Seizing the Opportunity of the Great Resignation

Seizing the Opportunity of the Great Resignation

Seizing the Opportunity of the Great Resignation

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

Music in this episode is by Love, with the song “Red Telephone.” 

Seizing the Opportunity of the Great Resignation

If you’ve tuned into the news over the past year or so, I’m guessing you’ve heard about “The Great Resignation.” Here’s the gist of it, just in case: So many workers have left their jobs and forged new career paths over the course of the pandemic that employers in nearly every field are struggling to fill positions and keep their operations up and running. 

Among our career counseling and coaching clients, there are so many reasons for this, from difficulty finding child care, to burnout, to working conditions that feel unsafe. But for many, the pandemic has brought something else into focus: awareness about what’s actually important to them, what they want to be doing with their time, and how they really feel about their work. 

I believe this is an expression of post-traumatic growth, and it’s one of the few silver linings of the past two years. When we live through traumatic events, we tend to emerge with new clarity about what really matters, and we can use that insight to change our lives for the better. And your career is an excellent place to start — we spend an enormous chunk of our lives at work, and I hope that you’ll do everything you can to choose work that feels meaningful, rewarding, and worthwhile to you. 

If the pandemic has inspired you to consider a big career change, this episode of the podcast is for you. My guest is Dr. Lisa S., a past president of the National Career Development Association, former director of career services at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a career counselor and coach here at Growing Self. 

We’re talking about what the Great Resignation means for you, and how you can use this moment as a springboard for radical, positive career growth. I hope you’ll tune in, on this page, Spotify, Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen. 

All the best, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Seizing the Opportunity of the Great Resignation

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

Music in this episode is by Love, with the song “Red Telephone.” 

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Seizing the Opportunity of the Great Resignation: Episode Highlights

If the pandemic has you questioning whether you’d be happier in a different job, or on a different career path entirely, you may be an excellent candidate to join the Great Resignation — or benefit from it, whether or not you actually quit your job. 

Millions of American workers have left their jobs over the course of the pandemic, and this reshuffling of the workforce has created new opportunities for job seekers in many fields. If you’re considering a big career change, the Great Resignation may be your moment. 

What is the Great Resignation? 

Since the onset of the pandemic, an unprecedented number of workers have voluntarily left their jobs. Career experts call this phenomenon the Great Resignation, AKA the “Big Quit,” and say it signals a major shift in our attitudes toward work. 

One of the few silver linings of the pandemic may be this time to reflect on what’s most important to us, and how we’d really like to be spending our time. If you’re considering a career change amidst the Great Resignation, you’re in great company — and your timing is impeccable. 

Great Resignation Statistics

Nearly four million workers quit their jobs every month in 2021, the highest monthly average since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping records in 2000. The trend peaked in November with 4.5 million quits — a staggering three percent of the total American workforce. 

This produces a great climate for job seekers, who will find many open positions and many employers willing to make concessions on salary, location, and other conditions in order to attract workers. 

Reasons for the Great Resignation

Why are so many people quitting their jobs en masse? 

No one can say for sure what’s driving the Great Resignation. But many people have arrived in career counseling because, after a period of introspection during the pandemic, they’re starting to see their careers through a new lens — and to question whether they’re really content with their “life’s work” such as it is. There’s data to back up this observation too; a survey by Indeed found that 92 percent of Great Resigners say “Life is Too Short to Stay in a Job You’re Not Passionate About.” 

In the midst of a public health crisis, people are not only sacrificing their time for work, but also in many cases their safety, which calls into question whether or not the tradeoff is really worth it. If you’re not doing what you love, chances are it’s not. 

Seizing the Opportunity of the Great Resignation 

The news is full of headlines about workers leaving their jobs and employers struggling to fill positions. For any worker who’s not totally content where they are, this moment presents an opportunity to get unstuck and find something better. 

If you’re not paid what you should be, not happy with what you’re doing, or you’re feeling stuck in a toxic workplace, this could be the time to make your move. During a labor shortage, workers have the upper hand, and your chances of getting hired elsewhere are good. 

Finding Meaning Through Work

Many people have quit their jobs not just because of the pay or working conditions, but because they’ve realized their work isn’t really their passion. Ultimately, it’s hard to feel passionate about anything that’s not attached to any greater meaning for you. 

So, how can you find work that feels meaningful, if you’re currently in a career that feels pointless, uninteresting, or empty? Getting in touch with your core values is a great place to start. Maybe you value creativity, or service to others, or teamwork, and there’s a career out there that would allow you to live out those values more closely. Find out what you value, and you’ll find out what motivates you and ultimately what makes work feel meaningful. 

Making the Great Resignation Work for You

If you have goals for your career, it’s important to be proactive about them. Wandering from one job to another without a clear outcome in mind is unlikely to lead you where you’d like to go. 

The Great Resignation and the labor market it’s created is an opportunity to reflect on the current state of your career, reimagine what’s possible, and make a bold, strategic move that sets you up for a bright career future.  

Episode Show Notes:

[02:53] The Great Resignation of 2021

  • The pandemic has produced an overwhelming workforce turnover, with 4.5 million workers resigning from their jobs in November 2021 alone.
  • Many employees who left their jobs say they feel life is too short for work they aren’t passionate about.
  • With so many ways to earn income, people don’t need to settle for jobs they dislike.

[10:34] Developing Your Passion

  • A sense of mastery arises when you're good at what you do. This can be incredibly rewarding. 
  • The silver lining of the pandemic is that people have found time to reflect on their ideal pursuits. 

[31:37] Growth Opportunities in Leadership

  • Some employers choose to just reassign their employees instead of firing them.
  • Recurring self-doubt makes it hard to pursue your career goals. Counseling can help. 
  • If you desire positive outcomes in your career, you need to be proactive about seeking them out.

Music in this episode is by Love, with the song “Red Telephone.” 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: On this episode of the podcast, we are talking about the great resignation, and more importantly, what it means for you and how to use this moment as an opportunity to maybe reevaluate what you have been doing in your own career, and talk about where you might want to go next. To join me in this conversation, once again, I'm visiting with my colleague, Dr. Lisa S.. 

Dr. Lisa is an expert career counselor. She's a past president of the National Career Development Association and a past president of the Colorado Career Development Association. She was the Director of Career Services at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is the author of numerous book chapters on the subject of career counseling. Today, she's here to share her wisdom with you to understand what is going on in the world around us as it relates to career. 

I think both of our goals for today's conversation is for you to listen to this episode and hopefully leave it with some new ideas, and at least even new questions to be asking yourself to help you get clarity on what you really want to be doing with your career — and by extension, your life. Dr. Lisa, thank you so much for joining me again today.

Dr. Lisa S.: Oh, thank you. It's my pleasure.

Lisa Marie Bobby: Well, I really appreciate your time. I have to tell you, I got so much wonderful feedback from the last podcast that you and I recorded together a while ago on your thoughts about how to use narrative techniques to get clarity around starting a new chapter. That was just so helpful to many of my listeners, so thank you.

Lisa S.: Thank you. That was a lot of fun. I've heard from a lot of people as well. That's always wonderful to get that feedback.

Lisa Marie Bobby: Well, you have a lot of great wisdom to share. I invited you back, of course, to talk about today. As you know, there's so much in the news lately —- this idea about the great resignation they're calling it, which is people leaving their jobs in pursuit of we hope something better, something more meaningful. 

It's like a reshuffling of the deck. There are people leaving positions, but also a lot of people coming into new ones, just as an extension of that. First of all, as a career counselor, you're sitting with people day in and day out as they're sort of grappling with these big, “What do I do with my life?”, kinds of questions. What do you make of this?

Lisa S.: It's definitely been interesting. The word I use most often with clients is, “The job market’s just really weird right now.” I should probably come up with something much more wise.

The Great Resignation of 2021

Lisa Marie Bobby: But seriously, in all seriousness, you've been a career counselor for a long time. How is this weird or different than historically what you have experienced?

Lisa S.: Just as a marker if you will, I'm very curious to see what the total 2021 numbers are. They're not quite out yet from the Department of Labor. But in November, 4.5 million workers quit their job. A million of those were in leisure and hospitality — your quintessential customer service roles. That's 3% of the whole workforce in terms of turnover and why recruiters and other folks who hire going kind of nuts — 3% of the entire workforce. That's just amazing. Assuming that the trend continued into December, those are records.

Lisa Marie Bobby: I mean, forgive me. I'm so ignorant here. I don't even have a frame of reference. What's typical?

Lisa S.: That's a really good question.

Lisa Marie Bobby: I have to cite statistics… significantly more than —

Lisa S.: Absolutely. Unemployment tends to hang around 5—6%. Depending on where you are in the country, that may vary greatly. But 3% of the whole workforce turning over is just amazing. Yeah. I don't know if you're the same, but just anecdotally — walking around, or trying to order things online, or trying to go to your restaurant that's closed, or changed hours — nobody has the help that they need right now. It is an interesting piece. 

I think a huge part of that is reading a survey that Indeed did have the workers that take part in their social media/professional website with job seekers, and they did one back in March, and 92% of the respondents said the pandemic made them feel life is too short to stay in a job they weren't passionate about. To me, that was huge. Because oftentimes — I can remember when you were talking about sort of historically where does this fit. 

I remember back in 2005, 2006. I was working at the university at the time. That was when the recession hit. People were having a very difficult time finding jobs. The first thing that every article said was, “If you're unemployed, contact your alma mater.” Being at an alma mater, none of us were prepared for that. For the most part, we didn't work with alums. That was a huge shift in terms of helping people to find jobs. 

But it was nothing like this — which is not just about high-level of unemployment, or inflation, and those kinds of pieces to me. There's been a shift in terms of, “Not only am I going to give you my time, but I may be sacrificing my safety.” There may be other things that are going on, like childcare that's really hard. People have — I think, that part is really key in terms of, “I have to really want to do this, or I'm not going to”, which was, I think, very rare before and is becoming more and more common.

Lisa Marie Bobby: Well, that's one of my big takeaways from our last conversation is your observations about this trend towards empowerment that people do feel this greater sense of agency and choice. I think this idea that is really coming back into the collective consciousness that our careers are — I don't mean this in a hyperbolic way — truly are our life's work in many ways. I know some people have careers that are supporting other aspects of their life. 

They are actually just earning a paycheck so that they can do what is meaningful in other parts of their life. But I think for a lot of people, and I'm included in this, it is our life's work, and to find that meaning, and passion, and value in that. Do you feel like that is a newer thing in the sense that people almost have permission to do this in a way that they didn't before? Or is it because of that introspective period from the pandemic?

Lisa S.: It's very interesting. I think it's a combination, of course, of a lot of different things that are all happening concurrently. But I do think that underlying piece of — at this point, it has to be more. It has to be more than a paycheck, especially as people have become creative about how they do income, how they earn income, and those kind of pieces that they don't necessarily have to settle anymore. So, why are they going to? 

In our culture, especially, but I think it's true in a lot of places. Work is the way we connect with the world. We even talk about it as that “work-life balance: as if those are two very separate, very different things. The pandemic that sent everybody home, and the estimate is about half of us then worked from home, and about half of the careers out there are not careers you can do from home. That shifted. 

It would be very interesting to see how it's going to shift back if and when we return to some different — people say “return to normal”. I'm not sure normal is really the goal, but whatever — it looks like moving forward and to see what that looks like. Again, if we do have this sort of stronger mingling of home and work that the pandemic has brought about, what is that going to look like moving forward? How do we build in those things that we're passionate about and where that comes from? 

I mean, I think in terms of that — we got to a place and it seems like natural progression where we got to a place where work really consumed us and was kind of unbalanced in terms of the role it took in our life.

Lisa Marie Bobby: Glorified even in the culture, really.

Lisa S.: Then, when other things came up, people are worried about getting COVID, of course — especially before vaccines. But even now, that's not a universal thing that people do, so it stays with us. Childcare is nuts. I don't have kids. I know you do. That's a piece — it's crazy. When paying for childcare became more expensive than what you were able to earn, that was so crazy. Of course, then — that left, and that's still a challenge. 

I think that the competition for workers, as he said, “If you go to restaurants now, and you have to wait. There's open tables, but they don't have enough servers.” That people are leaving because people feel confident that they're going to be able to find something better now. It's all out there in the news. Everybody's leaving their jobs. Well, if I think my job is is pretty bad, I'm pretty sure I can find a better one. 

If you don't pay well, and you don't have good working conditions, people are out of there — which I see as a silver lining in terms of outcomes from this particular job market that it's equalizing salaries and working conditions, especially in low wage working opportunities. That's fabulous. I really hope that that sticks with us.

Developing Your Passion

Lisa Marie Bobby: That would be such a positive thing. But it's interesting what you were saying, too. It's like people are leaving. But I think for many people — who aren't in low-wage situations who are just seeking better opportunities. There are also a lot of people who are leaving jobs in search of meaning, in search of that passion. 

Can you say more in your experience? If somebody is listening to this and has been feeling their chosen career has been lacking in that meaning that passion — in your experience, where do people find meaning in their work, passion in their work? What is it about work? 

I guess, what I'm asking is — is it certain kinds of jobs, or careers, or industries that are more meaningful than others? Or, is it sometimes mindset that helps create meaning in the work that you do? Where does that sense of meaning come from in your experience?

Lisa S.: It's a great question. I would say in terms of the clients that I've worked with, some have had that experience of having a job. It's interesting because oftentimes, as early on in their career, and it wasn't a particularly prestigious position, or a big title, or a huge paycheck — but they have that sense of flow. When you're in a job, and you're kind of moving between tasks, and you feel that sense of expertness, “I actually know what I'm doing. I can do this.” 

That passion, then, comes from that. Or, they're working for a particular cause that they're passionate about. I always think of that with me. I feel so lucky to be able to do this work because I love hearing people's stories. If I can be helpful in some way in that time, it just feels so good. You're completely in that flow. If a client has had that experience, then we can kind of unpack all that and figure out where it came from.

If you're not experiencing that now, why? What's happened in the meantime? Life kind of happens — there's career trauma, and there's great supervisors, and there's bad supervisors. Sometimes, you can promote yourself right out of being happy and dying yourself in a position where you're a little bit trapped. The money's good, the title’s good, the prestige is good — yet, you're not doing the things that you really enjoy doing. 

That's one set is to sort of recreate the environment in which that happen. For some people, they've never felt that. Work has always been a struggle. They've never felt that kind of passion. I think of it kind of as a blank slate. “Let's go back to the beginning. If it hasn't been worked, find other examples of when you've had that experience in your life and what you can bring forward.” 

I do think that this wacky time period in our collective history of the pandemic has, as you said, given people permission to say, “You know what? I don't like this at all.” Whether it's a refocus on, “I want to bring something to the world. I want it to be meaningful — the work that I've done instead of just moving things from one side to another. I really want to build something.” Whatever the case may be. 

I do think that it's been a time of great reflection, and people have really thought about, “Alright, I'm giving this my time, and potentially my health exposure and my family, and all of those pieces — it's got to be worth it.” Again, I feel like that's kind of a silver lining of the time period because people are — they're stressed up to here. If there's something that they can do to make a change, to really bleed into all of those other pieces of their life — that they're taking the time to do that. I think it's a wonderful — again, weird outcome of this time period.

Lisa Marie Bobby: Weird, but maybe understandable. As we're talking, I'm thinking right now this idea of post-traumatic growth. I don't know if you're familiar with that — that might be more of a psychology term than a career term. But this thing that we see oftentimes is — we think of post-traumatic trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, that something bad happens or scary happens, and that there's this, “Never the same!” 

Actually, the moral of the truth is that when people do live through really hard, awful things, there's often a lot of like growth and personal reflection, like making contact with core values and sort of a reset of priorities that on the other side of those traumatic life experiences. There's an enormous amount of growth and positive change that sometimes never would have happened had that person not gone through that.

