#Squadgoals for grownups: how to build your social crew with confidence

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The Bay Area is home to a large number of people who relocate here for improved work or educational opportunities.  After settling in, most find themselves wanting to establish new local friendships, set up a social community, and increase their sense of group inclusiveness.  Lately I’ve been working with millennials on how to optimize their experience of social group dynamics.  In other words, I help them develop their social crew with confidence, a.k.a. #squadgoals for grownups.  For some, building new friendships in an area brimming with overachievers in tech can feel intimidating, and lead to a sense of social isolation and loneliness.  Others who feel more comfortable in high achieving social contexts may find networking for professional purposes easier, but feel uncertain about how to read social cues outside of structured work settings.
One of the first things I do as an executive coach and therapist to help someone strengthen their social skills and expand their friend group is to understand the role they typically take on in group settings.  Most people can look back to childhood and notice re-occurring patterns in their social lives.  What influential experiences or people shaped your beliefs about friendship growth?  How did you come to understand yourself in comparison to others in a group dynamic?  Taking historical inventory can help people better understand and reflect upon their unique social development.  Why did some groups feel enjoyable and easy, whereas others felt uninteresting or even toxic?    Here are a few social situations that clients are addressing in our sessions:
29 year old  Jason “I’m bummed that some friends who said they’d do a 10k with me a few months ago ended up flaking- it felt pretty rude.  One person basically said they’d go if another mutual friend was going, but not if it was just me.  I feel like my social value in the group is lower than I thought, and now if I don’t go, it just proves I don’t have much influence.”
25 year old Sunako “I have a lot of anxiety in group settings, even when everyone in the group is a friend of mine.  I get worried that I don’t have anything interesting to contribute to the conversation, and I feel like everyone is smarter and funnier than me.”
28 year old Kiaan “I haven’t found a group of friends like the ones I had in NYC- I used to have a group of friends I could just hit up for random stuff, you know, grab a drink or a bite, shoot some hoops, whatever.  I can do that with work people here, but it’s just not the same, you know?  I don’t really connect with people here in the same way.”
Around the same time I decided to pen this article on #squadgoals for grownups, my daughter (who’s in the 3rd grade) hosted a sleepover for ten of her friends.  There’s nothing like watching a group of kids resolve social predicaments over and over as a way to examine the social nuances of group functioning.  As someone who’s well liked by her peers, makes new friends easily, and has successfully welcomed newcomers into her friend group, I wanted her to weigh in on what can help people feel confident in social situations.  I was hoping she’d give me a few basic points of reference to build upon how and why friendships grow stronger, and how to best enjoy social groups.  (The secret is out- multi-tasking parents are not opposed to having our kids do our work for us whenever possible!)  She offered the following tips in plain language, pointing out the most important tenets of developing friendships and navigating social groups.  These universal concepts are timeless, and I truly believe apply to all ages and social strata.  As we get older, we can overcomplicate things, take things too personally, and assign unnecessary value to social roles that undermine our confidence and ability to enjoy others.
  • If you’re feeling shy but would like to make new friends, it helps to remember: no one wants to play alone.  Everyone likes the feeling of being included.  By being part of a social group you can enjoy things differently than when you’re alone.  A group is only fun if people in it are getting along well.  How you can help this happen?  There are different ways you can be included in a social group.
  • If you want to build a leadership role within a group, you have to gain other people’s trust that a suggestion you have is going to go well and be fun.  Some people really like coming up with new ideas for the group, and other people like to add their opinions to a new idea.  A good leader pays attention to other people’s opinions and preferences when they’re coming up with suggestions for the group.
  • Everyone feels good when their idea is used for a group activity, so it’s good to take turns and let other people suggest ideas.  Be enthusiastic about their idea, and pay attention to how they’d it to go.  They’ll probably invite you back to do stuff with them again.
  • Move on from an activity that isn’t working well and don’t take it personally.  Focus on paying attention to what people find fun, and accept that some times an idea doesn’t go as planned.  Just let it go, and do something else.
  • It’s ok if you don’t enjoy coming up with ideas for the group- other people will still really like including you because you make a point to enjoy their suggestions.  They’ll keep including you because by participating you add to the fun of the group, and you’ll become closer friends with others that way.
  • Sometimes you might want to do an activity that other people in your group don’t want to do.  You have to decide what’s more important to you in that moment – doing the activity you had in mind, or doing something with the group.  If other people aren’t interested in joining you for this activity, you should focus on the reasons unrelated to you to that have probably influenced their decision.  You should not take it personally.  Just move on and stay focused on having fun, what ever you decide to do with your time.
  •  If you decide to do something different than the group, you can always meet up with them later, you don’t have to feel like you’re not part of the group anymore.  By getting together with the group another time, you get a chance to do different things, and other people can do the same.  If people in a group get mad anytime someone wants to do something different for a change, it’s probably not going to feel as much fun in the long run.  The best groups should still be able to have fun when people come and go at different times.
  • Most new friendships are established and reinforced because people enjoy doing the same types of things- even doing them alone these activities are fun, but by sharing the experience with other people, it adds to the fun.  In the beginning maybe you don’t feel that close to someone new, but as you do an activity with them, you end up feeling more comfortable and closer to them.  Before you know it you’re very close friends.
She makes it sound pretty simple, right? 🙂
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Relationship goals: when to invest in relationship growth vs separation

Yesterday I spent my day coaching 7 different young adults through completely different stages of their relationship development.  All of them have proven to be tremendously capable in their chosen professional field.  Even in the teetering tech market of Silicon Vally they’ve earned impressive merit based raises, gifted pricy vacations abroad with company funds, landed on prestigious lists like Forbes Top 30 under 30, deemed essential in corporate leadership, and set trends in the startup world of the San Francisco Bay Area.  All of them are navigating the perilous task of determining who to invest in for a long term romantic partnership.  These are people prone to approaching goals with a steely pace and scrupulous plan for a high success rate.  Yet interpersonal relationship development and decision making doesn’t easily succumb to this style of problem solving.  How does one successfully determine when to invest in relationship growth versus separation, especially in the face of elusive feelings like ‘attraction, chemistry and connection’?  How much compatibility is enough?  How much compromise is too much?   This article aims to offer some guiding points to lead you in your decision towards continuing in the relationship or breaking things off with the hopes of finding a better fit.

