Fearful Attachment in Friendships

Julia Roberts as a bride with a fearful attachment style in Runaway Bride.

There are four relationship attachment styles:

Anxious, Avoidant, Fearful, and Secure.

In my last two posts, I discussed anxious attachment and avoidant attachment styles in friendship.

In today’s post, I’ll discuss the fearful attachment style and how it show up within the context of friendship.

Fearful Attachment in Friendship:

Have you ever been told you “send mixed signals”, are “hot and cold” or that you behave in ways that others find confusing?

Friends with a fearful attachment style yearn for quality relationships, but fear them at the same time. They understand the value of relationships, but also feel threatened by interpersonal closeness, perceiving it as unsafe.

In short, having a fearful attachment style means that you want relationships with people, but are also afraid of relationships with people.

This type of attachment style makes it difficult for people to get close to the fearfully attached person, even if closeness is something they consciously desire.

How Does a Fearful Attachment Develop?

The concept of attachment styles comes from Attachment Theory, originated by psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Attachment Theory examines the relationship between a child and their parent or primary caregiver, and explains how a child’s attachment to their parent or caregiver impacts the child’s behavior in other relationships in life, such as with partners or friends.

A person may develop a fearful attachment relationship style if they experienced fear caused by the outside environment (as is to be expected) and sought soothing or comfort from a parent who themselves responded in a manner that also produced fear in the child.

The parent in question may have yelled at, abused, or otherwise frightened the child seeking soothing, making the parent – the needed source of comfort and reassurance – as scary if not scarier than the original fear-producing stimulus.

As a result, a fearfully attached child has nowhere to turn: they cannot escape the fears produced by their environment, and they cannot depend on their caregiver to soothe them. In fact, the parent’s frightening response to the child’s need for soothing may in fact exacerbate the child’s fears and anxieties. With nowhere else to turn, however, the child in this scenario may attempt again and again to seek comfort from their frightening parent, trapping them in a painful cycle of anxiety and unmet needs.

A fearfully attached person tends to view both themselves and others negatively. They may consciously desire and seek out close relationships, but become overwhelmed and uncomfortable when those relationships start to become a reality. At this point, they may push others away, fearing, on some primal level, for their safety. They tend to be on edge at all times, waiting for threats in the relationship to surface or for “the other shoe to drop.” Others may perceive their behavior as “hot and cold” ” and express confusion when the person who initially pursued closeness with them suddenly withdraws, rejects and needs space.

If this sounds familiar, and you are ready to work on shifting your fearful attachment style, here are some suggestions for next steps:

  • Get honest with yourself about your needs in a friendship. Try to accept these needs and yourself with compassion and non-judgement.
  • Use mindfulness to recognize your tendency to view yourself negatively. Use thought records to challenge these negative views of yourself.
  • Similarly, use mindfulness and thought records to recognize and challenge your tendency to interpret others’ behavior negatively. Unless your friends provide you with concrete evidence to the contrary, practice assuming that have positive intentions.
  • Make a list of the things you like and love about yourself. Remind yourself on a consistent basis of the reasons why someone would want you as their friend.
  • Learn how to recognize when someone is safe a safe person to be vulnerable with. This infographic provides some basic tips.
  • Additionally, learn how to recognize when someone may NOT be a safe person to be vulnerable with. This article provides some of the signs to look out for.
  • Explore what healthy activities help you self-soothe when you’re emotionally triggered. Here is a list with some self-soothing activity suggestions. It is important to practice these self-care activities when you aren’t triggered, so you can more easily access them when you are triggered.
  • Try to focus on mutual collaboration and meeting each other’s needs in your friendships. Reflect on how you can give support to your friends, and how you would like to receive support from them.
  • When you feel a relationship getting closer and start to experience the desire to pull away, name this impulse as an expected part of your pattern in interpersonal relationships, and challenge yourself to sit with the discomfort of increasing closeness instead of immediately acting on it by withdrawing from the relationship.

Do you have personal experience with a fearful attachment style in friendships or other relationships? Feel free to share in the comments.

In my next post, I will discuss the secure attachment style and how it manifests in friendships.

What’s YOUR friendship attachment style? Take the quiz and find out!

Sources:

Levine, A. & Heller, R. Attached (2010). New York, NY: Penguin.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-freedom-change/201505/come-here-go-away-the-dynamics-fearful-attachment

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This site is for informational purposes only. It isn’t intended to diagnose or treat any mental health problems and is not intended as psychological advice.
© 2020 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

Avoidant Attachment in Friendship

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

There are four relationship attachment styles:

Anxious, Avoidant, Fearful, and Secure

In my last post, I wrote about anxious attachment in friendship. This week, I’ll discuss the avoidant attachment style and how it manifests within the context of friendship.

