be a much longer-term process. It should be. That will help people to manage the feelings of loss is to understand that, just as we would say to someone who did have that access to the person that they wanted to is that, this isn't a resolution or an ending. This is part of the grief process. Now I think we're going to be looking at people who are staying more actively engaged with their loved one because they didn't have that sense of finality. I mean, for many people being with a loved one when they die. You're taking that in and experiencing that is part of how we accept the reality of a person being gone and I think there will be people who can't quite yet wrap their heads around that loved one being gone. That makes sense and it's okay.
Dr. Lisa: There would be not just the shock component but you said something of continuing to interact with their loved one. It’s like they still feel like they exist and maybe still have little conversations with them in your head kind of thing. They're just not here, not like they're gone.
Lisa J.: Right. We would recommend that people feel free to do that. That can be actually a very positive feeling to continue to talk with your loved one because you will not really end the relationship with a lot of people who lose loved ones who are not elderly, who haven't had a long life, but the relationship doesn't go away. We really encourage people to – this not the way you wanted the relationship to continue. You wanted it face-to-face where you could wrap your arms around this person, but they will always be with you till the day you die. Let's start to think about how you can honor their memory and be with them every day. Whatever form that takes. I think that's what people are going to be doing now for the next months or years.
Dr. Lisa: This is so interesting. I've never thought about this in the same context. I've thought about it a lot in my work around the nature of love. The addictive nature of love, like breakup recovery, because when you begin an infatuation or you have a crush with someone, you begin imagining them in your mind and having real conversations with them in your head. That was a big part of adult attachment. It’s that mentalization of a relationship.
I think that for people who are going through loss in the sense of an unwanted relationship loss, like a breakup or a divorce, that very same process maintains their attachment to their ex for a long time. I have never thought about it in the way that you're saying that when you lose a loved one to death, that it is absolutely okay to just keep doing that for as long as you need to, particularly under these circumstances, because of the speed and the shock. I mean, I've heard news stories of healthy 35-year-old at home in bed, sort of sniffling, and their spouse comes back and they're gone. I mean, it's horrifying. Just to not also have the rituals of closure and your community around you. I love it that you're saying no, just go ahead.
Lisa J.: There are a lot of cultures that really endorse hearing from loved ones that aren't alive in this world anymore and that they see them and they interact. Because their communities don't find that to be particularly threatening. They don't call that crazy. We tend to self-judge very rapidly that you're going to have to be committed or something or to hear a loved one's voice. Are you hearing their loving words in your head? Are you hearing it in reality? Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it doesn't have to matter.
The point is that there is a part of you that wants to stay connected so much to your loved one that you're allowing yourself to hear their voice in your head. Isn't that really what we long for anyway, right? As we go forward, we hear our parents’ voices in our heads, hopefully, it's like a good thing. We hear that, hopefully, the encouragement and the reinforcement, that we got from a parent early on. That's how we internalize that person that's not with us and I have worked with parents who've lost children who understand that that relationship does not have to go away.
Nor should you feel guilty if you're still going in your child's room or talking to them. The relationship’s going to be there anyway. Honoring the connection and knowing that that's there. I would say on the flip side, working with people who've been married for 50 or 60 years, and lose a spouse when they're themselves, perhaps in their 80s. It's unreasonable to ask that person to move on. Most of their lives are caught up in the experiences of a lifetime. We really recommend embracing that and allowing that person to remain there with you because it's a part of who you are. That's an easier thing to ask of people than to tell them to grieve the loss and move on.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Oh, that is such a compassionate, way. Anastacia, as we're talking, I’m listening to what Lisa is saying, it's almost like moving a relationship into it, for lack of a better word, almost a spiritual realm. I know that you are just a very spiritual person and I wonder if, in your work with clients, if you've seen this too? That almost transitioning of a relationship and the role of faith or belief systems on—. I don't want to say coping. What's a better word? Managing.
Lisa J.: Incorporating the loss.
Anastacia: I think that for people who are spiritual, it can be a useful tool, especially in a time where this does feel just so big. I really think that similar to some of the things that Lisa was sharing in terms of having rituals or having routines that you do that do help with that process, in whatever way.
Lisa J.: I imagine it's kind of hard right now for people who are really connected to the spiritual support, would you say that they're still able to get that kind of through the video, like people going to church virtually? Are you finding that that can really be a supportive piece?
Anastacia: Yeah, I think it can be very supportive. I think it takes a lot more intention now. I think that that’s probably the biggest thing that being intentional and getting that support. A small example for me is, my aunt passed away about two years ago, around this time of year. My family, we did a zoom call. It was my great aunt. Some of my aunts, well one main aunt, was singing songs that my aunt loved and so it felt very, even though it was Zoom and I had a migraine, so I was watching it in bed. It had a good volume that wasn't too much. I felt very connected to my family and even to my aunt in that process. I think, in the same way, going to church virtually, if you have a community of people who share whatever spiritual practice you believe and really creating that virtual community, I think will still provide—I think it almost, not to say that it feels even closer, but in a way right now, I think because this is affecting everyone on some level, it does feel like there's even this deeper connection that even though it might be virtual, it's still creating a deeper connection
Dr. Lisa: I get that. We need each other. All good points. To find ways to connect with your community and spend time together and do the things that you would do and that you need, even if it is a little different. This has been such a good conversation. I want to be respectful of both of your time. I know you have other things in your life besides me asking you questions, but I'm wondering if you have any parting thoughts or words of wisdom for people who are experiencing loss? Actually, this might be beyond the scope of this conversation, but I'm also thinking about people who are worried who may themselves be sick? Who are sitting with the possibility of their own passing? I don't know if there's an answer to this question but are there things that you have seen to the extent that people are able to, for closure conversations? Important things that can or should be discussed or done before someone passes? That are helpful emotionally, both to the person who may be dying, as well as the family that they leave? Is that too big of a question? I don't know.
Lisa: No. I mean, are you referring to if someone has the opportunity to say goodbye, or?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, to the extent that people can right now because it's different. Because you cannot be sitting there next to the bedside, right? I mean, the things that people could or should be thinking about, or trying to do if they are able to.
Lisa J.: If you are saying goodbye to someone, if someone is imminently, your expectation is that they are at end of life, I would say that we are fortunate to live in a time of technology because we have smartphones and laptops and some incredibly dedicated healthcare workers who are willing to be there and take these devices into rooms where patients. We know that the patients at end of life still hear, that's the last sense that goes. To be able to say goodbye is still possible. I know that they are trying to make that happen for people. If someone were in the situation where they were saying goodbye, it's still the same things that would have been recommended.
Obviously, the things that we want to say to other people is, “I love you.” If you have things that, and who doesn't, that we feel bad for, is to say, “I'm sorry, forgive me and I forgive you.” Because we love people and we may harbor some anger and we want them to hear those words. If it's truly the end of life. “I'll miss you, goodbye.” Those are the things in hospice care that are so important to say, at end of life, regardless of the circumstances. I would say that if that came up for me, that would be probably my top priority. To be able to say those things to someone that I am believing I may not know the opportunity to see again. I know that's very heavy kind of stuff to talk about.
Dr. Lisa: It’s real though. It's real. People are going to be encountering that. Too many. Would you add anything, Ana?
Anastacia: I think just really appreciating the people in your life right now. I think that intention, I just keep coming back to that word, but really being intentional in every interaction with the people that you love. Working through resentment and really fostering appreciation in each relationship I think is always important but then I think times like this, highlight the importance of that.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Yeah, I agree. Well, maybe you guys are both steering us in closing towards something that could be a whole other podcast on its own. But this idea that death, awareness of death, pushes us into deeper contact with our life and what we want and what is important to us. I think, using the fear and the worries or the realities of death to create clarity about how we want to live. That is beautiful, too.
Lisa J.: Absolutely. People can create wonderful meaning out of the things that happened to them. I think it's really important and I'm so glad that you kind of wrapped it up with that idea.
Dr. Lisa: Well, thank you guys both so much. It's been a pleasure to speak with you. Again, I know that this is a hard subject but it is necessary and you both had so much wisdom to share. My sincere hope is that even one person might listen to this and take things that are helpful and nourishing to them as they're on a difficult journey. Thank you for being so generous. Thank you.Lisa and Anastacia: Pleasure. Thank you for doing this.
Have you ever handed in a paper still warm from the printer, panting and sweaty from your sprint across campus?
Or selected a gift from the aisles of a gas station, en route to the baby shower you’ve known about for months?
Do you find that, no matter how much time you have to complete a project, you’re still working on it up until the deadline? Or maybe even past it?
If so, you have my wholehearted empathy and understanding, because we are kindred spirits: We are procrastinators.
A procrastinator is someone who habitually delays getting started on important tasks, and scrambles around to get things done at the last minute, often under a great deal of stress. If you have a tendency to procrastinate, you know it’s a habit that leaves you feeling harried, ineffective, and bad about yourself. You also know that not procrastinating is easier said than done.
But, as someone who has gone to battle with her own procrastination demons, and helped many coaching and counseling clients do the same, I know you can build new skills that will help you become more productive, more effective, and to do it all in a timely manner, with serenity and grace… (ok, still working on that last part).
That’s what we’re discussing on today’s episode of the podcast. I’m going to be exploring the real reasons you procrastinate, how procrastination affects your life, and the positive changes you can make today to overcome procrastination and start working toward your goals in a steady, intentional way.
I hope you’ll join me, on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
How to Stop Procrastinating Right Now : Episode Highlights
There really are some people who glide through their to-do list, devoting a reasonable amount of time to each item, passing by black holes of distraction without a second glance, and routinely completing projects with plenty of time to spare.
For the rest of us, procrastination is a real and ever-present threat. When procrastinating is a way of life for you, getting things done takes some thoughtful maneuvering.
Effects of Procrastination
Procrastination is a tough habit to break, despite its sometimes serious consequences. Here are just a few of the effects of procrastination, which I’m sure you’ve lived firsthand if you’re a real-deal procrastinator:
It’s incredible what a human being can do when the panic of an approaching deadline sets in. You might stay up until dawn writing a paper, or complete a project that was supposed to take months over the course of a long, terrible weekend.
You may even feel a little swell of pride when these flurries of work generate halfway decent results — a B+ paper, a good-enough project review. “Imagine what I could do if I didn’t procrastinate,” you may think.
But that’s the tragedy of chronic procrastination: You’ll never know what you’re capable of if you do everything at the last minute, in an adrenaline-fueled panic. To reach your full potential at school, at work, or in any area of life that calls for consistent effort over time, you’ll need to overcome procrastination.
Stress is quite literally a killer, and nothing adds unnecessary stress to your life like a habit of procrastination.
In fact, procrastinators need stress. It focuses the mind, making it possible to prioritize tasks and take action toward our goals. Without the looming threat of a missed deadline, a failed class, or letting down the people who are counting on us, it’s too easy to convince ourselves that watching TikTok dance routines or rearranging our bookshelves is the correct use of our time.
So procrastinators learn to live with stress, and to leverage it to get things done. But that doesn’t stop stress from taking a toll on your mind and your body, putting you at greater risk of burnout, and generally making you feel crummy.
If you complete a large job in a few frenzied hours, the client isn’t getting your best work. If you end up at a burger joint because you put off making a reservation, your partner isn’t getting the “anniversary dinner” treatment.
Procrastination can look to others like you just don’t care enough to try — when in fact you care so much that getting started feels overwhelming. But regardless of your true feelings, perceived apathy can feel insulting and hurtful to others, and can take a toll on your relationships.
Feeling Bad About Yourself
Finally, procrastination makes you feel bad about yourself.
You might recognize that you’re capable of more, and feel lazy when you reflect on your history of underachieving. You might feel less-than when you compare yourself to others who seem to manage their time more effectively. You might feel shame and guilt about letting down friends, partners, or coworkers because of procrastination.
Worse, you may feel helpless to do anything about it. But luckily, procrastinating is entirely within your power to change, and understanding why you procrastinate is the first step in changing it.
Why You Procrastinate
Every procrastinator has their own unique reasons for putting things off, but here are a few of the common culprits that may be behind your procrastination (and ideas for tackling each):
You’re Doing Too Much
Sometimes we think we have a problem with procrastination, when in fact we have a problem with taking on too many tasks, particularly tasks that aren’t interesting to us, or necessary, or that someone else could do better (and be happy about it!).
I don’t enjoy bookkeeping. I can do it, and as a small business owner, I used to: begrudgingly, and usually at the last minute. But when Growing Self grew to a certain point, I was more than happy to hand that task off to a professional, a magical unicorn who actually enjoys tracking expenses, creating financial statements, and submitting tax forms.
These people exist — thank goodness! My bookkeeper frees me up to focus on tasks that I’m actually good at, and that I don’t feel like hiding from indefinitely. Before you beat yourself up about putting something off, ask yourself if the task really needs to be done, and if you’re the right person to do it. Your time and energy may be better spent elsewhere.
You’re Dreading a Complex Process
When I first brainstormed this episode, I imagined sharing what I know about procrastination with you, like I was having a chat with a friend. But actually making the episode was a lot more complicated than that. It required research, moving meetings around so I could record, messing with equipment I don’t entirely understand, sending audio back and forth with my podcast editor, choosing a song, changing the song, writing this post, and a hundred other tiny steps that I won’t bore you with here.
You get the idea. The sheer number of steps involved in a complex task can be enough to paralyze you. You might anticipate getting stuck, or feeling overwhelmed, confused, frustrated, or any number of unpalatable feelings our brains would rather avoid.
When you take the time to plan and visualize each step of a complex task — what they’ll entail, how exactly you’ll do them, when you will do them, where you will do them — the process feels a bit more manageable. And even better, mentalizing the task is step one, so once you do this, you’re already over the “getting started” hump!
You’re Dreading a “Cognitively Heavy” Process
You might also be dreading the process because it is “cognitively heavy,” meaning it just takes a lot of brain power. I love to write, but it’s not something I can do while half paying attention, listening to a podcast, or keeping an eye on my kids. It requires my full brain, and an uninterrupted period of time. Afterwards, I feel a bit drained.
For “heavy” tasks, give your brain what it needs to do its best work. When do you feel your sharpest? Whether it’s in the morning, afternoon, or evening, dedicate that time to your heavy tasks. Make sure you give yourself a large chunk of uninterrupted time — you can’t do deep work in fifteen-minute fragments between Zoom meetings. It takes time to enter a “flow” state.
When your brain gets to do its most demanding work under better conditions, you may not dread the process so much, and you may feel less inclined to procrastinate.
You’re Getting Distracted
Distractions happen, and some of us are more distractible than others. I know I can sit down at my desk with an earnest intention to Get Stuff Done… and come to 20 minutes later on the Wikipedia page for El Chupacabra, wondering how I got there.
To head off distractions, construct your work environment with intention. Would it help to leave your cellphone in your bag, rather than keeping it on your desk? A tiny keystone habit like that can make a big difference. How about adjusting your notification settings, so a little box doesn’t pop into your visual field every time you get an email or a text? If noise tends to pull you out of flow, how about some noise-canceling headphones?
None of us are immune to distractions. But you can prevent many of them with some simple tweaks to your environment.
Perfectionism and Procrastination
“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgment, and shame,” — Brené Brown
Striving to do your best is a good thing. But perfectionism is something else entirely, and can be a powerful form of procrastination that keeps you from actually getting things done.
Perfectionism can show up as a tendency to “overdo” things. If a hardcore perfectionist is having a dinner party, they might feel unable to do the big stuff (shopping for and preparing the food, setting the table) until they figure out the little stuff (like making hand-lettered place cards for each guest).
“And really I should take a calligraphy class first,” the perfectionist thinks, “so maybe it’s best to reschedule for next fall.” (Or, more likely, never).
If perfectionism is at the root of your procrastination, watch out for “scope creep.” Don’t let simple tasks grow out of control, taking on unwieldy ambitions that require you to clear your schedule. Instead, practice aiming to do a good-enough job. You’ll get more done, and you’ll have a better time doing it.
We’re not born knowing how to create a reasonable schedule, devote an appropriate amount of time to a task, exercise self-control, or adapt to setbacks as they arise. All of these “executive functioning” skills take some practice, and once you develop them (something a good career coach can help you with), you’ll be able to work more effectively, and spend less time procrastinating.
How to Stop Procrastinating: Get Connected to Your “Why”
You do a thousand little things every day. You feed the kids, floss your teeth, fill out the spreadsheet, send that “Thank You,” submit your invoice, return the call, pick up the prescription, fold the laundry.
But why? How do the things you do connect to your values and the goals you have for your life?
Ask yourself these questions about the items on your to-do list. If you can’t see the connection, cross it off. The items that will remain are the essential things that are actually serving your larger life’s purpose.
Now you know what to focus on. For the rest, you have permission to procrastinate.
Episode Show Notes:
[02:53] Effects of Procrastination
You might have to work during what should be your down time, or fail to meet deadlines.
Procrastination can lead to issues in your personal relationships.
Your partner may feel hurt if you fail to follow through on things.
[10:32] Strategies For Overcoming Procrastination
Outsource or delegate the job to other people who are better suited for the task.
Stipulate your most productive and high-energy time of day for completing your most important tasks.
Use a calendar to schedule your tasks.
[26:28] Perfectionism and Procrastination
Perfectionism is the tendency to base your self-worth around what other people think of your work.
Perfectionists tend to be overly detailed and to get attached to overly ambitious outcomes.
Set a timer for every task and establish a mental boundary to stop yourself from doing more than what needs to be done.
[35:45] Connecting With Your Values
Reflect on your “why”.
Cross out tasks, projects, or habits that aren’t serving your larger goals.
Release the idea that you can or should do everything.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: That is, once again, the Wimps — one of my favorite bands — with a song, “Procrastination”, because that's what we're talking about today.
I've been meaning to make this podcast for you for about two years now. But yes, the struggle is real. I'm just kidding — not really. But I, too, have struggled with procrastination over the years. I know it's a very real thing. A lot of you are struggling with this. I wanted to spend our time together today sharing the tips, and tricks, and tools, and ideas that I have learned over the years that have helped me, and that I routinely teach my clients so that you get control over your time and energy too.
If this is your first time listening, hello and welcome! I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I'm a licensed psychologist, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and a board-certified coach, and draw from all of these things to help you create love, happiness, and success. This podcast is just me tossing out bread crumbs and bottles into the ocean that are hopefully helpful to you on your journey.
I always try to craft my topics about things that I'm hearing from you, my listeners, that would be helpful and important to you. So thank you, everyone, who has reached out through Instagram, or Facebook, or through our website growingself.com. Quick heads up to let you know — we're going to be starting to experiment with something a little different that I think would be pretty interesting. In addition to the kind of informational format of the show or the interview format of the show, I'm also going to be answering some listener questions on the air.
If you have something that is on your mind, and you would like to talk through it with me on a podcast sometime, I invite you to get in touch on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby, or firstname.lastname@example.org are easy ways. Just raise your hand, let me know what's on your mind, and perhaps you and I can talk things through. That is an exciting new thing and I'll be interested to see what we can collectively create with that.
But let's just dive right in. Let's not procrastinate, shall we? Let's dive into our topic together today. Because procrastination is a very real issue for many people, and it doesn't just lead to issues where you're not getting things done or you look around your house, and you see the stuff or the unopened mail — those are minor annoyances. It, over time though, can lead to a lot of bigger problems — anxiety — when you start to feel really overwhelmed and stressed and anxious about all this stuff piling up that is starting to be important. Maybe, there's a tax document and a pile of mail that you need to do something about.
Effects of Procrastination
I can also, I think — lead to people feeling really badly about themselves after a while, almost a depression-ney kind of shame experience where you're like, “What is wrong with me that I can't get my act together and do these things?” Then, if that does spiral into a capital D depression, that leads to exhaustion and avoidance, and even less likely that you will get things done.
It can also lead to real consequences either in your job if you're not meeting deadlines or leaving things till the last minute. After a while, people will get annoyed with you. It can also lead to issues in your relationship, particularly if your partner is asking you to do things or follow through with things that are personally important to them. I think it's easy to forget that actions, tasks that may seem small, simple things — unloading the dishwasher when you said you're going to, running an errand, taking care of something around the house — over time, those things can become kind of heavy with meaning.
It feels to us like it’s just about the task or the thing, but it can start to feel to your partner like it is a symbolic representation of your feelings towards them, often interpreted as that you don't care about them. It can lead to a lot of negativity and bad feelings in relationships. For all of these reasons, and in addition, of course, to you just feeling happy and content to kind of in control of yourself in your life, it is important that we talk together about procrastination.
In looking around, there are sort of standard-issue pieces of advice about how to deal with procrastination. I think that they do all have some validity. But I want to take it a little bit deeper today because in my experience — and I am saying this as somebody who, especially when I was younger, really did struggle with this. I would try all of these organizational systems — I read the books, and the whatever — I tried all the things, and they never worked for me.