I was just sort of thinking the same thing like that kind of collective trauma, especially when it was really intense like shutdowns, people are looking at this existential like, “Am I going to die if I leave the house without a mask on?” Like that whole thing — and just how reflective that makes you. The connection that I'm hearing you say too — that meaning and happiness in work, that sometimes it can come from mastery, feeling just really good like you're surfing on top of the wave and know exactly what to do in that flow experience. 

But that the other piece of meaning that you talked about was very much attached to that, like core personal value. For you, you were saying, “It's around that helping value.” For others, that might be the building value. I've talked to so many creative people — and for many of them, it's just the opportunity to create things, to have had ideas and sort of actualized them, that the act of creation is very meaningful. 

That's what I'm hearing you say is that to either figure out what that is based on your historical experiences — or if it is a blank slate, try to find that basic value, that pillar of meaning. Then, you can start to design a career around what would allow you to be helpful — what would allow you to build something; what would allow you to create. Is that what I'm hearing you say? 

Lisa S.: Absolutely. That's why to me, the narrative work fits so well because it is designed around identifying what those themes are. I think this time period, in addition to the fact that people just did have more time on their hands because we weren't supposed to do things, especially in big groups and those types of things. But also, again, that that sense of reflection, I really do think that that sort of theme around — we all now feel like life is short. 

Before, we kind of had become somewhat complacent about what that looks like, “I really don't like my job. I'm playing the lottery most weeks. So, I'm trying to find something new. But it's fine, it pays the bills.” We kind of do get stuck in that. This whole period of time has been a major shake-up of those kinds of things, like, “Do I even like what I'm doing anymore? Do I like the people that I work with? Am I feeling positive?” 

I think about is that most jobs are stressful, but it isn't the type of stress that you actually want to engage in and find a challenge, and is sort of thrilling stress versus the, “I don't want to get up this morning. I feel a little nauseous Sunday nights because I don't want to go to work on Monday.” If it's given us permission in a way to kind of step back and say, again, “Life is short. I want to enjoy what it is that I'm doing.” 

For a lot of people, that's been retirement, which has been sort of interesting too like, “I want to do it on my own terms. I'm not so sure I can do it through work, I'll do it through volunteering or when we are allowed to, again, traveling.” Those types of pieces., “To me, it's not worth it anymore. If my plan was to retire in 10 years — hey, maybe I do that now.” 

I think it's not only the great resignation — not only people moving from job to job, but I think there are some that are like, “You know what? I think I'm good. I'm out.” So that's been interesting too.

Lisa Marie Bobby: That is interesting that it isn't always people leaving one situation and moving into another, but really just sort of questioning the idea of working for compensation entirely — that I'm going to expend my energy doing things just because I want to do them.

Lisa S.: Absolutely. I think that's been some changes well, which is a little bit different. We haven't quite touched on it yet. But there are certainly patterns in terms of where people are leaving as well. I mean, I mentioned leisure and hospitality — certainly, the customer service angle. For some people, there are a lot of really kind-hearted and generous people out there who started tipping three times as much as they had before and really recognize.  

There are other people who have taken their own personal stress out on other people. I think in leisure and hospitality, that's been a big piece. But also, obviously, with people traveling less frequently, and those types of issues — there's also been downsizing in those fields as well. But some of the other ones like health care and teaching, I really can’t. 

I have a number of teachers that I'm working with right now. Their lives have just been nuts over the last few years — totally changing the way that they teach from in-person to online, managing what that looks like, seeing directly into kids’ homes and what that looks like… Just the level of change, and again, putting their own health and safety at risk. That piece that used to be a great sense of accomplishment for them and sense of purpose and meaning, and now is just the frustration has overwhelmed all of that. 

I think, again, in health care and teaching, and then hospitality and customer service, there are also folks that are like, “I've done what I can do, but I can't take it anymore and I'm ready to move on to whatever is next.” It's been interesting to hear people's stories talk about your career trauma. For a lot of people, that's been really difficult. 

Leadership Systems at Work

Lisa Marie Bobby: Because that was something, in the last podcast, that we sort of touched on and didn't really have time to fully explore. But that the idea of career trauma is so real. I think it doesn't get enough acknowledgment or like airtime just in the general zeitgeist. But like, when you were just talking about people in the health care professions or educators — there's the work itself, but they're also, in some ways, battling these very large systems that are in place around — 

Certainly, public education or large hospital systems. I'm curious to know, when you talk to people who are really coming out of positions or careers that were traumatizing for them, is that sort of a pattern in what you see? Are there big systems? Or, is it more really toxic relationships with leaders or supervisors? What have you noticed with that over the years?

Lisa S.: That's a great question. I think the answer is both. I mean, certainly, absolutely — now, you can hear the systemic pieces. I’ve talked to people who actually are on the East Coast, so they're in a position where they can work in, say three different states, depending on where they live. They'll change because of the leadership in that state. They'll look for a job in another because the system is so different. 

The Department of Education, even just the governor's office looks really different from everything — from mask mandates to vaccines, and everything else. The systemic stuff, absolutely, is a problem for folks, and how that looks like, what it looks like, how it plays out. It’s very interesting. There's also, as you mentioned, the relationship piece. 

I hear all the time people are being basically bullied at work by supervisors and peers. There's a power dynamic there as there is in systems too, of course. But individually, a power dynamic where something's going on, and there can be a bazillion underlying reasons: bosses who feel threatened, bosses who really are incompetent, they take that out on their supervisees — there's a lot — and just people who are naturally bullies. 

There's still not a whole lot people can do about it. There are more and more systems put in place for sexual harassment, which is great. Still, I think not necessarily all that helpful. If you're in a bad situation where you're going to work every day and somebody, usually not literally, is beating you down, that's something you need to get out of. Absolutely, there are parallels with relationship work — friendships, families, partners, like all of the above. Sometimes, there's some things that you can try to help it be better. But oftentimes, it's just leaving. 

You can get HR involved in those sorts of things, but oftentimes that ends up making a situation — maybe it helps improve the system a little bit. We'll cross our fingers and hope that's true. But this situation by then is so uncomfortable that really the only way you can handle it is to move to something better. It's balancing that out. I always kind of tread lightly in terms of that because I want to help someone fight the fight if that's what they want to do. 

Absolutely, how can I support you in doing that? Also support people who are like, “I just got to get out of here.” Fine. Let's do that. Sometimes, that's parallel work. But I think if you've got someone with a little bit of work experience and ask them about, “What has been your best situation at work? What has been the worst?” Everybody has horror stories about people they've worked with, or systems they've worked in — exactly, as you said, supervisors that have been terrible — everybody has stories. 

Just like as in any other kind of trauma, how do you integrate that into your story moving forward is so important. Does that become energy for moving forward? Does it make you a better supervisor because you now know what not to do in terms of your own clients? How can you build on that and integrate it in so that it's not dragging on you moving forward, but becomes part of your growth? 

Exactly, as you said — it's an interesting challenge, but most people, I think, get excited about that idea, “Hold on, this doesn't necessarily just need to be baggage I carry with me for the rest of my life — but I can find a place for it, learn from it if I can, and then move on without it.” I think ultimately, that's the goal. But certainly, yeah… 

Just reading the news about stories over the last few years. Again, you can read great stories about the wonderful things that happened, and just awful stories, especially in healthcare and teaching, and customer service, and all kinds of areas.

Lisa Marie Bobby: Well, let me ask you this, though. Because I don't specialize in career work the same way that you do because I think careers are such a large part of everybody's life. I do often, when I'm working with my private clients — we do talk about, sometimes, the things that they're experiencing in their jobs. 

Oftentimes, it is, “I like what I'm doing but there's the supervisor who has unreasonable expectations.” Or, like you say, beating people down — a lot of negativity, even like aggression, not physical aggression, but like that sort of emotional aggression. It can be hard to change jobs. It's not an easy thing to do. Sometimes, it's not as black and white. People might have other reasons for wanting to stay and work it out like go into a relationship. 

I guess, I'm curious to know — have you ever seen it get better for people who are in a situation where they have an aggressive, weirdo supervisor, and they have been able to either do something or have a courageous conversation or affect positive change so that it gets better? Or, are you always with people like, “Just pull the ripcord. Just get out of there.”? What do you say to that?

Lisa S.: Just to be real. It is rare if you have that situation. It's rare. I think people stick around for a number of different reasons. Again, not unlike many relationships. One, you can look at somebody's history, especially within a company, and it could be they'll move along. Sometimes, people stay because they're sort of waiting it out, especially if it's a supervisor who's kind of bounced around to different areas. That is a strategy that people have to kind of wait. 

Lisa Marie Bobby: Last man standing. 

Lisa S.: Some of that, again, is values-based because I think a lot of people are incredibly dedicated to their jobs, their clients, their co-workers, the actual content of the work that's being done. I think there's the sense — and I totally get this of, “I don't want to let all those people down because of this jackass.” But at the same time, I do think that it's worth having a conversation because generally, it doesn't really make it worse of just sharing with a supervisor — and I've practiced this with clients quite a bit of how to have that conversation. 

Like not from a place of, “You need to change. But I can tell you, I will be more productive and would thrive if we could talk about this.” Or, “If you could share feedback this way.” Or, whatever the conduct is to kind of take it into a place. For example, someone who calls you out in a meeting for something that you've done, and chastises you in public in front of other people and those kinds of things. To be able to talk about that — I've had experienced that in the past, and I can tell you, it is not helpful. 

Having that conversation and sort of thinking about it. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it works for a period of time, and then oftentimes goes back. But then you can remind people, if it's a small organization, and someone knows the supervisor’s supervisor, or there's actually a process in HR for making a complaint, that is a strategy as well. At least it goes on the record so that if you do end up leaving but three co-workers down the line, HR finally sees a pattern. 

That may be helpful. But generally, it makes the person more angry because they feel like you've gone around behind their back. I do think the best strategy is to go but to somehow provide that feedback at some point, even if it's in an exit interview of, “I love everything about this organization or this company, but I'm leaving because of this person.”

Lisa Marie Bobby: Kevin.

Lisa S.: Exactly. I know people don't like to burn bridges, and all of those kinds of pieces. But again, patterns are important. If nobody's saying anything, it could be everybody's having the same experience with Kevin, but nobody's saying anything. That's kind of a problem too.

Growth Opportunities in Leadership

Lisa Marie Bobby: Well, and a growth opportunity because I think too — many, many people in leadership positions are very focused on the work itself and pressure that is coming maybe from higher-ups on them. In my experience, they do not have a ton of awareness about how they are making other people feel. 

I think that's why, especially in our practice here on Growing Self over the years, we've started doing so much emotional intelligence coaching for leaders and managers because people — Kevin — shows up and is like, “I've had four people leave, and they're telling this is the feedback, and I don't even know what they're talking about. So can you help me with this?” 

Says like, “Yes!” Then, we can kind of dig it, and it turns into a very positive growth experience. Maybe, not for the people who leave, but the people who come after because I think a lot of leaders and managers do really have personal growth work to do. They don't unless somebody says something, they really, legitimately do not know that it's about them.

Lisa S.: I absolutely agree because I think that's huge. I mean, obviously, some people are just jerks, and they've gotten — whether their contact… Maybe they’re content experts — I don't know. But they continue. The other thing is that, unfortunately, there's this weird thing, as you're talking about systems, where one way to get rid of someone without firing them is to promote them or move them to another place… 

Lisa Marie Bobby: I never thought about that. 

Lisa S.: Oh, my goodness! It's definitely — it's an issue. I can solve my own problem by moving Kevin elsewhere. But he gets promoted, and now he's supervising other people. It looks like he's phenomenal because he's had all these promotional opportunities when really, it's just people trying to get rid of him. 

I think that happens in systems all the time — like kind of wary about this, “Are you that good? Or, are you getting shuffled?” So that is an interesting thing. Again, there's nothing that a subordinate can do about that. It's got to come from the system, or from that person recognizing, or somebody’s supervisor recognizing that they really need to do some work.

I agree. I think not everybody, of course. But most people are open to that in terms of that work because sometimes they're given feedback in they go, “What? What do you mean bully? I’m not a bully.” Let me align your behavior. It's an interesting process, but it's just so hard to be in that position where that's happening to you. There's not a whole lot you can do to make this situation better. You really just need to take what amazing things that you have to offer and find someone who can appreciate them.

Lisa Marie Bobby: Well, I agree with you. Maybe, you could speak to this piece of this. I think it takes a fair amount of confidence and connection with your own self worth to say, ”I am going to take all my gifts and things that I've learned, and take this to somebody who will appreciate me.” Because in my experience sometimes, especially for people who tend to struggle a little bit with depression or anxiety anyway, will — just like being in a toxic romantic relationship or with a parent or a friend. 

When they do live through a toxic occupational relationship with Kevin, they come out the other side feeling like they've done something wrong, or, “If I were better, if I was more talented, if I were a better communicator, I could have made it work with Kevin.” It damages their self-esteem. It makes them doubt themselves. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Lisa S.: Absolutely. That's why I like the coaching mode so much because when people think about career stuff, they think about sort of strategy, and job titles, and resumes, and interviewing, and all of those kind of concrete pieces. But so many people that I work for, I look at their credentials and think, “Oh, my God. This is fantastic. You have such a unique set of skills.” And what people see instead is, “Okay, but I don't match the criteria that somebody is posted as preferred qualifications.” I think that's because they don't know that you're out there. 

There's so many pieces that are about that. But when you add in — so I do focus a lot on self-esteem and getting rid of the recurring messages of self-doubt, not, “I'll never get this job. I'm not good enough.” Absolutely, you never apply, you're never going to get that job. You're right. That's the way that it works. 

But I do think that tie up the anxiety and depression that I’m really unpacking a little bit — how much of that is tied to the current work situation, versus I struggle with that in every aspect of my life, and this is how it's showing up at work. Those things are really difficult to untie, but it's so important to focus on because if you're having that horrible, toxic environment at work, you're going to bring that home. 

Again, right now, half the people are working from home, so you're in it — in your own house, and it's impacting your other relationships, your relationships with your kids, all of that. Who has energy when they're having all of their energy sucked by a work situation? Figuring out kind of where all of those pieces come from, and how to best address it: 

“Is it really situational and contextual, and being caused by this work problem? Or, is it something underlying that I need really some help in working through more consistently because it's showing up everywhere? It’s showing up at work, and showing up at home, and it's really become, for me, kind of a systemic thing that I really then need to go a little bit deeper, and figure out kind of the core of those, and hopefully — high tide raises all boats — all of those situations then get a little bit better.

Lisa Marie Bobby: I hear what you're saying. It sounds like it's kind of a chicken and an egg thing that there are some situations… Like if you're in a toxic relationship with your boss, Kevin, and it is making you feel bad, it is making you feel bad about yourself, it's making you question yourself — you're saying that one strategy is to kind of look at the context, and that can be a way to recenter yourself if you're able to say: 

“Actually, it's really specific to this relationship. I didn't feel this way about myself until I started working here, and being able to identify the source of that is a way to understand these feelings are coming from these external circumstances.” 

Maybe, not a sweeping statement about your self-worth. That could be one point of strength. But then the other thing that I'm hearing you say is that if there are predispositions to things like anxiety and depression — and then I think this is probably we're saying out loud because I think that maybe many people don't really understand that the way that we feel changes the way that we think and the way that we perceive things — because I think that it's very easy for we humans to sort of make a causal, “Well, this thing happened, therefore I feel bad.” Whereas what's true in depression and anxiety — you feel down or you feel scared, and therefore, you find reasons to support that feeling. It's kind of like that internal versus external piece — what you're saying, Dr. Lisa is that if it's more like a global thing, and you feel this way in many areas of your life, that would be an indication that maybe it is actually depression or anxiety. Instead of trying to jump out of a job or break up with your boss or something, maybe the more valuable work would be to manage those feelings, and then see how you feel about your job once you're in a better place overall.

Lisa S.: Sometimes that healing process is impossible in a current situation. Then, it's a matter of resources. 

Lisa Marie Bobby: What do you mean? 