Avoidant Attachment in Friendship:

Have you ever been told you have “a wall up” been called “aloof” or “a lone wolf”?

Avoidant friends are very independent, self-reliant, and generally uncomfortable getting close to others. They tend to lead more with logic than their emotions, and may complain that their friends are “needy” or “clingy” when trying to get closer to them. 

This type of friendship attachment style can make it difficult for people to get close to you, causing you to lose or sabotage friendships that might otherwise have brought enjoyment and connection to both parties. Others may interpret your behavior as rejecting, discarding, or taking their friendship for granted.

How Does an Avoidant Attachment Develop?

The concept of attachment styles comes from Attachment Theory, a psychological theory originated by psychoanalyst John Bowlby that examines the relationship between a child and their parent or primary caregiver, and explains how a child’s attachment to their parent or caregiver impacts the child’s behavior in other relationships in life, such as partnership or friendship.

A person may develop an avoidant attachment relationship style if their parent or caregiver struggled themselves to cope with or tolerate their child’s emotional needs and responded by closing themselves off emotionally from their child.

The parent in question may have ignored, shamed, rejected or otherwise communicated strong negative messages to their child when they showed emotions or expressed a desire for connection, given them too much space for independence and self-reliance, or failed to comfort and reassure the child when they experienced distress or fear.

As a result, the child tends to hide or suppress their need for relationships, often appearing outwardly independent. They have learned to rely primarily if not only on themselves for reassurance and emotional regulation, to repress their emotions and avoid reaching out for healthy interpersonal connections. In fact, they may actively work to avoid close relationships, due to the core belief that they don’t or shouldn’t need others.

If this sounds familiar, and you are ready to work on changing your avoidant attachment style, here are some suggestions for next steps:

  • Don’t completely lose your independent style, but try to focus more on mutual collaboration in your friendships. Reflect on how you can give support to your friends, and how you would like to receive support from them.
  • Recognize and challenge your tendency to interpret others’ behavior negatively. Unless your friends give you concrete evidence to the contrary, assume that they have positive intentions.
  • Remind yourself on a regular basis about why you chose your friends. What positive qualities drew you to them? Why are you grateful for them? It may feel easier to abandon ship when your desires to withdraw set in, but try to recognize this as part of the pattern your’re trying to break. Stay the course and give yourself time to learn about the advantages of secure friendships.
  • Practice mindfulness to help yourself recognize when the impulse to distance or avoid is getting activated. A great place to start is with mindfulness mediation. You can also practice mindfulness to help yourself identify when the inner voice that tells you to pull away or jumps to negative conclusions about closeness with others is speaking. Complete thought records to challenge these thoughts.
  • When people give you feedback that suggests that they feel can’t get close to you, try to listen with compassion for yourself and for them instead of putting up walls, engaging in toxic amounts of self-blame, or withdrawing further.

Do you have personal experience with an avoidant attachment style in friendships or other relationships? Feel free to share in the comments.

In my next post, I will discuss the fearful attachment style and how it manifests in friendships.

What’s YOUR friendship attachment style? Take the quiz and find out!

Sources:

Levine, A. & Heller, R. Attached (2010). New York, NY: Penguin.

https://www.healthline.com/health/parenting/avoidant-attachment#what-does-it-look-like

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This site is for informational purposes only. It isn’t intended to diagnose or treat any mental health problems and is not intended as psychological advice.
© 2020 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

Anxious Attachment in Friendship

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There are four relationship attachment styles: Anxious, Avoidant, Fearful, and Secure.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to discuss the four different attachment styles, starting with Anxious attachment, and discuss how each attachment style manifests, specifically within the context of friendship.

Anxious Attachment in Friendship:

Have you ever been told that you are “needy”, “suffocating”, “clingy” or “controlling” as a friend?

Anxious friends feel a stronger need for emotional intimacy in their friendships. If you have an anxious attachment style, you may require regular reassurance from friends that they care about you, aren’t mad at you, and won’t close the door on you. You may also find yourself feeling jealous or threatened by a friend developing a new interest, or starting another friendship or relationship.

This type of friendship attachment style can create internal and interpersonal problems, as behaviors stemming from your insecurities about relationships can be interpreted by others as controlling or overly demanding.

How Does an Anxious Attachment Develop?