I interpreted this, in my 20s, it’s just another side of my personal failings. But I think as I've gotten older and done more work on myself, I've come to realize that there is a reason why people tend to procrastinate, and often it goes a little bit deeper than one would think. I think we can assume that it's about strategies and habits, and so on and so forth. I do think to a degree that that can be true.
But without really opening the door — the basement, walking into the basement, and understanding really why, in a compassionate and fully aware sort of way, it can be difficult to use the tools and incorporate the habits. That's where I would like us to go today. I wanted to start this conversation, though, with just a compassion-building exercise. If this is the thing for you, I'm sure you're well aware of the emotional toll that it takes.
Also, if you are listening to this because you are partnered with somebody whose procrastination is driving you insane, it is also, I think, important for you to have some understanding and compassion for their emotional experience because the struggle is real, and it can be easy to get mad at yourself or get mad at your partner when they're doing these things, “Like what's the big deal? Just do the thing, and you won't feel bad anymore.”
But it tends to sort of snowball. The very best and most hilarious description of the procrastination cycle that I came across was from a really cool blog post, actually — by a civilian. He was not a licensed mental health professional, but he's still incredibly insightful and very funny. His name is Tim Urban. A while back, he did a piece called The Dark Playground on his blog called Wait But Why. I will link to it somewhere in the post to this podcast.
But anyway — I'll just read you a little snippet from his work. Here, he's talking about the emotional depths of what happens with somebody who is in a habit of procrastinating, has put things off, and that they eventually will enter the dark playground. It is a place every procrastinator knows well. It's a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the dark playground isn't actually fun because it's completely unearned, rather, and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread.
Sometimes, the rational decision-making part of you puts his foot down and refuses to let you waste time doing normal leisure things. Since the other side of this — he's calling the “Instant Gratification Monkey” — wants to keep distracting you and won't let you work. You find yourself in a bizarre purgatory of weird activities where everyone loses. If you are a habitual procrastinator, I'm sure you can relate to that.
It's like there's these two sides of you — there's this part of you that is screaming at you, “Just do the things, you know what you have to do. What's wrong with you?” But there's this other part that's like that, “I'm going to do this, I want to do that, I want to…”, something else… Then, he has a third character in this narrative called the “Panic Monster” which emerges as you get closer and closer to a deadline, or begin experiencing real or threatened consequences of procrastination.
Then, that sort of motivates you into this big flurry of action where you wind up — yes — doing some things usually in a half-assed manner. You kind of get it done, but it wasn't really good enough, and it was incredibly stressful, and people are still annoyed with you anyway. For a full description of The Dark Playground and the emotional toll that procrastination can take, I would encourage you to visit Wait But Why. It's worth your time.
This is a difficult place to be in. I think one of the big well — there are many, I think, deeper reasons why people can’t do this. But I think in my experience, I have isolated it to a few. I'm just going to talk through these one at a time. As I do, I would like for you to just kind of listen and think about which of these might fit best for you. It may be that there are a few of these that fit well for you. The answer is often multidimensional and complex.
Strategies For Overcoming Procrastination
But one of the biggest lessons for me, and something that I have actually since coached many clients through is the discovery that these things that I was procrastinating and putting off and feeling badly about were actually things that I wasn't good at, that I didn't enjoy, and I really was trying to make myself do things that I shouldn't have been trying to do in the first place many times. This would be related to different aspects of work, oftentimes, or even stuff around the house, or in my personal life.
I just want to invite you to consider if the things that you have on this giant list that you're telling yourself you should be doing, could potentially be things that you don't enjoy, that you don't value, that you don't really have an interest in. Maybe, you're getting societal messages that are telling you that you should be valuing or doing these things, but then you actually, legitimately, do not care and that you don't feel like completing these tasks is going to be particularly meaningful or helpful in your life, and you're not good at them, you don't really know how to do them, it's not stuff that you enjoy, and perhaps to give yourself permission to not do them.
I just want you to consider what could change about your life and your relationship to these tasks, and also your relationship to yourself. If instead of kind of beating yourself up and trying to make yourself do things that you don't want to do, and that you probably shouldn't be doing — and accept that. What doors could potentially open up for you? If you're like, “Yeah, I'm actually not going to do that.”
Let's just pause here for a second. Let that sink in. You may be feeling a surge of anxiety around like, “But these things need to get done!” Maybe, they do need to get done. But maybe you should not be the one to do them. It could turn into a very different exercise in problem-solving if you just kind of shifted into this mindset around, “I am not going to do these things. How could they potentially get done anyway?”
This could turn into all kinds of creative new possibilities for you. For example, maybe you have strengths in an area. There are things that you are good at and that you do enjoy. When you do them, it feels like flow. It is like, “This is why I am here, and I'm having the best time right now.” And you don't procrastinate with those things. They're like fun — you move towards them instead of away from them.
As you get clearer about what those things are, and how those things would bring value into the lives of other people, you, now, have a poker chip that you could potentially trade with somebody else. There are people — and I'm just going to use this as a quick example — there are magical creatures in the world that I sort of view as this semi-unicorn, pegasus creature, sparkles, that enjoys things like administrative tasks, bills, opening mail, organizing things. They exist, they exist. You might be one of those people.
Perhaps, as you're listening to this, many procrastinators tend to be on the more creative side of the spectrum. Maybe, you are really good at painting things, making music, coming up with new ideas, rearranging furniture. It's possible to develop relationships with other people where they can have a good time coming into your life and helping you do things that you can't really do that well. In exchange, of course for your energy, and talent, and abilities, and the value that you can bring to their life doing the things that would help them.
That may not be intrinsically part of their kind of skill set and value set. It could be even simple swaps with your partner. If you're getting into power struggles around certain tasks at home, seeing, “Okay, I don't procrastinate around these things. These are things I can get done. I can be in charge of XYZ. You do that over there.”
I think the central point is that not everyone is good at everything. Actually, nobody is good at everything. The sooner that we can move into a state of acceptance around that, and spend your time and energy really identifying your strengths, the things you do enjoy, and figuring out how to do more of those — a lot of this is instantly going to get easier for you. That would be strategy number one, is to swap or even outsource if you have the means to do it.
I felt terribly guilty for years and years about the idea of having a house cleaner come in periodically. I had all these mental narratives around that “I can’t, that feelings around it. I tell you what — I am not a fabulous housekeeper. I aspire to be. I look at things and I'm like, “Man, someone will need to clean that.” I see it, but in terms of my time, and I'm going 900 miles an hour, and not really good at it anyway.
To have a support in that area has been incredibly helpful for me. I had to work through a lot of guilt. And yes, of course, there's the money component. I understand that not everybody can do that. But if there are things that you can just cross off your list and get some help with, do it.
Another piece of this that is very, very common for many people… Maybe, it is something that you need to do. It is actually your job to do. Generally speaking — like big picture — it is stuff that you're good at, it is stuff that you enjoy doing, it is within your kind of sphere of talent, and value, and ability, and it's also difficult to do.
I know that many of my clients who are in creative positions or positions where their role is, even if it's not an artistic kind of creative position — I'm thinking of a developer, marketing people, project managers, product managers… In my group, we honestly work with a lot of people in the tech industries. Their role is really to come up with ideas and be solving complex problems with lots of different moving parts that might involve a lot of different people.
Or even I know for myself, sometimes, I love to write. I enjoy it, I think that I can do it somewhat well when I put in the time. Cognitively though, any of these activities are very cognitively demanding. They are cognitively heavy work. It takes a lot of mental effort to do these things. It may surprise you to know that your body, your physical body — okay, we all know we have physical bodies, and they burn calories. You have energy that powers your body.
Your brain, particularly when it is working hard, consumes more calories and more energy than anything else in your body which might surprise you because we think about all these moving parts, right? But it's actually your brain. I bring that up to reinforce and validate the fact that, sometimes, when we have these big complicated things to create or problems to solve, we can feel the enormity of that load in our brains, and it's like anticipating lifting something extremely heavy — just this like, “Ugh!”
I think what also goes along with that is that some things, whether they are cognitive in nature or even physical projects, can be quite complex. They have many different aspects of them. It looks like, on the surface, a fairly simple task like, “Okay, I'm going to paint the wall in the bedroom.” Something like that. It’s like a 97-step process.
You have to get to the paint store to look at colors, and then bring the colors home, and then take them to the wall, and then look at them, and then argue about them, and then take half of them down — that. Then, you have to get the paint, and then you have to get the stuff, and then when… When are you going to do that? Anyway, it's just like everything is complicated.
What happens is that we begin to feel the bigness of the project, either the all of the physical steps, and it starts to feel overwhelming, or the cognitive load of it. It turns into a situation where we can begin subliminally, subconsciously dreading the process. This sort of anticipatory dread about how hard it's going to be — even though intellectually, you want to do it, you enjoy doing it, and maybe, you want the outcome of having done it.
When it comes to — if you're feeling like, “Yes, this is what I do.” When it comes to the cognitive pieces of this, what I learned is that with the cognitive work, it is extremely important to do a few things. First of all, get really clear about your natural energy cycles. For example, I tend to do my best work. If I'm going to do something very cognitively heavy, I need to do it in the morning. For some people, their brains are not working at full capacity at five o'clock in the morning when I'm ready to write stuff and think about stuff.
They are at like five o'clock at night is when they turn on. But I think gaining that awareness about yourself, “Is it the middle of the day? Is it late at night? Is it in the morning?” Then, planning your cognitively heavy work during those times. That is one really important strategy right there. In addition to that, to have a dedicated chunk, big chunk of time to do deep work, particularly if it is cognitive in nature.
I work with so many people who are in roles where they're managing people, or they're guiding teams, or they're part of a team. I've had clients show me their work calendars before because they're telling me that they're procrastinating and have this big project to do. Then, they show me their work calendar and their fragmented days. They'll have 10 meetings in a day, and they're like, “I just can't make myself do this thing.” I'm thinking, “You might need an hour to settle in to even getting mentally prepared to doing this work.”
I think that people tend to underestimate the amount of time that they need to enter into this — I think it's almost like an altered state of consciousness in some ways to do really deep, creative work, or intellectually demanding work — but like a three-hour chunk, a five-hour chunk. I don't know what that might look like in your life. But if you're struggling to get those big things done, I would honestly recommend that you look at your calendar and see what you can do to move things around so that you have time and space that is protected and dedicated to those very heavy cognitive tasks.
That's what I began doing — blocking my calendar. I have different kinds of activities on different days. I do have days where I have meetings from morning to night — and it's fine. I have to do it, and I enjoy talking to people and having meetings, and having sessions. But I can't do that on days that I have to do things like make podcasts for you. I can't focus deeply enough to be able to create that for you, so I have to have days that are like my days to do creative work. I wonder what might happen for you if you tried that strategy.
Also, you're responsible for setting boundaries. People aren't going to set boundaries for you. But to be able to communicate those needs to your team, to your boss, say, “Hey, I have this big project to do, so I am going to be unavailable for the next four hours. I'm going to produce great results for you in the meantime.” Also, it's important that when you do have this protected time to be setting boundaries with yourself, and right now, I'm thinking of the notifications that come in or you see something on your phone, and 20 minutes later…
The protecting yourself from those intrusive kinds of notifications or interruptions that can shift you out of that deep work. In addition, though, and this is where we have to get very serious, is to identify the usual suspects that are — in Tim Urban's words, “part of The Dark Playground”, and knowing yourself well enough to know that you cannot actually look at YouTube or whatever for five minutes even though that's what the little voice in your mind is telling you.
I had to implement a new rule with myself that when I go into the office, first thing in the morning, I go in with my coffee. I had to start bringing my phone in with me because I would easily spend an hour just scrolling through crap on my phone during the most productive, high-energy time of day that I had. If I was going to get something done, it was going to be at that time — just noticing that pattern and being so annoyed with myself.
It's like these small habits that you can develop. I think you've heard on previous podcasts that I did about this idea of a keystone habit, which is the one little thing that you can implement that can lead to a chain reaction of other positive habits. For me, that is not bringing my phone into my office early in the morning. It sounds like the silliest little thing, but it's really that one keystone habit. I don't have my phone, so I sit down and I think about what I should actually be doing, and I'm much more likely to do it.
Perfectionism and Procrastination
I would encourage you to reflect on what your kryptonite is and find some keystone habits that will help you set some boundaries around it. Some of the other usual suspects when it comes to reasons for procrastination and things that you can do to manage them. I know we talk about perfectionism sometimes. I'm sure that that's a word that everybody is familiar with. I sort of take perfectionism to mean other things as a — one of the many disciples of Brené Brown. I loved her concept of perfectionism, and I want to share it with you.
She sort of referred to perfectionism as being a tendency to base your self-worth on what other people think of your work. So that when we are being perfectionistic, we are really working to get approval and recognition from others. We should probably talk about that in-depth on another podcast at some point, but that's kind of my working model of perfectionism right now. That is different than the concept of excellence of doing a good job, of striving to do something well.
I think that that is okay if we get feelings of satisfaction from that — to be able to think, “I did a good job, I did that well.” I certainly don't want to take that away from you, and I don't want you to think that if you are trying really hard to do a good job, you're being perfectionistic because that might not be true. I respect people that do excellent work. I'm sure that you do too, and probably aspire to be one of those people.
Where this begins to cause problems and lead to procrastination is when you, I, we tend to become so over-detailed and start broadening the scope of the project, and incorporating all kinds of things that maybe don't need to be part of the project or the thing we have to do, and begin to become attached to very specific and possibly over-ambitious outcomes that lead us to feel that overwhelmed feeling and dread the process of something as simple as reorganizing the kitchen like, “Man, my drawers are a mess. I need to reorganize this kitchen.”
If you're not careful, can turn into a full day of tearing everything out of the cabinets, and having to take a bunch of stuff to Goodwill, and re-papering all of the drawers, and, “We should probably get new organizers.” “While we're here, why don't we just repaint the place, and I should probably get new dishes.” I mean, it just explodes into all of these different things. I think that a real helpful goal here is can be to narrow our focus and notice when we're doing scope creep in any of the things that we undertake.
I know that I have a tendency to do this, and I know many of my clients have too. I do think it's attached to that noble intention of wanting to do a really good and thorough job — and that's great, but not if it prevents you from actually doing anything. If it sort of snowballs into many other ideas, and you can't plant flowers in the front yard before you figure out your whole concept for landscaping. We're probably going to put a new addition on the house at some point, so you have to figure out what we're doing that first when you could have just gone out and spent approximately 20 minutes planting some Iris bulbs, and it would have been fine.
To kind of have this mental jujitsu where you can help yourself stay focused on the one small task that would bring some value in the short term, and it would make things better than they currently are. Your life might be incrementally better if you literally spent 20 minutes just reorganizing your silverware drawer. But you have to have a mental boundary that stops you from going further than that. That is just another cognitive strategy that I've noticed can be really helpful for people — is actually making the bar lower, and much more narrow and focused.
Another neat trick is that if you have something that you need to do, and it is one of those smaller projects — ones that are easy to put off, but that probably should be done every once in a while — is to set a timer. “I am going to rearrange some of the silverware drawers to the best of my ability for the next 10 minutes. Siri, set a timer for 10 minutes.” Do your thing, and when the timer goes off, you stop. Your silverware drawer is halfway better, and it's still better than it was, and you have done something.
I think setting almost those little challenges with yourself is a way to gamify procrastination, and actually get yourself to do some of the things that you have been putting off in addition to finding a place and time to do them. That is kind of flowing us into another reason why people often procrastinate is because they have not developed what we clinically call “executive functioning skills”. This could be for a variety of reasons.
Many of us were never specifically taught “executive functioning skills”. We are sent to school, and given assignments, and do these things. But I never had a teacher show me, “Okay, here's a planner; here's how to use a calendar; here is how to manage your time in such a way that you can actually get these things done.” We're just given a syllabus, and like, “Good luck with that.”
I think that there's this assumption in the educational system, but also in many occupational environments that we know how to do that. For many people, that is simply not true. They weren't taught it or — this is also a very real thing — they may struggle with ADHD as adults. That can really mean that they have to work even harder to develop very robust executive functioning skills and systems in order to be able to manage themselves.
It can be simple things — like we all have that to-do list of the things. Unless you have good executive functioning skills, your to-do list will never work because you don't have a system for saying, “Okay, this is how long this task is going to take, and this is where and when I am going to do this task.” Just like we're told that things that, in order to have like an organized environment, we have to find a place to put our stuff, and that's like where its home is.
You also have to have a place in time to put the things that need to be done in, or they will just stay on that to-do list and your life will flow by, and you'll become increasingly annoyed with yourself that you haven't updated your budget or opened the mail in two months because you haven't identified when are you going to do that activity. There are all kinds of books on these sorts of skills.
If you, in listening to this podcast, become aware that, “Yeah, you know what? I never did learn how to do that. It could be super helpful just to look through some of those.” There are also such things as productivity coaches who can help teach you how to do that. But those are learnable skills. If you didn't learn them overtly somewhere along the way, you might want to consider doing that.
Those are some of the deeper things that I have found to be at the core of perfectionism. Some of the strategies that I've worked with clients around implementing — there are certainly others. Of course, like any of the podcasts that I create — this podcast is in no way intended to be an answer to the whole thing. For many people, it was certainly for myself. It took a long time. I had to work at this for years in order to figure out what was leading to procrastination, and also to develop the skills, and strategies, and practices that helped me move past it.
Connecting With Your Values
Before we end, I do want to share one other strategy that has really helped me and helped a lot of my clients. Again, this is a deeper thing. It's not something that you can just start doing right away, but it is very much worth doing. It’s sitting down and spending some time reflecting on your values — like what feels genuinely meaningful and important to you? Like getting connected to your “why”. Why do you do anything? Why do you want this job anyway?
Is it your family? Is your art? Is it other things in your life that are super important to you? Really get clear about those. Then, start to figure out which tasks, or projects, or habits, things that you may have been putting off — how they connect to these larger values. I tell you what, if they don't connect to the larger values, I would like to give you permission to just cross them off your list.
Unless, of course, they are extremely important values to somebody that you are partnered with, and crossing them off your list could lead to the detriment of your relationship. You certainly don't want to do that. But if you do this for yourself, what you will have left is a collection of things that are actually meaningful and important to you. Then, you can begin to create sort of goals around these.
When we can get clear about our values and the goals that kind of flow off of those, and then the tasks or the projects that we need to do in order to accomplish these goals that are a manifestation of our values, then there becomes much more meaning in our daily tasks. We also have a lot more clarity about what is important and why. That in itself can be quite motivating.
Something I've gotten in the habit of doing is every week, we'll think about my values, my long-term goals, and then, “What are just the three most important things I could do this week that would move me towards those?” Then, from those weekly goals, what are the three most important small things I could do today that would carry me towards that, and do those first. Do those during your most high-energy days, and respecting the fact that those times of day are very special times of day that not just anything should wander into your energy field at those times of the day.
That time is reserved for special and important things that are connected to your highest meaning and value, and getting in the habit of doing those things first. When you do that, every day will be incredibly productive because you'll be doing the most important things. Even if you don't do all of the things, you can feel good and confident that you are living in alignment with your values, and you're making the most important things happen because that's where it's at.
We all need to release this idea that we can do all of the “everything” — that's not possible. But we should strive to be doing the things that are important to us. That's one last tip. I hope it's helpful. But again, I don't want you to hear this podcast and think that you should be able to do all of these things that I've advised. Then, that just turns into another thing to feel bad about yourself around if you can't. That is not the way that people work.
These are growth experiences. This is a process, and getting information like this is a part of the process. But true growth — it's never informational, it is experiential, it occurs over time. I just wanted to remind you of that before we end so that you can be gentle with yourself as you are working on this. Anyway, thank you so much for spending this time with me today. I do hope this was helpful, and I will see you next time, next week. In the meantime, here is more Wimps.
I can’t tell you how many times a therapy or dating coaching client has asked me questions like these, usually through tears. They’re often reeling in the aftermath of a traumatic breakup, reflecting on a painful dating history, and feeling bleak about their odds of ever finding a healthy, loving relationship in the future.
When you fall for partners who cheat, who mistreat you, who don’t value you, or who just aren’t capable of being in a healthy relationship, it’s painful. When this becomes a pattern, dating can feel like a carousel of heartbreak and disappointment, where the only choices are between toxic connections and being alone.
But if you’re reading this, I’m here to tell you that you have other, better choices. You still have time to get off this ride, stop accepting relationships with jerks, and go find real love.
On today’s episode of the podcast, I’m going to tell you how. Joining me for this conversation is Sarah, a “Love, Happiness and Success” listener who graciously volunteered to share her difficult dating history, and to discuss how she broke free from a pattern of dating jerks to find a healthy, loving relationship.
We’re talking about why jerks can seem so darn datable, the romantic myths that keep you stuck, and the deep work you can begin today to banish jerks from your love life, once and for all.