Lisa S.: I'm thinking, if you're in a really toxic work environment, even if it is a more global struggles with anxiety and depression that you're dealing with, you still may need to get out if it's a kind of an emergency situation like, “It's pulling me down to the point where I may be thinking about hurting myself.” Or, any of those kinds of pieces. You have to figure out the resources that you need to actually just leave as you would in a toxic — in any kind of toxic relationship. 

I often ask people — when just in the course of conversation, somebody says something that's fairly negative about themselves, or their credentials for a job, or any of that kind of piece. I asked people, “Alright, whose voice was that?” Because whatever that statement was, “I'm not good enough”, “I can't do my job” — like those kinds of pieces. Oftentimes, it is the boss, “Well, Kevin tells me that every day.” Kevin — set up camp in there. 

Part of that, as you said, that sense of empowerment is you need to stop listening to Kevin. It's been long enough. Who knows where those voices come from? If you've been in job searches before, there's a whole lot of rejection that goes along with that, right? Everybody's talking about how great the job market is right now, how people are desperate for employees, but you could still send out hundreds of applications and never hear a thing, or a lot of rejection. You just have to kind of power through some of those things. 

But thinking about certain messages that now you've internalized of how to shut those off. They could be your fifth-grade English teacher who told you you couldn't write, or — those voices come from so many places. Unfortunately, not all of them are positive. Interrupting that pattern can be really helpful. That self-doubt, “Oh, no. They're not going to want me.” “Wait a second. Whose voice is that? Is it yours? Is it your depression? Your anxiety working against you? 

If you want positive things to happen, you need to be proactive about them. But you also need to think about — you just reinforced that message. It was planted by somebody else, but you're now repeating it. How can we interrupt that process? It’s a huge part of the job search process. I find that a lot of people who make an appointment with me, and they don't really know what they want to do. 

But when you start having a conversation, they know exactly what they want to do, but they don't have the confidence or the logistical understanding, or there’s some obstacle that’s standing in their way. That's kind of an interesting process like, “Hmm, sounds like you kind of do.” The question is, “How to make it happen?” Let's go from there. That can be really fun too. But how many of us are our own worst enemies when it comes to those sorts of thoughts? It's kind of amazing. 

Lisa Marie Bobby: That's the hard part, isn't it? 

Lisa S.: When I was working as a recruiter, my favorite question to ask people is — if it's somebody who has various workers, “What would your last supervisor say about you?” Because it has people to sort of put their own like, “I'm not supposed to talk about myself”, and really think from a lens of other people. It's sad that somehow we can advocate better for ourselves in the third person. 

But it was a question that kind of got at that for people. People, “Oh, they can rely on me. I'm always on time.” And all those things. If you were to say that right off the bat, it would feel uncomfortable. But when I'm thinking about, “What would Anne say about me?” Somehow, that's an easier question. Working through some of those pieces to help people be strong advocates for themselves the way they would with anybody else, and do that for themselves. It's amazing to me how hard that is.

Lisa Marie Bobby: What a wonderful idea, though. Just an easy, almost a hack to build up your confidence around, especially career stuff, especially if you have been feeling a little low lately, “What would Anne say about you?” Just to kind of reconnect with that because, yes — so many opportunities right now for people because of the great resignation and all the spaces it’s opened up. 

But I think my main takeaway from our conversation is that that also requires, not just clarity about what you want, what is meaningful for you, but also that confidence piece — that there are other opportunities for you, and you are worth it.

Lisa S.: Absolutely. That worth and deserving. It's interesting to kind of unpack what those obstacles are, and some of them are new like, “Okay, I haven't gotten out of my yoga pants in three weeks. How am I going to get in my suit for an interview?” Those types of pieces are just funny and really particular to the pandemic? But I did — I had a client that talked to me after one of their interviews, and they said, “At first, it was really awkward and hard. Then, all of a sudden, it was kind of like, ‘Hey, I do know what I'm talking about. I am good at this.’” 

How do we get that sense back into people, especially if they've had a lot of shuffling around in the last couple of years or have been fairly disconnected because of unemployment, or work structure and what that looks like, and the interviewing process is such a social process of how to get people kind of up and ready for that again. 

Embracing that piece of, “They're lucky to have me. I hope this interview goes well because I can really make a difference for that organization.” We want everybody going into their interviews and life in general — but specifically interviews with that sense of, “I have something to offer, and we'll see who gets to take advantage of that.”

Lisa Marie Bobby: Yes. What a beautiful idea for us to end on. They're lucky to have you. You could do so much for them who is going to win the prize of getting to work with you. 

Lisa S.: Absolutely, that's the goal.

Lisa Marie Bobby: What an inspiring conversation, Dr. Lisa. Thank you so much for doing this with me. This was wonderful.

Lisa S.: My pleasure, always. Thank you.

Healing Relationships

Healing Relationships

Healing Relationships

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

Healing Relationships

A healing relationship is one that helps us regain our sense of value, autonomy, safety, and respect — our birthright as human beings. After bad experiences that may have seemed to call these basic truths into question, healing relationships can affirm these truths to us, building our self-esteem, confidence, and sense of security in the process.  

Let’s try a little thought experiment — think back to a time when you made a truly regrettable mistake. When you were filled with regret and would have given anything to hop into a time machine, blast off to the past and undo what you’d done.

You probably felt pretty bad about yourself at the time. Was there someone you turned to, who listened with compassion and understanding? Maybe they helped you remember that, despite your mistake, you were still a human being worthy of love and respect, even at a moment when you didn’t feel like it. 

I hope so. And if you have had an experience like this, you’ve been touched by a healing relationship, an important topic we’ll be exploring on today’s episode of the podcast. 

My guest is Paige M., a marriage and family therapist and coach here at Growing Self. Paige is an expert on healing relationships, and she has some fascinating insight into these nurturing connections and the positive impact they can have on your life. 

Healing relationships are so important to all of us. In fact, they’re the key component of effective therapy. So learning to cultivate healing relationships in your own life is incredibly worthwhile. This conversation will help you recognize a healing relationship when you find one, and embrace the experiences that will allow you to grow into a happier, healthier version of yourself

Join me here, on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Healing Relationships

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

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Healing Relationships: Episode Show Notes

What Is a “Healing Relationship?”

The safe, therapeutic relationship between counselor and client is the foundation of all effective therapy. But other important relationships in our lives — with partners, friends, family, even coworkers — can also be incredibly beneficial to our mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Maybe you’ve experienced this. You may have been cheated on by an ex, but the next person you dated showed you it was safe to trust again. Or maybe you had a teacher who humiliated you when you gave the wrong answer, but other teachers were kind to you, even when you were wrong. 

These are the kinds of corrective experiences that take place within “healing relationships,” and they are so important for anyone who has experienced relational trauma (which is to say, everyone!). 

When we have new experiences with safe people who treat us with empathy and respect, we offer our brains “counter-evidence” against old narratives about who we are and what we deserve, helping us regain our feelings of safety, security, confidence, and trust in our connections with other people. 

Can You Heal While In a Relationship? 

You may have heard that it’s best to get over any past relationships before moving into a new one. This isn’t bad advice — getting back to your feelings of wholeness and happiness as a single person can be an important part of breakup recovery. But in reality, many relational wounds stick with us, even after we’re feeling “over” the relationship in question. 

If you’ve been betrayed in the past, it’s totally normal to have trust issues in new relationships, even if your current partner has been nothing but trustworthy. If you’ve experienced a traumatic abandonment, you may be anxious about being left again, and that anxiety might show up as controlling behaviors toward new partners.

When you’re in a healing relationship with a safe, trustworthy person, you can begin to notice these feelings, and then attend to the old wounds triggering them in the present with self-compassion. By being mindful of your feelings and where they’re coming from, you can avoid acting out, and instead have conversations with your partner that help you both understand each other better

How to Heal from Relationship Trauma

As young children, we’re completely dependent on our caregivers to meet our physical and emotional needs. If we don’t get the care, love, and support we need at this vulnerable stage of our lives, it has a profound impact on how we see ourselves, and how safe and secure we feel in the world. 

Children who suffer neglect or abuse can carry the residue of relational trauma well into adulthood. They can develop issues like chronic stress, difficulty regulating their emotions, or difficulty making contact with their emotions at all. 

These are remnants of the survival mechanisms that protected your psyche as a little kid, but as an adult, they can keep you from being open and present in relationships. Learning about these survival mechanisms usually isn’t enough to shift them, but gathering new experiences that help you feel autonomous, safe, respected, and loved by others can be. 

Experiencing healing relationships can help you begin to let go of some of those defenses and become more vulnerable, open, and secure. 

Healing Relationships: When It’s Time for Therapy

Healing relationships are a beautiful thing, but we can get into trouble when we start to believe the power of our love is enough to heal another person. It’s a seductive idea that comes from a good place, but it won’t lead to the healthy relationship you want and deserve. 

If your partner has a problem, like an addiction or severe trauma, the healing relationship they really need is with a professional, who can guide them through a structured, evidence-based healing process. If you decide it’s your responsibility to help them heal, that relationship dynamic can easily veer into codependence, which isn’t healthy for either of you. 

When someone you love has lingering relational trauma, you can be a loving pillar of support, but you can’t take charge of their healing. 

Building Healing Relationships

Compassionate, emotionally-safe relationships can teach us it’s safe to trust other people, be our true selves, and be open to deep, meaningful connections. 

When you build healing relationships with others, you’re not only getting companionship. You’re laying down new connections in your brain, and helping yourself become the authentically happy and healthy person you were born to be.

Healing Relationships: Episode Highlights

[01:20] Healing Relationship

  • Paige leveraged “healing relationships” through her own work with trauma survivors.
  • In therapy, predictability and structure are essential to creating a safe space for clients who are going through trauma.
  • Reciprocity of love and support are crucial in healing relationships. 

[12:03] Adverse Childhood Experiences

  • When adults are incapable of addressing their child’s emotions, they would manifest them in an uncontrollable manner.
  • In some cases, the traumatic experiences of children lead them to pushing people away to protect themselves.

[18:03] Healing From a Traumatic Relationship

  • Individual therapy is beneficial for clients who have experienced numerous traumatic events. 
  • A healing relationship is egalitarian; both sides need to be accountable to one another.

[25:14] Attachment Styles vs. Relational Trauma

  • There's an overlap between attachment styles and relational trauma.
  • The types of attachment styles are secure attachment, anxious attachment, and avoidant attachment.
  • For people with relational trauma, their style of attachment can be disorganized.

[35:29] Addressing Trauma in a Relationship

  • Externalize the trauma.
  • Have an open and honest conversation about your traumatic experiences.
  • Reflect and validate the harm that was done.

Music in this episode is by Oliver Riz, with the song “Healing Love.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: Oliver Riz. 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: Conventional wisdom says that we need to love ourselves first and that you should be over any past relationships before starting a new one. But the reality is that healing our emotional wounds isn't something that happens all at once. A lot of times, our wounds occur through our relationships, and they are healed through relationships. 

To help us unpack all of those big ideas, I have invited my colleague, Paige McAllister, to speak with us today. Paige is a Marriage and Family Therapist on the team here at Growing Self. She's also a doctoral candidate in Marriage and Family Therapy. She has a background in so many relevant things. She has expertise in sexuality, in interpersonal violence, in trauma, and she has done so much wonderful healing work both with individuals and couples on the path to healing on every level. 

I am so excited to invite her into the conversation today to share her expertise with you. Thank you soon-to-be Dr. Paige for joining us today.

Paige: Thank you. Thanks for having me. 

[01:20] What is a Healing Relationship?

Lisa: Do you get a little thrill when people call you Dr. Paige? Hard-earned. We were just chatting a little bit before we started this interview that you are in the final stages of the dissertation process, and talking about how amazing it's going to feel to be on the other side of that. Congratulations in advance. That's a big achievement. 

You, in addition to that, have so much experience in helping people, particularly in healing from trauma. Just to kind of catch our listeners up a little bit here — one of the things that we do in our practice here at Growing Self that I love so much is that we have different kinds of community events in our group where we'll talk as a group about different topics. Some of it is personal growth in nature, but some of it is professional growth in nature. 

You hosted a group the other day that I was so privileged to be in attendance of. You were talking about healing relationships and the significance of them in our work. I just left that group wanting to know more. Maybe, we can just start there. I mean, healing relationships — what do you think of when you think about healing relationships?

Paige: Well, I came to this idea through my own work with trauma — survivors of trauma, and thinking about what kind of relationship did we need to have in the room in order for them to heal. 

Lisa: Between you and your client?

Paige: Between me and my client. I was thinking like, “Well, if trauma is violent, and it violates boundaries, and it's unpredictable, and people don't take accountability for the harm that they've done, then in therapy, we need to have some predictability and some structure. I need to acknowledge that I can do harm.” 

Then, I think it just naturally flowed out of that to think about — I talk with my clients about those kinds of relationships that they have with other people in their lives. We're doing a very specific type of healing work as a therapist and a client. But they were doing lots of that healing work on their own outside of session. 

When I think of relationships for healing, I think of egalitarian relationships — mostly just the opposite of trauma, not the absence of harm. But more than that, the presence of support, and trust, and safety, and consistency, and place where people say they're sorry and mean it when they've done something that's caused harm.

Lisa: I love what you just said. I honestly hadn't thought about it in that way that it's not just the absence of trauma. A good relationship is not the absence of things that lead to a bad relationship that you're saying that they're actually very specific, positive qualities that a healing relationship has, and you can create that kind of relationship with a good therapist. 

But that you can also have those kinds of healing qualities in a relationship with a partner or friends, families, loved ones. Can you say a little bit about why it is so important for people who have lived through hard things to have healing relationships with others?

Paige: It's important: a) because we are social creatures, and we all need people around us. We all deserve to have positive fulfilling relationships. I think it's especially important for people who have had damaging or traumatic relationships to have them for their healing, but also because they deserve them because as humans, we deserve that. 

Also, in good healing relationships, they're not just one way; they're reciprocal. It's not just that I'm supported and loved, but I get to support and love others. I think we all need those experiences as well. 

Lisa: It gives us an opportunity to see ourselves showing up in positive ways in relationships. That can be very healing as well.

Paige: The number one thing I work on with survivors of trauma is helping to reestablish autonomy because trauma takes so much away from us. When we're living with traumatic responses, our behaviors, our emotional reactions often feel so out of our control. We're not really choosing how we're responding to the situation, we're just going into survival mode and doing what we feel like we have to do. 

Healing relationships can be a place for people who have been any kind of trauma, but especially trauma that happens within relationships — to be able to show up the way they want to, and to determine how that relationship is going to go, and have some autonomy there which I think supports overall healing when trauma feels like it takes so much away from us that in healing relationships, I do have control, I do get a say — which I think is really critical to healing overall to feel autonomous.

Lisa: You're bringing up so many important points here. I think maybe for the benefit of our listeners, I think when therapists use the word “trauma”, we're often thinking of different things — just a bad experience. Also, there are different kinds of trauma. There are traumas where your physical safety is threatened, or you are hurt, or you're witnessing something horrible happening to other people. 

There is also such a thing as relational trauma which is a very real trauma, but I feel like we don't talk about that kind of trauma as much. Can you take us just into that? I know we've tried to talk about on past podcasts around trust issues, healthy relationships — but I don't know that we've really unpacked relational trauma on the show before. Can you say more about that? No pressure.

Paige: It is. In general, I use a really expanded definition of relational trauma because I think it's most helpful. But relational traumas are things that happen in the context of relationships that threaten our relational safety — just like violence or natural disasters can threaten our physical safety. I find with my clients often, those are the traumas that are harder to identify for them. But they're like, “Well, my parents are my caregivers. They didn't hit me. They fed me, and they provided a roof over my head. I shouldn't be upset about the other things that happened.” 

But then, they told me these stories about emotional neglect — that people didn't take care of their emotions, didn't help them navigate their own emotions, that when they, as children, had really big emotions, parents and caregivers tried to shut that down either because they were uncomfortable, or they didn't know what to do, but they were overwhelmed. 