  • Predetermine what matters most in ANY sort of close, long term relationship.  Do this exercise.  Pretend you’re searching for a new platonic best friend, based on what has proven to be the most essential qualities you’ve enjoyed in other close friendships.  Make a list of top 5 descriptive traits you believe would be most important for the friendship to be awesome.  I asked people with various types of personalities to share this with me, in order to get a sense of what people prioritize when they decide to invest in growing a relationship.  I was actually surprised by what some people said! (I won’t list any here because I think it’s more effective to create your list without external influences.)  Now ask yourself ‘How can I find out if this person has enough of my 5 most valued traits?  What will I look for? How long will it take?  Does this person demonstrate these traits consistently with me as well as other key people in their life, or are they sporadic?’  Are the qualities on my list part of how I’ve identified and maintained ‘chemistry’ with people in the past?  If you find yourself dating someone who doesn’t exhibit these qualities consistently with you, chances are it’s just not going to work.
  • Is there considerable evidence that this person adds measurable value to your life right now?  I ask this because many people decide to invest in relationships based on factors they believe will be valuable at some future point.  Nothing is wrong with considering things like compatible achievement/financial goals, similar hypothetical timelines for marriage, or believing someone would make an amazing parent.  The problem with this focus is that people lose track of evaluating how much they actually enjoy the relationship in the here and now.  I can’t tell you how many people come into my office stating “my problem is that I tend to date two different kinds of people; one is super hot and we have great physical chemistry but not a lot in common/we can’t stand each other outside the bedroom, and the other one has a lot of what I want in a life partner but I’m just not as attracted to them physically.”  Choices, choices people!  Here’s the bottom line.  If someone doesn’t currently hold your interest enough for you to exclusively focus on them on a day-to-day basis, chances are you’re going to be so focused on an upgrade it’s bound to fail!  It does not matter that their potential is great, or the timing is off, etc.  Move on.  But accept this:
  • THERE IS NO HOLY GRAIL of a partner.  It doesn’t even matter how much of a catch you are (tragically!)  Don’t believe me?  Do this: find an older person who describes their early relationship as having exactly the experience you’ve always wanted- that feeling of butterflies and fireworks going off, sitting and daydreaming about when you get to spend time alone with them again, listening to them talk in awe of how amazing/intelligent/funny/interesting they are, doing stuff with them is so easy and fun, the physical attraction is there, ‘this is THE ONE’ feeling is there, the feeling is mutual, etc. etc.  Even when this whole ‘madly in love’ experience remains unwavering for years between two people, they will STILL tell you that eventually the honeymoon phase does end (You’ve heard this before.  Still, you long to be impervious to this truth, so you avoid it by chasing new honeymoons with different people).  So this is when the hard work of committed relationship compromise begins, in order for you to enjoy the reality of a long-term relationship beyond the honeymoon phase.

Now if you’ve managed to make a connection with someone to even consider any of the above questions, you’re off to a decent start.  These days in the dating world it’s a challenge to even get beyond the right swipe of a dating app, let alone past the cutting room floor of a first date/hang out session.  Think about how you want to address the idea of investing in this next period of relationship evaluation.

  • Clarify the deal of commitment.  Even though these conversations are awkward, if avoid it you’ll have no idea if investing more of your time makes sense.  First figure out what you want.  Would you prefer if the two of you are only dating each other in this next phase?  Or dating other people but sexually exclusive?  Do you know if marriage is something they want for themselves, and if so, how soon do they imagine being ready for marriage?
  • Spend time thinking about where you are and are not willing to compromise. The other person may need more time to feel it out.  Many people operate under the belief that “compatible” people start out wanting commitment changes to happen at exactly the same time.  This couldn’t be further from the truth, some people just need more time to process their thoughts and feelings.  It is your job however, to decide whether the discrepancies that exist between the two of you are just too big to establish and maintain a fulfilling relationship.  How you ask?
  • Notice the patterns that exist between you:  Are routinely important habits in their life persistently difficult for you to bear?  Do you see a feasible way for you to accept these things, even if they never change?  Can you communicate while problem-solving without spiraling into attack or stonewalling mode with each other?  Do you set each other off in consistently destructive ways?  Is the emotional toll of engaging in this relationship negatively impacting other important areas of your life such as your ability to work effectively in your chosen path?  Are you able to maintain the relationships you’ve determined are important to you while you’re dating this person?
  • Make a clear decision about the relationship for a specific period of time and execute towards that plan, rather than spending days or even months going back and forth about whether to stay in the relationship.  ‘Should I end this relationship?  Yesterday I struggled with thinking I should, but today I feel like I want to make things work.’  This type of deliberation can be paralyzing and spiral into even bigger problems, like anxiety and depression, which exacerbate the situation.  You’re not going to move forward in either your relationship or personally if you remain plagued with indecisiveness.  By not committing to a concrete plan, you are not actively working to gain resolution.  The irony of staying in a relationship with one foot out the door is that you neither benefit from the comfort of intimacy nor gain the necessary closure for moving on with your life.
  • Accept that even the happiest couples have perpetual problems.  Manage conflict with the understanding that not all problems can be permanently solved.  If I learned anything from studying the work of John Gottman (the leading expert on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations) it was this- you are setting yourself up for failure if you approach all your relationship problems  with the expectation of permanent resolution.  Perpetual problems stem from fundamental differences in your personalities or lifestyle habits, and can lead to gridlock when attempts to communicate and compromise fail.
  • Learn to practice effective conflict management.  Enlist emotional intelligence skills and aim to avoid toxic communication styles.  Create a system of shared meaning in your relationship that fosters collaboration and friendship in order to bypass power struggles.  What matters is not solving perpetual problems, but establishing a dialogue that communicates acceptance of your partner with humor, affection, and even amusement, to actively cope with the unresolvable problem without it tearing down the relationship.