No one deserves to be lied to, cheated on, used, neglected, strung along, ghosted, or gaslit. Unfortunately, many people experience a toxic relationship with a jerk at some point. And for some, dating jerks is the norm.
If you have a history of choosing partners who don’t treat you with love and respect, it’s time to examine your dating patterns, get curious about where they’re coming from, and start shifting them in a healthy new direction.
This is deep, fundamental, important work. It can improve your relationships across the board — not just in your dating life.
The Myth of the “Right Person”
Step one in breaking through a pattern of dating jerks is to let go of a story that’s pervasive in our culture: that you just haven’t met the right person yet, and that once you do, everything will fall into place.
Of course, meeting a kind, available, and trustworthy person (who’s also crazy about you) is a wonderful thing. But if you have a longstanding pattern of dating partners who don’t treat you well, you have some barriers to healthy relationships to dismantle first. Until you begin the dismantling, you’re likely to repel the “right person” when you meet them or to reject them yourself.
Your real work isn’t to continue sifting through potential partners and hoping for the best. It’s to heal and grow until a healthy, loving relationship is the only relationship that fits.
Attachment Issues and Dating Jerks
When I have a client — often a woman — sitting on my couch after yet another painful breakup, asking, “Why do I keep attracting the wrong man?,” I start with a few questions about her childhood.
Did you experience abuse, neglect, or abandonment as a child? Was trauma a feature of your early years? Do you have a difficult or painful relationship with one or both of your parents?
If your early childhood attachments weren’t safe, secure, and loving, this is the likely root of any unhealthy romantic attachments you’re experiencing as an adult. It’s very common for people to be drawn to partners who remind them of an early attachment figure and try to get the love and care from these partners that they didn’t get as kids.
These relationships often lead to heartbreak, and repeating them, again and again, is like injuring the same body part over and over. If you suspect attachment issues are at the root of your painful romantic patterns, book an appointment with an attachment-oriented therapist or divorce recovery specialist who can help you break the cycle.
Some of the biggest jerks in the dating pool initially present as attractive, fun, wildly successful types. These sparkly people make your brain dispense pleasure chemicals in their presence — a sensation that can be confused with compatibility or love.
But like most highs, the hangover is usually close behind. You may discover that this exciting person is all charm and no substance, or that their intense interest in you peters out shortly after they get you into bed.
Meanwhile, many non-jerks aren’t so sparkly at first blush. They may downplay their accomplishments, rather than highlight them. It may take some time to discover the best parts of their personality. They may not lavish you with attention or flattery right off the bat, instead, they may take the time to actually get to know you.
All of this can feel a bit… boring. Especially if you’re accustomed to “love” feeling like a quick dopamine hit.
Of course, there are some sparkly, charming people who also happen to be excellent partners (and some less sparkly people who also happen to be jerks). But if you’re overfocusing on chemistry — on how you feel in another person’s presence — you might be choosing a short-term high over genuine, enduring love.
Are You Actually Dating Jerks?
Sometimes we believe we’re dating jerks, when in fact our love lives are unfolding in the natural, sometimes difficult way that love lives tend to unfold — and yes, that includes the occasional breakup that’s difficult to recover from.
You may think your partner’s a jerk when you realize they’re not who you wanted them to be, and you’re feeling hurt or disappointed about that. This is a sign that you need to move slower and take more time to get to know people, before getting deeply attached.
It could also be that the person you’re dating just doesn’t have the same level of interest in you that you have in them, and is communicating this in various ways that feel a little jerky. They may be slow to respond to your messages, unmotivated to make plans, or unwilling to commit to your relationship. This kind of rejection hurts, and it can be hard to get over it. But it doesn’t make them a jerk unless they’ve deceived you in some way about your relationship (which happens!). To avoid situations like this, learn to judge potential partners by the effort they’re putting into your relationship. If you’re not seeing effort, that’s your cue to move on.
Finally, we sometimes think we’re dating jerks, when in fact our own unresolved issues are introducing unhealthy elements into the relationship mix. The way you show up in relationships will affect the feedback you receive from partners, and if you’re getting a lot of the same, unpleasant feedback, that could be a sign that your own style of relating needs to change.
And if you do need to work on how you show up in relationships, you’re in great company. Relationships are an opportunity for all of us to learn and grow into better versions of ourselves, and to develop essential relationship skills like empathy, communication, listening, and emotional intelligence.
How to Stop Dating Jerks
There could be a number of reasons for your pattern of dating jerks, and many of those reasons are best worked through with the help of a good dating coach or therapist.
But there is one thing you can do all on your own, that can change your dating life for the better: Get clear about who you are and what you’re looking for in a relationship.
Do you know what your values are? Do you know where you’re headed in life? Do you know where your boundaries are in relationships, what you’ll accept and what you’ll walk away from? If you’re looking for someone to spend your life with, what qualities will that person have? Once you’re clear on the answers to these questions, dating will feel a lot easier. You’ll find yourself drawn toward emotionally healthy partners who fit into the life you’re committed to building, and the jerks will lose their sparkle.
Episode Show Notes:
[02:33] A Harmful Dating Pattern
Gaining self-awareness can help you understand and recognize toxicity in your relationships.
Being stuck in a harmful pattern can be traumatizing and prevent you from finding the real, healthy love you want and deserve.
It’s ultimately your power — and your responsibility — to make things better for yourself.
Clear the deck for new ideas! It’s not luck or chance that will help you — it will be you and your growth.
[06:29] Jerks And Attachment Styles
You may have unresolved attachment issues from your childhood.
You might never feel safe or secure in relationships, requiring plenty of validation. On the other hand, you might be keeping people at a distance.
Involving yourself with someone with an unhealthy attachment style can cause you to act in unhealthy ways, too, even if you were secure before the relationship.
[12:57] Why Do I Attract Jerks? Jerks Are Attractive!
Jerks tend to be superficially charming — they’re often good-looking, fun, and successful.
It’s easy to get swept off your feet when you first meet them.
Jerks may have narcissistic or sociopathic traits or have highly avoidant attachment styles.
Nice, kind, and securely attached people are not that flashy. Developing a real relationship often feels like growing a friendship.
[16:15] Not Everyone Is A Jerk
Emotionally healthy people will get to know you over a period of time. It won’t be as exciting and will usually feel calm and peaceful.
If you’ve been dating a lot of jerks, a healthy person might seem boring.
Some people may realize they’re incompatible with you and reject you. This doesn’t mean either of you are bad people.
[22:16] Dating People Who Aren’t Jerks
Being a good partner is a learned skill.
If you can’t show up well in a relationship, your partner might pull away.
It’s critical to face yourself as well. What are you doing to create these outcomes? Are you bringing harmful patterns to the relationship?
Take time to understand yourself and your values.
[33:16] Unrealistic Expectations of Dating
A good beginning doesn’t guarantee a happy ending.
Some people might only show negative behaviors later in a relationship.
[41:51] Dating A Jerk Advice: “Red Flags”
Red flags can get buried by powerful feelings at the start of a relationship.
They also come in waves — you may have a great day, followed by multiple arguments.
Heeding the “red flags” in a relationship is a valuable lesson to learn.
[48:51] Attracting the Wrong People
Attempting to “fix” someone tends to backfire.
It pays off to introspect and understand yourself.
You deserve better; be with someone who builds you up.
[57:09] How to Date a Nice Guy After Dating Jerks
Focus on a potential partner’s demeanor before jumping to conclusions.
Cultivate mutual commitment, honesty, and authenticity in a relationship.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: On today's show, we are exploring a question. I know many of you have been asking yourselves at some point or another, which is, “Why do I keep dating jerks?” I know that this has been on your mind because I've had a lot of you reach out to me through our website — growingself.com, through Instagram. With these situations, you're like, “You know what? I did it again. Why do I keep getting myself in these relationships, in these situationships, wind up not being a good fit for me? I don't like it, I don't want to do it anymore, but I also don't know how to stop.” And that's valid.
Today, we are devoting a whole episode into unpeeling this onion and answering some of these questions for you. I have something exciting planned for us today. I am going to be doing a couple of things. I am an information person, as you probably figured out now if you've listened to the show before. I am going to be providing information and insight — just things that I have learned over the years in my role as a therapist, a dating coach, a counselor here at Growing Self.
Then, I also am going to be speaking with one of my listeners, one of your compadres, one of our community has raised her hand. We actually put a call out on Instagram recently around, “Have you had a pattern of dating jerks? Do you want to talk about it with Dr. Lisa?” Our friend, Sarah, raised her hand and said that she has been working on this for a long time, and she also had this pattern and has some very special and hard-won insights to share with you about her process in this area. Lots of fun stuff in store for us today.
If this is your first time listening — hello, welcome. I'll make this quick. Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby — founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I'm a Marriage and Family Therapist, I'm a psychologist, I'm a life coach. This show is all about love, happiness, and success, and your love, happiness, and success specifically. If you have questions, or topics you would like me to talk about on the show, if you have a question for me and would like to discuss it with me on the show, I hope you raise your hand and get in touch. email@example.com is how you can email. You can also get in touch on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby.
A Harmful Dating Pattern
First of all, let's just talk about this pattern, which is so common. I know that many people who come to our practice, Growing Self, we do a number of different things here. We do couples counseling, we do career stuff — even our individual clients that we work with, the work that we do is often very relational in nature. I've done a lot of research and writing on the topic of breakup recovery, and I think is an extension of that when people heal and grow. It can turn into dating coaching, which is wonderful.
That can also be a difficult experience for people, particularly if they haven't done a lot of this deeper work around patterns and subconscious motivations. Without that insight, without that self-awareness, dating can often be extremely discouraging and disappointing, I should say. The hope of this podcast today is to arm you with some new ideas to help make it more positive and productive for you. Again, as with all these podcasts, this is information. Information is not the same thing as having a growth experience. But hopefully, you'll hear some things today that you can put to use in your own life that would be helpful for you.
You deserve to have help with this because it's an awful experience of feeling like you try to have relationships with these people. Just over and over again, you're getting involved with people who treat you badly or they're untrustworthy — maybe they've cheated on you, maybe they weren't emotionally available, or maybe you just leave this experience feeling like they're not valued, and that is terrible.
It's hurtful to experience, but also, if we don't figure out ways to break these patterns, it can be traumatizing and can really hold you back in some ways from trying again, daring to trust again, and put yourself out there again, and finding the real, healthy love that you want and deserve. I am here to tell you — the good news is that these patterns are 100% within your power to change, and it is your power to change it. Meaning, that it is also ultimately your responsibility to change it.
Tip number one: one of the biggest things I found that can be a huge barrier for people on this path of growth is this idea that, “I just haven't met the right person yet. When I do, this will be completely different. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing, I'm talking to all these different people, and sooner or later, I will meet the right person, and then I will have a different experience, and this will all be better.” I am here to tell you that certainly, meeting the right person can be glorious and leads all good things.
Unless you've done deeper levels of growth work, you will have a really hard time meeting that person. Here's the fun part: if you do meet that person, you will reject them. There's a lot to unpack here today. The first thing that I would like to request, as we do this work together today, is that you release that old narrative of I just haven't found the right person, and I'm just going to put it over here next to me while we're talking. I will hand it back to you the end of today's broadcast.
But in the meantime, just clear the decks for some new ideas that will have more impact on your life ultimately because it's not luck, it's not chance — it's you. It's you learning, and growing, and gaining self-awareness and clarity, and being able to understand your patterns so that you can ultimately find freedom from them.
Jerks And Attachment Styles
One of the reasons that people have jerks in their life — a string of jerks going back for decades, different shapes and sizes, but jerk-wise nonetheless, and this one is hard to wrap your arms around.
If this is true for you, it is likely that you will need some professional support in order to work through this. But if you emerged from childhood as many people have with damaging experiences in your very early primary relationships with one or both of your parents, it may have left you with what we call “attachment issues”.
You may be on either side of the spectrum, you may have a tendency towards anxious attachment where you never quite feel safe or secure in relationships, and you need a lot of validation and people telling you that they love you, and showing you that they love you, or you start to feel really anxious, and that can lead to controlling behaviors in relationships sometimes that makes it difficult to have the kind of relationship that you want.
You may also have come out of that with what we call an “avoidant attachment style”, which is that you, from a very early age, became heavily defended and even are now subconsciously really protecting yourself from getting too close to other people, which in practice typically looks like being extremely perfectionistic and critical of the people that you date and get to know.
You can start to get to know somebody, and it seems good so far. Then sooner or later, they're not perfect anymore, you have all these reasons why they're not your person, and you will withdraw from relationships — even if you don't want to. I've talked to so many people, and it's like a physical — like they feel grossed out by a person almost, it's like on a physiological level
It is very common for people who have anxious attachment styles and avoidant attachment styles to come together in a non-blissful union, and essentially torture each other for several months before breaking up, and then oftentimes repeating that with a different person with a same kind of complementary attachment style.
I also want to say that any of us in a certain type of relational system can exhibit an attachment style on one side of the spectrum or the other. If you are in a relation with somebody, for example, if you have a secure attachment style fundamentally, and if you are in a relationship with an avoidant person, you will become anxious and you will start looking like an anxiously attached person in that relationship.
If you are a securely attached person, and you start dating somebody who has an anxious attachment style, you will very predictably move into this avoidant relational style with them because of their kind of way of showing up in the relationship. One way to dig into this and to see if it's deeper attachment things going on at a much deeper level is to ask yourself, and it could be with the help of a therapist or you unpack this, “Did I essentially grow up, from the ages of zero to five, in a highly emotionally unsafe or physically unsafe environment?”
Not that you needed to have perfect parents. Everybody's parent is a weirdo in one way or the other. This is not parent-bashing, but patently unsafe. It was bad, you are suspect that it was left with traumas, left with scars, and it has persisted and been in these kinds of stable patterns in every relationship over time. But that would be a sign that there's some deeper work to do.
I just wanted to say that first because I think what these kinds of questions like, “Why do I date jerks?” We think that there's some simple answer, and if you've lived through awful things in your early childhood, I want to be a better friend to you than that by suggesting that there's some simple amp answer and do these three things, and it will be better. There is a longer road ahead, and it's okay, and it can be healed, and it's going to be an intentional process, and it's also difficult to do alone.
But until you do that, it's going to be hard to break out of those patterns because not only do you have your own attachment style that will interfere with healthy relationships anyway, but it's almost like your antenna is a little bit bent. You're going to be fundamentally more attracted to people who are going to be nothing but trouble for you.
Herr Freud, back in the day, noticed this in some of his patients, and it would show up in different places, but he termed it “repetition compulsion”, and observed the fact that people who had very traumatic experiences, particularly with their parents, particularly in early childhood, would try to heal it, close the gap, have a healing experience with a person in their adult life who was very similar to one of those abusive parents like, “I couldn't get the love and care that I needed from my abusive father, so I'm going to find this guy who's very similar to my abusive father, actually, and try to do this with him. In that way, have that healing experience”, and it doesn't work, and it is also highly subconscious. People don't even realize that they're doing it.
If any of this is ringing a bell for you, you can just stop listening to the “How to Not Date Jerks” podcast, and just make an appointment with a good therapist who has an attachment-based orientation to help you dig through some of this, and do a deeper level of more meaningful work. Just invest in it, and trust that through this deeper work, you will be ready to heal, and grow, and find a wonderful person. But until you do the work, that time that you spend dating will not be helpful to you. That's my first piece of advice, for better or for worse.
Jerks Are Attractive
Another reason that I often see why people have a pattern of dating jerks when we unpack this is because jerks are often incredibly attractive humans — they really are. When we think about the stereotypical jerk, they don't say terrible things, and act in horrific and shocking ways when you first meet them. No — they are often superficially charming. They are smooth talkers. They look good, they smell good, they often have admirable careers, and they can be really fun to talk to.
They’ll sweep you off your feet, an experience that I think a lot of people are craving. They are subconsciously, when they're going out and thinking about who they're attracted to — or feeling attracted to, I should say, is people with a lot of sex appeal who have established good careers and these kind of admirable lives, and who are again, good talkers. Sometimes, there are certainly wonderful humans in the world that can be all of those things — they're talented, they're fun, they're smart, they're charming, they're accomplished, and they're also kind. That happens, it's a thing.
But oftentimes people who are not all that kind, who may actually have narcissistic or sociopathic personality traits, or who have highly avoidant attachment style, which is can be associated with sociopathic or narcissistic personality traits, often present as all that and a bag of chips when you first meet them. That is actually something that I have — part of my spidey sense that I've developed with other humans over the years is if somebody seems too good to be true, and is flattering you, and love bombing you, and talking about all these amazing things, wants to fly you somewhere on their private plane, that makes my narcissist alarm start flaring.
Just pay attention to that and think about who you are attracted to, what those patterns are, and whether or not you might have a proclivity to sexy-hot chicks or the suave-debonair guys because again, there can be a pattern there. I think if you are prioritizing that charming experience, that butterfly experience, that exciting experience, that super sexy experience with people that you're just getting to know.
If that is what you're looking for, and that's what you're vibing in the direction of when you are seeking partners — if you're looking through online dating apps, or starting to text with people, or go first dates, you are going to be, by definition, rejecting people who are non-jerks, because most of the time, very nice, kind, decent, securely attached people are not that flashy. They're not trying to impress you, they're not trying to lovebomb you — they are just going about their life and looking for somebody nice to connect with, and go and do fun things with, and develop a real relationship with which often feels like developing a friendship with somebody.
Not Everyone Is A Jerk
A secure, emotionally healthy person is going to want to get to know you over a period of time, and it's going to feel relatively calm and peaceful. They don't want to have a 72-hour first date with you, so they often have healthy boundaries, they're being appropriate. If you have a pattern of being attracted to the feeling, if you're looking for that feeling, you're going to encounter non-jerks and think, “Hmm, they’re boring”, or, “This doesn't feel like it should”, because there isn't that sizzle sort of feeling.
Sometimes I'm sorry to say, people can even take this a step further. They have criteria that very nice, decent potential partners might not meet in terms of career aspirations, how much money they make, how much they weigh, how tall they are. If you are looking for superficial characteristics to guide your dating life, and not paying a lot of attention to things like values, and character, and who this person fundamentally is — you have a much higher likelihood of connecting with a superficial person because that's the energy that you're coming into this with.
I'm not saying that to be critical towards you, but just to bring it into your consciousness because this is a mistake that a lot of people are making and not even realizing that they're doing it. Again, knowledge is power, self-awareness is power, and if this is something that could be true for you, it's really important to get clear and reflective around this so that you can break the pattern and do something different.
Now, another reason why you may feel like you are dating jerks and have a pattern of taking jerks — you might not actually be dating jerky people, you might be dating people that, over time, you come to realize are fundamentally incompatible with you. It's not a good fit, and it doesn't necessarily mean that they're a bad person.
But if you are feeling angry, or disappointed, or let down by them because they are not who you wanted to be, that would be a good sign that one of the reasons why you feel like you're dating jerks is that you are getting involved with people on a more intimate level too quickly that if you had given yourself the time to slow down and get to know them a little bit better over time, you would have come to the realization that is not a good fit just in terms of who you are, what you want, personalities, the way that you communicate, values. It takes time to do that.
If you find yourself being really disappointed or surprised that people aren't who you thought they were, it's a good sign that you're probably moving too fast — and a fix for this would be to slow it down, and really understand dating as a process of getting to know someone. You're evaluating each other, “Is this somebody that I can have a nice long-term relationship with?” It is normal and expected that you would be getting to know people sometimes and saying, “Actually, no. Now that I've gotten to know you a little bit better, I'm not sure that this does feel like a good fit — not sure how much I like you anymore.” Totally fine.
It doesn't mean that person is a jerk, it means that you've done a good job and you're both free to go. Now, there's also a corollary to this. You could be, again, not dating jerks, but dating people who are not that interested in having a relationship with you. When you are trying to have an attachment and you're all excited about somebody, and they're not that into you, you are not their person, you are not what they're looking for — you're going to feel that, and it's going to show up in the way that they're behaving towards you.
They won't be committed to you, they may not be thoughtful about you, they may not be saying nice things, they might not be working that hard to try to make you feel good because this isn't a relationship that feels like something they want to build with you. In these cases, I think it can be easy to look at these patterns of behavior and think, “Oh, that is a bad person because they're not treating me kindly”, or “they're not being respectful”, or “they're not following through”, when in reality, maybe they're not like a fundamentally horrible human being, they're not a monster — they're communicating that this isn't a good relationship for you to be in with them. They don't want to do this with you.
What is also horrible, but it is true and it is common is that many people don't like to be alone, and they will happily date a good enough person that can get strung along and can be like a placeholder in their life while they're waiting for the right person to come along. If you're with somebody who has a pattern of being checked out, or isn't working that hard to be with you, there is a possibility that you might be occupying that space in somebody else's life. It is so crappy and horrible to think about this — it really is.