Or they were told that they were being dramatic or childish — but they were a child. Of course, there was — they're just expressing normal emotions. The way people responded were really critical or negative, but they just ignored them. I think that's harder — I think those are the kinds of traumas that are harder to recognize but fit within like a relationship.

Lisa: And hard to validate. Because just as you're talking, I'm sitting here thinking that we really, I think, don't do enough in our culture to talk about the very real attachment needs that we have, particularly as children. They're very much tied into survival drives. I mean, there are fundamental needs to feel safe, and respected, and understood by the people around you on an emotional level like security. When that is threatened or damaged, it is quite damaging to people. But we don't talk about that reality. I think that people struggle to legitimize their own feelings when that's coming up for them. Is that — ?

Paige: Also because when we're children — when I'm eight, nine, ten, I can't just go off.

Lisa: This isn't a fundamental attachment need right now, mom! Exactly. 

Paige: Because I need my parents both to take care of me emotionally and to provide for me, physically. I don't have choice in those relationships. I don't just get to go find new parents if the ones I have aren't doing what I needed to do for whatever reason. I think it's hard for people to validate, but also just like the trapped-ness of, “I can't choose another relationship here.” 

When we talk about childhood trauma, and this also came up in my dissertation work with survivors of intimate partner violence, the narratives that we have are really overt, extreme demonstrations of physical violence, sexual violence, and neglect — extreme neglect like people aren't being fed and basic needs aren't being met. 

That's what we tend to talk about. When we talk about intimate partner violence, the image people have in their minds is really extreme physical or sexual violence. But there's all sorts of emotional violence, verbal violence, and neglect in those areas as well. We just don't talk about them as much. We don't have those narratives. It's also in my experience — people are really uncomfortable if identifying as a survivor of trauma now means a bunch of things for me. I think there's some self-protection there as well. 

[12:03] Adverse Childhood Experiences

Lisa: Well, let's talk a little bit about that part because — and I like the way that we're sort of breaking this down a little bit: like there's relational trauma that happens in childhood. The time in our lives when we're vulnerable, we're really dependent on people in a very real way — and that impacts us. Then, certainly, there can be relational trauma in romantic relationships, or friendships. But can you talk a little bit about the impact of relational trauma when you experience it as a child?

Paige: Fundamentally, it changes our view of ourselves and how we relate to other people. When we're children, we don't know much else. If we look at the researchers doing really great work on childhood trauma, and chronic stress is often what they call it — adverse childhood experiences. They talk about the buffering aspects that can happen with a strong, stable adult to show what that relationship can look like.

Lisa: A healing relationship. 

Paige: A healing relationship. But if we don't have that, or if most of our relationships with our primary caregivers or parents are traumatic, or aren't fully meeting our needs instead of meeting our needs, often the way it changes how we view ourselves and others is… 

I mean, it's not a one-to-one; it's not just like this week. It is somewhat true that in those initial relationships, we learn about what we deserve, we learn about — that's our main example of what human relationships look like. So we can internalize some beliefs about ourselves about what we deserve, about what we're worth. 

In addition to when we talk about other types of trauma, we talk about an increased vigilance for danger in the world, and having trauma responses where we're triggered by something, and we go into “fight, flight or freeze” because our central nervous system is activated. That all holds true with relational trauma as well, depending on the severity of it. But we will develop ways to survive in those relationships. 

If I'm a child, and when I am showing big emotions or any emotions at all, I'm told I'm dramatic and people get mad at me. I might just start shoving those emotions down, and down, and down, “The message I'm getting from everyone is my emotions are too much, so I'll just put those in a box, and put that box in a bigger box.” It's not really how emotions work. They're going to pop out in other places, and sometimes in bigger ways because we're not working through emotions as they come. 

Other people might rebel against that. Maybe, I'm going to do more dramatic things because I'm trying to get attention, I'm trying to get care of — I'm trying to take care of my own emotions but I don't know what to do because I'm a child. We develop ways to survive. Everyone's got their own thing that they do. It looks different for everyone, but we often take those survival strategies into adulthood, even into relationships that are healthy or could be healthy. 

Then, we're still acting on those survival strategies of trying to manage ourselves and relationships by editing our behaviors, or — I don't like the phrase “acting out”, but we're trying to do something. It's not that we're being malicious, but we're trying to protect ourselves, so we might engage in behaviors and relationships that are not helping us accomplish those goals. 

Lisa: I think this is maybe tying back to what you were saying at the beginning of our conversation, like the idea of autonomy. Meaning, that you have sort of control, and independence, and volition. I think what I'm hearing you say is that, understandably, people who have been experienced relational trauma, especially earlier in life, maybe having feelings that are coming out in ways that are sort of uncontrollable in some ways. Their big feelings — they’re manifesting in weird behaviors that they themselves don't fully understand. Or they are being — you use the word “editing”, sort of containing themselves to the degree that it's impacting intimacy, vulnerability in a relationship. It can look like a lot of different things. Just that it carries over, it's like ghosts from the past that don't sometimes have anything to do with the relationship that you're actually in — in the present. 

Paige: Which is really frustrating when you're in kid. 

Lisa: It is.

Paige: Because I think most people with trauma, it's not one or the other — it's kind of all of it. There are moments where they're doing these behaviors to protect themselves — like pushing people away, or coping with intense emotions maybe in ways that they don't want, or aren't as healthy, as well as trying to contain it and edit it. I think that's part of the struggle of traumas. 

Its extremes in multiple ways that sometimes it's our emotions are too big. Other times, it's that we're trying to keep them very small, and neither of them are going to… I mean, both of those are very frustrating, exhausting processes. Also, it can be really difficult to manage within the context of a relationship that somebody wants, and with people that they trust and love.

[18:03] Healing From a Traumatic Relationship

Lisa: I want to talk more about the healing relationship idea because that is really a crucial component of healing for people who have had that life experience. But we have to talk about something else too, which is that… I mean, I can't tell you how many clients I've worked with who have been in love with someone. They're in a relationship with someone who has experienced relational trauma in their past, and who is still dealing with the impacts of it.

They are working so hard to be a kind partner, to have a healing relationship for that other person. At least in my experience, that is not actually enough to change it. Working with clients would be like, “I thought I could help him. I thought that through the power of our love, it could be different.” And they get hurt in the process. So healing relationships is certainly crucial — we'll talk more about that. 

But what is — there’s sort of a bigger problem because it seems like the person who has had that early trauma needs to be aware of it, and actively participating in that healing in different ways in order for a healing relationship to be beneficial. Would you agree with that? Or do you see it? I mean, you have a lot more experience in this than I do. I'm coming at it from a very couples counseling kind of orientation. You're the trauma expert in this conversation. What have you seen with that?

Paige: I strongly believe that — like individual therapy to really process trauma, like structured processing of trauma is really helpful when it's happened. I think that relational trauma or — relational healing is helpful and critical. But when there have been intense traumas, when people are experiencing lots of trauma responses in their everyday life or in the context of their relationship, then individual therapy would be really beneficial, and sometimes critical before we can move forward. 

I also talked to my clients about — this is a therapist’s trick. I don't know if you talked about it on the podcast before — but externalizing the trauma. We take the trauma out of the person, “You are not your trauma.” But in relationships, trauma very much becomes a third entity, like a third person in the conversation we're having, a third actor in the dynamics of our relationship. We both need to be able to look at it and see it for what it is. 

I often find as well that when one partner is trying to heal someone else with their love, they aren't always asking — sometimes they feel like they have to be kind of delicate with that person. They can't ask for accountability; they just got to give, and give, and give love — and that's what's going to fix it. 

But in a healing relationship, it's egalitarian. We're both being accountable to each other. It's not that one person is always accommodating for the other, or trying to make it better, or holding their own feelings back because you've been through so much, so I can't bring it up.

Lisa: Well, it's not a healing relationship for the other person at that point. That it is not a healthy relationship for both people. It's imbalanced. Well, then just for the purposes of this conversation, because that self-awareness of, “Ooh, I do have trauma that is maybe coming out in my relationships. It is my responsibility to do something about this so that I can be a good partner to my partner.” 

What would your guidance be for some just like — how do you know if the things that… Because every single one of us can scroll back through our mind’s eye, think about the time that our mom yelled at us, or whatever it was — how do you develop that gauge of, “This is actually — it impacted me, it's still impacting me. I need to do something about this.” What would your tips be for someone?

Paige: If there are other mental health struggles going on, there's depression and anxiety — anything in that range. If you're already meeting with a therapist, I would just ask your therapist like, “I think this thing might be impacting me.” and have a clinical conversation about it. My clients don't always know how to bring it up. I try to ask good questions, but sometimes we just don't know it's something.

Lisa: But again, if we're not aware that it was a trauma, we're not legitimizing it — how do you even know that it's something to talk about in therapy like, “I had a critical parent”, or whatever?

Paige: Kind of a sign that I look for in my clients to help them talk through is — are there situations where your emotional reaction is out of proportion to what happened? It is either too big, or it's too small. This thing happened, and all of a sudden, I jumped to 100% anxiety. I got so, so overwhelmed. Anything in that range — like my emotional reaction. 

It's a frustrating thing that happened, but I go to rage, or just immediate panic, or it's something that happened. I think that “out of proportion” is key because we're allowed to have feelings. We're going to have things happen in our lives. But if we notice that we're just shut down emotionally, that our, “God! It’s just…”

Lisa: Like, “We had a fight, and I would not talk for three days.” “ Like that kind of thing. There's something there.

Paige: If the way you're responding to things feels confusing to you, if it's mysterious like, “I don't know why I reacted that way. It wasn't how I wanted to react. But you said something, or this thing happened, and I just  — my gut reaction was this, and I had to run away. I had to shut down.”

Lisa: Like losing control of yourself a little bit.

Paige: Those are some of the big things — kind of the classic PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The symptoms are having flashbacks or nightmares, have an increased startle response. That could be happening and that would be a good indication. But for some of those relational traumas, I think it's more like our individual responses to things — just paying attention to them. 

But clients that I've worked with that have experienced relational trauma, they don't feel in control of it. It feels really confusing and exhausting both in terms of in the context of relationships and in other situations in their lives.

[25:14] Attachment Styles vs. Relational Trauma

Lisa: Here's another question. I hope that this is okay to ask. But on the show, we've talked before about attachment styles — secure attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment. 

What is the difference between an attachment style and a relational trauma — particularly that happens earlier in life? Or do you see a lot of overlap in that? Are there differences? I've never even thought about this before our conversation today. I don't know if this is a fair question or not.

Paige: I haven't thought about it a ton, and I'm not like an attachment expert. But all the trauma people reference attachment. Attachment theory is really foundational. I think there's an overlap between attachment styles and relational trauma, and our responses to relational trauma. The way I talk about it with clients is that we're all managing needs for connection and needs for autonomy in relationships. 

Like a secure attachment is, “I can hold both of those. I can be close to you. I can be connected to you. I also can be on my own and have my own goals, and hobbies, and interests”, where avoidant attachment is, “I can't stand being close to people, so I'm going to go on here and have my own little island.” Anxious attachment, “I can't stand being away from you, so I'm going to pull even close.” 

I think often with people with relational trauma, there's more disorganized attachment where, “Sometimes I'm feeling really anxious, and I need you to close.” Other times, “I'm feeling anxious about you being too close, and I'm going to push you away.” That fits within our understanding of attachment styles. 

That's how I explained it to my clients, though, because I think sometimes people can identify with a label. I'm sure you've talked about this with attachment styles — like they really cling to that label like, “This label is me.”

Lisa: It’s not that helpful. Totally. I think it can be helpful in certain ways like to just understand yourself more compassionately, and I heard somebody say… I think it might’ve even been somebody in our group — that there's no such thing as a perfectly, securely attached person. We all sort of fall to one side or the other. We all have, in certain situations, different reactions that could be avoided, could be anxious, sort of depending on what's going on and stuff. I hear you. I'm 100% there.

Paige: I think trauma can help maybe understand, “Why is this kind of more of my go-to?” Or help explain if it is both — if I'm feeling kind of a push-pull like, “I want you close, but not too close.” I think trauma does a lot to explain that. Then, honestly, the work in therapy is looking at the exceptions as well like, “When are you able to balance that? And how are you doing that?” 

Lisa: That's good to remember. So turning our attention back to this idea of a healing relationship. One of my takeaways honestly, from what we've just been talking about, is this idea that even if you're trying to have a healing relationship with somebody who is unwell, who has unresolved trauma, it is not going to be a healthy relationship for you. 

I guess, because part of this, I think that many people, many of our listeners have had adult relationships — maybe in addition to early stuff, but certainly adult relationships that felt toxic, that felt damaging, that felt really traumatic. 

Do you think that there's a correlation between somebody having a traumatic relationship experience as an adult? Is that an indication that maybe the partner that they were with was so traumatizing to them? Probably a good indication that their partner had had some stuff that maybe neither of them were aware of at the time they were in that relationship with each other. Is that fair to say, or am I extrapolating too far? I want answers, Paige.

Paige: I'm a therapist. I'm going to say, “Well, it really depends. Sometimes.” There's just so much that plays into how we treat each other. My own trauma — it’s definitely going to impact how I’m treating others, especially in close relationships. 

I think sometimes people, like you mentioned, are aware where they're like, “Oh, I know my partner has been through all these things. I'm just going to try to heal them, fix them with my love.” I also think just our general narratives about what relationships are in our developmental phase play into that as well. 

Having worked with teens and young adults that are out in their first relationships, trying to decide what relationships are — don't always have good skills, or good models of “this is what a healthy relationship looks like”. But definitely, trauma impacts how we treat each other and how we're able to show up in our relationships.

Lisa: Although healing relationship is not enough, it is really a crucial ingredient. If you have lived through toxic or damaging traumatic relationships in the past, a lot of important growth and healing does happen in the context of relationships. Can you talk a little bit more about what that can look like for people? 

In particular, I’m thinking of somebody who was maybe mistreated in previous relationships — it damaged their self-esteem, it damaged their trust, it was traumatic. How can a new relationship — a healing relationship help start to resolve some of that?

Paige: I think, firstly, it's got to be the right person. I always help my clients think through traumas, especially relational trauma is going to tell me that all humans are unsafe. All the people could be dangerous. When we work through our trauma, and we're working towards autonomy, then I get to decide who I trust, and who I don't, who I let in. 

But healing relationships with others — the scientist in me struggles with this part because there's something about it that's not magical, but it's like that feeling of being in a relationship that's strong and supportive. 

It feels like a hug even when you aren't getting a hug when we can show up as ourselves, we can share parts of ourselves, and we're validated, and we're accepted — all the words that are coming to mind are just the word again, like it's so healing to be in those relationships.

Lisa: But it's compassionate, it's emotionally safe. I think I'm also hearing between the lines — like you were talking about that feeling understood, feeling accepted. That makes me wonder if part of that key ingredient of having a healing relationship is that your partner knows and understands your trauma and your trauma response, so that when you do have those moments — maybe when you feel scared or angry, they're able to see that for what it is, as opposed to doing that typical relationship dance. 

I think many times when people don't understand what or why their partner's sort of reacting the way they do, it becomes very easy to be mad at your partner for being mad, or be defensive in response. You're saying that healing relationship is almost the opposite of that. I see that you're getting triggered right now and sort of meeting that with compassion, as opposed to more criticism or rejection. Is that part of it that like understanding?

Paige: Then as the partner, maybe without trauma, or maybe the partner with my own trauma, I can view your trauma as separate from you. You are still a whole human being to me who is making choices and doing things that impact me. But you are a human being that you are not your trauma. I can hold space for your trauma impacting, the choices that you're making, the things you're saying or the way that you're saying them.

I think really critical to healing relationships is that there is a lot of repair. When trauma responses come up when we don't show up the way we want to, there is space to make it right. We can apologize, that we can come together and discuss, “What actually was going on? How can we take care of this together?” 