If all else fails, seek professional help to help you figure out how to effectively invest the time and effort necessary for building and maintaining a healthy relationship.  Work through your breakup story if that’s the route you take, but move on so you can benefit from the invaluable rewards of love and intimacy.

 

Dr.Villarreal on Forum with Michael Kransy

Forum with Michael Kransy of KQED, NPR Public Radio welcomed Dr. Christina Villarreal as a guest speaker and mental health expert on the episode Moving On After a Break Up … And Why It’s Too Painful for Some of Us on February 12, 2016.  With host Mina Kim:  A new Stanford study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin uncovers why some people have more trouble recovering from breakups than others.  Listen to the entire episode here.

 

 

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Dr. Christina Villarreal in The Green Room @ KQED San Francisco

Millennials Do It Their Way: Optimizing Casual Sex So Everyone Wins

Read between the lines.
If reading between the lines isn’t working for you, try speaking up and being direct!

Millennials coming of age experience in the United States has been uniquely influenced by their access to the free, unlimited sexual content widely available on the internet.  This access has served not only as a resource for their sexual curiosity and consumption, but as a primary resource for easily connecting to people who share their sexual preferences on the dating sites of the moment.  Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University analyzed data from a survey of more than 33,000 adults in the U.S. to measure the country’s shifting sexual landscape.  The data revealed that Millennials were the most likely generation to acknowledge having casual sex; 45 percent of them said they had slept with someone other than a boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse during their late teens or 20s.  Overall, adult acceptance of premarital sex increased from 42 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2012, an all-time high.  “Americans are spending more of their lifetime unmarried, so they have more opportunities to engage in sex with more partners, and less reason to disapprove of non-marital sex” reports Twenge.  She opines that increasingly permissive attitudes toward sex are a sign of the rise of individualism in America.  She explains “when a culture places more emphasis on the needs of the self and less on social rules, more relaxed attitudes toward sexuality are the almost inevitable result.”

More and more young adults are supporting the current trend in sexual decision-making, where commitment and emotional connection are seen as unnecessary precursors to first time sexual encounters with others.  In theory, this allows people to get their sexual needs met, while minimizing the emotional risks and responsibilities associated with interpersonal intimacy.  In my practice as an executive/personal coach in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s relatively common practice for both men and women to report having sex with someone they’ve just met.  Based on this first sexual encounter, they may choose not to see them again, may establish a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement, or opt to get to know them on a deeper, emotional level through dating if a romantic relationship is something they’re seeking.  In most cases there’s a trial and error period, as people who are still very new to each other attempt to communicate their sexual preferences and get their needs met.  Millennials’ prolific use of texting as a primary form of communication, habit of avoiding vulnerabilityawkward interpersonal exchanges, and peer conflict can all contribute to frequent misunderstandings and rapid start/stops within their sexual encounters, regardless of what the end goal may be.  In some cases, getting stuck in a pattern of ineffective/unsatisfying sexual encounters can lead to anxiety, depression and an over-reliance on recreational substances.

As a coach and mental health expert I help people develop and practice the necessary skills for optimizing their new sexual experiences and increase their ability to find, establish and maintain satisfying relationships.  This article aims to provide some practical guidelines for optimizing the outcomes of your casual sex encounters while dating, and insightful tips for decoding the opposite sex along the way.

Men seeking sexual encounters with women:

  • Adopt an early communication style that encourages a positive response from women.  What does that mean? Skip the crude humor in online and text exchanges- chances are, you’re likely only entertaining yourself (or infamously landing yourself in one those Buzzfeed Tinder Fail lists) and that’s not the point is it?  Humor is fine, and can be a good initial approach online, but seriously, a little goes a long way.  Increase your odds of getting a genuine response from women by taking yourself out of the dregs of online dating wasteland- try telling an original, funny story about yourself, relate to something personal on a woman’s profile, or at minimum, send a quick hello with your array of pics to see if what you have going on is of interest to her.  Have a friend (preferably female) screen your online pics.  It may seem trivial, but poorly chosen pics can make or break your online dating success.
  • Once you’re corresponding consistently with someone, be proactive and suggest a specific plan to get together.  While this seems like a no-brainer, a lot of guys fail to get the ball rolling while they have a woman’s attention.  Comedian Aziz Ansari conducted focus groups with hundreds of people for his new book Modern Romance, getting intimate details on why people have problems with dating.  He shares “The lack of clarity over whether the meet-up is even an actual date frustrates both sexes to no end, but since it’s usually the guys initiating, this is a clear area where men can step it up.” So guys, to optimize your chances of establishing a sexual encounter, strike while the iron is hot.  While you’re keeping someone around as a text buddy, someone else is closing the deal as her new sex partner by making specific plans.  It might be entertaining and easy to have an assortment of women to text and exchange photos with, but these women will eventually fade you out of the picture for someone they know in real life.
  • Be sincere and honest about what your ideal arrangement is right now.  Just because you’re wanting to keep things casual doesn’t mean you’re decreasing your chances for sexual opportunities with women.  There are plenty of women who are open to keeping things casual too!  Plenty.  It doesn’t make sense to allude to wanting a more committed relationship if you actually don’t- doing so only increases the odds of introducing drama I’m sure you’d rather avoid.  Women can absolutely relate to wanting to experience an array of people before settling into a committed relationship, and understand you may be in a stage of your life where you’re prioritizing other life goals above romantic relationships.  In short, aim for integrity when you engage with someone in pursuit of sex.  Establishing this mutual understanding up front will create a space where both of you can focus on what you’re actually there for- sexual pleasure.
  • Real talk: If you aren’t asking what you can do to help a woman achieve orgasm and/or paying close attention to figuring out what she enjoys (and spending more than a little time doing this) it’s safe to guess you’re coming up short in bed.  Which of course, is your choice.  Just consider that when a woman finally does come along that you actually care about pleasing (even if it’s years and countless women from now), you likely still won’t have much of a clue about how to get her off (especially if you’re a fan of male produced porn).  There’s a good chance you’ll pale in comparison to other guys she’s been with, which is not a good look if you want to become that person’s significant other/favorite sexual partner.  If that’s not enough motivation, consider this:  when a woman reaches full sexual attraction to a sex partner she is going to be much more agreeable and feel more confident about trying new things for the sake of her partner’s pleasure.  That sexual fantasy you’ve had since the 8th grade?  That could go down if you play your cards right. #Thankmelater

Women seeking sexual encounters with men:

Speak Up Clearly and Consistently To Avoid Confusion.  Taking a meek approach in communicating your sexual preferences is going to seriously set back your sexual pleasure (and possibly compromise your sexual safety). Remind yourself:  Men cannot read your mind (and your subtle non-verbals can go unnoticed) because men and women are culturally socialized to communicate in different styles.  Be direct with your words and your actions about what you like and what you don’t like. Think about it: when men engage sexually, most do a pretty good job of getting their sexual needs met.  Porn and sex in movies perpetuate the myth that men do exactly what women love during sex (and women are supposed love it, regardless of how ridiculous it is!)