The concept of attachment styles comes from Attachment Theory, a psychological theory originated by psychoanalyst John Bowlby that examines the relationship between a child and their parent or primary caregiver, and explains how a child’s attachment to their parent or caregiver impacts the child’s behavior in other relationships in life, such as partnership or friendship.

A person may develop an anxious attachment relationship style if their caregiver or parent struggled to maintain healthy boundaries within the parent-child relationship.

A parent may have been overly-enmeshed with their child, not giving them enough room to develop their own identities apart from the parent. We sometimes see this in the form of helicopter parenting, a parent attempting to live vicariously through their child, or depending too much emotionally on a child for their own comfort and self-regulation.

As a result, the child comes to associate relationships later on in life with high amounts of enmeshment, finding that they need copious amounts of reassurance and communication. They may even feel panicked or despair when they perceive rejection from a friend or other relationship partner.

If this sounds familiar, and you are ready to work on changing your anxious attachment style, here are some suggestions for next steps:

  • Make an honest list of your needs in a friendship. Try to accept and not judge yourself for having these needs.
  • Reflect on whether existing and/or new friends can realistically meet your needs. If not, acknowledge that this may simply by a matter of friendship incompatibility, and not a reflection on you or your self-worth.
  • Speaking of self-worth, people with anxious attachment styles may have a tendency to experience feelings of insecurity, or engage in a lot of self-criticism and/or self-blame. Use mindfulness to recognize when your critical inner voice is speaking to you, and complete thought records to challenge these automatic negative thoughts.
  • Create a self-soothing practice. As alluded to above, anxious attachment styles in relationships can stem from a parent not having the skills and tools to cope with their own separation anxiety. If this is a pattern that has been passed down, you can be the one to break the chain by learning skills to soothe, calm and comfort yourself. A great place to start is with mindfulness mediation.
  • Give “calm” friendships a chance. The lack of drama and/or high emotions might feel boring to you at first, but stay the course and give yourself time to learn about the advantages of secure, consistent friendships.

Do you have personal experience with an anxious attachment style in friendships or other relationships? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Next week, I will discuss avoidant attachment style and how it manifests in friendships.

What’s YOUR friendship attachment style? Take the quiz and find out!

Source: Levine, A. & Heller, R. Attached (2010). New York, NY: Penguin.

Website Privacy Policy I Website Terms & Conditions I Website Disclaimer
This site is for informational purposes only. It isn’t intended to diagnose or treat any mental health problems and is not intended as psychological advice.
© 2020 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

Have You Connected With Someone Today?

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I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and as you may know, my hometown has been ordered to shelter-in-place until at least April 7. We’re the first in the country to do this.

I’m not going to lie. This is a scary and uncertain time. Over the past week, I’ve observed (and experienced) intense fear, sadness and grief. I’ve also observed (and experienced) amazing optimism, patience, kindness, strength and generosity in myself and others.

In addition, I’m seeing that people are figuring out different ways to be together, apart. 

For example:

  • Over the past few days, I have talked to friends and family members I haven’t spoken with or seen in months.
  • People in Italy are singing with each other from their balconies
  • I’ve engaged (while six feet apart, of course) with people I’ve encountered outside my home. We’ve listened to one another. We’ve laughed together. We’ve shared hopes, opinions, advice and fears. 
  • My local exercise studio has put their classes online so we can still work out together, from home.
  • My best friend and I started sending short videos back and forth on the app Marco Polo (which honestly I didn’t know existed before yesterday), seeing who can make the other person laugh harder.

Although we’ve all been told to practice social distancing, it doesn’t mean we have to be disconnected from one another. 

In fact, this is an incredible opportunity. An opportunity to figure out what real connection means to each of us, and to learn how to bring this connection into our lives when it matters most. 

How do you like to feel connected? Do you like to reach out to your loved ones, or do you prefer that someone to reach out to you? Do you like a little conversation followed by a break and some solitude, or chatting continuously throughout the day? Do you want to talk about what’s going on, or do you want to stick to the non-virus topics for the time being? Ask for what you need, and ask other people what they need. Be honest. Meet somewhere in between.

Whatever it looks like, take some time today to seek out a connection. Just one. Your friends, your family, your coworkers, your neighbors…you never know who might be feeling really scared or alone, who might desperately need to connect with someone but for whatever reason feel that they can’t.

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis and need to talk to someone right now, reach out to Crisis Text Line. Volunteers are available 24/7 to listen and help, for free.

