what your therapist really thinks

‘How Can I Be Nicer?’

Dear Therapist,

I’m a 23-year-old woman with some bad habits that I need to learn how to undo. I am critical, demanding, judgmental, and eager to correct people on technicalities. I have a hard time being proved wrong or considering alternate viewpoints. I’m emotionally withholding, cold, distant, and don’t open up. I’m rigid and have a hard time changing plans. I’m jabby. I was the kid who corrected the teacher and said, “Well, ACTUALLY …” constantly.

Everyone I’ve dated and many of my friends have told me this. I do it the most to people I’m closest with, but I’ve done it to tons of people in my life.

I have some ideas as to why I’m this way: I was praised for being smart as a kid, but it was the only thing my parents praised me for. My dad and brother were violent toward me as a child and teenager, and I somehow thought that if I was smart enough, they would stop. But knowing why I’m the way I am hasn’t actually helped me change my behavior.

Some things have helped: meditation, deep breathing, and reminding myself that I don’t have to be right and that tearing other people down doesn’t build me up. But it feels like I’ve plateaued. I’ll say something and then immediately realize how awful it sounded. That’s growth, because in the past I wouldn’t have realized how hurtful it was … yet realizing isn’t the same as changing, and I still said it.

It’s odd because I also have social anxiety and often feel lonely. Going off of that, you’d think I’d be kinder to the people I do have in my life, and yet somehow, I’m not.

I want to be kind and warm with the people I love. And I want it to come from an intuitive, relaxed place. I don’t know how to get there from here.

Do you have any suggestions?

Trying to Be Nicer

Dear Trying to Be Nicer,

As I read through your letter, TTBN, one of my favorite maxims came to mind: “Insight is the booby prize of therapy.” Meaning, you can have all the insight in the world, but if you don’t change out in the world, the insight is worthless. This seems to be the crux of your dilemma, too: I know what I do, but I keep doing it anyway.

Surely that can be frustrating, but before I address your question, I want you to know how much I admire your capacity for self-reflection and your openness to your friends’ feedback, and assure you how valuable both will be as you move forward.  The fact that you haven’t changed yet doesn’t diminish how far you’ve come. It can be hard to listen without defensiveness to how others experience us, to take responsibility for our actions, and to get curious about how to change them. Many people begin therapy largely unaware of how people experience them in the world. Often there’s no space, at first, for the nugget of truth to emerge that may help them see something important and to learn why they suffer so much.

You seem to be acutely aware of the problem, but there are two types of awareness to consider. There’s the WHAT (what you’re doing, saying, etc.) and then there’s the WHY. It sounds like you’re clear on the what, and fuzzier on the why.

Keep in mind that the gap between what we do and what we’d like to do often comes down to fear. At the most basic level, our behaviors are protective, and giving them up means giving up safety as well. All of the behaviors you mention are serving you by staving off your fear. So let’s consider your fear.

Your parents may have praised you for “being smart,” but the way you expressed your intelligence — by being a know-it-all, correcting people, being a stickler on details — didn’t necessarily endear you to others. So it doesn’t sound like you’re showing off your smarts because you’re hoping for praise from your peers, too. Instead, if the primary gratification from “being smart” was parental recognition, the secondary gratification was likely a sense of control.

“Being smart” is a way to control an uncontrollable home life, uncontrollable feelings, and uncontrollable pain. “Being smart” isn’t messy and confusing: It’s clear and predictable; it’s cause and effect. If I study, I will get this grade on my test. If I get this many A’s on my tests, I will get an A on my report card. If I do this every year, every year the same thing will happen: I will get A’s on tests and A’s on my report card. How safe and predictable! How easy it is to control my destiny!

Having a father and brother who were violent toward you, on the other hand, represents the ultimate lack of control, safety, and predictability. Cause and effect, so nicely correlated with effort and academic performance, break down when people who love you are also violent toward you. You can’t make sense of violence the way you can make sense of a nice, neat fact or a concrete test score. What a relief it must be to thrive in a world where right and wrong are clear. The answer on the test is right or it’s wrong. The grade is an A or a B. As a child, you were right that what was happening to you was wrong, but either you doubted your rightness and didn’t tell anyone (“What if there’s something wrong with me?”); or you tried to convince people you were right, but nobody heard you or responded. And when that happened, you felt invisible.

It makes sense that you might try to find a way to be heard: Actually, it was Copernicus who FIRST said that the Earth revolves around the sun. Actually, the event took place on a SATURDAY, not a Sunday. Actually, my dad/brother DID hit me. Hear me! Believe me! Help me! The answers are clear — can’t you see? I’m right!

But people can’t hear you, TTBN, because they can’t hear what’s going on inside you, which likely sounds something like this: If I can’t rely on truth, I cease to exist. If I can’t trust my internal truth — it was Copernicus! A Saturday! My father! My brother! — I lose myself entirely, forced to live in a world of external perception. And external perception, with its inaccuracies and conflicting points of view, robs me of control, so I take back control where I can. If my plans don’t change (“rigid”), if I keep my feelings close to the vest (“emotionally withholding”), if I make the facts be known (“Actually…”), I can feel safe from murkiness and messiness and confusion. Controlling my environment acts as an antidote to the greater lack of control I feel.

The only problem is, the antidote you created also happens to leave you feeling lonely and isolated, because being a control-freak know-it-all pushes people away. I use the word “problem” loosely, though, because pushing people away staves off fear, too. Being critical, demanding, judgmental, cold, and distant are just arrows in your quiver, defending you from the terror you feel when people come close. It’s not a contradiction to say that you’d like to be kinder to the people in your life while also saying things that hurt them. If you’re kinder, people might come closer, taking away your safety mechanism: control. People are unpredictable. People will get the facts wrong, or have perceptions that are at odds with yours. Their version of the truth might be different from yours. People will sometimes hurt you.  And while these people aren’t your father or your brother, your earlier programming kicks in, and your brain goes on alert.  You become wary, defensive.  It’s so much easier to “be smart” than it is to be vulnerable.

The psychologist Marsha Linehan came up with a type of therapy now commonly used for borderline personality disorder, but at its heart was a more general belief that when we find a balance between the emotional and reasonable minds, we arrive at “the wise mind.” Many people who struggle fall into one camp or the other — hyperlogical or hyperemotional. You tend to be hyperlogical as a way to protect against becoming hyperemotional. And yet we need to listen to both, to reason and to feel. Insight alone won’t do it.

So now that you have the “what” and the “why” — the insight — how do you move forward? You practice. From birth, our brains are making connections, forming circuits that function automatically in response to triggers and are activated by our fears. When your brain gets the signal that somebody might come close to you — even if that person is a virtual stranger — the circuit that gets activated makes you create distance through the various behaviors you describe.

But you can disrupt the circuit, first by noticing the behaviors afterward (as you’ve begun doing), then by noticing as they happen (taking a breath in that pause of recognition will interrupt the circuit). At first, you may still say or do what the circuit has long been programmed for, but every time you interrupt the circuit you start to rewire your brain. It happens gradually, like a painstaking internal renovation. And when the rewiring is complete, you won’t have to consciously go through this process.

The circuit will travel along a different pathway, one that doesn’t signal danger. What feels foreign to you now will eventually feel natural. And you’ll invite people in from, as you say, “an intuitive, relaxed place.”

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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What Your Therapist Really Thinks: ‘How Can I Be Nicer?’