Set The Pace:  Literally and Figuratively.  Figuring out a sexual pace that feels good between two people comes from familiarity and predictability, neither of which have been established when you’ve only recently met someone.  So in addition to communicating openly, take the time to find a pace that works for both of you. Try not to approach sex like it’s fast food eaten at 2 am after staying out all night- which is usually on a whim, followed by almost instant regret.  Take your time and do it right– these SOS Band song lyrics were a hit for a reason!

STOP FAKING IT IN BED.  Really.  Pretending that you enjoy things during sex that you don’t is synonymous with digging your own sexual grave.  Take one for the team, and stop sending guys the wrong message that what they are doing sexually is awesome when you know that it’s not.  Funny but true story:  A 25 year-old attractive Asian woman I’m coaching tells me “So I met this guy randomly, and after we talked and hung out for a while, we eventually decide to go back to his place where we end up having sex.  Right away he starts fingering me with way too much force, to the point where it’s actually hurting me and I’m going numb from it!  So I stop him and say ‘hey when you touch me like that it hurts’ and he looks at me and says a little defensively “ok well… some women like it like that.”  She deadpans, “Christina I had to break it to him… “Um NO.  NO ONE likes it like that!”  We both had a good laugh at her candor in the moment.  I could not have been more proud of her for speaking up for herself!

Stop filtering and dismissing guys so quickly- be optimistic about seeing if you can develop good sexual chemistry with guys who don’t fit your bill. These days, you can swipe right to meet guys using more filters than your favorite photo editing app offers- you can specify height, body type, education level, location, age, etc. One of the most common complaints I get from women is that they rarely feel attracted enough to guys to even see them a first or second time.  But who you think will be attracted to sexually may not be a good match in real life.  Scientists working with Match.com found that we are horrible at knowing what we want; the kind of partner people said they wanted often didn’t match up with what they were actually interested in long term.  What works well for predicting good first dates doesn’t tell us much about the long-term success of a couple let alone their sexual chemistry.  Psychologists like Robert B. Zajonc explains, “while we are initially attracted to people by their physical appearance and traits we can quickly recognize, the things that make us more attracted to someone are their deeper, more personal qualities, which come out only during sustained interactions” – the “mere exposure effect” is repeated exposure to a stimulus which tends to enhance one’s feelings toward it.

This last point applies to anyone and everyone seeking sexual or romantic connections of any and all kinds:

Do Not Let FOMO Take Over.  You’ve read about, you’ve experienced it, you’re sick of hearing about how Millennials are  responsible for amplifying this toxic trend in a digital era.  That said, I’ve seen far too many people spend endless amounts of time spinning their wheels, agonizing over not meeting/dating enough people they find interest in.  A billion and one first dates later, still…nothing.  Begin to rethink what this could mean…maybe this isn’t the strategy that is going unearth the person who gets you excited and holds your attention.  Switch it up, peel your eyes away from your phone, pull your earbuds out and take a look around you.  Make eye contact and smile, maybe even say hi to the person next to you- this could be your first moment together of many better ones to come.

 

Is Lightweight Stalking on Social Media a Relationship Killer? Stop in 3 Easy Steps.

How often do you keep tabs on the person you're dating online?
How often do you keep tabs on the person you’re dating online?

Have you ever wondered how much checking someone’s status updates/tweets/photo uploads is normal/harmless, and when does re-checking their online activity become problematic?  Most of us have caught ourselves clicking through someone’s social media activity because we have reason to be naturally curious  about them- maybe the person is someone we want to meet, or just started dating and want to know more about them.  Other times we might scroll through our partner’s online activity as a way to check their daily mood, as counterintuitive as that may sound (since you likely see them or at least communicate with them regularly in person).  Today’s prolific use of social media gives us an alternative glimpse into our partner’s emotional status and social exchanges that we may not otherwise pick up on.  Even if someone’s online persona is carefully constructed for public consumption, having access to their online activity gives us an opportunity to interpret the meaning of their coming and goings, even their level of intimacy with others.  If this person is an ex-romantic partner this may be all we have to go on- even if all we see is their profile picture and friend list, this information can still provide a rough approximation of their current situation. This dilemma recently became a topic of conversation in my coaching practice, where helping people improve their emotional intelligence is a common goal throughout the work that I do.  Victoria, a bright and accomplished 24 year-old woman shared with me that constantly checking her boyfriend’s social media activity and online communication with his ex is taking a hard toll on her mood and relationship functioning. Me: “Have you ever talked to your boyfriend about what you see on his social media sites?  That you’re concerned about who he’s interacting with online?” Her: “HELL NO! The last thing I want to do is come across as the person that I actually am- the type of person who stalks people online to see what they’re up to, and compare their successes to mine.” Checking people’s online activity, or ‘lightweight stalking‘ if you will, can run deep.  We start out taking a quick glimpse at our partner’s tweet/Instagram pic of the day, only to find their ex decided to comment suggestively.  It’s too easy to then check out our partner’s ex-boyfriend/girlfriend’s Twitter/Instagram/Facebook, etc (because dammit they have a public profile just begging to be explored).  So begins the comparisons.  Do they seem happier/sadder now? Does their taste in fashion/music/politics demonstrate that I’m a more tasteful/intelligent person?  Is he/she in better shape than me?  Our self-esteem may start to wane the more we compare ourselves to them.  We end up heading into an emotional tailspin trying to interpret their ‘Vaguebooking‘ habit on Facebook.  We’re left wondering if they’re pining for their old relationship.  Do they want to rekindle things?  Will they/have they tried?  If trust hasn’t been well established in our relationship, we might become irrationally suspicious by mistrusting and/or questioning our partner for no substantial reason.  Suddenly we’re starting arguments that undermine the health of our relationship.