But if there are big relational triggers in our healing relationship, we're going to do everything we can to avoid those triggers. If it's something yelling comes up for my clients a lot, “I grew up in a chaotic household. I can't handle yelling. I just go into survival mode right away.” Those two partners do work really hard to not have yelling be a part of their relationships — find other ways to work through it.

I think healing relationships also, and that’s something I work with couples that they're navigating this a lot, we need to take lots of breaks. We need to slow down and be able to soothe our trauma response so that we can have productive conversations. In healing relationships, there's lots of space. We can slow it down, we can take a break and come back. 

[35:29] Addressing Trauma in a Relationship

Lisa: But the bit like giving ourselves and each other permission to stay in a good place and be self-aware enough to know like, “I can't keep having this conversation right now.” 

One of the things — I'm thinking about two different situations right now. I’m thinking about a couple — and I'm sure that you have seen this couple. It's a relationship where no betrayal has occurred, and one of the partners has experienced betrayal in a previous relationship, either sexual infidelity, financial infidelity. They were really traumatized by a previous relationship. 

Now, they are in a new relationship and they're having those like anxious flare-ups, and that vigilance. Over time, that does, I think, start to take a toll on a lot of partners because they're like, “I didn't do that to you. I haven't done anything wrong.” I know that this is a big thing. And this is not the kind of thing that can be resolved through a couple of pieces of advice. There is an experiential healing process that people go through. It takes months, sometimes years. 

But generally speaking, what would your advice be for a couple who is grappling with that kind of dynamic, and it is eroding kind of the safety and health of their relationship? How do they identify it? Where will they even start to move back to a healing relationship space?

Paige: My biggest advice is to start to do what you can — have your partner that has experienced that betrayal, that trauma to externalize that trauma. The way I talk about it with my clients is, “What is your trauma telling you? What is trauma saying in these moments where you're having this anxiety?” Potentially your trauma is saying, “My current partner is going to hurt me just like my past partner did. I'm watching this movie play out again. I don't want to be hurt again — I need to protect myself.” 

When we're just caught up in those anxious thoughts, they feel like us, they feel like our own thoughts. Even just saying like, “This is what my trauma is telling me. This is what my anxiety is telling me”, and being able to communicate that to the partner instead of making accusations, or “I need to check your phone. I need…” 

There's other things that we can do when anxiety gets really high and say, “My anxiety is telling me that I am unsafe right now.” Then, we can have a conversation around it rather than always dealing with kind of the patrol fallout.

Lisa: “You're cheating on me.” The accusations and — right.

Paige: If we can have a conversation from a space of, “This is what my trauma is telling me”, and start to have that conversation, I think that's really, really critical. In those moments where, and I think this is helpful with all anxieties, just check our thoughts a little bit, “Is this actually true? Is this just feeling true? And this feeling is coming from this place that I can identify that I know where this is coming from?”

Lisa: I'm so glad we're talking about this right now, Paige, because I think that this reality, this truth often surprises people. I tell my clients all the time like, “Don't get tricked into believing everything you think or everything that you feel”, because I think there's so much pop psychology that, “Everything you think and everything you feel like is true.” Exactly. 

Actually, that's not always helpful. To be able to have that sort of psychological distance — that meta-awareness of how you're thinking, how you're feeling in the moment that is maybe not actually — it's like an artifact of trauma, as opposed to some fundamental truth that you need to take action on right this second. Thank you for bringing that up. I think that that is just so crucial to be known. 

One last thing. We talked about a relationship where one of the partners had — in a previous relationship — experienced relational trauma. Here is a trick question, hopefully not a trick question — pop quiz. 

I know you too have also worked with so many couples where there has been trauma, betrayal in the context of the relationship. It's not that some horrible other person five years ago hurt me — it's that actually you hurt me. There was an affair, there's financial infidelity — something of that nature. Do you feel that the path of healing and recreating an emotionally safe healing relationship is similar in those circumstances? Or does it look a little bit different in your experience?

Paige: I think it looks a little different because we have that person who's caused the harm is still there, and they can take accountability. There’s something I've been thinking a lot about in this context. It comes from Dr. Harriet Lerner's work on apologizing. She recently came out with a book on it, and she talks about how an apology… 

Lisa: Is it like apology languages? Or is it different?

Paige: It's different. I think the book is called Why Why Won't You Apologize? She talks about how an apology validates the experience of the person harmed. I've been thinking about that a lot in terms of relationships where one person has caused harm. We have to validate the experience of the harm that was done — which is really uncomfortable. 

It is very uncomfortable to look inside yourself and to actually own up to that rather than when we were trying to just make it better. We're saying whatever we can think of or do to just make it better like, “Please stop being mad at me”, rather than like, “I recognize that this is what was going into it for me, and this is what I did, and this is caused you harm in this way, this way, and this way.” 

When there's been betrayal in relationships, I use the language of trauma with my clients. We talk about trauma responses and triggers, and we talk about self-soothing and working toward safety so that that couple can soothe together. But until we're there, we're going to build up to that emotional safety and normalizing that, first of all, “Of course, you're not feeling totally safe to do that, and that's okay. We're going to work toward it. Everyone's going to get space here.”

Lisa: What a useful model to be bringing in the idea of trauma to those situations because I think one of the — it's almost a cliche. The person who did the betrayal is like, “That was such a long time ago. Why are you still upset? Nothing is happening. I've like totally reformed.” I think there's this lack of awareness that there is still a very active trauma response that gets triggered by certain things that's very real, and it’s the legacy of that relational trauma.

That does not go away easily. But I think that people imagine that it's — you've heard that phrase, “It's time to get over it.” Just like that, isn’t that how humans work? Bringing that idea of the impact of relational trauma to those situations I think is a very compassionate way of looking at it that helps people wrap their heads around what's happening and why the feelings persist.

Paige: And give us some language to talk about why it's still there, and kind of give us a path, a path forward. If we know this is a relational wound, well then we've got some steps — how are we going to address this wound? I think at least a part of its hardest because in our culture, we're fairly punitive. We think about like when people have done things wrong, they deserve to be punished. 

But that doesn't heal in the relationship. We've got to think of different ways to interact around harm that's been done that we can find healing. Often, that includes some of those other things about a healing relationship that we've got to not just trust, but maybe, in addition to a loss of trust, there was — I'm losing the train a little bit here. 

Lisa: No, it’s okay. Well, and I won't keep you but I'm glad that we're talking about this. I think that my biggest takeaway from this conversation is just the impact of relational trauma, and that it's something we should all really be aware of —both in ourselves and our partners. In addition to — we're working on ourselves in productive ways of really working to create healing relationships with our partners. 

Also, I think having expectations that we deserve to be in healing relationships too because you know none of us come through this life unscathed and unscarred. Every single one of us is carrying wounds of one kind or another. To be real, compassionate, and intentionally cultivating that healing space in between you and the people that you love. So, thank you. 

Thank you so much for joining me today, Paige. This was a wonderful conversation. I appreciate your time and just all the wisdom that you share with our listeners today.
Paige: Thank you.

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

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

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

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

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How to Stop Being a People Pleaser

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

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

What is a People Pleaser

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

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

Signs of People Pleasing

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

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

The Danger of People Pleasing

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

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

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

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

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

People Pleasing and Boundaries

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

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

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

How Values Can Help People Pleasers

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

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

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

How to Stop People Pleasing

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

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

People Pleaser Podcast Highlights

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

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

[06:32] What Is a People Pleaser?

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

[11:26] Acknowledging a People Pleasing Personality

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

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

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

[20:23] People Pleaser Anxiety and Anger

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

[28:37] Guilty Feelings in People Pleasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Signs of Being a People Pleaser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is a People Pleaser?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging Your People Pleasing Personality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Balance: Is Being a People Pleaser Bad?

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa: Page 43—

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

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

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

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

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

People Pleaser Anxiety and Anger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa: Do yeah, especially nice men.

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

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

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

Guilty Feelings in People Pleasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recovering People Pleaser: How to Get Over People Pleasing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa: I love that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa: I love that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathleen: All right.

How to Be a Force of Good in The World

How to Be a Force of Good in The World

How To Be A Force Of Good In The World

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

Music Credits: Carlos Farina, “Cappriccio Stravagante: Adagio”

How To Be a Force for Good in The World

In the special space that exists between the end of one year and the start of another, we have time to pause. To rest. To reflect. It's the time of year when we think about who we were and what we learned in the previous year, and set our sights on who we want to be and what we want to accomplish in the next. We're releasing our old selves, and getting ready to embrace fresh, new incarnations.

And for many of us, that means thinking about not only how we can improve our own lives, but the lives of others. 

Being a force for good in the world is a lofty goal. It’s a righteous goal. It’s a challenging goal. If it’s a goal you’ve set for your own life, I have no doubt that it sometimes leaves you feeling discouraged, especially in times like these. 

You may ask yourself, how much can I realistically do for others, when I have my own problems to solve, my own bills to pay, my own family to care for? How can I stay connected with my power to help, when the need is so great and my capacity is so limited? 

These are all questions I’ve asked myself over the course of my career as a counselor and coach. In this episode of the podcast, I discuss how my thinking about what it means to be a force for good in the world has shifted over the years. 

Am I Doing the Right Thing?

No one comes to the field of counseling without a bone-deep desire to help others, and no one gets through the training without having that idealism tested. 

I spent my psychologist internship at a community mental health center, where the clients I saw every day had profound challenges. I worked with children who had experienced horrific abuse at the hands of their parents, clients whose addictions were slowly killing them before my eyes, people who could hardly function well enough to take their medication and make it to my office once a week, let alone live fulfilling, joyful lives

I saw so much suffering and could do so little to help. I couldn’t stop asking myself, “Am I doing the right thing?”

Giving Up Control

Tragedy forced me to give up the mindset that I could be the force that healed someone’s heart, or helped them make real and lasting change in their life. 

When a client dear to me died, I had to acknowledge the truth: that everything was beyond my control. I could do my best, but I couldn’t force anyone to heal, or undo decades of trauma, or erase a lifetime of poverty or neglect or addiction. 

I decided that what happened was not up to me. It was up to a power much, much greater than me. 

The Right Thing to Do

“I am not in control” became my mantra through the rest of my internship. When someone sat in my office and told me the heartbreaking details of their life, I asked for a loving force much bigger and wiser than me to take control and help them

I would use everything I learned in school and I would give them my full, unconditional, positive regard, but I couldn’t force any of it to land. I couldn’t make anyone get back on track. I wasn’t in control of their healing. 

I was reminding myself every day how little control I had when I met Bob, a cognitively disabled man in his fifties who looked like he was in his seventies because of decades of drugs and alcohol addiction coupled with decades of hard labor.

The great heartbreak of Bob’s life was a daughter he had had as a younger man, when his addictions were at their worst. He hadn’t been around for his daughter’s childhood, and he felt profound sadness and regret about not having a relationship with her as an adult. 

What’s worse, Bob was illiterate with a low IQ, and struggled to understand what was happening around him, much less express his feelings of guilt, shame, regret, and love for his daughter. He wanted to heal their relationship, but he felt powerless. 

Be a Force For Good

I couldn’t heal the relationship between Bob and his daughter. I couldn’t say anything that would ease the profound loss he felt. 

But by giving up all control to affect any particular outcome, I was able to help Bob beam his profound love for his daughter out into the universe before it was too late. 

This is not something I did intentionally. I had no idea what I was doing at the time. But the result was a beautiful coincidence that I don’t believe was a coincidence at all. 

I hope you’ll be as touched by Bob’s story as I have been, dear reader. And that it serves as a reminder that you do have the power to be a force for good in the world, as big and impossible as that sometimes feels. 

Happy holidays,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

How To Be A Force Of Good In The World

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

Music Credits: Carlos Farina, “Cappriccio Stravagante: Adagio”

Feeling Emotionally Invalidated By Your Partner?

Emotional Invalidation

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

Feeling Invalidated

Hi there. Are you reading this “advice from a marriage counselor” article because your partner just forwarded it to you, as a way of attempting to communicate that you invalidate feelings or they feel emotional invalidation and that they would like this to change? First of all, sorry, but second of all… never fear. I'm the couples therapist in your corner. This one is going to boomerang nicely and wind up working out in your favor. Promise.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret that your partner — possibly not having read this article themselves before impulsively texting it to you on the headline alone — might not know yet: we all invalidate our partners accidentally. I'll bet you probably feel invalidated by them from time to time too. Am I right? Yes? Welcome to relationships.

Emotional Invalidation

How do I know that you're feeling emotionally invalidated sometimes too? First of all, I've been a marriage counselor and relationship coach for a long time. It is extremely rare to find a couple where one person has *actually* been exclusively responsible for all the hurt feelings and conflict. (Except in the tiny percentage of couples counseling cases that I could count on one hand where the hurt-inducing partner has actually been a diagnosable sociopath and/or narcissist. But I will save that tale for another day.)

Secondly, I've also been married for a long time to someone I adore and would never want to hurt on purpose. And I'm a marriage counselor! I should know better! And To. This. Day. I still do things that accidentally invalidate my husband and make him feel bad. More than once I have had to apologize for making him feel like I don't care, despite the fact that I love him very much. 

But I'm working on it and it's better than it used to be. You can do the same. On today's episode, I'm talking all about emotional invalidation and what to do when you're feeling invalidated to make it stop. Listen below or scroll down for show notes and a full transcript of today's episode.


Emotional Invalidation

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

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Emotional Invalidation: Episode Highlights

Step One: Let's Define “Invalidate”

First of all, let's talk a little about what “invalidation” means. When you invalidate someone, you basically make them feel like you (a) don't understand them or their feelings or (b) if you do understand, you don't care. The impact of this original invalidation will then generally make your partner swing one of two ways, towards either hostility or withdrawal and emotional shut down. Neither of those are good.

In order to not invalidate feelings anymore you need to be self-aware of when it's happening, and what you're doing to cause it. This is the hard part, because almost nobody is intentionally trying to make their partner feel diminished or unimportant when it happens. If you call an invalidating person on it in the moment, they usually get really defensive and start sputtering about how “that's not what I meant” and protesting that their intentions were good. 

Again, except in the case of narcissists (see link above) this is true. Emotional invalidation is generally unintentional. So, no need to beat yourself up if you've been unintentionally hurting someone you love. But you do need to take responsibility for how our actions impact others. We all do.

So let's get familiar with what invalidation actually looks like so that you can become more self aware. Emotional invalidation comes in many flavors, and can happen in both subtle and dramatic ways. 

Let's review.

“It wasn't that bad. You're Overreacting.”

Types of Emotional Invalidation

Now, take a deep breath and non-defensively read through the following descriptions of “emotional invalidators” and see if you can spot yourself. 

See if you can spot the invalidating behaviors your partner uses. (They are in there, I'm sure). 

But again, the hard part is recognizing your own. Bonus points if you can think of other ways you might be invalidating sometimes that I haven't put down here. The possibilities are limitless!

But here are some of the “usual suspects.”

Inattentive Invalidators: These types of invalidators don't pay attention when their partner is talking about something important. (C'est moi! I totally do this.)

Example of Inattentive Invalidation in Action:

Them: “I had a really hard day at work today. I think I might be getting sick.”

You (And by “you” I mean “me”): “I was just thinking that it would be fun to go to Canada this summer. Or Newfoundland. Newfoundland! What do you think?” [Picks up phone to start checking flight prices.]

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Belligerent Invalidators: Their M.O. is to rebuttal rather than listen, and put their energy into making their own case instead of seeing things from their partner's perspective.

Example of Belligerent Invalidation in Action:

Them: “I feel like you were rude to my friend.”

You: “Your friend is an annoying idiot who drinks too much and if you want to avoid these problems you should stop inviting him over.”

_________________________________

Controlling invalidators:  These types of invalidators are extremely confident that their way of doing things is right and just, and will either intervene or undo things that their partner does in efforts to correct, (i.e. “help”) them. This happens in many situations including parenting, housekeeping, social situations, and more. 