I feel like you deserve to know the truth so that you can make informed decisions on your own behalf into not try to make somebody treat you better or feel differently about you, that it's okay to just be done — and it doesn't mean anything about you either. I think we can all reflect, scrolling back through our minds about people that we connected with for a little while. For whatever reason, they weren't bad people. They were fine, They were attractive, they were nice in their own way, but they just weren't our person. I think we've all been in those brief relationships.
Dating People Who Are Not Jerks
I think that can help manage some of the self-esteem, “Oh, if I had done something different or better or whatever, then they would have liked me more.” Let's just not do that and accept the fact that there are people that you're not compatible with, and they're not compatible with you, and that can just be okay. They're not a jerk, you're not a jerk, and we can all move on. There's no need to demonize people in that space.
Then, the other situation that we do need to talk about — there are two pieces of this. There are situations where you can get into a pattern of dating people who are not jerks. If you are bringing unresolved stuff into a relationship with you — like going back to exhibit A when we were talking about attachment issues. If you have work to do in those areas, and you haven't, and you are dating people anyway, and you are engaging with them in some of those either avoidant or anxious attachment styles, people will begin to feel an act and be jerky-er than they were when you first met them.
Because relationships are systems, and I think it's important for all of us to be aware of how we are engaging with other people and the impact that is having on them. It might not even be due to attachment styles. If you haven't done work around like emotional intelligence, and maybe communication skills are not something that you've taken time to develop in yourself, and maybe if you haven't had a lot of relationships and haven't done some work around, “How do I be a good partner for someone else?”
Even simple things like learning how to be emotionally validating, being intentional about showing love and respect to other people — these are learned skills. If you are showing up in relationships, and you don't know how to do these things, and other people are having not-so-great experiences with you as a result, they're going to pull away from you, and they're going to decide — like what we talked about — that you're not their person, and they're going to be less responsive to you, they're going to be less interested in making you happy, and it's going to start feeling to you like they're being mean to you, they're being a jerk.
When in reality, they're having reactions to the things that maybe you're bringing to the relationship. Again, I am not saying these things to be harsh, or mean, or scary — but I think that there's a lot of somewhat questionable dating advice around social media and other platforms. What I'm here to do on this podcast is to help you gain insight and awareness into yourself. I think it can be very difficult to identify some of these things.
It is much easier to demonize others, to blame them for the experiences that we're having in relationships. It's difficult emotionally to look into the mirror and be like, “Okay, what am I doing to create these outcomes? What are the patterns that I'm bringing in? And what are the things that may be difficult to look at, but that I really need to look at because I want something better for myself?”
The path of growth is often one of reality-based, authentic, sometimes darkness. We need to grapple with things that are real and true and sometimes challenging on the path of growth. I just wanted to mention these things because I've seen them come up so often in my clients and with other people, and I wouldn't be doing you any favors if I weren't honest with you. For what it's worth, those are some of the reasons why you may feel like you are dating jerks.
Very lastly, and then we will shift gears, another thing that I have seen in addition to all of the above is, I think of what I've shared probably the most easily solvable of problems if you will, which is not that there's an attraction issue or rejection of good partners, or a way of showing up in relationships that's not ideal. But rather, that you haven't yet put the time and effort into getting really clear about who you are, your values — like the things that are most important to you to getting clarity about how you want a relationship to feel, the kind of partnership and life that you'd like to have with another person.
I'm not talking about like that extremely specific, “Okay, she needs to be 5’8”, and she needs to have sandy blonde hair.” Those kinds of things are not what I'm talking about. But it's more around, “I really want to be with an emotionally safe person that I can talk to about real things. I want to feel valued by this person, I want to feel fundamentally respected by this person, I want to feel like we're going on in the same direction in life. By the way, what is that direction that I want to go in? I have to get clear about that before I can figure out if somebody is going in the same direction as me or not.”
Doing that kind of self-exploration work can build the foundation of clarity. Then, when you do start dating again, you can be looking for people who are much more than just attractive or fun to talk to. It's more around, “What kind of experience would I have with this person as a long-term partner?”
Off the bat getting to know people for who they are, and deciding as you're dating whether or not this feels good for you, this feels compatible, “Am I experiencing greenlights with this person, and I want to keep getting to know them and getting deeper into the pool of a relationship?” Or, “Am I having experiences that don't feel really good for me, or making me worry that we’re not that compatible?” And, “Am I overriding my own good judgment here because I'm excited about this person because they feel attractive to me. I feel butterflies — they're sexy.”
Remembering that they're very different parts of our mind, and that the part of your mind that feels, the part of your mind that experiences, excitement, and attraction is not the same part of your mind that has the ability to think critically and make good decisions, and that's really the part of your mind that you need to stay engaged with when you're dating. Okay, so this was a quick crash course in things to think about when you're dating.
If you are interested in more on the subject, there's a lot more on this on previous podcasts. You can scroll back through, or certainly, hop over to the blog at growingself.com, and check out some of our good dating advice over there. We do also have a little dating coaching program. If you want to dig into some of this work, there are activities and worksheets, and things that you can do to gain insight. But I tell you, there's not, I think, a substitute for, in some ways, talking to somebody about this because that's where you really get help in uncovering those blind spots and developing the kind of self-awareness that we all need to make different choices and to get different outcomes.
This concludes the informational part of our broadcasts. Now, though, I really wanted to do something to make this more — not like real, but I'm a big believer in understanding, gaining wisdom, and understanding the depth of awareness by not just reflecting on our own experiences and taking in information, but really hearing about the stories of others.
For this reason, I have invited Sarah to join us on the show. Sarah is actually a listener of the podcast, and we began doing a new thing recently where we thought it would be fun instead of just talking abstractly and from a distance about your questions and the topics that were most important to you guys, “Hey, let's start bringing people on the show and actually having real conversations that I'm sure you'll be able to relate to.”
We put a little post out on Instagram who says, “Hey, who has had the experience of dating jerks?” Sarah was kind enough to raise her hand and share that — you're intimately familiar with those. I thought it would be so fun just to, maybe if it's okay with you, get some insight into your story, and the things that you learned along the way for the benefit of our community here on the podcast. So, thank you.
We do not have to go into all the details, of course. But when I'm working with somebody in the capacity of a therapist, or a dating coach, one of the most important places that we will start is with your relationship history because that's when we can start to see patterns. I think that when we're living in the moment, it's hard, sometimes, to know why we do what we're doing. But I'm curious to know you've shared that you over time noticed a pattern of dating jerks. Would you give us the short version of your dating history to the degree that you're comfortable? And when did you begin to notice that this was a pattern for you?
Sarah: I have only really ever been in two long-term relationships that were actually established relationships where it wasn't just talking or getting to know one another — those stages that are very popularized now. One of which I'm in right now, the other one was with a previous partner. We've been almost broken up for an entire year now, and my boyfriend and I currently have been together for — it'll be six months in four days.
Sarah: Yes — and he is wonderful. He's definitely not a jerk. Definitely not any of the things that I've experienced with previous parties. But out of everyone who wasn't in either of these two relationships with me who I did, myself, being attracted to and attracting, the qualities that I noticed, it was initially — I was expecting a spark. Dating coaches will say certain things like that — and it depends on the dating coach and their expertise, of course.
But the way that so many things are mainstream nowadays, it felt like I was supposed to be, “Okay, I know I have a chance with someone like this. Or maybe I feel like, “I feel a connection there. I feel like there could be something that can grow and transpire from this.” When really, I was giving my I was getting my own hopes up and give myself a way to easily, allowing myself to become vulnerably and emotionally attached and tethered to this person.
Any of these people, very quickly — with how much time we would spend together, what we would talk about, how I felt like they might have been different quote-unquote, “from the last person”, and it's kind of like whenever I noticed a pattern. That’s what I found myself doing most often.
Unrealistic Expectations of Dating
Lisa: That is so relatable. I see that so often in my clients. I'm hearing that they're these two pieces of it. First of all, it’s one that is so common — it’s looking for this feeling and expecting to feel a certain way that ultimately wound up not being a reliable indicator that this was actually a good person in our relationship. But can we unpack this for a second? Because I think especially with women — sometimes with men, but like I see people do this so often. What was that feeling that you thought you should have?
Sarah: I, now, can recognize it as an unsteady and unstable — dare I say like insecurity-ridden feeling, “Wow, this person will complete me. I'm only half of a person. I'm looking for someone to make me whole”, have nearly unrealistic expectations of how the relationship will pan out whenever you don't even know them for that long, whenever you are unsure of one another's moral compass — or if you guys want the same things, are they thinking of you the same way that you're thinking of them.
But that spark, that feeling is just butterflies — it's the nervousness, newness of it all, the magic of meeting someone new. It can't rely on a single spark. I know that I'm listing a bunch of different things aside from dating.
Lisa: Oh no, it's wonderful. I appreciate you unpacking all this perspective. I'm hearing that there's that spark, that kind of chemistry feeling. Then, I think I'm hearing that it bloomed into a lot of fantasy. You talked about having a hope that you found the person that could “complete you” potentially.
Can you say a little bit more about that? I know that you have a different perspective now because you've worked on yourself, obviously. But what can you take us back to that time of what would be some of the things that you would be imagining or telling yourself about one of these people who wound up not being a good partner for you?
Sarah: One person I can think of in particular would be my ex. He immediately swept me off my feet. At first, I felt, “Wow, he has a good head on his shoulders. He seems like he knows what he wants in life.” He seems very sure of himself — and it wasn't so much a confidence thing. It was more like, “Wow, he seems like sure about me”, at the very beginning. It made me feel wanted, and I deserve someone who's very loving, and caring, and compassionate about me.
But the way that someone appears to you at first is all you know of them. It doesn't give you much time to really make a good educated guess on how the rest of the relationship will transpire. It is easy to fantasize. But a lot of times, I found that I was let down by the discussions that we'd have and where I thought, “He was everything I wasn't”, or “He was super similar to me in certain ways.”
I thought that, “Oh, well — maybe he could very well complete me. Maybe, he could be that one piece of my jigsaw puzzle that has been missing and arrived for so long.” Struggling to figure out how to fit him in was where a lot of conflict arose.
Lisa: No, I get that. Then, to understand, there's so many people who are creative, and intelligent, and conscientious is that you used the word “fantasy”, but imagine these things, imagine qualities that you had and qualities that he had, especially in the early stages of the relationship where he was making you feel really good. He came on strong, he said all the things, you're like, “Wow, I am loved! This is it! I'm having this experience.”
But then, you're saying that there were ideas about what should be happening, expectations that you wanted him to fit into, and then that is when it started feeling hard sometimes. Is that it? What would be an example of that?
Sarah: An example would be, I think, whenever he was so chivalrous and charismatic at the very beginning, but then maybe there'll be an instance where I found that, “Oh, he didn't do that thing that he did once before. Why isn't that happening anymore? Why am I not getting a good morning text? Was that just at the beginning? Should I keep on expecting that?” I dug myself into a deeper hole because I was not as communicative as I am proud to say that I am now.
I was not as upfront in saying — just sitting down, having a one-on-one with him, and having a very intimate, serious discussion on, “Hey, I feel like these are some of my needs.” But then, there'll be instances where that didn't happen anymore, where it didn't happen all over again. To make matters worse, there would also be some fights that came out of those things where we would have disagreements. It didn't start off at the biggest problems, possibly.
It would also be various things such as we had a huge difference of opinion on certain civil rights movements, or I was very proactive, and I want everyone to be with who they love and for all the reasons that they can provide. As long as you're not hurting yourself or anyone or anything else around you, I think you're living your life. That's like my philosophy. He didn't like that.
He didn't like that I didn't have enough structure in my life. He didn't like that I would try and be communicative, but then it felt like attacking and accusatory to him — even if I would try and phrase it as civilized, and as diplomatically, and as heartfelt as possible. Truthfully, sometimes it wouldn't be enough to avoid the bigger confrontations and to try and see past the differences. I was a little bit more optimistic about our relationship. Honestly, I can admit now that I saw a lot of red flags, and I completely bypassed them. It was like — I saw a red light, ran it every time.
Lisa: Get swept away by those big feelings in the beginning. What I think I'm hearing in your story is that there was that first kind of relational piece that just felt so good like, “This is the way it should be.” Then, I think I'm hearing that he has stopped saying or doing some of the things that had felt nice to you in the beginning, and you were trying to get him to do that again. Then, that was leading to tension. Maybe, that went the other way, as well.
But I'm also hearing that as you two got to know each other better over time, that there were some fundamental differences and four defining values that started bumping up against each other. We never know what those are really until we get into the pool with somebody and have opportunity. That takes months, sometimes years, to really understand what those pieces are. Is that what I'm hearing?
Sarah: 110% accurate. You're right. If you were to go on a date and be like, “Okay, so what's your stance on religion?”
Lisa: Holding a clipboard. Right.
Sarah: I can be like, “Are you really a potential suitor?” I guess that's one way to do it. You'd be a very forward person and much more ballsy than I am.
Lisa: It's sort of like an assessment before the first date, “Here are 200 questions — true or false?”
Sarah: “We’ll get to you in a month.” Exactly. But it's not always like that. Maybe what he really meant to say was this, maybe what he really meant to do was this over here, maybe he's trying to show me that he loves me even though we had that disagreement that made me feel unheard and unseen — maybe there is hope for us. I would just keep on holding to that little bit of hope that I kept on trying to…
Lisa: That's also really common. As we've talked about on this podcast in the past — early-stage romantic love has a very intoxicating quality. It actually changes the way that people think, and part of what it does to our brains is idealize that other person. I think I'm hearing that there was that disconnect — that you were seeing things and observing things, and things like, “I don't really like that.”
But there was this other part of your brain that was in that space of hoping. But it sounded over time, you didn't really like the person that you were getting to know. You wanted him to be different than what he was. Is that the right way of saying it?
Sarah: Very true — it totally became that. I had fallen in love with a version of him that he was only going to be for so long — why not look past some of these things?
Dating A Jerk Advice: Red Flags
Lisa: But the feelings are so powerful in the beginning. I think that we're also trained by the culture to follow our feelings, and it's like hard insight and life experience. That is not always really helpful. We need to not follow some feelings — but it's so hard to do, especially when they feel so powerful, like in that early stage relationship.
But a moment ago, you mentioned that, as things went on, you were noticing, what you described as “red flags”, and you were like, “Oh, maybe it will be better.” But what were the red flags?
Sarah: Red flags, they came in waves sometimes. Sometimes, it would be like we had a great day, and there was no fighting, there were virtually no disagreements whatsoever. Then, there'll be other days where we had a ton of disagreements, red flags. He began to start to say some things that were borderline very questionable to my moral compass and the way that I view individuals on a worldwide global scale, saying things like, “Women don't have an opinion on that.”
Yes, I was flummoxed whenever he would say some of these things. I figured I really hope that we can come together and bridge the gaps because of our differences — not have to break up in spite of them. But certain things kept on rolling around. But anytime that we couldn't talk it out, it would turn into him screaming at me, yelling at me that my opinions were inadequate, that I didn't have the right to think certain ways. I wish I was making this up. I wish…
Lisa: Wow. No, I don't want to make you relive all of that on a public forum here. It got really nasty and really abusive.
Sarah: These are the most tumultuous relationship of my life.
Lisa: Definitely. Then, I think you're also describing something, though, that is so common, which is the old idea of the frog in the pot of boiling water. Have you heard that? If you turn it up slowly, the frog doesn't know when it's hot enough to jump out? Like doing that with yourself, “Okay, I don't like this — but can we work through this? Is it something that can be repaired?” And legitimately not knowing in some ways, which I think is really valid.
Especially for a younger person, it can be hard to see this stuff come in — even in an abusive relationship. It's not like somebody just punches you in the face on the second date. Any of us can be like, “I think…” at that point. But that's not what happens. The heat goes up slowly, and then you're emotionally entwined with somebody who is officially being really damaging and toxic. At what point were you finally, “I’m not doing this with you anymore, buddy.”
Sarah: Even while I was still in the relationship, I wasn't looking for better. I was trying to really stick with it no matter what. But to really put myself through so much turmoil, and emotional abuse and neglect, and everything else possible that could have gone wrong in the relationship, I kept on thinking to myself, “Maybe it's best if we end this, and I hope you find who or what you're looking for because I could never make you happy, I could never be enough for you in this.”
Because even if I didn't subconsciously or even verbalize it to myself, I wasn't enough for myself in that moment because I didn't choose myself right from the beginning. I didn't verbalize the way what he was saying was making me feel. He didn't take any of it into consideration to begin with. There was going to be no resolve ever that we were going to reach. Some people like that simply, as sad as it is, you cannot reach.
Lisa: Oh, I absolutely hear you. I'm so glad that you arrived in that space, as painful as it must have been, to get out there, Sarah. But it just says so much about you, and just what a fundamentally healthy person you are. No, really! You'd be like, “Ah, this does not feel good”, “I had hoped it would be one way, but this is not good for me”, recognizing, “That isn't good for me”, and also I think recognizing — this is the hard part for a lot of people, but there's like a self-betrayal component in a lot of these.
There was a lot of learning that happened through this experience, and not that anybody would have signed up for — but valuable, nonetheless, to be on the other side. Then, I'm curious to know, because you had mentioned that this was a significant relationship. But then there were other people that you sort of started to do this with is what I got the impression of, that same sort of pattern of that attraction and fantasizing, and then feeling really disappointed by people.
Were there others after this relationship, or going through that one relationship where you’re like, “I don’t learn enough about what not to do again, but I'm done with you people.”
Sarah: A really good question between my ex and my current significant other, there was nobody. I really took a lot of time to reflect on — I was wondering and questioning my worth for weeks, if not months on end, and it took a decent amount of soul searching for me to be able to say, “Even if there is no one out there for me, that is not the end-all-be-all of Sarah. That is not my composition.”
Lisa: Totally. Really spent some time stopping, and really spending some time connecting with yourself, “Who am I? What are my values? What do I care about? What do I want in my life? How can I serve the world?”, and these anchors to bigger things. I'm so glad that you did that. I see, so often, people are just jumping right back into a very similar feeling situation. I just think that says so much about you that you really slowed down, and just got really clear and okay with like yourself — like rebuilding yourself. Is that the sense I hear?
Sarah: Kind of what you were saying, this is another pattern that I noticed throughout my dating and up until the ex. I was not only attracting, but attracted to, and giving all my time, attention, effort, energy, even too emotionally unstable, if not entirely unavailable individuals. These were people who had — in more than one way and maybe not entirely verbally at that, they had said, “Hey, I'm not looking for anything long-term.”
But maybe it was with their body language, with their actions — because actions really speak louder than words. Just the way that no one really ever cared about what I was needing and what was best for, not just themselves, but for myself as well in and out of the relationship until I was to be single, and to really reflect on everything that had happened, and how much turmoil I'd experienced and to reflect.
Attracting the Wrong People
Lisa: There was a recognition of this pattern over time that you had been attracted to, as you say, most emotionally unavailable or unstable people. Can I ask you the zillion-dollar question here? I'm hearing that once you became aware of that, “I can't do that anymore”, that things change for you. But the zillion dollar question that I think so many people struggle with to define and articulate for themselves — can you say, “What if it was about those people in the beginning that was actually so attractive?”
Sarah: This is going to be a bajillion, bazillion dollar answer for you because as we're talking more about this, the more I'm able to be more specific. At first, I thought that they were very mysterious — and mysterious can always come off as attractive. But mysterious, in a dark, “I probably need help”, and I thought that I could help them kind of way. But first off, they did not act like men. They acted like children, and they most often had troubles and experienced something early on in their childhood with their parents, specifically their mother.
I wanted to swoop in, and make them my build-a-boy project — that's how I coined it. It's very — oh my gosh, this is not build-a-bear, but this is like the revamping and the refurbishing of someone who has been broken before, or rather bent. In order to get them back into shape, I figured maybe I could help them with that. I didn’t think about the fact that, “I'm not a therapist.”
Lisa: No, I totally get it. But how much insight? Because I think there's like an archetype for that — the wounded bad boy who's saying, “I'm not really emotionally available, I don't want to be in a relationship.” This can happen with men, too. I've seen this happen all the time with men who have wonderful values around helping and service, and who really are fundamentally nurturing people.
It's almost like that becomes a way to express those values, and get to be this person that you want to be — like the helper, the empathetic, the compassionate person, like, “I can help you grow and heal in that space. That was that attractor factor, it sounds like.
It's very intoxicating, isn't it? There's power, there's value — and I think all of us have been vulnerable to that. We can almost get trapped sometimes by our most noble virtues and gifts when they're in directions that are ultimately not good for us. Does that sound familiar?
Sarah: I couldn't have phrased it any better. That sounds 100% accurate to me.
Lisa: And everybody because there are a lot of people listening to this right now. I don't want to suggest that everybody's hook would be the same as the one that you've described. But I think the point is that you are able to do this marvelous reflection around, “What was it that was leading me to be attracted to that kind of person, and gain that insight and self-awareness?”