FML.

Dr. Tara C. Marshall, Ph.D., explores online post-breakup fixations in her research article Facebook Surveillance of Former Romantic Partners: Associations with PostBreakup Recovery and Personal Growth.  Results based on the responses of 464 participants revealed that one-half to two-thirds of people have made contact with an ex-romantic partner through Facebook, and that over half admit to having looked through an ex’s photos to find pictures of them with a new romantic partner.  Findings from this study suggest that keeping tabs on an ex through social media is associated with poorer emotional recovery and personal growth following a breakup. Therefore, avoiding exposure to ex-partners, both offline and online, may be the best remedy for healing a broken heart.

Solution:  Put Yourself on a Stalking Diet

  1. Do not allow yourself to stalk during the time of day when you know you are the most emotionally vulnerable and/or have unlimited time to comb through the internet for new postings.  For many people this is late at night.  Give yourself an 8 pm stalking curfew!!!  Most likely after 8 pm, you’ll engage in other things that will bring your mood back to a normal, and you’ll be in a less anxious place before you sleep.
  2. If you know you’re not ready to quit cold turkey, put some “stalking hours” in place, like office hours, if you will.  You’re only allowed to check on those you stalk between 2-4 pm, for example.  That way if you find yourself curious about your ex at midnight (especially likely if you’ve been out drinking), you can rest assured you’ll have a chance to stalk to your heart’s content, just postponed a little.  Chances are, you won’t have that same aching (likely misguided) curiosity during the logical hours of the next afternoon.
  3. Delete the social media app(s) that you use the most during your sleuthing for one week.  This will allow you to see how much you actually miss compulsively scrolling through that particular social media site.  You might discover that the cost of missing out (FOMO) is not creating as much emotional damage as stalking does.
  • And if all else fails…
If all else fails…

Gen-Y’s tech twist on engagement, weddings and parenthood

While Gen-Y is still getting married at much lower rates than previous generations, some millennials are finally beginning to grow up, entering the world of marital engagements, wedding planning, and parenthood. True to form, their choices reflect advancements that set them apart from Gen-Xers, who were the first to utilize technology to chronicle their love stories on websites like theknot.com, build wedding registries online, gift personalized CDs with digitally remastered music as wedding favors, show spliced video montages of the bride and groom’s childhood at wedding receptions, and research honeymoons on websites like tripadvisor.com. As a card carrying member of generation X, I can proudly say we thought we were so cutting edge! Our kids were the first to be born with smartphones and tablets in their hands, and we posted their baby pictures on our social media pages and texted them to their grandparents. But time nor technology stands still, and Gen-Y has begun to put their own tech twist on engagements, weddings and baby plans. As a mental health treatment provider and consultant who works almost entirely with millennials in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have taken note of the following trends:

Their romantic relationships have an online life of their own. As the saying goes, no one really knows what happens behind closed doors, but in the personal lives of millennials, we can certainly take a look at their online activity to see what they’d like us to believe about their relationship status and history. The internet has become their forum of choice for chronicling romantic highs and lows, functioning as a means to gain public support, air grievances, compete for attention, and display markers of success (not to mention deleting away failures.) From public playlists on Spotify, hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, Pinterest boards and Facebook’s ‘Relationship Status’ updates, Gen-Y leaves little to the imagination when it comes to sharing their stories of romance.

They crowd source their decisions when it comes to navigating relationships. Millennials are used to solving problems fast, arriving at optimal solutions with the least resistance possible. Millennials have been groomed to work in competency-based teams, and this concept is frequently used for managing their personal lives too. They prefer to avoid conflict, and are more comfortable than previous generations relying on others to help them make decisions. Jeff Snipes, CEO of Ninth House, a provider of online education, including optimizing team effectiveness, says a hierarchical, leader-oriented team was more appropriate for earlier generations: “Traditionally if you worked up the ranks for twenty years and all the employees were local then you could know all the functions of the workplace. Then you could lead by barking orders. But today everything moves too fast and the breadth of competency necessary to do something is too vast.” When faced with life-changing decisions about relationship commitment or endings, Gen-Y seeks the opinions of their team of friends, family and experts to help them navigate and solve problems. When problems are deemed too private to share, websites like popular sites like Whisper and Secret are put to use by millennials as a way to air their private thoughts, share their hidden behaviors and ask for advice completely anonymously, so there is no threat to their carefully constructed online image.

Their engagement stories, weddings and honeymoons reflect their brilliance and investment in personal branding. While previous generations aimed to establish their worth and reputation through self-improvement, author Dan Schawbel of Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success points out that Gen-Y has discovered that in the dawn of the internet, admiration and success comes from self-packaging through a carefully concocted personal brand. From the days of Myspace to Tumblr, millennials have grown up managing their self image like celebrity publicists. Gen-Y has turned self-portraits into a way of life- ‘selfies’ have become one of the internet’s top forms of self-expression. Their overall online presence has been a way to uniquely distinguish themselves from everyone else, and they are highly invested in making their relationship milestones ideally memorable as part of their personal brand. Whether they capture and share these milestones via Snapchat’s Our Story, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or personal blogs, millennials are sure to control how the world sees their love stories unfold through brand management. One San Francisco Bay area millennial shared with me she got engaged via FaceTime, since her long-distance boyfriend was living in abroad and couldn’t wait to pop the question. To his credit, her (now fiance) also created an iMovie that he shared with her, depicting him staged in funny scenarios accompanied by a personalized musical score that specially captured their romantic history.