Example of Controlling Invalidation in Action:

Them: “No, Timmy, you can't go out to play because you have to take a shower and clean your room.”

You: “You need exercise, Timmy. Be back before dinner.”

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Judgmental Invalidators: These types of invalidators minimize the importance of things that they do not personally feel are interesting or important to them, in a way that creates disconnection in their relationships.

Example of Judgmental Invalidation in Action:

Them: “What should we do this weekend? So many fun things! Do you want to go to the farmer's market / prepper expo / rv show / rodeo?”

You: “Pfft. NO. That is so boring, why would anyone want to do that? Personally, I'm busy anyway. I have to spend the weekend finishing my Fortnite challenges. Wanna watch? No? Okay see you later.”

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Emotional Invalidators: Then of course there is the stereotypical, garden-variety Emotional Invalidator, who feels entitled to “disagree” with other people's feelings, or argue that other's feelings are not reasonable, or to talk them out of their feelings.

Example of Emotional Invalidation in Action:

Them: “Crying”

You: “You shouldn't be sad. At least we have one healthy child already….”

You some more: “….That's not what I meant. We can try again next month. The doctor said that this could happen for the first time….”

If this conversation sounds even remotely familiar… I'm glad we're here right now!

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Fixit Invalidators: Then, there is the “Fixit” Invalidator, who would prefer to leap over messy feelings entirely and go straight to helpful solutions — having zero idea they are making things infinitely worse by doing so.

Example of Fixit invalidation in Action:

Them: “I am heartbroken about my argument with my sister. I feel really bad about what happened.”

You: “She's just a drama queen. Forget about it. You should make plans with some of your other friends. I'll see if Jenny and Phil want to come over on Friday.”

Does this sound like something you might say?

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Owner of the Truth Invalidators: Lastly, there are the reflexive “that's not what happened” invalidators who pride themselves on being rational and who sincerely believe that their subjective experience is the yardstick of all others. If it didn't happen to them, it is not a thing. A kissing-cousin of codependency, this type of invalidator will often follow up their original invalidation by explaining to you how you, actually, are the one with the problem.

Example of a Truth Owner in Action:

Them: “I am feeling really invalidated by you right now.”

You: “I am not invalidating you. You were just telling me that your day was hard and you're feeling overwhelmed, and I know for a fact that you shouldn't be feeling that way because it wasn't that bad. You just need to get more organized. You're overreacting.”

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Good times, right? Yes, there are so, so many ways to invalidate someone. This is just a small sample of the many ways, shapes, and forms emotional invalidation shows up in relationships. There are many more. Not sure what kind of invalidator you might be? Ask your partner. I'm sure they'd be happy to tell you.

Next, now that we've “cultivated self awareness,” as we say in the shrink-biz, we're going to talk about how to stop doing that, and start helping your partner feel validated instead.

Step Two: Understand The Importance of Validation

While the first step in learning how to stop accidentally invalidating your partner is to figure out what kinds of emotional invalidation you are prone to, the second step is to learn what it means to be validating and why it's so important.

What is “Validation” Anyway?

So, what is “validation?” To validate someone means that you help them feel understood, accepted, and cared for by you. It requires empathy. Empathy happens when you really get how others see things, and that you support them in their perspective — even if you do not share their perspective. 

Because empathy is such a foundational skill in so many areas of Love, Happiness and Success, the development of empathy is often a big part of what is happening in emotional intelligence coaching, personal growth work, as well as couples counseling. Empathy requires intention, but it's incredibly powerful when you start really getting it.

This is super important in relationships because validation is a cornerstone of emotional safety. And emotional safety — feeling like you are accepted and valued for who you are, like your thoughts, feelings, and preferences are important to your partner, and that your relationship is loving and supportive — is the foundation of a happy, healthy relationship.

Just consider how wonderful it feels to hear these words, “I can understand why you would feel that way.” No matter what's going on, when you hear that it feels like you're accepted by the person you're with and that it's okay for you to feel the way you feel. That right there is the strong foundation from which you can then find your own way forward. (And in your own time).

Also, if we were to dissect pretty much any basic argument that a couple can have, 98% of the time, arguments start with one person feeling invalidated by the other. When anyone feels invalidated the natural response is to then escalate their efforts to be understood. Which can sound like yelling. Then if the invalidator doubles down on defending their invalidating behaviors in response, it can get pretty ugly pretty quick. 

As I'm sure you know. Incidentally, if you have been feeling like your partner is emotionally reactive and unnecessarily hostile towards you, it can actually be an important clue that you've been making them feel invalidated without realizing it. (Read, “Twelve Effective Ways to Destroy Your Relationship” for more on this and other common relationship mistakes.)

So if you work towards being more validating, you will not just stop pretty much any argument in its tracks but your partner will feel emotionally safe and accepted by you, and you will have a much stronger, happier relationship. Win, win, win.

Step Three: Validate Feelings Intentionally, Through Practice

The real problem with changing your (our) tendency to be accidentally invalidating is that it can be really hard to wrap your (our) brains around the fact that we really are hurting the people we love without meaning to. 

In none of the examples of “types of invalidators” was I describing anyone who was trying to be hurtful. They were just failing to understand their partner's perspective or needs or feelings, and prioritizing their own instead. 

Human beings are generally self-focused, unless they put purposeful effort into being other-focused. Sad but true.

The good news is that it's not hard to be more other-focused if you decide that it's important enough to make it a priority. It just takes intention and practice, and a genuine desire to want your partner to feel more cared for by you.

Here's what my perspective of me being invalidating (and then trying to practice validation) looks like at my house:

My husband is telling me something but I'm not really connecting with what he is saying. He's talking about his day at work, and how he's not feeling great. And now he's going on and on about this guy he works with who's super annoying, and incompetent, and how he's thinking about taking the day off tomorrow to go take photos and how he might drive out towards the mountains, and now he's talking about this new video game that he started playing with our son, and how there are these avatars that build sawmills and jump over sharks and there are dances (or something) and …

….I've now officially zoned out, and am now following the spark of ideas that whatever he just said to me has just ignited into being, through the chambers of my own mind.  Day off… Mountains…. Nature documentary…. Camera lenses…. Majestic landscape photos…. I want to go somewhere beautiful… Catherine said good things about Quebec…. He's still talking but I'm now having an entirely internal experience. I know he's still there, but it's the muffled, “Wa-wa-wa” like the adult in the old Charlie Brown cartoons. I am now entirely absorbed by my own thoughts rather than what he is saying, but not on purpose.

Sometimes he can tell when I'm not there anymore, but most of the time neither of us realize what is happening until I say something apparently out of the blue, like “I was just thinking that it would be fun to go to Canada this summer. Or Newfoundland. What do you think?” [Picks up phone to start researching flight prices]. Then I look up from my phone to see his shoulders slump a little and this look cross his face like, “Do you even care about what I'm saying?” Only then do I realize that what he was talking about felt important to him, and I made him feel bad. He's annoyed. He should be.

Because in that moment, my lack of attention left him feeling invalidated in our conversation. He was left feeling like he wasn't important or interesting enough for me to pay attention to, or worse, like I just hijacked the conversation to talk about whatever I was thinking of instead of what he was bringing up. Which I totally did.

But like you, I didn't mean to hurt his feelings. It just happened because I wasn't making him a priority at that moment, but indulging my own self-absorbed thoughts instead of really deliberately tracking what he was saying to me. (If you, too, have a tendency towards adult ADHD, I'm sure you can relate.)

In contrast, when I remind myself of my intention to be a good friend to him, to help him feel cared for and validated by me, it's a totally different experience. I will myself to focus on what he is saying. I look in his eyes. When I feel my mind starting to slide towards something other than what he is talking about, I bring it back to him by very deliberately reflecting something I heard him say. I think about how he might be feeling and ask about that. Or I ask open-ended questions to help him say more about what is going on for him, but also as a strategy to keep myself engaged. In short, I am using communication skills and empathy to help him feel validated.

I try really hard to stay present, and stay on topic. Sometimes I am more successful than others, but I know he sees me trying. We know each other well enough now and we can even laugh about it, as we do when I glaze and he just stops talking and makes a face at me. Humor helps. So does managing your expectations that your partner can or should be perfectly perfect at validating your feelings all of the time.

But truthfully, if you want to stop making someone else feel invalidated it requires a certain level of courage and humility. It's hard to think about, “What's it like to live with me” and really allow yourself to understand, deeply, what you do and how it makes your partner feel. I think that embracing personal responsibility without being defensive is one of the hardest things to do in a marriage, and helping other people move into this receptive, honestly reflective space is often the hardest thing for me to do as a marriage counselor. That's why I wanted to model this for you.

How to Validate Someone's Feelings

Every flavor of invalidation has an antidote that's a little different. Just as there are infinite ways to invalidate feelings, there are many strategies for how to validate someone's feelings too. I could go into great detail about what the antidote for each involves, but then this would be an actual self-help book rather than a blog post. But, briefly, here are some pointers:

I hope that this discussion of how you may be accidentally invalidating your partner was helpful to you, and gives you clarity about how to shift the emotional climate of your relationship just by making your partner's feelings and perspective as important to you as your own. Not easy to do. It requires emotional strength, the ability to be honest with yourself, and the willingness to grow in service of your relationship. But it is so worth it.

Now, please send this post and episode back to your partner so they can think about what THEY need to be working on in order to help you feel more heard, valued, and understood by them. 

All the best,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

The music in this episode is “Dive” by Beach House from their album “7”. You can support them and their work by visiting their website or on Bandcamp. Each portion of the music used in this episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Please refer to copyright.gov for more information.

Enjoy the Podcast?

Did you enjoy the podcast? What did you learn about self-limiting beliefs? How has this episode helped you identify yours? Tell us by commenting on this episode. Subscribe to us now to discover more episodes on living a life full of love, happiness, and success.

[Intro music: “Dive” by Beach House, from their album “7”]

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Hey friends. Today, on the show, we're going to be talking about something that we need to talk about. It is a silent killer of many relationships. You may be experiencing this on your own. It's feeling invalidated. Either you might be listening to this because you are feeling routinely invalidated by your partner, which is hard, or perhaps you are listening to this because your partner is telling you that you are making them feel invalidated. 

This is a really significant issue and one that we need to address together. So that's going to be the focus of our time together today, is talking about what invalidation is, why it happens, and most importantly, what you can do to either feel heard and understood by your partner in your relationship or potentially do a better job of helping your partner feel validated and respected by you. 

If this is your first time listening to the podcast, I'm so glad you found us. I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I am your host. I am also the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I'm a licensed psychologist. I am a board-certified coach. But what I love doing more than anything else is helping people improve their relationships. I am very married. I've been married for a long time. I've also just worked as a counselor and a coach for so many years. 

Just one of, I think, my main takeaways from all of this life experience is that truly, our wellness, our happiness, our health comes from the quality of our relationships largely. That's why so often on this podcast, I want to talk about things that can help you improve your relationships. Because when our relationships feel strong and successful, everything just feels so much easier in our lives. We feel better emotionally. We have more fun. We have a nicer time. We have a strong foundation from which to launch off and do amazing things. So I am a relationship person. 

That's what we're talking about today is in the love quadrant: what you can do to increase the emotional safety in your relationship. I think that that's one of the things that happens when invalidation is present in a relationship is that it really erodes the emotional safety between you and your partner. And ugly things can start happening in a relationship when people aren't feeling safe, and respected, and heard, and understood. That's what happens when invalidation is a frequent issue in a relationship. 

What Is Validation?

To just dive into our topic today, first of all, allow me to just take a couple of minutes to orient you to validation, what it means, why it's important, to set the stage. When I am talking about either validation or invalidation, to validate someone, it means that you're helping them feel understood by you, that you get whatever they're sharing, you are accepting what they are telling you about how they feel. In that space, also, helping them feel cared for by you, that they're not just saying something and dropping a stone into a well. 

There's this response. You get them. You understand how they see things. You can see the situation through their eyes. Also, there's the sense that their perspective is supported by you. I also want to say that in a truly healthy, vibrant relationship, there is always some diversity of thought. We're not partnered with clones of ourselves, right? People can have different perspectives, different opinions. But there's this sense of fundamental respect for each other's perspectives, even if it is different from yours. It's like this: “Yeah, you know when I look at it that way, I can see why that makes sense.” 

Just think about it. When somebody says that to you, “I can understand why you would feel that way.” I've had friends in my life just naturally say things like that to me in conversation, and it's the relational equivalent of somebody just walking up to you and just folding a warm, soft blanket around your shoulders. “Yes, that makes sense. You make sense. Your feelings make sense. I can see why you feel that way. I would feel that way too if I were in that situation.” It's just like this, “Ah, thank you so much for saying that.” It's just such a nice experience to have.

I think that we all crave that from our partners from time to time. Again, that's a cornerstone of emotional safety. Now, if the phrase emotional safety is a new one for you, I would encourage you to scroll back through my podcast archive. I have done a podcast episode on emotional safety, specifically, where I talked a lot about that concept and how important it is in healthy relationships, and would encourage you to check out that episode if you'd like to explore more about all the different elements of emotional safety. Keep in mind that to be able to validate someone's feelings is an incredibly important part of that. 

When we're creating emotionally safe relationships, and when we are validating people that we love, it is, again, it's like this experience that people are having with us, that we accept them, that we value them, we respect them for who they are. We think that their thoughts, and feelings, and preferences are important. They're important to us, right? In that context, over communicating that regularly, through the way we're communicating and the way that we're interacting with our loved ones, it just creates this very loving and supportive relationship. That's a foundational component. 

How Does Emotional Invalidation Happen?

I have to tell you, as a marriage counselor, 95% of the time, when a new couple drops into the practice, and they’re, “We'd like to work on our relationship.” “Okay, great. What's going on?” 95% of the time, it is some variation of communication. “We're not communicating as well as we'd like to. Communication feels hard.” When you dig into that, like, “Okay, what about communication is feeling hard right now,” invariably, one, often both partners are not feeling validated. It's not that the words coming out of each other's mouths are not terribly problematic in and of themselves. 

It's that they're not getting a validating response from their partner. The problem with communication is that they are not feeling like their partner hears them or understands them. They're feeling like their partner is misinterpreting their intentions. They say something well-intentioned, well-meaning, their partner takes it the wrong way. Here's something that they are trying to say that is interpreted very negatively, that is responded to in an angry way. Or they're feeling like their partner just doesn't have empathy for their perspective, or slaps whatever they're trying to share out of their hands, or making them feel uncared for, or that their feelings or perspectives aren't important in that moment. 

That is very much about a validation issue. Because validation, really, at its core, is around having empathy for the other person. Being able to accurately understand their feelings, understand their intentions, and then reflecting back to that person: “Yeah, I can understand that. I'm not sure that I see it exactly the same way. But when I look through it, at the situation through your lens, I can understand that. Also, I understand that this is important to you. And I understand that you are actually feeling this way.” 

I think the other big meta message within that is “I love you, and this, whatever this is, is important to you. You care a lot about this. This is making you feel a certain way. Because you are important to me, I care about it too because I care about you.” Again, it's just this whole experience of being cherished when we're talking about validation and how impactful it is. So many arguments, again, start this way. If we were to dissect pretty much any basic argument that a couple can have, almost all of the time, these arguments begin with one person feeling invalidated by the other. 

When that happens, when anyone feels invalidated, the natural response to this is to escalate your efforts to be understood, which often sounds like yelling, am I right? If you say, “Yeah, I feel this way,” and the response you get from your partner's like, “That's wrong.” Right? “That didn't happen, or no, it's not that big of a deal.” That, I think, makes all of us say, “No, you don't understand. No, this is true. This is happening.” All of a sudden, we're really fighting to be understood, aren't we? We are not fighting to win. We are not fighting to control. We are fighting to be heard and to feel like we're cared about, to feel like we're important. 