Because when things are happening subconsciously and automatically, we don't get a chance to do, “Oh yeah, there's that thing again, I'm going to do a manual override because I know that is going to not take me in a good direction.” But you were able to do that, and I would like to encourage anybody listening to this — that's how we break out of these patterns, is not being angry with yourself that, “Yes, I date these kinds of guys, and I need to stop doing that”, but really, with compassion, visiting with that question, “Yes, but why does this make sense?” And you did that.
Sarah: I feel like a lot of this pattern that had developed for me in my romantic relationships, more specifically, had been something that was not always in place, but was the majority of my time as a young woman actually dating — not just stating my kindergarten crush or anything.
To actually see people who had lived and experienced things, and to try and make sense of why they felt like they could treat me the way that they could, I felt like I'm such a giver. I so rarely in life feel like I want to actually take from people. I say that to totally not sound like self-centered, but I really do think that's like…
Lisa: Aware of your worth.
Sarah: But it took a lot of learning for me to be able to say and realize, “Maybe I need to really look deeper and wonder, ‘Why am I going after these specific kinds of guys? What is it about them that makes them mysterious, toxic — I'm willing to overlook all of your red flags and your stop lights just to be with you? What is it about that makes me attracted and that I'm attracting them?’”
Lisa: It's marvelous. I think, again, such a common element of these situations is that I think we can look to the other person as like this seductive force. But I think that there's less awareness that we are seducing ourselves in some ways by our own internal narratives and becoming intoxicated. Exactly. This is good stuff.
I know our time together is limited, so I also want to pivot because you had all of these marvelous awarenesses. I'm sure that we could unpack so many other things with additional time together — I know there's more to the story. But over time and after having a particularly bad experience, you're like, “I do not want to do that again.” You spent some reflective time. It sounds like you became more deeply connected with yourself, and I'm guessing kind of your internal values.
This is a question — did you find yourself being more intentional when you felt like maybe you were ready to try again? If so, how was that experience different in — not so much in terms of the person that you dated, but in terms of your process, like who you were attracted to? How you connected with them? What parts of your feelings were you listening to? And what parts of your feelings were like, “That's actually not as important as I used to think it was?” How would you describe that?
Sarah: I want to say, first and foremost, I love this question. It's one that I don't really think about — I think about, but I don't think about it. I don't think about how I'm going to answer it, but I'm very grateful for the way I'm dating after the really nasty breakup I experienced. I wanted to really take some time, after reflecting, to make a list of all the qualities in someone who I really do want to have. I want to share my time with someone who builds me up.
I want to share my time, and my love, and my energy, my body even — everything — with someone who is willing to try to get to understand me. Not have just a one-line response to what I have to say, but to really try and understand where I'm coming from and to build a connection with me that goes beyond the physical appearance. That will fade one day — I will not look the same that I look right now.
In 10 years, even much less 50, I feel like I'm so thankful for having the time to really reflect and be more intentional about dating. That way, I wasn't just going to put myself right back out there and not know what I wanted. I wanted to make a list — not based on the physical appearance, but to make a list of the qualities that I want to work on finding in someone else, see for myself, not have to dig it out of them, and then really try and work on those same things on myself. Why would you ask of certain qualities and someone else, and not have them yourself?
Lisa: Absolutely. “I want somebody who's compassionate, and trustworthy, and fun”, but then you turn it into, “So how do I be compassionate, and trustworthy, and fun”, of whatever those things were.
Sarah: Yes. There were all these — I was building a better version of myself, not for someone else to love, but for me. That way, I knew the most important relationship in my life is always going to be with myself.
How to Date a Nice Guy After Dating Jerks
Lisa: Ironically, having a better relationship with yourself is also the pathway to being a better partner — they're the same thing. I just wanted to mention that because I think when we hear people say, “Oh, focusing on me, my needs”, I think that it's easy to interpret that as being self-centered — and that is not how I took what you said, by the way. But it's a very generous act because that is how you become a better partner, and that's what you were doing.
Lisa: How would you describe the difference in your process when you finally met the person that you're dating now that you described it as being a really positive relationship? I'm curious to know — if it's okay to say — did you feel the same kind of attractions with other people, or was it different for you? Were you looking for different things? How long did it take to get to that pool?
Sarah: I love this question so much. I'm so thankful for him. I wanted to experiment with myself, if you will, and I put myself out there. But I would only ever swipe right on people who I thought had a nicer, kinder demeanor about them. Even if I felt like, “Oh, man, maybe we were two different people, but I want to not just jump to the assumption or the conclusion of that. But I want to actually make good conversation with them, and see how they interact with me in just trying to get to know me.”
Lisa: You were prioritizing kindness — your perceptions of kindness over other things.
Sarah: Another big one is — I swiped right on my boyfriend specifically because I just thought that something about him was different. Then, when we started talking, he was very kind, very positive, optimistic, career-driven, and he was very slick too. A day or two into talking, he was like, “Wow, this is so great. I love your career interest. We can talk about it more on Friday or something.” I was like, “Ooh, slick.”
Lisa: Just out of curiosity — do you think that you would have been attracted to him prior to having done all this work on yourself?
Sarah: No, because I wouldn't have been attracted to who I am today. I wouldn't have loved her first. I wouldn't have gone through all the mess, all the heartbreak, the turmoil — everything. I needed the turbulence to be able to show me and appreciate what was good when I had it good.
Lisa: What would you say was different about the way that early stages of your relationship unfolded compared to the experience you had in a relationship that wound up not being a good thing for you?
Sarah: Wonderful question. I told him right from the start, “I do not feel comfortable with us making open-ended promises. It really makes me get my hopes up. If we don't follow through, if no actions are done to set those parameters in place, I don't feel comfortable following through on actions if I know that the other person isn't. Blanket statement — please don't make me any promises, and I won't make you any promises.
Lisa: That we're just getting to know each other. Any promises made are incredibly premature — “I don't know you yet.”
Sarah: Exactly, “I can't rely on you, I cannot trust you because I can't trust myself in this just yet.” But we both talked about was that in our previous relationships, we did not verbalize. We both had breakups right around the same time — so ended up working out. But through everything we had gone through in our previous relationships, we came to the conclusion that, “Oh, a pattern that we're noticing with one another is much more healthy than these previous relationships.”
We want to keep up the good behavior and continue to have open discussions — just laying it all there out on the table. It's not to say that we say ugly things to one another. That is not the way that we discuss things, but to allow for the conversation. For all cards on the table, it's always up for discussion. If you set a boundary in place, and you're thinking about maybe changing that boundary or revisiting it to say, “Hey, here's what I'm now feeling comfortable with.”
Anything that we can discuss, it's not like we have to approach it with fear or an insecurity of, “Oh my God, my partner might leave me. What if I say this, and the whole world comes crashing, comes tumbling down?”
Lisa: That's so wise — let this sort of mutual commitment to being honest and authentic, and really talking about how you feel because that is, I think, always one of the most important things any of us could do to avoid getting into a relationship with a jerk. Because as soon as you do that with a jerk, you'll know quickly that this person isn't going to be a good partner for you.
If you're authentic and talk about how you feel, and it is met with hostility or defensiveness, or minimization and reset, you can be done. That's what dating is for. I think that idea — let's fail as quickly as possible by being authentic, and you guys did that from the beginning. You took those chances. You're like, “How does he act when I say this about how I actually feel?” And it was a positive experience, which is a green light — we keep going.
Sarah: I love the way that you phrase that beginning because we do have the most genuine, honest, and respectful relationship I've ever been in — will probably ever be in because of the way that we talk to one another, and the way that I feel so revered, and he will clarify with what I've said. Very similar to you actually, “I'm understanding what I'm hearing — the whole nine yards, right here. I'm like, “Yes…”
Lisa: Emotional intelligence, communication skills. But you gave yourself the time to get to know that those things were true about him. I think what is very easy to do, and what I hope some of our listeners take away, is that we can have that flash — like exciting feeling, and skip over that whole getting to know who you actually are part, and develop a very serious attachment to somebody.
Oftentimes, there's like a sexual component, which not in a morality-based way, but because we have a physiological attachment to people with whom we're sexually intimate and can get emotionally welded to people, and then start to find out that, “Oh, I can't communicate with this person in a healthy way. We don't have values that are in alignment”, “This person is not a good friend to me. I don't actually like this person, but there's this emotional thing that's already happened that's very difficult to get out of.”
I think what I'm hearing you say is that it was a more gradual process, more akin to building a friendship where you are getting to know who he was as your emotional connection was beginning to build. Is that how you would describe it?
Sarah: I would. There was a moment where I wasn't too sure because he had asked me to be his girlfriend, and I was still newly out of my last relationship, and still trying to figure some things out even though I did really like him. I love his personality, and I liked his friends. He just asked me and I was like, “I don't really know. Maybe we should just take a little bit slower than that.” But I remember specifically…
Lisa: But how did he react to that?
Sarah: He was like, “Okay, I don't see how things could go wrong.” But I said myself, “I don't want to mess this up. I really do want to take our time because there's no due date on this. There's no expiration date either. There's nothing telling us that we cannot take as much time as we can. I feel like we should just get to know each other better.”
I got to know a decent amount of him, and the way that he follows through on his actions with the way that he would treat me in the first month or so like us even knowing each other — very appreciative of that. Before we even established what we even were, he wanted to hear about what my day was like, and wanted to try and see what the future could look like together.
I love that we've taken the time to do some of the dirty work. I feel so much better with him. He doesn't complete me, but he's definitely something that complements my life, and I love that about him.
Lisa: Well, that's wonderful. Sarah. I'm so happy for you. Thank you so much for coming and just sharing your story with our community here today. I think it's one thing to have somebody like me — they like, “Okay, here are things to think about, and tips”, or whatever. But I think there's something so relatable in your story. I think so many people that have struggled with this just — I could imagine them nodding their heads and being like, “Yes!”
But I think it can be difficult to identify things in ourselves because we have blind spots. It's hard to see ourselves. But I think when we do hear other stories and insights of others, and we can resonate with them, it's such a powerful experience because then you can say, “Yeah, me too”, and start connecting some of those dots.
That is 90% of the work — is just bringing this stuff into awareness. I think that you helped a lot of people do that today. I heard you mentioned earlier that some of your core values were around kindness, and generosity, and helping others. I just want you to know that I think you probably helped a lot of people today. Sarah: Thank you.
Your friends are sending out wedding invites, but you’re still swiping. Your college roommate just updated her LinkedIn with a plum promotion, and you’re wondering whether you want to start over in a new career entirely. By this age, your parents had a mortgage and an infant, and you’re not feeling settled enough to adopt a dog.
Does this sound like your life? If so, you may be experiencing a quarter-life crisis, or at least flirting with one. A quarter-life crisis happens when we realize we’re not where we think we “should” be in life — or when we realize that the goals we set for ourselves as very young adults don’t match up with the people we’ve become by our late 20s or early 30s.
A quarter-life crisis, like its midlife counterpart, leaves you feeling stuck and uncertain. But there is a path forward, and following it can bring about a personal growth spurt that will serve you for the rest of your life.
That’s what we’re discussing in today’s episode of the podcast, which I’m so excited to share with you. My guest is Megan R., a career counselor and coach here at Growing Self. Megan often works with clients navigating this important life phase, helping them find clarity not only about their career paths but about every area of their lives. She’s sharing tips on how to find the right career for you, how to use your internal guidance system to make big, life-changing decisions, and how to ride the waves of doubt and uncertainty that a quarter-life crisis can bring.
This is a challenging season, but it’s also one that’s teeming with possibility. I hope this conversation helps you see the opportunity in your quarter-life crisis, so you can emerge clearer and stronger than ever before. Some day, you may just look back and think your quarter-life crisis was the best thing that ever happened to you.
I think you might.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Navigating a Quarter-Life Crisis
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Yours might manifest as a feeling of stuckness in an uninspired career, or in a relationship that you know isn’t right for you, but that feels difficult to end.
It might show up as feelings of regret or despair over not being where you wanted or expected to be at this point in your life, and painful comparisons with your peers who seem to be.
Or, you may have realized that, even though you have accomplished the goals you set out to accomplish, you don’t feel the way you expected to feel.
Since many of us define ourselves by our jobs, relationships, and life goals, a quarter-life crisis can strike at the very core of your identity, making it a deeply unsettling experience. Working with a good coach or counselor can help you find the courage to look for answers and then act on them with intention to change your life — without having a full-on breakdown.
Comparison: The Thief of Joy
Many people in the midst of a quarter-life crisis feel left behind. They may be RSVP’ing to wedding after wedding, without a significant other to mark down as a plus-one. They may be scrolling through Instagram feeds populated by new homes, new engagement rings, and new babies, while feeling mired in a less-established life phase themselves.
In previous generations, people got married, bought homes, and had children at younger ages, because they were living in an economic and social context that no longer exists. Still, young people today who haven’t reached these milestones may be comparing themselves to their parents and wondering if they ever will.
Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and that certainly applies to anyone experiencing a quarter-life crisis. By resisting the temptation to compare yourself to others, you can empower yourself to carve out your own life path, embrace your growth process, and feel better about your life.
Navigating a Quarter-Life Crisis
You can emerge from a quarter-life crisis more confident about who you are and what you want, if you use the experience to make positive changes in your life.
Here are some steps you can take if you’re in the midst of a quarter-life crisis to feel confident about the future, and at peace in the present:
Explore your Values
Spend some time reflecting on what matters to you the most. It could be family, financial success, independence, partnership, creativity, community, or any number of other important pieces of life. When you have clarity about what you really value, you’ll feel more confident making choices about your future.
You might be experiencing a lot of regret. Maybe you feel that your education was a waste, given that you’re now contemplating a career change. Or maybe you regret spending time in dead-end relationships, and worrying that you’ll never find a life partner.
In reality, nothing in your past was a waste. It can all be made useful if you’ll use it to guide your future. Practice forgiving yourself and moving from regret to self-compassion. Make meaning out of where you’ve been, and incorporate that meaning into the story of where you’re going.
Listen to Your Internal Guidance System
Most feelings have a purpose, even the painful ones. If you’re having a quarter-life crisis, your feelings are alerting you that it’s time to grow. Listen to them.
You can take good care of yourself emotionally, without stuffing those feelings down or avoiding the big changes that they’re pushing you to make. A good coach or counselor can help you take wisdom from the uncertainty, fear, or hopelessness accompanying your quarter-life crisis, and use those feelings to begin writing your next chapter.
Episode Show Notes:
[2:42] What Is A Quarter-Life Crisis?
Many coaching and counseling clients in their late 20s or early 30s feel unhappy and unsure about what they want.
To begin probing your own quarter-life crisis, ask yourself: What's going differently from what you expected?
[06:01] The Beginnings Of A Quarter-Life Crisis
We choose our careers early in our lives, before we have a clear sense of who we are and what would make us happy.
By age 25 or 30, we often define our lives by our skills and careers.
When we realize our careers — or our relationships, or any other major life area — aren’t what we want, it can spark a period of soul searching.
[09:15] Signs of a Quarter Life Crisis
You may feel stuck or aimless.
It's also common to feel despair, anxiety, and regret.
You may be comparing yourself to your peers and feeling that you fall short.
[15:45] Quarter-Life Crisis: A Generational Curse
People in a quarter-life crisis tend to feel left behind.
We are not in the same economic or social context that our parents were.
Comparing yourself to others is a surefire way to feel inadequate and unhappy.
[30:48] Seeking Solace In A Quarter-Life Crisis
Make meaning out of where you've come from.
Strengthen your “why.”
Share your vulnerabilities with your closest support system, and reach out to a qualified coach or counselor if you need help.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: I am so excited for today's episode because, today, we're talking about how to navigate a quarter-life crisis. Now, “quarter-life crisis” is not a clinical term, and you're not going to find it in the DSM. People are usually not literally freaking out and falling apart. But this is kind of an existential crisis that we do actually often see with clients at a certain phase of life, here at Growing Self.
It's often people in their late 20s, early 30s, who are showing up in counseling, coaching, because they've started asking themselves some big questions. Often for the first time, they're thinking about where they are in their lives, in their careers and their relationships, how they got here, and kind of contrasting that with where they had wanted to be or where they had expected to be in this point in life, or even how they imagined it would feel to be at this point in life.
There's a disconnect there that helps them recognize that maybe they're not doing what ultimately they would like to be, but they didn't realize that without having some life experience first. This can all be a very uncomfortable experience, but also ultimately, a very positive one because it opens the door for some really meaningful self-reflection that generates a lot of positive change.
If any of this is sounding familiar to you, I am so glad that you're here with us today. We're talking about how you can use this crisis as a springboard for growth and come out of it to be more clear, more confident, and ready for the next chapter. With me today to talk all about this, is my colleague, Megan R.
Megan R.: Hello, good to see you.
Lisa: We're leaving our options open, Megan. Quick introduction — Megan is a career counselor, career coach on our team. Just before we started recording, she was sharing with me — Megan, if I may mention this. Is this okay?
Lisa: Recently got married. Maiden name is Rankin, married name is Riley. Still a little bit up in the air which way that one's going to fall, so you shall be known as Megan R.
Megan: You know what? It works. When I got my email at Growing Self, I was like, “No matter what I choose, I’m set as Megan R.” Maybe this is part of my quarter-life crisis.
Lisa: It could be.
Megan: It’s trying to determine what is my new identity?
Lisa: What is my name?
Megan: How do I name myself?
Realizing You’re Having A Quarter-Life Crisis
Lisa: How very appropriate. Well, thank you so much for being here with me today, and sharing your wisdom and insight on this phenomenon of the quarter-life crisis because I know that so many people come to you for help in exactly this situation. Maybe, we could just start with your understanding of what's going on with people when they're like, “Wait a minute, this is different than I thought it would be. Maybe I'm not doing the right thing.” What is that about in your view?
Megan: Absolutely. But quarter-life crisis, it's a newer term, right? We've got mid-life crisis. A lot of people are more familiar with that one. We are seeing a trend towards it happening potentially earlier. It's doesn't get rid of our mid-life crisis, but it's happening sooner for some folks, and it presents in career most.
A lot of times, once clients do come in, they're walking in the door, saying, “Oh, it's my job. I'm not happy with my job.” That's part of it, and I'm glad that that's what gets them on in. But as we get deeper and deeper, we do realize that the quarter-life goes pretty far outside of career. It is relationships, it is where are you living, it's your social group.
Developmentally, in that stage of life, a lot of things are transitioning, and your career is usually the most obvious one. You come on in and you're like, “I'm miserable. I don't know what to do.” We're going to talk about what is going wrong, what isn't going right, what wants to come with you. I loved when you had said, “How is it different?” Because you do hit a point in your career, even in your relationships in your life, that you say, “I had some of this going differently in my mind. Didn’t I?”
Lisa: “That did not turn out the way I planned.”
Megan: It's frustrating, it's scary, it can be disheartening. A lot of people come in and they're like, “I'm not happy with myself. I thought I would do it differently.” There's stuff to unpack there, but the crisis, thankfully, isn't a full-blown crisis.
I don't often get people in meltdown mode, but you are close to that. You are in so much stress and despair that a crisis could feel like the next step for you. It's, unfortunately, a more common experience. COVID has only exacerbated the rates of it and the experience of it, and I'm sure we'll get into a little bit more of that. But it's pretty common at this point.
Lisa: Well, I can see why. I'm saying this as somebody who is much older than you are, but I think I went through a quarter-life crisis in my late 20s. But now, from my perch as a psychologist, what I know now that I didn't know then it's just a huge amount of growth that people experience in that life. I mean, you're a very, very different person in your early 20s.
When you're making, unfortunately, career decisions like, “What am I going to major in?”, the internships, the first positions right out of school — you are not the same person by the time you're 30, and there's a lot of evolution there. Is that what you see as being the, “How did this happen?” part for yourself, or do you think there are other things? A lot of kids get railroaded into majors and career paths, and they're like 18 years old.
Quarter Life Crisis at 25/30 years old
Megan: Well, I was going to say, I think it starts even earlier than your 20s — these long-term decisions that we're making. You're in high school, and they're asking you about, “What is that elective course you want to take?”, “What's the classic option — business or psychology?” While those are fabulous things to test out, it's only two things in this giant world of career.
Even, pretty much prior to our knowledge, or even conscious awareness, we are beginning a track for ourselves. I find, a lot of times, it's an outside pressure, but it's also an inside lack of resources, which sounds horrible, but it's what's happening.
If you think about 25, 30, when this transition happens, usually the reason you're feeling stuck is because you do lack skills and resources to think critically about what's going on. You know something's wrong, but you're having a trouble putting a name to it, knowing where to go with it, how to get yourself out of that stuckness, that's usually because you have a lack of reflective skills or a lack of career skills.