They’re comfortable resisting tradition, understanding that ‘following the rules’ doesn’t necessarily bring ‘happily ever after.’ Author Paul Hudson of Elite Daily, The Voice of Generation Y observes that millennials are far less likely than past generations to buy into the notion that marriage is the gateway to a future of stability and happiness. Harry Benson, research director at the Marriage Foundation, describes the strong link between parental divorce and a reluctance to get married. “If your parents split up then most people are more likely to be quite skeptical about the value of marriage,” he explains. “So as there’s rising divorce rates, you can imagine how when the next generation appears, people will be more dubious about marriage.” Bobby Duffy, leading market researcher on generational analysis, says there are also far more financial pressures on millennials than previous generations. They have more educational debt in a less stable economic climate, and face an incredibly buoyant housing market. According to CNNMoney, twenty-somethings are transitioning into adult life at a more gradual pace, opting to cohabitate and co-parent without traditional marriage at a much higher rate than previous generations.

They anticipate their babies’ future in a world where technological identity matters. One website says it all:awesomebabyname.com, a new online tool that allows parents to choose a name for their child based on website domain availability. Yes people, this is happening. I heard it first a few months ago when a pregnant patient of mine found out she was having a girl, the first thing she and her cohabiting boyfriend/expecting father-to-be did was buy website domains and establish email accounts in her name. Of course, now there’s an app for that! “It’s important to give your children a fighting chance of having good SEO (Search Engine Optimization) in the 21st century,” says Finnbar Taylor, who created this website together with Karen X. Cheng. “We use search engines all day long to answer our questions and find things, including people. Imagine being called John Smith and trying to get a ranking on Google search. It’s important to give your child a unique name so that people, like potential employers, will be able to find them easily in the future.”

Granted, millennials are still in their 20’s, a time when it’s still developmentally common to be preoccupied with self-image, and an idealized future that looks different than previous generations. The question is, as Gen-Y ages, which of these trends, if any, will change?

Dr. Christina Villarreal is a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. She produces web articles, televised and print/web interviews on current issues in mental health and tech culture. She offers consultation and strategy to start up founders and employees.

Tom Cruise Katie Holmes divorce due to history of family dysfunction?

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Since news broke that Katie Holmes filed for divorce from Tom Cruise, there has much speculation about why their highly publicized celebrity marriage ended.  People magazine reported that Holmes had become increasingly unhappy in her five-year marriage to Cruise and that “she no longer had the life she wanted, in terms of her career, her way of life, everything.”  While the media has widely cited Cruise’s beloved Scientology to be at the center of the split, Cruise’s attorney Bert Fields insists the Church of Scientology was not involved, stating “Let me be very clear about this. The Church of Scientology played absolutely NO ROLE in the divorce settlement talks at all…”  But could Cruise’s early history of family dysfunction, which likely played a large role in his adoption of the Scientology faith, be the root of his failed marriage?  Would seeking professional psychological treatment have been more effective at helping Cruise break his old patterns of family dysfunction?

There remains many unanswered questions about what led to the breakdown of Cruise’s marital union with Holmes.  While Holmes was raised in a stable Catholic family upbringing by loving parents with whom she currently remains close, Cruise has shared with the media that his own family upbringing was laden with chaotic family dysfunction dominated by an abusive father, whom his mother eventually divorced when Tom was just 12 years old.  Cruise has described his father as “a merchant of chaos“.  Cruise described him as a bully and coward: “He was the kind of person where, if something goes wrong, they kick you. It was a great lesson in my life—how he’d lull you in, make you feel safe and then, bang! For me, it was like, ‘There’s something wrong with this guy. Don’t trust him. Be careful around him.”

Further, Cruise’s education was highly fragmented- he was enrolled in a total of 15 schools during his 12 years of education.  Coupled with a diagnosis of the learning disorder dyslexia which at the time, was often misunderstood and mistreated by mental health experts, early life for Cruise was troubled and difficult.  Cruise admits “I was a functional illiterate” upon graduating high school.  Cruise states his mismanaged learning disorder was an ongoing source of great distress and an obstacle to many of his early goals in life.  This experience appears to be the origins of his widely known contempt and mistrust of the field of psychiatry, which was reinforced through his later involvement with Scientology.   Cruise attributes his eventual success with literacy to the L. Ron Hubbard Scientology Study Tech.  Scientology is publicly and often vehemently opposed to both psychology and psychiatry, and view psychiatry as a barbaric and corrupt profession and encourage alternative care based on spiritual healing.

Clinical research has shown that adults raised in dysfunctional families experience difficulty forming and maintaining healthy, trusting intimate relationships, struggle to maintain healthy self-esteem/depend on others approval to determine their self-worth, and often fear losing control and allowing themselves to experience genuine emotions.  These individuals are highly susceptible to falling into unhealthy co-dependent relationships not just with people, but in the case of Tom Cruise, with rigid lifestyle choices that can push loved ones away.

Our early childhood experiences can lead to lifelong patterns that continue to shape us for the rest of our lives. While patterns of dysfunction can be very difficult to break, it is possible learn healthier forms of functioning.  In my work as a clinical psychologist, I have effectively worked with people of all ages who’ve experienced various levels of family dysfunction.  Without professional psychological intervention, many individuals eventually fall into old patterns of dysfunction and relationship failure, in spite of their efforts to change.

What are the goals for professional psychological treatment with someone like Cruise, who experienced early childhood family dysfunction and other stressors?

  • identify and challenge irrational patterns of thinking
  • develop and heal intimate relationships
  • learn to identify and express emotions in safe ways
  • learn to effectively and respectfully communicate with others
  • develop healthy self-esteem
  • work towards identifying and reaching rewarding life goals
  • balance work and personal demands
  • develop healthy and pleasurable forms of self-care
  • establish boundaries with others that feel both safe and supportive

The following quiz was adapted at Kansas State University in their counseling services dept., and may be helpful in determining if you are experiencing long-term effects of living in a dysfunctional family.  If you find yourself answering “Yes” to the majority of the questions, you might consider seeking professional psychological help.