So the other thing that happens, so one person feels invalidated, and then they escalate, “No, I really need you to understand this.” Then, what also happens is that the invalidator, the person who originally came out with a less than ideal response, will double down on defending their position and will defend their invalidating behaviors. “No, that's not what I said. That's not what I meant. Why are you making such a big deal out of this? This always happens when we talk about your mom or your job,” or whatever it is, right? 

How Fighting to be Heard is Invalidation

When this starts to happen, one person is like, “No, I really need you to understand how I'm feeling right now.” The other person is like, “That's dumb.” It can get extremely ugly, so fast. I think everybody within the sound of my voice right now has had this experience at one point or another in their relationship. I know that I certainly have. Truth be told, if we're all going to move towards healthy humility here, I think that our partners have probably felt this way with us from time to time. 

I think that when we are fighting to be heard, we are experiencing invalidation. We're not getting the response that we want. We are really looking for comfort, or connection, or reassurance, and when that isn't what we're getting, right? It feels bad. I think it is very, very easy to miss the moments that we are accidentally and unintentionally making other people feel that way with us. Because I have to tell you, it is so easy to do. When I sit with a couple in marriage counseling, or couples therapy, or whatever it is, and unpack all of this at the core, I do not find narcissists. I do not find sociopaths. I do not find people who are irredeemable and incapable of having healthy relationships. 

What I find are people who are simply unaware of the impact that they are having on others just because they're in a different place, or they're not fully understanding how important that particular moment is. It's just all these missed opportunities to connect. I have been so guilty of that in my own life. I think that chances are, if we are going to be humble and with healthy humility here together, you could probably reflect on some moments in your own life when you have unintentionally done the same. 

The reason why I want to talk about this part for a second is because one of the easiest ways to just melt away all that defensiveness, and restore emotional safety, and increase love and validation all around, is when we can be humble and reflect on our own process because it helps us be more emotionally safe. It helps us be more validating and responsive to our partners, and I think it also helps us handle the moments when we are feeling invalidated by someone else. 

It helps us handle those moments so much more effectively because we can shift away from that automatic response of, “You just totally invalidated me. I'm going to be mad at you.” “No, that's not what I said. I'm going to start fighting to be heard.” We can shift out of that and into a much more helpful and respectful way of getting our emotional needs met in that moment when we are able to stay soft, and empathetic, and emotionally generous with our partners, and make an effective repair attempt, which is, “You know, let me try that again. I feel like maybe you didn't fully understand what I was trying to communicate to you in this moment and how important it is for me right now just to feel heard by you, and respected by you, and understood by you. So I'm going to have a redo.”

Particularly, if you and your partner have had the opportunity to work on some of this stuff together in couples counseling, or relationship coaching, like it's not the first time they've had this conversation with you, it immediately orients them back to, “Oh, this is one of those moments when you're not looking for me to do anything. You are not attacking me. You are not presenting me with a problem that I need to solve. I don't have to be defensive right now. This is one of these moments when you're just trying to connect with me emotionally. I can do that. So thank you for giving me another go at this so that I can be a better partner for you right now. Because I love you, and you're important to me, and that is what I want to do. Okay? Okay, so let's do this again.”

Then, you can literally have a redo with your partner, where there is a different outcome. That outcome is one where you feel loved, and cared for, and respected, and supportive, and have had the opportunity to share your feelings about something that's on your mind, and not have it turned into an argument. It turns into a conversation where you just get to share and be heard. Maybe that is 100% the goal. That's fantastic. No other action is required. We do not have to change anything. We do not have to fix anything. You got to say it. It was received, and we're done. That's fantastic. 

Other times, I think another component of validation can be attached to, “I'm feeling this way, and I would like to find a solution to this problem because I'm feeling bothered by the situation. I'd like to have a productive conversation with you where we could maybe just talk about different ways of handling this because I don't like feeling the way that I'm feeling right now. So I'm just hoping that we can sort through this.” When there is validation happening on both sides, it isn't just you saying, “I have a problem, and we need to fix that because I'm not okay, right now.” 

It turns into, “Let me tell you about how I'm experiencing this situation and help me feel like you understand what I'm saying. Now tell me how you are feeling in this situation and what you see is the ideal outcome or different options here.” Because when you are being intentionally validating, and respectful, and supportive, you start asking your partner questions like that. “I'm not the only one in this relationship. You might have a totally different perspective here. Tell me more about how you see this, or how you've been feeling in these situations. How are you experiencing me when this stuff happens?”

Because in that space of emotional safety, when you are able to validate your partner and help them feel really understood and cared for by you, they will tell you how they're feeling because they trust you. You're not going to freak out when they tell you how they're actually feeling. But if there isn't that trust in your relationship, they won't tell you. The trust has been broken to the point that people do not feel safe enough to share how they are really feeling with each other. 

Overcoming Emotional Invalidation

We think of trust many times as something that is broken through betrayal. There's an affair or there's some catastrophic lying going on in a relationship, and that can certainly damage trust. But there are many more subtle kinds of betrayals of trust that I think people don't fully recognize or understand the significance of because they're subtle, and a betrayal of trust that happens all the time. 

Unintentionally, nobody's doing this on purpose. But when someone tells you how they really feel, or what they need, or what their hopes are, or what is upsetting them even, and when that is invalidated, or dismissed, or rejected, or reacted to with hostility or contempt, it is a betrayal of trust. The message that people receive is, “I don't care about how you feel. I disrespect your experience right now. I reject this.” What happens is, they're like, “Okay, cool, noted. I am never doing that again. The next time you ask me how I'm feeling, I don't think I want to enter into that ring of emotional intimacy with you because I don't trust you enough to tell you how I really feel right now.” 

This is hard. This is, I think, a place where I find with many couples, I often need to stay for a fairly significant period of time in couples counseling or in relationship coaching, because people really do not understand the impact that they are having on each other. Again, and I say this as someone who has done exactly the same thing, we all get so focused on our own perspective, our own needs, and whether or not they are being met in a relationship, and whether or not we are feeling validated, or getting the response that we want. 

We get very hyper-focused on what is happening in that regard and really miss the systemic nature of relationships, which is, “When I'm feeling that way, what do I do? How do I approach my partner? How do I engage with them?” Because especially people who perceive themselves as really fighting for their relationships, fighting to have greater emotional intimacy or greater connection, have no idea how scary or emotionally unsafe or even threatening they themselves are being in these moments when they feel like they're seeking emotional intimacy. 

I'm going to do a whole other podcast on that topic, that concept, specifically, around emotional intimacy and what to do when we're feeling lonely and disconnected in a relationship. So more on that topic to come soon. Just that one takeaway from today would be to ask yourself: Are you validating your partner? Are they feeling invalidated by you in those moments? Or has trust been broken in the past that accidentally trained them to hide from you, and to not communicate with you, and to not tell you how they're really, really feeling even though you want them to, but something has happened, where they feel like they can't? 

That's a really, really common thing that happens in relationships. It is frequently due to that primary issue of people feeling invalidated or rejected by each other in these potentially tender moments of connection. 

What Does Emotional Invalidation Look Like in Action?

With that in mind, I would really like to turn this conversation to talking a little bit about understanding what invalidation looks like in action so that we ourselves can be more conscious of the times that we're doing it and then, also have a little bit more empathy or understanding for the times when our partners may be doing that to us without fully realizing it. Because empathy is so key. 

To begin, when invalidation is happening, what we are communicating, what is happening is that people feel like we don't understand them. We are misinterpreting them. We are taking what they are saying, and then running it through our own filter of meaning, and coming up with something different than what they were trying to communicate to us that they don't feel understood. Or that if we do understand what they're saying conceptually, we don't care about their feelings. Not that we don't care, but that we are rejecting it, and it can be very, very subtle, you guys.

It could be like, “I'm sure they didn't mean that when they said X, Y, Z. You're probably just overreacting.” Those kinds of things, which might be true. I don't know. But the truth of what is happening or not happening is so insignificant that the truth of what's happening is that your partner is actually trying to tell you how they are feeling, emotionally, in this present moment. You have just been offered the gift of trust and emotional intimacy. What are you going to do with that? 

Are you going to make them feel like you don't understand, or they're stupid, or their feelings are ridiculous or not important, or they're being overreactive, or they're just not thinking about this the right way? Because that doesn't feel good. We all know how that feels, right? It is not good. Or are they going to be leaving whatever interaction they just had with you feeling like, “I love them so much because they love me.” Just feeling loved. In order to improve this experience, we need to be self-aware of when it's happening and what we are potentially doing to cause it.

Types of Invalidating Behaviors

There are different flavors of invalidation. We all have our unique styles, I think. When I am being invalidating to my husband, I'm usually doing it in one of a couple of ways. So let me just run through these types of invalidating behaviors. See if you can see yourself in any of these and maybe if some of these are true for your partner. 

Inattentive Invalidators

One, and I think this is probably the most common, and this is the one that I am so guilty of, is an inattentive invalidator. These types of invalidators, they're just not paying attention when their partner is talking about something important. Oh my gosh, I can so easily do this, because I don't know what you're like. Me, I'm just kind of usually zooming along at 900 miles an hour. I am a habitual multitasker. I know it's not good to do that. But I am doing the dishes while I'm on the phone with somebody, and I'm thinking about five things that are happening.

Sometimes in these moments, this is when my husband wants to tell me about something. What happens is, they will say, “Oh, I had such a day. I'm not feeling good. I think I might be getting sick.” Then, you might say — by you I mean me — you’d be like, “You know what, I was just thinking that we should go on a trip to Canada.” Or, “Oh did I tell you that Julie called. She was thinking that we might go camping this… Would you want to do that?” So, I am now picking up my phone and researching campsites or travel reservations. 

My husband just said something totally unrelated to that. He was trying to tell me something about how he felt. It triggered an idea in my mind, or I wasn't really paying attention to the impact of what he was trying to say. Because there can be emotional connotations to certain things that people say. They're very easy to miss unless we're really paying attention. So he, in that moment, felt like I was totally disconnected from what he was trying to communicate, which I was. It's just because I wasn't fully present. 

I was kind of thinking about something, and he said something, and I had a random thought in my head and just sort of impulsively acted on it. I'm nowhere near where he is in terms of what he's trying to communicate or what he is needing for me in that moment. It’s not intentional. It’s not like I'm trying to harm him in those moments. I'm not mad at him. It's just really a simple lack of attention. I, in order to be a better partner, need to slow down sometimes. Also, one of the things that I have found over the years, and I see this routinely with the couples that I work with too, is to be able to set some boundaries or guidelines around these conversations. 

When I can tell that he is trying to communicate about something that might be more important, and I am not in a headspace where I can do that. I have a crisis situation at work that I'm thinking about or needing to deal with and that maybe he doesn't know about that, right? So he's trying to talk to me all of a sudden, and I have learned to say, “I want to hear all about this. Can you give me 15 minutes? I need to take care of this. I need to X, Y, Z or whatever.” Then, 15 minutes later, I am like, “Tell me more,” blink, blink, and I’m looking in his eyes asking appropriate questions. I'm all there. 

But I need to communicate to him when I can't be present. Because if he doesn't know that, he's going to try to communicate with me and not have a good experience. I think we've learned a lot about each other over the years. He's like, “I would like to talk to you about something important. Is now a good time? Or when can we talk about this?” That conversation right there has been a game-changer, I think, in our relationship. But for so many couples that I work with, particularly, in relationship coaching, people come in, and they have been feeling so badly with each other, and it's just felt so hard. 

When we unpack it and when we dial down into it, sometimes, you guys, the answer is as easy as that. “Tell me what is going on in the moments that you're trying to communicate, and it's not going well, or it's feeling frustrating. Literally, where are you?” It could be, sometimes, people are telling me, “It was during dinner, and our three-year-old was having a meltdown, and X, Y, Z.” They start talking about all of these different circumstances. When we're able to identify the practices that people are using, the boundaries that they're setting around their communication, and how they are communicating their needs in those moments to each other, it's so much easier. 

It was actually not this big, horrible, catastrophic thing. We don't have to spend nine months in therapy talking about, “Yes, your mother was an alcoholic, and all of these big things about why you can't communicate.” No, it's actually learning how to say, “Is this a good time to talk?” to your partner. Not always. Sometimes, there are old things, and it goes deeper. But, you'd be amazed at the impact of making these small procedural changes can make on the way that everything unfolds. So I just wanted to share that. If inattentive invalidation is a thing at your house, just try it. Let me know what happens. 

Belligerent Invalidators

Now, there are other kinds of invalidating behaviors that we should talk about. Another common one is a belligerent invalidator. The MO of a belligerent invalidator is to rebut rather than listen and put their energy into making their own case, instead of seeing things from their partner’s perspective. 

Example, somebody, either you or your partner, is talking about, “I didn't feel good about that situation. That person was being rude, or that felt uncomfortable.” A belligerent invalidator will basically tell you why you're wrong for feeling that way. Or say, “Yeah, well, this is what was actually going on.” 

What's happening in those moments, and again, it's not on purpose. It's not intentional. But it's like they are replacing your perspective or whatever you just shared with their own perspective. They are not trying to be hostile or belligerent. But it really feels that way. Because it was like you just put something out there, and then, they just steamrolled over it with their concept of reality. 

This, again, is super common. I think it is very easy to identify people or situations when we have felt that way. Less easy to identify when we ourselves are accidentally doing that. Somebody shares something, and it's very easy to say, “Oh, no, that's not what happened. Let me tell you what really happened.” Sometimes, when you do that to people, they'll fight back and it'll turn into an argument, which in some ways is great. It's healthier in some ways, and it’s like, “ No, I need you to listen to me right now.” 

Other times, you will do that to someone. You'll say, “No, no, no. That's not what happened. Let me tell you what actually happened.” People will just take it, and you will have made them feel really bad, and uncared for, and disrespected. They just kind of go inwards. You just steamrolled right over them and broke their trust in you. You're not emotionally safe. But they're like, “Okay.” We'll exit that. You might not ever know what just happened. You'll feel fine because you were just telling them what you thought. What's the harm? You're just calling it like you see it right? You’ll never know that that was actually a real wound. 

That's another thing about relationships. We've all heard that saying, “Death by a thousand cuts.” These micro-moments? Those are cuts, and if you're with someone who isn't real assertive in telling you how you're making them feel, you can just keep cutting, and cutting, and cutting, and they'll just eventually be done with you, and you will not have known why. That is a terrible thing to consider, and it is a reality of relationships. So, belligerent invalidation. Please keep that one on your radar. 

The next time somebody tells you something, particularly, if it has anything to do with how they felt, or perceived something, or reacted to something, is just to keep in mind, they are telling you how they feel right now. Their truth is how they feel. Your job as a partner, or a friend, is to help them feel understood by you, not corrected by you. Nobody's asking you for that. So, again, I'm being direct. I am being your friend right now. Because the alternative when you're doing that to people and not fully aware of it can be really bad for relationships, and it's very easy to do. 

Controlling Invalidators

Another very common kind of invalidating behavior are the controlling invalidators. These types of invalidators are often extremely confident, which is a good thing in many situations. But they are very confident that their way of doing things is right and just, and will either intervene or undo things that their partner does in efforts to correct it. 

Now, I have also been guilty of this in my relationship. Again, I think it's more due to impulsivity than ill will, right? When someone is invalidating in a controlling way, they often feel like they're helping. They are stepping in. They're going to manage something. They're going to prevent a possible problem that they foresee in the future and that maybe their partner doesn't. But this happens in so many situations, including parenting, housekeeping, social situations around finances. 

One example would be, one partner saying, “No little Timmy, you can't go out to play because you have to take a shower and clean your room.” The other partner is, “Oh, yeah, Jim's mom called and wants you to play. Just be back before dinner.” So it's this really subtle and common kind of invalidation that happens when one person's preferences or things that they are trying to create or do are, again, just undone by someone else. 