Megan: It’s super normal. It's a bummer, but it's totally normal. Think back when you were in middle school, high school, even if you did go to higher education, people are just saying, “What are you going to do,” not, “How did you figure that out? What are you interested in? How does this fit for you? What is the long term?” It's just, “What are you going to do?”
Once you start doing it and doing it's not working, you don't know how to ask the other questions of yourself. It's a little bit of the education system selecting it, almost, for you. You've got those decisions in your majors, you're moving forward with that career, you pick the next entry-level job, but it's also a lack of resources internally that can help you unwind some of that track-setting that happened so early on.
Lisa: That is such a cool perspective. I've never thought about it that way, but you're so right. I think that people have this need to categorize other people, and that's what actually happens. People are asking you, “What's your major?” It's like there's this pressure to define yourself by this whatever it is, and it's not any reflection around, “What is that?”
Megan: I know. Think about, right? We live in a society that has — western culture specifically — identity is so tied to career. We do say things like, “Who are you? What are you doing with your life?” Very strong statements about your career. For some folks, when you do hit 25,30, and you're not identifying — your identity doesn't line up with how you answer that question, that's why it's hitting so deep because it's striking at your identity core.
It's not just what you're doing for a paycheck. This is, “Oh my word. Who am I? What have I become?” Because we think, “If this is what you choose in school, and this is your job, this is who you are.” We don't open up the conversation to, “Are you only your job? Do you have other things going on in your world? Is your identity comprised of multiple pieces?” Let's think about some of those aspects to dig ourselves out of this.
Quarter Life Crisis Signs/Symptoms
Lisa: Taking a much more holistic approach like, “You are not your job”, first of all. But this pressure that people feel to define themselves through those terms? Stifling.
In your experience, and also for the benefit of somebody listening to this, what would you say are some signs — the internal experiences, how people feel when this awareness of mismatch is beginning to emerge? How does it feel for people?
Megan: Absolutely. I would say the first characteristic, at least what folks come in and tell me most, “I feel stuck. I'm just stuck. I don't know where to go. I don't know where I could go if I wanted to change. I don't know how I got here. I'm stuck in thinking patterns.” I would say stuckness is really sort of the first feeling.
The second feeling often too is actually hopelessness. Just this idea that, “I don't even know where I need to go in general. Not just with my career.” This quarter-life crisis we're establishing is outside of just our career, but hopelessness of, “What is next?”, and, “Do I have any control over what's next?”
I see a lot of, almost, signs or symptoms of lack of control, lack of intention. They're 32 years old, they've been in marketing their whole life, and they're like, “I can't even really tell you how I got here. I had no control,” or, “It felt like I had no control over my career. Now, I believe I don't have any control over my next steps. I need intentionality.” Those feelings, they're uncomfortable, they're disheartening, they're isolating. That's also a really big mark of this.
Comparison seems to happen a lot around this age. Developmentally, we're establishing intimacy versus isolation if we wanted to go into a development model, “Are you going to live in this world alone and go at it by yourself? Do you go out and develop…” Typically, it's romantic relationships, but not always. We now are opening that to social relationships. In that, the developing and establishment of relationships, comparison is really natural. You're looking around and, “How is everybody else doing it?”
Another sign of, “Oh my gosh, maybe I'm at that crisis point”, is looking around and saying, ”How the heck are they doing it, and how have I not got there? How have I not figured it out?” I heard a great quote the other day, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Lisa: That's a good one.
Megan: Oh, it's beautiful, and it captures, I think, the quarter-life crisis because there is this idea, “I'll look at someone's LinkedIn”, “I'll look at someone’s Instagram”, I'll look at someone’s social media platforms to see how they're engaging with the world at our age. “Oh my gosh, they seem to be doing it so much better than I am.”
Feelings of stuckness, feelings of hopelessness, comparison — it's, unfortunately, pretty easy to spot for me, not so much for the folks that are experiencing that.
Lisa: Well, that's why I wanted to ask you because I think, sometimes, half the battle is just that self-awareness of, “Oh, I'm going through this thing, and there's a name for it, and there's something that can be done to help.”
Quarter-Life Crisis: A Generational Curse
Lisa: Can I ask you about one part of this — and I'm not sure the degree to which this part is in your wheelhouse because I know you're a therapist, and you're a career counselor, and that's your specialization, and I know that you do very holistic work, so people talk to you about, well, all kinds of things. I have more of a relational perspective.
One of the things that I very often hear from my clients at this phase is, particularly, around the sense of — they use the term “being left behind”. Their friends are getting married, they're buying houses, they're starting to have babies or think about it. That piece creates such an enormous amount of anxiety. When they see other people their age, at least, looking like they're moving into these other phases of life that they're not, do you have insight into that aspect of it too?
Megan: Minimal. Just because relationships isn't the direction I had, but absolutely. As I shared, you'll come in for career concerns — that's how it presents originally. We dig deeper, and we realize it is a dissatisfaction with life, with your social relationships, with your financial status even. That’s a big concern for folks is, “Financially, I don't feel stable or independent like I thought I might at this age.”
A lot of it is because they're looking around, and other folks are hitting some milestones that we see in this age group. What I would add to that, and from my personal experience with clients, there's also a reflecting back on the generation prior to us, “What did my parents do? What did my aunts and uncles do?” Just the generation right above us, comparison happens within that too.
Well, by the time my parents were 28 years old, they were married with three kids, and they got a house and a mortgage, and were investing in another property. Someone's 32 saying, “I don't have that just yet.” I noticed, or what I hopefully share with people is think about the context in which those generations grew up in, and accomplished some of those milestones that you're reaching for.
That context is not the same context we're living in now. COVID, a big, big, big, obvious one that has shifted a lot of things. But think about the state of our economy right now, think about our housing market. There are larger societal contexts that make some of those milestones more challenging to meet for folks in this developmental period. Comparisons happening to even the generations above us, not just the generation that we are currently growing up with.
Lisa: That's a really good point. How validating to consider that it's not necessarily your personal shortcomings that you haven't been able to achieve these things that your parents had done. Actually, legitimately, the bar is higher. The cost of entry to even buy a property is so much more than it was even 5 or 10 years ago. Thank you for bringing that up.
Megan: 100%. To swing it back to career, to keep in my wheelhouse here, we've also seen a shift contextually about how jobs line up. The generations prior to us, there was a little more of a linear path — you started with one company, you worked your way up that ladder, you retired from that company.
I giggle with clients to keep it light-hearted. I say, “Find me someone, nowadays, that does that, that starts with the same company and retired from the same company. I'd like to shake their hand and congratulate them on being one of the only unicorns in the world that do that”,
because we don't follow that same start-to-finish trajectory.
If that's not matching — your parents had that experience, and your experience now looks a little bit more chaotic, your resume has a lot of jumps in it, and you're thinking to yourself, “I'm failing.” No, the job market’s totally different. It's entirely different. It's not going to benefit you to stay in one company from start to finish anymore. You get to change your mind around that context too because it is very, very different.
Lisa: That's a good point. Although, privately, selfishly, I'm sitting here thinking, “I sure hope you're not going to leave Growing Self, Megan”, because I'll miss you so much if you do.
Megan: No, I’m not going anywhere. It’s too early in my career.
Lisa: I have a gift for turning everything we talk about on this podcast to make it a bit about me. There, we've done it, now we can move on.
Okay, another thing that I did want to ask you about. You said, earlier in our conversation, that one of the things you feel are contributing to this experience, that I wanted to learn more about, you said a lack of critical thinking skills. Can you talk a little bit more about that because I'm feeling that that might be an exit door. If people are feeling trapped, I'm imagining this, “In case of emergency, go through this door,” and there’s “critical thinking” written on it. What does that mean, though? What do you do with that?
Megan: Sure. Critical thinking — what a funny phrase that we toss around because I think it does have a very educational connotation to it. But we forget to take those critical thinking skills and apply it to more abstract things: our lives, our trajectories, where we want to go, our hopes, our goals. We could point fingers all we wanted, but it's not necessarily built into our educational system, our work system.
We don't necessarily take the time to pause and have critical thinking moments as it relates to our future, our career. I've got a colleague that I used to work with in higher education who actually brought that to my attention. She shared, “When I'm looking at folks, and I'm trying to get to the root of where this dissatisfaction is coming from or this lack of direction, it, a lot of times, stems from an inability to reflect.”
All these skills are like muscles. If we don't have strong muscles, it's not going to be our reflex to use those muscles. What we get to do, instead, is say, “Hey, let's build up a reflection muscle. Let's see if we can develop your ability to examine a situation, and try to make some sense out of it.” That's why career work works, is because I help you develop those reflexes and those reflection skills.
Some really easy questions, just to start with, it's exactly what we had began with, “What was your original model, or goal, or vision for where you wanted to go, and how is it different?” It doesn't have to be this really scholarly critical thinking. It's just assessing what's happening, and how is that different than what you thought.
Sometimes, just identifying where the changes occurred, that's relief in itself, because we're like, “Oh, no wonder I'm feeling so lost. None of this worked out the way I thought it did.” It opened up space to move into some problem-solving or planning because you've almost diagnosed yourself. “Oh, I am totally in a different field”, and that's okay, “Maybe, I want to get back to my original field, or maybe I don't. Maybe, I'm learning that my vision did change for a really great reason.” Again, through reflecting, it's, “Well, this new vision fits me better.”
I had a life event occur, and I can't go back to that original vision. I take care of my parents now. I had a kid. I didn't finish my educational program. There's a lot of different things that can change a path, but giving notice or meaning to that, saying, “It's okay that it changed.” That's really helpful. I always recommend, start with the reflection question of, “What's different?” Then, assess what's happening presently. “What do you like right now? What is going well?”
I would even give that as a recommendation before you jump into your reflection and your critical thinking, “What is going well?”, because there's a chance that there are some things that's going well, and it's a practice of gratitude. It's getting your brain into, hopefully, a more positive space. We're pulling from positive psychology here and saying, “What am I doing well?”
It's a strength-based approach. That, even still, is like, “Okay, now, I'm more willing to face critically what's not going right because I know what is going right, and I feel I have a platform to stand on.” It can be a little easier to bring up or begin to strengthen those critical thinking reflection skills when you start with, “I'm doing okay, but I can do better.”
Lisa: I'm so glad you're bringing that up because I think it's so easy for all of us to get very myopically focused on the things that we don't like, and that aren't going the way that we want them to. That's such a good reminder to not forget all of the strengths and abilities you do have, and to be able to keep those in mind as you begin that reflective process.
You know what I'm actually thinking of right now? I'll tell you this. I have been — it's time, Megan, for us to find an internal bookkeeper person for our growth. I have been spending a lot of time lately talking to financial people, which has been fascinating. I usually talk to therapists all the time, so like, “Ooh, this is — they communicate in spreadsheets. What are we doing here?”
Anyway, I'm always so interested in people's stories, and with talking with these candidates like, “How did you get into this line of work?” It's been so interesting because for a lot of them, it was, “Well, my dad was an accountant, and he suggested that this would be a stable career”, or, “Well, I just kind of XYZ.” But for a lot of them, you can hear through the lines that their passion was somewhere else, that they had wanted to be doing something else.
I remember speaking with this one young woman who had been doing accounting for outside pressures, as opposed to an internal passion for numbers, which is… As I was speaking with her, I was reflecting to myself that this young woman was an excellent communicator. She was clearly very warm and compassionate. I was thinking about that when you were sharing that just a minute ago.
I could see that person being kind of bummed because, maybe, her career isn't going in the direction that she wanted in bookkeeping, but to use those skills in an HR kind of role, or in a mentorship, or something where she gets to work more with people — to be able to be thinking about that and reminding yourself of the strengths, even if they're not totally a fit with a profession you're in currently. I can see that.
Megan: Well, to add to that, that would be a really nice example of values conflict where, maybe, when she did begin her career, stability, family satisfaction, she had those values for her career. Going into accounting, because that's what mom did, that's what uncle did, whatever it is, that was a value for her.
At the time, what critical thinking and reflection also does, at different stages, is that it says, “You're going to change, and you're going to need to assess, ‘You know what, this is in direct opposition to my values now. My values are different, and that's okay. Maybe, I do want to be in a space where being warm, and friendly, and relational is the priority over numbers and spreadsheets.’” And that's okay.
That's not because you are poor at your job, or chose wrong the first time. You have a values change and, quite honestly, I hope you do, because it means you're changing and adapting and you're having experiences that are shaping you. Again, that reflection can almost validate. “I’m not crazy. I didn't do this wrong the first time, I did it for what was right at that time, and that time’s not here anymore. What is right for this time?”
I also heard another great quote. Rich Feller talks about your career, “It's a series of transitions.” That's the best we can we describe it. Not jobs, but transitions because, sometimes, it's a transition out of a job, it’s a transition into a part-time job. You will continue to have these mismatch conversations with yourself all the way up until you retire, you go back into the workforce, whatever it is, because your job is a series of transitions.
If you can remind yourself, “Hey, that's not serving me now, but that doesn't mean it didn't serve me at one point.” You give yourself a little grace. It’s like, “Hey, self, you did the best you could, let's do that again. I know that in a couple years’ time, we're going to reevaluate and make a different choice, and that's great because it's going to serve us in that moment of our lives.”
Lisa: That's very reassuring. Another question related to this, what would you say to someone in this life space who went down a career path, launched her trajectory and got a few years into it, and realized that they do not enjoy the experience of this particular profession — either their values have changed or it feels different than they thought that it would.
But they are feeling an enormous amount of guilt, or, sometimes, even fear because of the expense it took to get the degree that allowed them to be an attorney or whatever. There's this — I'm not sure if guilt is the right word, but they’re feeling trapped. Maybe they even have student loan debt or if their parents helped them get this degree and they’re like, “Actually…” I'm sure that that's a familiar conversation with you. Do you know what I'm talking about?
Megan: 100%. It's almost an obligation. I’m with you in that…
Lisa: Obligation. There you go.
Megan: But it's not full guilt. It doesn't sit as deeply as guilt can, but it's an obligation, a sense of — I hear this a lot: “I owe it to fill-in-the-blank. I owe it to my parents to try this out. I owe it to my degree to try it out. I owe it to my boss — my boss stuck their neck out for me to be in this position. I need to tough it out”
So the obligation? Absolutely. It, now, contributes to that stuckness. It's not only, “I don't know, really, where I'm headed and how I got here,” it's, “The way out affects other people. Can I actually make this transition?” I think starting with a conversation about how you got into this field, and what it served at that time is important.
I would always start there because I do want to validate, “It has not been a waste of your time, it has not been a waste of other people's times, it's not been a waste of resources in this field. It's just time to transition.” So we start there. Let's make some meaning out of the decisions you did make, and how you got into this field. Validate it.
Then, understanding how you want to transition and what that's going to look like for you. It sounds silly, but it often alleviates the obligation. When you explore values, when you explore strengths, when you explore skills, when you explore interests, identifying the next step, the next direction, it can feel so personal.
I've got folks that say, “Well, I don't really know why I'm here, but I'm going to make this transition,” and they select a different field, and then begin whatever process to get into that field. When it's such a fit, and it's so personal, because it is based on values and skills and experiences and interests, the obligation has a funny way of dissipating.
When you do engage in those conversations with mom and dad who footed that student bill, and you need to explain that you're changing, the idea of not going in this next direction, it's just not an option. You come to mom and dad, and say, “I am so grateful, and I want you to know how that experience that you paid for has set me up to move into this new transition.”
Added from a very personal stance, a leveraging experience happens — that's the second big question I get, “How the heck am I going to become an attorney after I've been a firefighter for all these years? Those skills don't make sense.” Believe it or not, almost every job has transferable skills. That is the beauty of this age that we live in. A lot of jobs have things that we can bring over.
When we go at it from a personal experience, we make meaning out of where you came from, what you've been up to, what you've been building — that lets you also transition into this field with gusto because you're like, “Look, Mom and Dad, if I had not taken that one class, I would never have known I did have this latent excitement for this new field”, “If I hadn't pursued my CPA exam…”
Oh my gosh, that exam right now is the hot topic. I don't know what's going on. I've had more clients come in to me about the CPA exam that's going on. But when they do come on in, and they're getting ready and gearing up to transition, they say, “But you know what, I can use Excel. No one else can use Excel now, and this new field that I'm heading into, it's critical.”
It's not a direct, “You went here, so now you're going into this job.” I did a little meandering, but those skills were direct links. It's a complicated process because it's very individualized. But when we do start with, “Where did you come from? How did you get here? Who are you, and where do you want to go,” the obligation, it will lessen just naturally. Very naturally.
Seeking Solace In A Quarter-Life Crisis
Lisa: I hear what you say. It's like you have to have this really powerful, exciting “why”. You have to have clarity about what you want to move forward to. Then, that last part sort of releases… But you know what, I'm also thinking right now — you know our colleague, Dr. Lisa? Another fabulous career counselor that I've had the privilege of speaking to.
She talks a lot about your narrative — the story that you tell yourself, and I'm just hearing that and what you're saying too, and it's like changing the story to, ”Actually, you have to have different life experiences and learn about different things in order to create clarity.”
To learn from that is how it actually works, as opposed to beating yourself up that you're changing your mind. That's the story. Actually, you have to do that. Is that what I'm hearing?
Megan: 100%. Those varied experiences contributed to your feelings of stuckness, contributed to this desire to change, and will contribute to your success in your next role, in your next educational endeavor, in your long-term career. That's why starting with, “How did you get here?”, has to be square, circle, number zero. Otherwise, we're going to learn about you, and that's great, and we're going to move you into the next path with intention and very personalized information, but you're right, the “why” doesn't feel as strong.
It can feel like an untold part of your story. I have all of my clients that they come on in and we're going to do any sort of job searching, whatever they come in for — I start with their story. There's a lot of benefits to it, but it's ownership of that story, of that narrative, being able to tell it, not only clearly.
It's an interview skill, it's a resume skill, it's going to help you at job searching. It’s also going to allow you to release yourself and say, “That was critical for me to take that odd job that doesn't fit on my resume anymore. But do you remember that one colleague I met? They’re how I know I need to be in a different field.” Making meaning out of where you've come from, it strengthens your “why”. Absolutely.
Lisa: I love that. Making meaning from where you come from strengthens your “why”. That's so good.
I know we don't have a ton of time left together, but I am curious to know. For the benefit of somebody listening to this right now, and who has been feeling that stuckness, maybe who has been feeling dissatisfied, but also beating themselves up because they don't know what else to do. What would your advice be to them for how to get started in moving forward?
I'm hearing you say that it is very much a process — that asking yourself why. But what are some easy first steps that somebody could do, either on their own or with a career counselor like yourself?
Megan: Absolutely. Step one: Nice, big, deep breath, and acknowledging, like we had started, knowing there's a name for this experience. That in and of itself can be relieving. Take a second to pause and say, “I am going through something, and it makes sense that I'm going through something.” Give that some time to chew on. Big deep breath to start.
I would say, and this could even happen prior to your reflection questions or critical thinking that you're going through, reach out to your network. It is the top thing that gets missed in job searching because we do it in a vacuum. Even folks that are coming in to me, I'm your support network. That's fabulous. I don't know you the way mom and dad does, cousin does, roommate does, partner does, spouse does, grandparents do.
They have a very intimate view, often, into your life, and can speak to some of the dissatisfaction. They can remind you of, “Do you remember when you did make that choice to move into that career? This was going on?” “Grandma, you're totally right. Thanks for reminding me that.”
Always if you can, start with your support network to just pour back into yourself and feel, “People do know me, they love me, they support me.” It normalizes not just, “Hey, I am a person going through this.” A lot of times people are like, “Oh my gosh, me, too.”
Lisa: I was just thinking. This experience is so common, but everybody else seems like they have it all figured out, they seem like they have clarity. Why don't people talk about this more? Megan, what is that about?
Megan: Because these realizations happen at midnight when you're laying in bed, scrolling on social media, and you're like, “Who am I going to call?” No, I’m just joking. But it can be like this obligation that we're talking about, those feelings of guilt, maybe.
Lisa: Like ashamed almost, is that it?
Megan: That's exactly where my brain was going. There's shame around, “I don't have this figured out, I don't know where I'm going.” We are a very curious set of people in the States, and that's great, but how often do we say, “Where are you going with your job? What do you do with work? Are you liking it? Are you having fun?” When you don't have answers to those questions, avoid the questions, avoid the situations you would have those questions — the holidays.
Lisa: Maintain the facade.
Megan: “I am doing well, I'm fine. Everything is great”, and in reality, you're cracking under all of this. It’s shame-filled to share a lot of that stuff. That's why I say start with your support network because those are people who can hold that shame with you, who are safe, and you can be vulnerable and be like, “This isn't going well.”
Your vulnerability is going to lead to their vulnerability often, and they're going to share, “You know what? I had the same thing happen. You know what? I am currently experiencing that now.” That's the best-case scenario. Like, “You too? Let’s see if we can figure this out.”