  1. Do you find yourself needing approval from others to feel good about yourself? Yes_____ No_____
  2. Do you agree to do more for others than you can comfortably accomplish? Yes_____ No_____
  3. Are you perfectionistic? Yes_____ No_____
  4. Or do you tend to avoid or ignore responsibilities? Yes_____ No_____
  5. Do you find it difficult to identify what you’re feeling? Yes_____ No_____
  6. Do you find it difficult to express feelings? Yes_____ No_____
  7. Do you tend to think in all-or-nothing terms? Yes_____ No_____
  8. Do you often feel lonely even in the presence of others? Yes_____ No_____
  9. Is it difficult for you to ask for what you need from others? Yes_____ No_____
  10. Is it difficult for you to maintain intimate relationships? Yes_____ No_____
  11. Do you find it difficult to trust others? Yes_____ No_____
  12. Do you tend to hang on to hurtful or destructive relationships? Yes_____ No_____
  13. Are you more aware of others’ needs and feelings than your own? Yes_____ No_____
  14. Do you find it particularly difficult to deal with anger or criticism? Yes_____ No_____
  15. Is it hard for you to relax and enjoy yourself? Yes_____ No_____
  16. Do you find yourself feeling like a “fake” in your academic or professional life? Yes_____ No_____
  17. Do you find yourself waiting for disaster to strike even when things are going well in your life?  Yes_____ No_____
  18. Do you find yourself having difficulty with authority figures? Yes_____ No_____

 

 

Dr. Christina Villarreal is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in the Bay Area, California and may be reached at christina.villarreal@gmail.com

“Fifty shades of Grey”: awakening women’s sexual identities

The wildly popular New York Times bestselling series Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James has garnered fans from all walks of life, becoming the fastest selling book of 2012.  The series centers around a young, impressionable woman who falls for a troubled, domineering older man, and aims to find out whether he is capable of love.  This archeotypical tale laden with S&M and bondage stirs Newsweek to explore the notion that modern working women want to be dominated in the bedroom, even in an era where women are overtaking men as America’s breadwinners.

A UK Guardian review proposes that Fifty Shades of Grey thrusts erotica into mainstream media, transforming the way erotic fiction is consumed by the public.  According to the publisher’s data, “gleaned from Facebook, Google searches, and fan sites”, more than half the women reading the book are in their 20s and 30s, in spite of the prevailing stereotype that the largest consumer of this series are middle-aged suburban women, sexually frustrated Twilight fans, or conservatives foraying into adult fiction in search of more palatable sexual fantasy reading material.

Dr. Mehmet Oz  dedicated a recent show to exploring this book series with an audience of women and men who have read them.  EL James “has gotten people talking about sex in a way that no one else could get them to talk about it,” Dr. Oz said from the red carpet of a gala honoring Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the worldDr. Oz included James with the likes of President Barack Obama and Rihanna stating “this book is about people having an honest conversation about what sex should be like, what makes it feel better, what are the timing issues, how do we make it an important issue in our life rather than an afterthought.”

As a clinical psychologist in private practice, a large segment of my psychotherapy patients are young women in their twenties and early thirties.  Like the protagonist in Fifty Shades of Grey, many are struggling to awaken and understand their sexuality  during a developmental time when the goal is often to find and secure a loving life partner.

In my professional opinion, one of the biggest challenges these women face is learning how to cultivate the necessary self-confidence to enjoy sex.  This is a generation that grew up watching Sex in the City, had a wealth of sexual content at their fingertips via the world wide web, and whose favorite musical artists and actors relied upon sexual exposure at younger ages and more heavily then ever before in American history.  Perhaps due to wide-spread sexual overexposure that continues to objectify women, this generation of women continues to struggle with identifying and indulging their sexual desires as did earlier, more sexually conservative generations.

During psychotherapy sessions I conduct with many women, I hear feelings of inadequacy based on pressure to be aesthetically perfect for their partners, or a focus on fulfilling partners’ desires without identifying or communicating their own- all of which which robs them of their ability to truly develop their own unique sexual identity, and discover one of life’s greatest pleasures.  As a clinical psychologist, I use a problem-solving cognitive-behavioral approach to help individuals become more comfortable with the process of awakening and fostering their sexual identity.

What are some treatment recommendations for developing one’s sexual identity?

  • explore (with a mental health professional, peers or through journaling) how cultural, familial, gender and religious norms, values, experiences and biases may have shaped your views of sexual behavior in both positive and negative ways
  • explore the expectations you place upon yourself and others when engaging in sexual behavior- do these these expectations allow for healthy self care? Reciprocity?  Are they realistic?
  • Identify images, fantasies and forms of touch that awaken your desire- what kind of judgment do you place upon them?  How might you gradually increase your comfort level with them in order to fulfill your needs?
  • Are there materials that can support your exploration of the above?  Explore adult novelty websites such as Adam & Eve, or local bay area stores such as Feelmore 510 or Good Vibrations.  Bookstores such as Amazon/Kindle and Barnes & Nobles/Nook are also well equipped with reading material which can be procured discretely.

This article was written by Dr. Christina Villarreal, Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Oakland, California.  For professional inquires contact her at christina.villarreal@gmail.com

Depression and its effect on your sexual relationship

The hallmark of most new romantic relationships is a passionate physical connection.  But when one or both partners suffer from clinical depression, a couple’s sexual chemistry can suffer.  Approximately 35 to 47 percent of people with clinical depression report having sexual problems.  Sexual problems worsen depending on the severity of one’s depression; sixty one percent of people with severe depression report having sexual problems.  In my practice as a clinical psychologist, problematic sexual functioning is a common complaint of people seeking treatment for depression and anxiety.

What leads to the reduction of sexual functioning in those experiencing depression?

The human brain is the body’s most powerful “sex organ.” Sexual desire begins in the brain, shaping our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters help brain cells communicate with each other in order to stimulate blood flow to the sex organs. In a depressed person, their neurotransmitters are out of balance, which can lead to diminished sexual desire.  In addition, low levels neurotransmitters can dull a person’s ability to experience pleasure, both physical and emotional.

Are men and women’s sexual functioning affected differently by depression?

Both men and women suffering from depression describe experiencing a host of the following symptoms:

  • intense sadness that inhibits one’s ability to carry out daily activities
  • loss of interest in things that were previously enjoyable
  • changes in appetite, weight, and/or sleep patterns
  • feelings of guilt, irritability and worthlessness
  • loss of energy, feeling slowed down, or ‘keyed up’
  • impaired concentration
  • thoughts of death or suicide.