This can happen in very small ways, too, around someone's preferences for how you do things. I think, for many couples, teamwork can feel hard. One aspect of every successful relationship is just being able to work together as a team, right? Like the most banal things. Who does laundry? Who folds the laundry? Does laundry get put away in the drawer? Or does it stay in the laundry basket even if it's clean? Who gets the mail? Who opens the mail? How often does this happen? Who pays the bills? 

These little procedural things, even around cleaning, cleaning the house, or making the bed, or cooking a meal that people who have a tendency towards this controlling kind of invalidation, they wind up taking over for a lot of different things because they have stronger opinions about the way that things should be done. The message that is sent to their partner is, “You're not doing it right. Your way of doing things is wrong, and I am taking this away from you.” 

The experience on the other side, again, can be very subtle. People may or may not be talking about this, but it leads to a lot of withdrawal in relationships. It's like this: “Okay, I tried. It wasn't good enough. Fine. You do it.” It is this sense of being, sometimes micromanaged, but just disrespected. “My preferences, my ways of doing things, my feelings in the situation are not important to you.” It's like, “This is your show. This isn't my show.” 

It comes through these small interactions and through these very subtle and seemingly insignificant, controlling kinds of invalidating behaviors that many of us are not aware of. Because, again, our intentions are not bad. We're not trying to make our partners feel micromanaged or disrespected. It's that we maybe have done this before, maybe we have our preferences; we already have a system. “No, the bread goes here,” that kind of thing. But again, what it leads to, particularly, if it's a pattern in the relationship is the other person withdrawing and just feeling like there's not space for them. 

I do not want to genderify this because these patterns can exist for both men and women and in same-sex relationships, certainly. But usually, controlling invalidators, in my experience, tend to be women. Not always, but many, many times. So just check in with yourself. “Am I doing this?” See if you can notice it in yourself. Again, notice, too, that when this is happening, you're not trying to be disrespectful. You're not trying to be damaging. You are not trying to communicate contempt. But that's how it can still be received. 

Again, I'm not saying these things to make you feel bad. When we shine the light on ourselves and understand how easy it is to accidentally make other people feel this way, we can become much more gentle and compassionate when we are experiencing invalidation from others. We can see the other person not as this invalidating enemy who is trying to hurt me emotionally. It's, “Oh, they don't understand what's happening right now.” Because I, sometimes, don't understand the small things that I do make other people feel a certain way. 

When we can move into that space of compassion and collaborative understanding. It's so much easier to talk about that authentically and have grace for the other person to say, “Let's have a redo. This is one of the things that we've been working on. We've been talking to Lisa about this or whatever.” It softens it. It makes it much more likely to have your needs met when you can have empathy for the noble intentions of your partner, noble intentions much of the time. 

Judgmental Invalidators

One other thing, a couple other kinds of invalidating behaviors, there is also such a thing as a judgmental invalidator. These kinds of validators, again, in my experience, they are truly trying to be helpful. But what they do in action is that they are minimizing the importance of things that they don't personally feel are interesting, or important, or significant that their other person sees. They do so in a way that creates disconnection in their relationships. 

An example of judgmental invalidation would be somebody saying, “What should we do this weekend? There are so many fun things. Do you want to go to the farmers market? Do you want to go to the RV show, rodeo, anything? It could literally be brunch with my friends.” The judgmental invalidator would say, “No, that's boring. I want to spend this time playing video games with my friend. Or I am not even remotely interested in brunch or your friends. Why would I want to do that?” 

Again, they probably feel like they're being authentic, right? They're telling you how they really feel. Also, a judgmental invalidator can also communicate this way about emotionally laden things. “That's, again, the wrong way of looking at it.” Or “Why would you think that?” What they're doing is, they're so entrenched in their little perspective of the world, their own little fiefdom of reality, that it is very difficult for them to look over the wall and understand that other people have other interests. 

They have other cognitive filters. They have other expectations of relationshipse. They are interpreting the world differently. They have different motivations. They have different tastes. They're just, again, so stuck in their own one worldview. It's like they're just looking down at their feet. This is the way things are. To have that acknowledgment of the diversity of all humans, they struggle with that. But again, they're not doing it out of maliciousness. They are simply being authentic. 

They’re like, “Why would I do that? I've never gone to a rodeo. I don't really get it. No, I don't want to do that.” Again, what happens is that it sends this message of what you are interested in doing, what you like, what you might want to try, “First of all, I don't understand that, and I will not participate in that with you. That isn't important to me, so I won't do it.” 

Again, it can be very subtle. But I tell you what, I have seen so many relationships break apart on those rocks, I can't even tell you. Because what happens is that the person on the other side feels like if they want to maintain a connection with this individual, they have to enter their world. They have to be into what they are into. They need to hang out with their friends. They need to participate in their interests because their partner is not coming over the line onto their side of things. 

Now, just to state this very plainly, and clearly, it is also true that in vibrant, healthy relationships, partners have different interests. It is 100%, okay, to have hobbies, or sports, or activities that you are into that your partner is not into. You don't have to be doing all the same things together all of the time. I think, in some ways, to have that kind of diversity in a relationship is quite healthy because you have this sort of interdependence. You can have your separate lives and separate friend groups. 

I think that makes for a more interesting relationship, right? You can go do something fun with your friends, and your partner can go through a different thing. Then, you can come back together and have an interesting conversation because you have stories to tell and things to share. It's great, right? So that's how people grow and evolve. All of those things are healthy. 

But I think when there is this, almost absolute refusal to enter into someone's worldview ever, what is experienced is a lot of judgment. Because, again, I think people are not intended to come across this way. But the meta-message is that “Well, that's dumb. Why would you want to do that? Ew, no, that's boring.” For whatever it is. That feels really bad. It feels really bad to be partnered with someone who is judgmental of who you are and what you're into. 

I think that the lesson we can take here is that even if you are not into the things that your partner is into, it is okay to help support their interests by talking to them about it or doing things with them sometimes. You don't have to spend every weekend of your life doing the thing. But, what we want to communicate is that “Your interests are important to you. Therefore, they are important to me.” 

Listen, you guys, I have a 13-year-old who is super into video games right now. Candy Crush stresses me out. That's all I can take, right? Not only am I not interested in playing video games, I do not really care that much. But my 13-year-old is super interested in this. So, I will be a video-game spectator. I will watch him play. He's telling me about all these different missiles, and guns, and squads, and things, and whatever. He is so excited. 

To connect with him, I am not being judgmental and rejecting of the things that are important to him because it would be so easy for me to do that. Because inside my head sometimes I'm like, “Why would you want to, anyway?” But in those moments, my role is to like, “Tell me more. What do you like about this game? Or tell me about what happened when X, Y, Z. Or who's your favorite character? Or what do you like about? Tell me about the plotline.” 

Asking questions being engaged, because the alternative is to subtly communicate judgment, and rejection, and invalidation in a way that can create a lot of disconnection in a relationship and sends a message, “You're not important to me. What you're into is dumb. I think you're dumb. I don't care about this.” It feels like “I don't care about you.” We don't want to do that for the people that we love. Again, easy to do. Easy to do. 

Emotional Invalidators

Now, there are a couple of other kinds of invalidators that I'm going to talk about really briefly. One of the most important, and this, oftentimes, I think, is a very obvious one is the emotional invalidator. How many times have we encountered these people in our lives? This is the stereotypical garden-variety emotional invalidator who disagrees with other people's feelings, or argues that other people's feelings are not reasonable, or tries to talk them out of their feelings.

For example, if you have ever been crying for some random reason, and your partner wanders in and says, “You shouldn't be sad about that.” Or “It wasn't that big of a deal.” Or doesn't even acknowledge the fact that you are in the grips of a big emotion, or tries to cheer you up. Again, these responses to emotion often come from — this is hard to even say out loud, but it's so true — they are honestly well-intentioned. 

Somebody thinks that they're trying to make you feel better. “Look on the bright side. Or at least, X, Y, Z.” Or, “You know? Forget about that. Let's go do something fun. Let me distract you from your feelings.” Oftentimes, people are trying to help you because they perceive emotions as being problematic, dark emotions as being something negative that need to be avoided. They themselves are often not that great in noticing how they feel or being able to stay engaged with their own negative emotions, which is a core component of emotional intelligence. It's hard to do. 

Again, not to genderify, but many men, as we've talked about on this podcast previously, are not socialized to have a really deep relationship with their own feelings. So many little boys to this day get yelled at for crying or punished for having “negative,” I prefer to call them, dark emotions. There's a lot of negative connotations around those. Emotional invalidators often will see someone in the grips of a negative emotion and be like, “Oh, no, I have to get them out of there because that's not good,” not recognizing that it is so positive and so important for all of us to really be in those fully present spaces sometimes. 

Like, “I am having an authentic experience right now. I am feeling really, really sad about this situation.” Or “My feelings were hurt.” Or “I just feel really bad about this situation that happened at work. I don't know what to do.” Or “I'm feeling so overwhelmed” Or… Whatever it is, in order for us to grow and to be genuinely healthy, we need to go into those spaces, and stay there, and process our feelings, and take wisdom from those feelings. 

The best thing that any of us can do when our partner is in that space is to say, “Tell me more about what's going on.” Open-ended questions. “When did you start feeling this way? What were the triggers? What happens to you in these moments?” Or to say nothing at all, just to sit there with somebody and allow them the luxury of having their feelings validated in your presence. Because just to simply be present with someone when they're not okay is such a gift. It's so emotionally intimate. We don't show everyone in the world that side of us. 

But in our most intimate relationships, we are extending this treasure of, “This is how I really feel. This is who I really am. This is what is true for me.” To simply have that be acknowledged, and accepted, and not argued with, and not to have someone try to change it or do something about it, is the greatest gift that we can ever give. That really is how to connect with someone. Anything else leads them to feel like, “They don't care about how I'm feeling. My feelings are not important to them. My feelings are making them uncomfortable. So I need to fix myself back up again because they can't handle it.” 

Do you want somebody to feel that way with you? I don't. So just to be aware of that in those moments. Even just a hug, or “I hear you,” or “Yeah, that is a really hard situation. That is legitimately so hard. I'm so sorry that that is happening. I know that there is nothing that I can do, and I'm just so grateful that you're sharing these feelings with me right now. Because I appreciate that we have that kind of relationship where you let me into this.” Just even saying simple things like that can be just the most amazing thing you could possibly do.

Mr./Ms. Fix-It 

A close cousin of this emotional invalidation, somebody who's very uncomfortable with dark emotions, is the other well-intentioned person that is a Mr. Fix It or Ms. Fix It in those moments of, somebody is struggling with something hard and what they're trying to do, honestly and legitimately, is saying, “I love you so much. I'm going to solve this problem. Let's fix it because I don't want you to feel bad about this. Let's fix it.” So it is, “I'll pick the kids up tomorrow.” Or “Let me. It's okay. Here's what we should do instead,” and jumping right into solutions.”

Hey, I am all about solutions. Yes, all couples need to solve actual problems together. There are so many moments of opportunity for productive, collaborative problem solving that do actually make changes in the way you do things, where you talk to each other, the way you handle things, related to parenting, or finances, or boundaries. So much stuff. There is a time and place to actually focus on making specific changes. 

What often happens to the detriment of relationships is when people jump into that problem-solving space at the expense of the emotional-connection space. Again, it is so well-intentioned, but I can't even tell you how many couples I've worked with in couples therapy or relationship coaching, where we had to stay awhile on helping people understand how those efforts are actually received on an emotional level by their partner. 

Because when someone says, “I'm just feeling so overwhelmed by the situation, right now. I'm feeling so frustrated.” And somebody is like, “Okay, well, let's just do this. And then, it'll never happen again,” they don't experience that as being helpful. The message it sends is, “I don't want to hear about it. We need to just fix this immediately, stop talking about this. I don't want to know how you're feeling about it. I am going to shut the door of emotion. We'll fix this, so we can never talk about it again.” It's kind of how it's experienced.

Again, noble intentions, problem-solving is good. But without the space of being able to connect and really talk about the feelings and help your partner feel genuinely validated in that moment, it does the opposite of what is often intended, which is to fix something. What it actually does is create emotional disconnection in the relationship. It turns into, “Well, she doesn't want to hear about it, or she's just going to tell me to do this thing differently. So, whatever.” It creates withdrawal. It makes people feel uncared for and they're not truly known by their partner, which over time leads to serious disconnection in a relationship. 

Again, we'll talk more about that emotional intimacy in upcoming podcast episodes. But be aware if this is something that you tend to do in relationships is that rushing in to fix or trying to talk people out of their feelings. I will bet you a cookie that subjectively, you feel in those moments like you're trying to be helpful. You're trying to make them feel better. You're trying to look for solutions, all positive things. But there is a whole other dimension of relationships. 

We must make space for the authentic emotional experience of our partners, and help them feel understood, and respected, and affirmed, and validated by us. Because even if we're fixing things, and trying to keep things positive, our relationships, over time, become really hollowed out when that emotional connection, emotional safety, emotional trust, emotional intimacy is eroded. That is what happens when people are invalidating each other. 

The Arc of Change is Experiential

Lastly, just want to share that these patterns are often entrenched in relationships. They can be difficult for all of us to see when we are doing them because our intentions are often good in those moments. I would just like to float the idea that your partner probably experiences those moments similarly. They struggle to understand how their responses may be impacting you. So, certainly, would invite you to get them to listen to this podcast if that would be helpful, just to raise some awareness. 

Also, these things are hard. I spend, easily, several sessions with couples, helping them gain self-awareness about these interactions, in these small moments that invalidation is happening in order to help them recognize them and do something different instead. So I always feel bad in some ways. I love making these podcasts for you. I hope that you find the information in them to be helpful. But I also just want to say out loud that the process of creating change in these areas is not just about getting information, listening to a podcast, and being like, “Okay, cool, I'm gonna do this instead.” 

The actual arc of change is experiential. It occurs over time. So I just want to say that because I always worry that people will hear one of these podcasts and then assume that they should be able to do all of this stuff now that they've heard this, or even worse, that their partner listens to this podcast and should be able to do this stuff differently because of having benefited from this information. Personal growth does not work that way. Personal growth is never an event. It is a process that starts with maybe information. But then, it has to turn into self-awareness and recognition. That is very experiential in nature. 

I just wanted to offer that so that you are gentle with yourself if this is a growth opportunity for you. Also, so that you are gentle with your partner. I hope that if you take nothing else away from our discussion today, please do take away this idea that if you are feeling invalidated in your relationship, as is so common, to take away that the fact that when people are engaging in behaviors that are experienced as invalidating, they are not intending to hurt you. There is a huge lack of awareness around the impact of these behaviors. 

To be gentle and compassionate with your partner, and shift into a more effective stance of “Let's work on this. Let me help you understand what's happening in these moments. Let's try this again. Here's what I'm looking for you. I'm looking for emotional intimacy right now. I'd love to feel more of this with you. When these things happen, I don't feel emotionally connected to you. I'd like that to change.” 

Having those kinds of conversations are just so much more helpful in the long run than having it just turn into a fight or being really critical with your partner because they maybe don't have the self-awareness or the skills yet to help you feel validated in those moments. Because we all engage in invalidating behaviors, sometimes, it's so easy to do, and I hope that we can all have grace with each other and help each other grow and evolve. That is my intention for us today. 

I hope that you took something away from this podcast. Hey, if you did, as a favor to me and your fellow travelers on this journey of growth, if you could, trot over to wherever you're listening to this podcast, and leave a review. That helps this podcast reach more people. As you probably know, we don't do any advertising. This is not a mercenary thing. 

This is me trying to help people who are probably never going to be my clients but to take hopefully valuable little bits of information away that will help them have more happy, and loving, and stable, honestly, relationships, and marriages, and families, and homes that can improve their lives, also the lives of their children, for kids to grow up in a home where there is an emotionally safe relationship happening with them, and their parents. To witness that in their partners, that is what lasts for generations. 

So help other people find this show. Review it. Share it on social media, this episode and others. I would really appreciate it not just for myself, but for everybody that can benefit from hearing this message, too. So thank you again for being here today. I will be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast. Bye-bye.

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