Starting with your support network — validating, encouraging. Also, it's going to set you up for job search success because, now, other people, not necessarily in your professional network, but your personal network, know that you're potentially job searching. That is your best tool in networking, is telling as many people as possible that you are looking for a new job because now you're on their brain.
When something comes up in their company, when they see a job posting, they're like, “Oh my gosh, Megan and I just had a conversation about this. She's looking for a job. Maybe, I could pass this on to her.” You begin to leverage other people's networks when you invite them into your own network. It's a really cool — not even a trick of the trade. I know a lot of folks that do that, but we forget that because we are so stuck.
It's shame and guilt-ridden, and we're not feeling great. We don't want to reach out, we don't want to talk to other people and share that experience. Yet, when we do, all these benefits seem to unwind or unravel. I always recommend: take a big, old, deep breath. Start with your support system, see how they can help you. Then, jump into some of your reflection, if you can.
When I look into quarter-life crisis — I was curious how it was being talked about in the media right now. Every article I came across had reflection questions to ask yourself. “Here's what to consider if you do want to make a change, if you are in this quarter-life spot.” You don't even have to come up with the reflection questions on your own, they're all on Google.
Lisa: You can Google them.
Megan: You can Google everything. One day, my job is going to be obsolete because Google will be me, and they will ask all the questions. Spend some time journaling, writing it out.
Lisa: Well, no because I want to bring something up because one of the things — I am all about a good journaling question. I know from my own experience and others’, here's what I think is important: We have blind spots. There are things about us that we don't know, and that's why I think having a relationship, either a trusted friend, a counselor, or a coach, because they can ask you questions or reflect things back to you that you would literally not connect.
Lisa: But I also know that a lot of people, unfortunately, don't have access to an amazing counselor, or a coach like yourself, to be shining that spotlight on, “Okay, but what about this?” To take the personal reflection questions, are there any tricks or tips that you have for people to help themselves get past what they know and access new information about themselves through these questions, or is that just —
Megan: Yes. It's not as easy. It is hard. It's why a counseling or a coaching relationship can be so beneficial, and expedite this process. I have, again, Rich Feller, a colleague that I'm working with — we're talking a lot about unknowns, hidden things, blind spots that need to be resolved. Typically, those blind spots are what keep you from success or moving forward.
A good indicator or a place to maybe uncover that: What are your self-doubts? What are your concerns? What are insecurities? Blind spots often show up in those, and that is something — our self-talk As much as we would like to avoid it, we all know our own insecurities, we all know our shortcomings, we all know our doubts. How to answer those questions — that's a nice place to open up a blind spot.
I'll give an example here. I see this blind spot — I don't know if how I come across in that meeting is effective or non-effective. That's a blind spot. That's probably an insecurity for someone. I don't know how I show up in this space. I'm really concerned that I don't show up well. Start with what your concerns are about yourself. That's a pretty good indicator that might be an area where you could do some work, do some self-exploration, and uncover, hopefully, some of the unknown about yourself.
Lisa: That is such good advice, and I'm so glad that you're talking about this right now. I do say this as a grizzled Gen X-er who is deeply suspicious of many things happening on social media, but it's like there's this sort of, “Rah, rah, positive thinking, girl boss, take no prisoners, you got to manifest,” you know what I'm talking about.
What you're saying is that, actually, the door to cracking into a lot of this stuff is giving yourself permission to tap into the darkness, and go there, and write about that stuff — the part that maybe you're a little bit afraid of. That's really where you can make contact with these. Thank you. I'm so glad we're talking about this. You are a force of good in the world, Megan.
Megan: Thank you. Hey, I'm just here to help. Again, open those blind spots for you. If I can expedite that process at all by saying, “What is troubling you?”, let's go there. Sometimes, it is easier to have those conversations with somebody else because it is scary when you're alone with that journal, and you're kind of having to take a look in the mirror.
Sometimes, having someone that you trust in a coaching or counseling relationship to guide you through that conversation, that's just the little extra support that we do need. Some folks, they're like, “Forget it. I got it. I can do this on my own.” Awesome. Other folks, come on in if it's not feeling like, “This is something I can tackle and resolve on my own.”
Lisa: Well, thank you so much. I'm very grateful, though, that you shared so much actionable advice for people who really do — if I were listening to this, I would have like, “Okay, these are a list of questions I need to think about. I am going to resist this toxic positivity and actually tap into this other stuff”, and really giving people a roadmap if they've been dealing with this. There’s so many people are — for how to begin to move forward again.
Thank you so much, Megan — from me, but also on behalf of our listeners today. This was a lot of fun.
Megan: Thanks for having me on. This is a subject that's pretty near and dear to my heart, considering my personal age, but also just what we're noticing in career trends. Always grateful that someone's willing to listen to me babble about what I'm excited about. So thank you.
You walk into the office after a much-needed vacation, feeling rested and ready to get back to work. “How was it?” says Camille, your questionable coworker. “I’m so glad you got to go, instead of staying to help us finish that project.”
She’s mad at you…right? But then again, her sweet tone of voice and wide grin doesn’t seem to match that impression. So you thank her and keep walking, wondering why the whole exchange left you feeling defensive and icky.
If you’ve been on the receiving end of a “nice remark” like this, you’ve experienced passive aggressive behavior. Passive aggression happens when we can’t or won’t express negative feelings directly, and instead resort to covert hostility as an outlet for our anger, jealousy, or resentment.
When you have a passive aggressive person in your life, whether it’s a coworker, friend, family member, or romantic partner, you’ll find yourself questioning your own perceptions, and wondering whether you’re just being sensitive, or if there’s actually some antagonism beneath their pleasant exterior.
Doubting yourself like this can be absolutely crazy-making, leaving you unsure about how to respond. That’s why I wanted to create this episode of the podcast for you: so you can recognize passive aggressive behavior, understand where it’s coming from, and deal with it in a compassionate, assertive manner that’s healthy and fair for you.
My guest is Kathleen C., a therapist and life coach here at Growing Self. Kathleen has helped many people set healthy boundaries with passive aggressive people or redirect their own passive aggressive impulses so they can have healthier, more authentic relationships with everyone in their lives.
We’re talking about what causes passive aggression, why it can be so damaging to relationships, and how you can deal with your own Camilles — without losing your cool, or your sanity.
How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People: Episode Highlights
Passive aggressive behavior is confusing, exasperating, and damaging to relationships. When someone says everything’s fine, but their behavior says otherwise, that’s a form of gaslighting whether it’s intentional or not. The sooner you can get clear about what’s actually happening in a passive-aggressive dynamic, the better.
Understanding what passive aggressive behavior is about (hint: It’s not you!) will help you deal with it. Just recognizing passive aggression can be a big relief and can help you respond in a confident, emotionally healthy way.
Examples of Passive Aggressive Behavior
Passive aggressive behavior can take many forms, but it always involves expressing negative feelings indirectly rather than out in the open.
When you’re on the receiving end of this veiled hostility, it can feel confusing because there’s a mismatch between the passive aggressive person’s words and their actions. They may tell you they’re not angry, but then slam the door as they exit the room.
Here are a few other examples of passive-aggressive behavior:
Giving a compliment in a sarcastic tone.
Sabotaging someone else’s plans.
“Forgetting” to do something you agreed to do.
Giving someone the silent treatment when you’re upset.
Excluding a coworker from an important meeting.
Talking badly about someone behind their back, while being polite to their face.
Sulking when you don’t get your way.
Speaking to someone in a condescending tone.
Behaviors like these aren’t always passive aggressive, but they can be, especially when they’re part of a pattern. If you’re unsure whether someone is being passive aggressive, tune into your own feelings about what’s happening between the two of you. If a “friendly” exchange leaves you feeling confused or mistrustful, you might be picking up on some covert hostility.
Reasons for Passive Aggressive Behavior
People behave in passive aggressive ways when, for whatever reason, they don’t feel able to express their emotions directly.
People with a tendency to “people please” are often prone to passive aggressive communication. When you have a strong fear of being disliked, it can feel impossible to confront others directly. Instead, a people pleaser may try to get some emotional relief by being hostile to the person they’re upset with while maintaining plausible deniability about it. For this reason, many self-identified people-pleasers are experienced by others as quite passive aggressive.
Whatever the reason, passive aggressive behavior erodes trust, builds resentment, and leaves issues in a relationship to fester.
How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People
If someone is chronically passive aggressive toward you, particularly if you’re not close to this person, the best way to deal with it is to distance yourself as much as possible. You could do this by choosing not to be around the person, or by simply not engaging with them to the extent that you’re able. Certainly don’t react to their behavior in the way they’re most likely hoping you will — by getting angry, upset, or defensive.
Keeping your cool signals to the person that you’re not going to engage in the passive aggressive “dance” anymore, which makes treating you this way a little less gratifying.
How to Fix a Passive Aggressive Relationship
If it’s a relationship you value, you can try talking to the passive aggressive person about what you’re noticing, how it’s affecting you, and where your boundaries are.
You may say something like, “I’ve noticed that you make jokes at my expense in front of our friends sometimes. When you tease me like that, I feel embarrassed and hurt. I’m not going to spend time with you if you continue talking about me like this.”
This response is both vulnerable and direct, a combination that can sometimes disarm passive behavior. Either way, their response will tell you a lot about how emotionally safe you can feel with this person, and whether they’re actually a friend you can trust and count on.
And if your goal is to improve the relationship, it’s important to be an emotionally safe communicator yourself. Refrain from blaming, accusing, or lashing out in anger at the passive aggressive person. Instead, focus on your own observations, feelings, and boundaries.
How to Stop Being Passive Aggressive
Have you ever asked yourself, “Am I passive aggressive?”
We often don’t realize when we’re being passive aggressive, so it’s worth taking a look at your own behavior and being honest with yourself about your motivations.
Notice if you’re feeling angry, jealous, insecure, or threatened around a certain person, and how you might be acting those feelings out in your relationship with them. You might find yourself talking about them behind their back, being disingenuous with them, or being unsupportive of their success.
If you notice these things, don’t beat yourself up. Just think about why you may be feeling this way and what needs you’re trying to meet. By treating yourself with compassion, you can find better ways to get your emotional needs met, without resorting to passive aggressive behavior.
Episode Show Notes:
[1:59] The Passive Aggressive Patterns
Passive aggressive behaviors leave us in a place of self-doubt due to a lack of clarity about the person’s intention.
The classic passive aggressive pattern is mixed messages, for example, when someone's words and tone don't match.
Intentional “forgetfulness” toward crucial promises is another example of passive aggressive behavior.
[11:23] How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People?
Understand why they act that way.
The root of passive aggressiveness is insecurity.
Passive aggressive behavior can keep us from having close, meaningful connections.
[21:29] Passive Aggressive Relationships
If someone's being passive aggressive toward you, that's a reflection of their feelings, beliefs, coping mechanisms, and communication skills, not of you.
Sometimes, it is ideal to disengage and ignore the passive aggressive comments.
[32:16] How to Handle Passive Aggressive People?
Set a positive precedent by modeling vulnerability when confronting passive aggressive behaviors.
Create a space that encourages authentic and meaningful communication.
Disengage if the person doesn’t feel emotionally safe to communicate with.
[43:44] Am I Passive Aggressive?
Are you honest with yourself about your motivations when you communicate?
Find other ways to get what you need, without resorting to passive aggression.
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Today, we are talking about a topic that I know so many people wrestle with. I, myself, have encountered this, which is passive-aggressive people. They're everywhere. They can show up at work, in our friendships, in your relationship with family members, and it can be really frustrating and difficult to know what to do in these situations. Also, this is just an exasperating experience.
You know that type of thing where somebody is sunny, and pleasant, and fun to your face, but then you know they're saying or doing things behind your back, or maybe even somebody making those ambiguous comments that can be taken a few different ways in your presence, but knowing them and their history, you know what they're talking about, but you can't really confront it directly.
It's just so hard to know what to do in these situations without making the situation worse. That is why I enlisted the support of my dear friend and colleague, once again, Kathleen S., who is a therapist and coach here on our team at Growing Self who has so much experience in helping people develop truly healthy relationships with healthy boundaries, healthy communication, high degree of emotional intelligence. I'm hoping that she can shed some light on this phenomenon to provide you some direction for this situation.
Kathleen, thank you so much for being here with me today. You are just such a joy to talk to. You're one of my all-time favorite podcast guests because you always are just so generous with your information and ideas. I'm confident that you will be able to shed light on this for us today too, so thank you.
Kathleen S.: Oh, thanks. Thanks for having me. I do hope to give some helpful information today to help us all deal with, I think, this experience that we all share like you said.
The Passive-Aggressive Patterns
Lisa: It happens. So many examples — this can take so many different forms. I mentioned a couple in my intro. But when your clients, your counseling, or coaching clients are describing this experience to you, what are some of the patterns, or ways, or even your own life that this passive-aggressive behavior tends to show up? Because it can take many forms.
Kathleen: So many. As I was always thinking about this preparing for today, I was struck by how many versions of this there are. You’re right — iy can come up at work. and certainly also closer to home, in your friendships, or even in your family or in your romantic relationships. I think the hallmark is that kind of like you were alluding to — that it leaves us feeling confused, and disarmed, and embarrassed or doubting ourselves and disempowered kind of.
Lisa: There's that. I won't use this term because we have clean language on this podcast, but kind of like that “mind-f” experience where you're like, “Did that just happen? I felt like that just happened. Did it? If I say that out loud, then what will happen?” It totally just puts you in this precarious situation interpersonally.
Kathleen: You feel threatened in a way and intimidated for sure. Then, unable to trust yourself, and therefore unable to really directly address it, or do anything about it because you start to doubt, “Am I seeing this clearly? Is that really what that meant? Did that really happen? Or am I interpreting…?” We tend to personalize, “Am I interpreting this in a faulty way because of my own insecurities?”
That's part of the reason why passive-aggressive behavior works because it does kind of leave you without clarity, and stuck in that place of self-doubt — unable to assert yourself. That's kind of one of the… We can talk about the different ways people are passive-aggressive so you can identify it. But then also when you recognize it's happening, not personalizing it, and recognizing what it's really about and that it's really about the person who's doing it — that leaves you in more of a space to take care of yourself.
Lisa: Okay,that sounds like a fantastic plan. I would love to start with, just as you were suggesting, what it actually looks like. Because I think even just having that conversation would be so incredibly validating to so many of our listeners because there's that confusion, that unknown. What does this look like from your experience in action? What are the types, if you will?
Kathleen: We have your classic mixed messages where maybe someone's words and tone don't fit. Maybe they're complimenting you, but their tone has an edge of sarcasm or sickly sweetness. Or perhaps their nonverbals their body language don't match their tone or what they're saying. Maybe, even they say they're going to do one thing, and they don't follow through. All of those messages or contradictions.
Lisa: I see that the ladder in couples counseling, honestly — in couples, it's so hard for people where their partner will say they'll do something, and then they don't. Then, the other person is left to figure out if that was like an intentional forgetfulness to wound them, or if they actually forgot — because that also happens.
Kathleen: When you start to see patterns because forgetting is definitely can be a passive-aggressive technique. If you start to see patterns where, “My partner is really good at remembering these things, but conveniently forgets the things that are important to me or the things that expressed are important to me.”
Making excuses or procrastinating, and sort of in ways that don't make sense where there doesn't seem to be a strong logic for why I didn't follow through this time, or, “I've been procrastinating. I don't remember us talking about that. That's not what we said. We were on the same page, we had the same conversation, and now it's different. That can be, so I'm glad you brought that up.
That's just one way in couples and relationships that we can experience passive aggression. It's not to say that that's always the case. Sometimes, we do forget things. But if you see a pattern of that, especially along with other passive-aggressive types of behaviors, and I think you can feel it sometimes too. Trust your guts.
Lisa: You're saying the mixed messages where people are saying one thing, but you feel icky. It just flashed in my mind when you're saying that. You're from the South, so I'm sure you'll know if somebody says, “Bless your heart.” It's actually not a good thing.
Kathleen: A condescending tone can also be a marker of passive… That's a good example of that, “Oh, bless her heart.” But you can feel icky. Trust your gut — if you feel this person is being kind, but they don't feel safe, or they're complimenting you, but you don't feel close to them. They're telling you something is important to them, and that they're hearing you, and they're going to follow through, but you don't trust it. These are all just good, I think, markers.
There isn't one, unfortunately — I can't say, “Here's the stamp. We can stamp this person as being passive-aggressive to you. You can be 100% sure.” I think it's more of a pattern of experiences and feelings.
Lisa: You know what? One is coming into mind, and I don't— I'm not sure if this counts or not. But just as we're talking about this, have you ever had the experience where someone might set rules, or limits, or something, boundaries, with you that you know for a fact they don't set with other people?
It's not that the rules or expectations or boundaries are necessarily inappropriate, but that it feels like they're just for you. Have you ever experienced that, or is that just my life that we're talking about right now?
Kathleen: Listen, I haven't experienced that one personally, but it's a great example. I can imagine it at work in particular — like unnecessary red tape, making things unnecessarily difficult for you and you being the exception to that, chronically disagreeing with you — these are different ways that… Holding you to different standards whether those be boundaries, or, let's say, work standards in a professional setting, and then other people.
That's a good example — stonewalling. Whether it's the silent treatment from your partner, or maybe it's in a social setting talking to everyone in the group, but not looking at you, or at work — not responding to your emails, or including you in a business meeting that you should be included in. That kind of exclusion and silent treatments which can look those different ways and take those different forms. That can be a form of passive-aggressive behavior.
Guilt-tripping is another big one by holding you responsible for their feelings, playing the victim — that kind of thing — or even being in the victim role themselves and sort of guilt-tripping you around that, or sabotaging themselves, believe it or not. This can happen a lot in romantic relationships. I've actually heard it said before, “I will do this to myself and I will be so unhappy, then they'll finally see how much they hurt me.” This is passive-aggressive…
Lisa: Like that emotional blackmail. Passive-aggressive way of expressing…
Kathleen: Of expressing your feelings because that's part… It's not the only reason we're passive-aggressive but it’s one of the reasons is when we feel like we don't know how, or we can't — we're not allowed to directly talk about what we need or how we feel. We can’t sustain that, stuffing that forever, so it can come out in passive-aggressive ways. That's just one reason that we can behave passive-aggressively. When that is the motive, sometimes it can look like playing the victim.
How to Deal with Passive-Aggressive People?
Lisa: You know what? I did actually want to ask you about it, and I certainly want to talk about how to deal with passive-aggressive people. But I was actually interested in hearing more about this perspective as well like why people do behave in passive-aggressive ways just to illuminate it.
I have compassion for it even, but what you just said was super interesting is that people tend to engage in these behaviors or communicate in this way when they don't feel able to express their feelings in more direct ways. Is that it?
Kathleen: It's one of the reasons, yes. I actually think the first step in being able to deal with passive-aggressive people is to understand the reasons why people act that way because it helps us with that lack of clarity and that confused feeling. It kind of — that proverbial facing your fears, like “look the monster directly in the face”. Then, that scary threat shrinks, and becomes something a little less scary and more manageable.
If we can understand why people are passive-aggressive, then we can go up. That's what's happening there. And be a little less scared. Then, we're able to think clearly about what we want to do with that. It's an important piece. Having beliefs that it's not okay to express your feelings, to ask for what you need, to take up space to have conflict, which are — we talked about it when we talked about people-pleasing, a lot of us have learned that.
What are we left with, then? To either completely neglect our needs, or try to get them met by beating around the bush in a passive-aggressive way because we feel scared or insecure about actually being vulnerable, and authentic, and direct in our communication. That is one big reason.
Lisa: Interesting. I never really thought about this in the same way until you brought this up that it's on this… We had that marvelous conversation about people-pleasing that I think so many of us can identify with too. But what I'm hearing you say now is that maybe that people-pleasing tendencies and passive-aggressive tendencies are actually two sides of the same coin.
Kathleen: They definitely can be. We might have to the best of intentions, and then do things that or express ourselves in ways that you're not happy with for sure.
Lisa: If you're people-pleasing, and you're sort of doing things that don't feel good to you, and you feel like you have to. That even though you're not maybe talking about how you feel in the moment, it's still coming out sideways, and it's likely to be in those passive-aggressive kinds of…
Lisa: Yes, like your nail polish kinds of…
Kathleen: Then, you're really thinking, “You didn't invite me to go get your nails done with you, but you invited Sarah or whatever.” That's one reason. But there are other situations too. If I had to pick one root for all the different ways that passive-aggressiveness can show up, it would be insecurity for sure. I would say all passive-aggressive behavior is rooted in that, but it can come from, “I feel too insecure to be — we were just saying — to be clear, and authentic, and direct. I shouldn't do, I shouldn't be upset”, that kind of thing.