But some important gender differences may be found in how people experience depression.  Many men fail to identify themselves as clinically depressed because they don’t relate to feeling sadness.  Their depressive symptoms may only include feelings of tiredness, inability to concentrate or sleep well, hopelessness, as well and loss of interest or pleasure- all of which may be associated with loss of libido and erection problems.

For women, depression can commonly be experienced as feelings of sadness, feeling physically slowed down, worthlessness, and/or guilt along with loss of interest or pleasure- all of which can lead to lack of interest in sex and/or difficulty in reaching orgasm.

Helpful tips in coping with a relationship impacted by depression:

  • Seek out professional consultation. Many people are reticent to reach out for professional help because they feel they ought to be able to overcome problems on their own, or worry about the financial or time commitment of psychotherapy.  But an experienced mental health professional will be able to use their expertise to establish what type of support and resources are best suited for you, given your personal, familial and medical history.  A consultation can typically take place in 1-3 visits, after which, you should have a clear picture of what your options are for improvment. Evidence-based treatment such as Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be suggested for you, a widely accepted form of treatment for clinical depression.
  • Try to avoid saying “I know what you’re going through” to your partner.  You don’t.  Instead, try: ‘I can’t know exactly how you’re feeling, but I am trying very hard to understand and help.’
  • Take care of yourself. Being in a relationship with a depressed person can be incredibly taxing, so make sure you do whatever it is that helps you feel healthy and happy.  See friends, get in touch with your body through enjoyable physical activity, pursue your own interests and goals, and spend some time away from your partner.  Depressed people often want to stay home and/or isolate themselves from the world. If you attempt to join them in this pattern, you’re sure to end up feeling badly too.
  • Try not to take your partner’s lack of sexual interest personally.  This is crucial to staying invested in making the relationship work.  If you come to believe that your partner will not ever regain their sexual interest, you may end up terminating the relationship before determining if treatment can help.

Codependency: Why do people stay in unhealthy relationships?

Have you ever wondered in frustration why someone you respect or admire decided to “stay” with a spouse or partner who has committed repeated acts of betrayal? Or do you tend to always end up dating people who come from alcoholic or dysfunctional families? Or maybe you know someone whose job consumes all of their time and energy, leaving essentially no time for self-care or meaningful relationships. This article aims to explain why some of us struggle to separate from unhealthy people or work settings that consume our energy at the expense of our own mental and physical well-being.

Codependency became a widely used term in the 1970’s to describe family dynamics when one person is an alcoholic. Since then, mental health professionals have come to describe codependency as a learned behavior that often originates during childhood in dysfunctional families. Common causes of family dysfunction are chronic parental conflict or divorce, alcoholism or addiction of any kind, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, or chronic illness. Children raised in an environment where their needs and feelings are frequently overlooked are at risk for developing a codependent style of interacting. As adults, they tend to seek out relationships or work environments that demand codependent behaviors, because they feel familiar and comfortable, in spite of the pain or hardship they bring.

Common characteristics of codependency

A need to control others. Codependents attempt to exercise authority over people around them through unsolicited advice, in an effort quell fears of unpredictability. They tend to use gifts, favors, doting behaviors and sex to manipulate others into cooperation. They can appear to have a superior attitude, but very often have low self-esteem as a result of poorly developed self-worth in childhood.

A need to “fix” people or things around them.
Codependents need to feel needed. They have a hard time knowing the difference between normal caring behavior and codependent care-taking. They tend to believe others are incapable of caring for themselves, and are typically attracted to people whom many would deem hopelessly riddled with problems. They believe (unrealistically) in their power to change others. When people around them start to ‘get better’ codependents may sabotage others’ progress, so as to continue being needed. Other types of codependents take on unrelenting work loads, believing themselves to be the only one capable of doing a job, while others in similar positions find it acceptable to do less. They are compulsive care-givers and workaholics, often neglecting their own physical and mental health.

Codependents have difficulty expressing feelings.
Codependents often struggle to identify their feelings, and attempt to minimize, deny or alter their true feelings once they are known. They tend to avoid confrontation, and remain loyal to their own detriment out of fear of abandonment or loss of a job that has essentially taken over their life. They often repress a great deal of anger, and as a result, tend to behave in passive-aggressive ways, making statements such as “After all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get” or “where would you (or ‘this company’) be without me?”

Outside opinions determine their self-worth.
Codependents rely heavily on the opinions of others to determine their value, because they lack a sense of their own positive self-worth. They often accept purely sexual relationships when they really seek love. Only when they believe people are attracted to them/like them, or they earn coveted praise or work accolades do they feel any sense of worth. They have an extreme need for recognition and approval and are often devastated when their efforts go unrecognized.


Codependency Test

1. Do you feel offended, rejected or angry when another person does not want your help?
2. Do you constantly over commit yourself to another, committees or your work?
3. Do you have a hard time understanding or expressing your true feelings?
4. Do you feel worthless unless you are ‘productive’?
5. Do you find it difficult or uncomfortable to spend time by yourself?
6. Do you work long hours at your job, without receiving additional compensation or recognition for your effort?
7. Do you find yourself constantly trying please others?
8. Do you worry more about your loved ones’ activities than yours own?
9. Do you go to work early and stay late, because the boss “needs you”?
10. Do you blame others for your anger and/or lack of control?
11. Do you find yourself repeating one bad relationship after another?
12. Do you sometimes deny or hide the fact that your family may have been abusive and/or dysfunctional?
13. In the last year, has anyone resorted to arguing with you, or begging to get you to stop trying to help them?
14. When you survey your relationships, do you find yourself surrounded by mostly people who need you?
15. Do you ever find yourself making excuses for needy or abusive people in your life?

If you answered YES to 4 or more of the questions above, you may have a problem with codependency. Treatment options, including individual and/or group therapy, may help you begin to make healthy changes.

Reference:
www.CoDA.org (Co-Dependents Anonymous, Inc., a.k.a. CoDA). CoDA is a fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healthy relationships and is not affiliated with any other 12 step program.