Or it can be, “I feel like I don't have power and control in this situation. I need to figure out — I feel like I need to get that to be strong, to be competent, to be respected.” Or it can be “I feel threatened by you or jealous of you, And then I might handle that with passive-aggressive behavior which is sort of another way of feeling like I have some power and control there.”
Rooted in that sense of, “I'm not secure here”, but can have slightly different motivations. Not everybody who is passive-aggressive is always fully aware that they're doing it, and not everybody comes from a place of, “I really want to tell you how I feel, but I'm scared to.” Some people are just being adult bullies. It depends very much on the situation and the person.
Lisa: Totally. What I'm thinking of right now as you're sharing this — I know you're familiar with Brené Brown’s work around the role of vulnerability and having the courage to talk about things like, “That hurt my feelings”, or “That made me feel left out”’ or like “You don't care about me”. That is so scary, that passive-aggressive behavior is sort of the opposite of that. Those feelings in a highly defended form, basically, is what you're saying that people aren't expressing.
Kathleen: Absolutely. That’s it.
Kathleen: Absolutely. We've talked about having sort of a continuum for maybe we have aggression on one end, and passivity on the far end of that continuum, and assertiveness, if it's in the middle of those. I have always said its assertiveness is our pathway to genuine connection. It should open up communication. It is vulnerable to be assertive, actually. It can be scary, but it's also very authentic and can lead to intimacy — just like Brené Brown talks about.
I would definitely say that passive-aggressiveness which might be, depending on the version of it, sort of closer to either end of that continuum, a little not quite aggression, but near it, not quite being passive, but somewhere near that. It’s just another version of not being authentic and vulnerable — protecting yourself from how scary that can feel. But it keeps us from having closer, more meaningful connections at the same time.
Lisa: It's so easy to hide, I think, in that passive-aggressive place because if somebody does dare in the phase of that passive-aggressive moment or communication to say, “I feel like you're upset with me right now. Is something going on?” So easy for people to be like, “I don't know what you're talking about. It's a joke.” Whatever that it can look like.
Kathleen: “I’m just teasing you. I’m just messing with you.”
Lisa: You can hide forever in that place.
Kathleen: That's the thing about it — it's veiled. It’s sneaky, and that's what makes it so confusing.
Lisa: Over time, in your experience, what does that passive-aggressive communication style — because it is a communication style. People are being passive-aggressive — they're communicating something. What does that do to relationships over time, both in that space between people, but also for the sort of recipient of the passive-aggressive behavior, but also for the person doing the passive-aggressive behavior — what do you see this turn into over time?
Kathleen: I think it creates almost an ever-growing, not even a gap but like a wall between the two of you. It definitely erodes trust, I think, on both sides because when you're trying to get your needs met, but you're doing it in a passive-aggressive way, you're not going to get… At first, you might get some satisfaction, let's be honest. Seeing the other person be affected, “This is what I wanted, and I don't know how else to do that.”
But with time, you don't actually get those needs met, you don't feel seen and heard, you don't feel like you're on the same team, you don't feel safe and trusting — even if you're the passive-aggressive one.
Lisa: I could see it pushes people just further away from you, and if you're really trying to be cared for and understood, it's like the opposite.
Kathleen: “I can't trust you, I can't trust what you say, I can't trust that you're going to be honest and transparent with me, which means I don't have a way to keep this relationship healthy and growing.” Then, even the person being passive-aggressive begins to feel hopeless as well. We kind of almost create these deep grooves that we get stuck in this — of a relationship dynamic of mistrust and resentment. Does that make sense?
Lisa: That it's impossible to have the kind of emotionally safe, authentic, courageous conversations that are required to keep our relationship healthy. It's like that just starts to feel impossible after a while.
Kathleen: The more that we have those, and that we are heard and safe when we have those, the closer we can get, and the safer that we feel, and the more we trust, the more we open up and so on and so forth. It can go, unfortunately, in the opposite direction as well. The less often we have those conversations, the more unsafe we feel.
Passive-Aggressive in Relationships
Lisa: Well, I'm glad that we're talking about this. If we were to shift a little bit into — your advice for if someone is recognizing that they're caught in this kind of loop with someone that they wish to maintain a relationship with because I think that that is a piece of it. I know, I have encountered in social situations or situations where you do have the power to kind of distance yourself from people because I'm an extremely direct person most of the time. I don't know how else to be.
When I feel that energy, I separate myself from that person when I have the power to do so. But I've also — and I know that many our listeners and our clients have had experiences where that's like a family member, or someone that you are connected to in perpetuity, but don't have like even enough of a relationship to be able to… Like your wife's brother or something like that, sort of an extended family, or even like a parent, or in the worst-case scenario, a spouse, but like a sibling.
When you have to deal with this, how do you even begin to mend that? I heard you say — understanding what it's about.
Kathleen: That's sort of the first step. But you're talking about someone that you have to have in your life who can't really cut off ties, but you're not close enough where they're not safe enough to be really vulnerable with them basically. That could be a boss too or a co-worker. Yeah, yeah. Or work. situation. Yeah.
Lisa: A workplace situation. But that's even good advice that they're kind of like different categories of people. Maybe for some people that you do have the opportunity for more intimacy with you, you can have more meaningful healing. But there's like that separate category of people that you're sort of stuck with. I think the hardest thing in those situations is that like with a co-worker, or a boss, or like an extended family member — whatever I say or do, they're just going to be defensive and deny, and I'm going to look like the idiot, and it's going to make things worse. It's such a bind.
Kathleen: Yes, let's kind of look at this in levels I suppose, and you can kind of get a sense of which categories of people in your life some of these levels of addressing passive-aggressive behavior would apply to or not. If we start the beginning like we said — understanding this is about them, not you. It's not your fault. So don't get too caught up in the content of the comments they're making because you're not doing anything wrong.
If someone's being passive-aggressive towards you, that's a reflection of them and how they're feeling, what they believe, their coping skills, their communication skills. We talked about Brené Brown — she talks about how vulnerability combats shame. By understanding, “Look, this is what's happening. This is about them, not you.” We can kind of decrease the intimidation factor and the embarrassment or the shame factor a little bit.
Level one of dealing with somebody in your life like this is kind of to, like you were saying, when it's possible to avoid it and to distance yourself if you can — ask to be put on a different project at work, or don't be caught alone in the room with your mother-in-law or whatever, whoever it is. Have an escape plan prepared ahead of time and make that a boundary for yourself, “I'm not going to be cornered.”
Sometimes, we do have to just not engage — ignore or pretend we didn't hear the question or the comment that was was made. This is all part of our avoidance strategy here. It's kind of like — somebody once used this term to me, and it stuck and that like, “Not letting them put the coin, the quarter in the pinball machine. Not reacting in a way…”
Lisa: Getting activated.
Kathleen: “…giving them the reaction that they're looking for.” Kind of making it not really fun or purposeful for them anymore by not getting upset, by not getting defensive, or explaining yourself if that makes sense. For some people in your life, this is how handle it.
Lisa: I always take the bait, I always have that tendency like, “I want to confront it.” That is what I'm hearing you say — not the right strategy. Okay. Lisa takes notes.
Kathleen: I'm the same way.
Lisa: Because that's what it feels like.
Kathleen: I either want to confront it or I just want to be around it. But sometimes, we are in these situations where we have to navigate a little bit more subtlety, and when you have to have — to keep the harmony.
Lisa: Kind of expecting it like, “I know what this person does, I know how unlikely to feel in this moment, and I am in advance deciding that I am actually not going to react and make this gratifying for them, and I will try to minimize my contact with them to the degree that I can. If I can't, I am just going to smile and nod.”
Lisa: Pass the salt.
Kathleen: Know what this is, what's happening — and then just by being able to identify it and label it in your mind, be prepared to not engage in that dynamic with them. Sometimes, we can take it a little step up, and we can get into some broken record boundary-setting like, “Well, I'm not really going to talk about that right now.
Or let's say somebody brings up something from the past, “I don't really care about that anymore.” Just kind of putting the big “stop” sign. It's a variation of the avoidance technique that we can use. It's just a way of saying, “I'm really not going to do that dance with you.” Sometimes, we can do that, and sometimes we can't. We have some other options. But when that's all you can do, sometimes it is what is best for you.
If that's not possible, you can have, kind of getting out of the victim role. It is another way of not giving them the response that they might be looking for, but it's less avoidant when that's not an option. Just showing them other ways that you're not upset and it's not working on you like laughing with them when they tease you, “Oh, yeah, that's true. I am really bad at time management. Got to work on that.”
Showing that you have the self-confidence that you're not going to be passive-aggressively bullied that you can laugh at yourself — that's not going to work if that makes sense.
Lisa: I think I'm hearing on this emotional level, you're also really shutting the door on any emotional safety or emotional intimacy with this person. It's like you're in a room, and there's a snake who's trying to bite you and just handle it like that. I think where a lot of people get roped in is feeling like, “This relationship has the opportunity for me to talk about how I'm feeling right now. Maybe, we can like do this differently next time.”
What I'm hearing you say is like, there's a whole class of relationships where actually, “No, this isn't going to change. You shouldn't be telling people how you actually feel and just understand what this is and protect yourself.”
Kathleen: There is a whole class of relationships like that.
Lisa: Good. That's good to know.
Kathleen: There are people, hopefully in your life, too, that maybe they don't — some people don't realize that they are being passive-aggressive, or it's something that they've learned to do, but they've never really had the kind of relationship that allows them to look at that in a safe space and be really vulnerable with somebody.
For those people, maybe it is your significant other, maybe it is a really close friend who teases you sometimes when you're out socializing or something like that. Maybe it is a family member that we can use assertiveness techniques with them. Again, it kind of helps to have a plan prepared ahead of time if possible as far as, “These are the kind of things I've noticed happening. The next time it happens, or the next time I feel that way, here's what I'm going to do.”
When I work with clients on assertiveness, we have different scripts that we use because in the beginning, it can feel really hard to think on your feet and it keeps it really simple. One of them, we kind of touched on earlier, and that is just pointing out those discrepancies, pointing out the mixed messages that you've noticed like, “Hey, you've been a really great friend to me in so many ways over the years. I've also noticed, though, that when we hang out with ‘so and so, and so and so’, sometimes you will make jokes at my expense, you'll tease me. I'm just wondering, what is that about?’
That might be a discrepancy strategy where we point out differences or messages that don't match, “You said you were going to get back to me by email by Thursday, and we agreed on the plan on how to deal with this issue, and you didn't do it, what's happening there?” This is just your basic discrepancy assertiveness technique. But when it's someone that we feel that we're closer to, and we really do want to have a close relationship with, we can get a little bit more vulnerable, and talk about how we feel, “When you tease me like that, I get really embarrassed and I feel really hurt.”
I think like we talked about last time — how they respond to that is something that gives us information about how emotionally safe we can be with them. But people aren't perfect, it takes a little bit of time to open up. It's hard to not get defensive when someone points something out to you or tells you that their feelings are hurt. But if it's somebody that's really important to you, you can be a little bit patient, and try being vulnerable and honest, giving them the chance to let their guard down.
How to Handle Passive-Aggressive People?
Lisa: Like in those moments to kind of go into that with what you were describing — that compassionate understanding of why people might be communicating that way in the first place. Because what I'm thinking about right now is that sort of systemic impact that — like maybe they don't feel emotionally safe enough with me to tell me that they're angry with me, or that I hurt their feelings. That's why they're teasing me or doing whatever in the first place. Would you recommend trying to address that with somebody who has been behaving that way with you?
Kathleen: Absolutely. Right now I'm imagining someone really close to you, like a significant other, or very close friend, or maybe a sister — it depends. Someone you feel close to, a relationship that you value, then yes, I would say, “Why not say? Why not ask?” I would imagine that it's difficult sometimes to say they're upset with me, “Is that what's happening? Or is it something else? I just want to understand what's going on with you because I care about you.”
So setting the precedent modeling vulnerability, and that it is okay to be human, and to take up some space, and to have these big uncomfortable feelings, and to talk about them. Let's bring them out into the light of day, they're not that scary. Sometimes, we can sort of disarm passive-aggressiveness and change the relationship dance that we have with that person.
Lisa: Totally. This is so interesting because when we started talking about this, I was thinking about the passive-aggressive experience from the perspective of an individual who may be dealing with this. But as we're talking, I'm just starting to think about all of the couples I have worked with over the years where there has been — and I'm using my air quotes right now — “passive-aggressive behavior” in one partner, where the other partner doesn't realize, and this is very common and like a pursue withdraw dynamic.
I am going to gender stereotype with it. It is not always this way. It's sometimes it goes different ways, but it is a passive-aggressive appearing man and an angry woman who are married to each other. That oftentimes, what is actually happening in that relationship dynamic is when that guy says, “Actually, this is how I'm feeling”, or, “I don't want to do that”, or “I think we should do it this way”, it's like all hell breaks loose, and there are very severe relational consequences for his disagreeing in an authentic and vulnerable way, so he stops.
I think looking at this through my couple’s counselor lens right now, the other piece of this I think we can extrapolate is how very important it is to be an emotionally safe person if you want somebody close to you to stop engaging in that sort of avoidant behavior because it's real easy to point your finger at somebody else for being passive-aggressive and not realizing that you're kind of scary, and then they might want to avoid having a conflict with you.
To have that self-awareness — and that's me stepping into the couple’s counseling lens right now. But thank you for reminding me of that because I think that can be important and intimate partnerships. That's the thing.
Kathleen: Then, we're not really talking about what we really need and how we really feel. We don't really know each other anymore. Sometimes, it's not that obvious. Sometimes, it's clear — one of us is getting really angry, “What do you mean you don't agree with me?” We'll have someone shut down and just fall in back on passive-aggressive behavior because again, that's the only way I can communicate it all ear safely.
Sometimes, it's more subtle than that. It's, “Oh, okay. Well, I'm still going to do it my way.” Or we have the passive-aggressive meets passive-aggressive pattern, “Oh, okay. Alright. Well, sure, I'll consider that. Then go and make the decision on your own, “Oh, I forgot. I didn’t say that.” Or, “I don't know how to do that, and so I did it differently”, or whatever.
Either way though, when you start to feel like, “This person isn't a safe person for me to open up to either because they get angry”, or because, “I'm not heard and seen. My feelings are invalidated.” We kind of fall back on, “How can I be heard? Passive-aggressive communication might be our last step before we just stop trying to connect or make an effort at all sometimes.”
Lisa: Well, that's really, really good advice is just to try to talk about it openly, and compassionate, and emotionally safe way because your only other choice in some ways is to withdraw. Now, can I ask you about one other little facet of this or variable?
Part of what is coming up for me too, as we're talking, and I will say this as someone who has, personally ADHD tendencies, in case you haven't noticed over all the years we've known each other Kathleen, and I have seen a dynamic in relationships where one partner actually does have trouble remembering things, trouble with task-based stuff, time management, and it is interpreted as being passive-aggressive when actually they have like thinking differences that make that kind of thing hard for them, and it can create so much hurt feelings in a relationship when it's being interpreted in a hurtful…
People feel like their partner doesn't care a lot of the time when they are struggling with ADHD. Do you have any guidelines or recommendations to help somebody kind of differentiate, “Is this person being intentionally hurtful and passive-aggressive, or are they just sort of a mess, and that's why they're late or forgetting to pick up the whatever at the store?”
Kathleen:: I've experienced this with clients more than once and…
Lisa: Probably with me. It’s been a really important moment for them in their relationships to be able to understand their partners in a different way. I think the reason that was able to happen is because you'll see other signs of ADHD outside of the relationship, “Does this person forget things? Do they forget what they said and conversations they had with other people too? Do they forget or have difficulty managing their time for themselves — doctor's appointments or whatever other obligations outside of their relationship with you?”
You'll see it gets confusing too because… Also with ADHD, you have a difficult time regulating your emotions often as well, or can feel — well, we won't go down that. I would say the best path is to actually — there's a great book on this topic. There are two books — Married to ADHD, and Is It You, Me, or ADHD. Those are two great books.
Or meet with a counselor, or a therapist, a counselor, either by yourself or with your partner to learn a little bit more about this because there are a lot of things that go into ADHD — hyperfocus is one of those things, difficulty with time management for getting things, losing things. But the point is that you'll see that pattern across the board with your children, with their friends, in their job, not just with you. Does that answer your question?
No, that's great advice. I think, even if that is what it is, your original recommendations — like having an authentic, vulnerable conversation about how this is making you feel is also probably the answer. Even if it's a different origin, your partner needs to know that the way they're showing up in your relationship is not feeling good for you and that we need to do something a little bit differently, even if it's not intentional.
I love just your advice for this compassionate, authentic, vulnerable — and I think that's one of my big takeaways from the conversation. It's that you have to be that person, you have to be the brave one almost — is that it?
Lisa: In a relationship worth keeping.
Kathleen: I would say that's a really important takeaway from this conversation. If you want authentic, meaningful communication, you kind of have to create the space for that by doing that yourself, and being receiver of that, and being willing to receive that. Then, we can get the ball rolling in that direction in those safe relationships. Again, we're not robots, we can't flip a switch and say, “I'm not defensive anymore.”
Or for people whose partners have had ADHD, they're not always aware of it, and they don't, and they can still get defensive — and so, “I don't know what you're talking about. That's ridiculous.” But are they open to looking into it? Are they open to even just hearing how these behaviors affect you, and looking at what they've tried to do about that, and if it's worked or not? Are they open to getting some help?
Starting the process of having those scary conversations that are really, really rewarding in the end. When it's not someone who's safe or close, don't let yourself slip into the trap of trying to figure them out or argue with them, disengage as much as you can.
Lisa: That's really good advice. I love that idea. It's like if you want to have a different relationship, if you want to have an emotionally safe relationship and an authentic, vulnerable relationship, we can't tell the other person to stop being passive-aggressive. That's this moment when you need to show up in that really courageous way, and then that's the path of change.
One last question, then I'll let you go there. There was a comment that you made earlier in our conversation that I thought was so interesting which was that many times passive-aggressive, or people like we should say — people who are engaging in passive-aggressive communication or behaviors are not always aware of it. Just for fun, somebody listening to this podcast, how would they know if they themselves are actually showing up in this way, and having this impact on others?
Kathleen: That's a great question.
Am I Passive-Aggressive?
Lisa: That's a hard question. I'm just curious, if you were doing passive-aggressive things, and you didn't realize it, what would be your clues? How would you look at this?
Kathleen: It does kind of go back to our conversation that we had about people-pleasing — check in with your feelings, and be honest with yourself about your motivations when you communicate, “Am I actually feeling underneath this — sometimes frustration or power trip feeling? I might actually be feeling scared, or hurt, or jealous?”
Notice that those are emotions that you're experiencing, especially particularly around a certain person, “Am I feeling threatened around them, or insecure around them? Do they sort of push my insecurity buttons?” Are there…
Lisa: Or if I have to act certain ways around certain people even though I don't really want to. That would be a…
Kathleen: Am I different around certain people rather than others? Although I think sometimes when we learn to be passive-aggressive in order to communicate in relationships, it becomes sort of a habit. But I really honestly think slowing down — and I always go back to this — to being compassionately curious with yourself, “I am really annoyed by her. Gosh, you really get the EEG whatever. Gets on my nerves. Man, I really can't stand that — did you see with it?
Do you find yourself talking about them behind their back? Do you find yourself being disingenuous with them? Or really being irritated with them? Slow down and check in with yourself, “Okay, what am I needing? What is this situation bringing to my attention that I need to do for myself?”
Lisa: Resentment or even that narrative around, “She asked me to pick up the whatever at the store, but she wouldn't do that for me. Besides, she was mean to me yesterday, so I'm just not going to.” There's that narrative in your head up. But I think in summary — again, we recorded that beautiful conversation about people-pleasing behaviors.
Maybe, it’s if you really strongly identified with a lot of what we talked about and that people-pleasing episode, there is a chance, that unless you're working on that intentionally, you may be coming across as passive-aggressive to other people because even though you think you're hiding your anger or resentment, maybe you're actually not. Is that a fair way of saying?
Kathleen: I don't think people can successfully hide that too well. Well, I don't think they're really doing anything. They can’t do that for any significant length of time. If you're feeling that way, you're not addressing with assertiveness, with vulnerability, it's not going to go away. You're probably not hiding it as well as you think you are.
It's an opportunity to face some of your fears, and maybe as a reward, feel more seen and heard than you have before. That's the good news.
Lisa: I love it. But that's the message is that personal growth, working on yourself, developing healthy boundaries, creating congruence in your life, having healthy affirming relationships is really the path out of both situations. What a positive note to glide to a stop off.
This was such a fun conversation, Kathleen. Thank you so much. You just illuminated so many different aspects of this. I know that even myself talking with you today understood this in different ways because of our conversation. I'm sure that some of our listeners maybe have as well, and that they can use these new insights and put them to work in their life. Thank you for doing this with me.
Kathleen: Right, absolutely. Glad to be here. Thank you.
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