Like the virus itself, we’re not taking these social distancing precautions just to protect ourselves, but to protect each other. Because we’re a community, and the success of a community relies on everyone working together. Even when we’re apart.

PS: If you like meditation and want a free guided mediation for anxious thoughts emailed to you, click here for one I made several months ago. It’s free. 

“Sometimey” Friends

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What are we to do about “sometimey” friends?

I learned the term “sometimey friends” from my grandmother many years ago. The definition is pretty self-explanatory, but for the sake of this blog post:

A sometimey friend is a friend who is…sometimes your friend and…sometimes not.

A friend who sometimes wants to hang out and sometimes doesn’t even text you back.

A friend who sometimes makes you feel like their bff and sometimes ditches you for someone else.

As opposed to fair-weather friends, a sometimey friend’s presence in your life is not solely contingent on how well or badly things are going for you. The sometimey friend’s pattern of closeness (and distance) is unique to that particular sometimey individual.

As most of us have learned, there are many different levels and nuances when it comes to the umbrella of friendship. In theory, there is nothing wrong with having – or being – a sometimey friend.

Problems are likely to arise, however, when your expectations and desires conflict with reality (or another person’s expectations and desires).

If you’re expecting a sometimey friend to be a consistent best friend forever? There are going to be issues.

Conversely, if you want a friendship you can generally dip in and out of and your friends are expecting you to show up consistently and be ride-or-die? There are going to be issues.

There is power in being honest with yourself and others about the type of friendships you want, the type of friendships you are able to offer, and the the things you need in order to feel valued and fulfilled in a friendship.

As in the dating process, it helps if all parties can be honest and communicative about these things initially, as well as on an ongoing basis.

But as we know, this doesn’t always happen.

Instead, we often have to observe others, ourselves and the situation, come to our own conclusions about what is going on, be honest with ourselves and ask:

If this never changes, can I accept it?

There is nothing wrong with deciding that you cannot. Sometimes you just aren’t looking for the same things as someone else.

There is also nothing wrong with accepting a sometimey friend for who they are, if you are okay with having this type of friend in your life. If, for example, you have several close friends and are comfortable including a couple of sometimey friends in the mix, you can enjoy that setup if it works for you.

Be a good friend to yourself first, and start by being honest with yourself about what you want, need, and are able to offer another person. Don’t be afraid or ashamed of the answers. There is power in your truth, and it takes bravery and a healthy amount of self-love to embrace it.

What kind of friend are YOU? Take the quiz and find out!

The Challenges of Adult Friendships

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I do a lot of clinical work with middle school students. Friendship is a major component of life in middle school, and in both my clinical and personal experience, friendship at this stage of life is usually accompanied by a LOT of ups and downs.

There are dramas, fights, hurt feelings, competition, mean-spirited rumors, cliques, people who are best friends one day and enemies the next. Friends who slowly fade away. Friends who are not sincere. Research suggests that one half of middle school friendships will last less than one academic year.

I talk a lot with the middle school students I work with about learning what makes a good friend – how to recognize one, and how to be one. Oftentimes, this handout, Cactus & Flower Friends by plantlovegrow.com, serves as a really helpful guide to starting a conversation with students about this topic.

It’s almost a given that preteen and teenage friendships are destined for choppy waters.

But by adulthood, we’re supposed to have put all (or at least most of) the interpersonal drama behind us and learned all the ins and outs of healthy friendship. Our younger years were supposed to be rife with unstable and tumultuous friendships…not our twenties, thirties, or beyond.

Still, many of the adults I’ve worked with have shared that they continue to face challenges in the arena of friendship. Less often due to rumors and cliques, and more because of issues such as:

  • limited time for friends due to work
  • limited energy to invest in friendships
  • partnership and/or kids consuming time that could otherwise be spent cultivating friendships
  • being new to an area and not knowing anyone
  • feeling that they’ve outgrown existing friendships
  • feeling that by adulthood, everyone already has their friend group “set” and aren’t looking for new ones

Friendship-related challenges DO continue past adolescence and into adulthood, they just have a different appearance.

It’s important for us to talk about the challenges of adult friendships and how to overcome them. After all, just because you aren’t a teenager anymore, doesn’t mean friendship ceases to be an incredibly important part of a fulfilling life.

If you’re reading this and wanting to take inventory of your current friends situation, I recommend starting with the same handout I use with middle school students. You can use it to begin an objective conversation with yourself (or maybe…a friend?) about healthy and unhealthy friendships. Share any insights you had while doing this exercise in the comments below. You can also take my quiz to see what kind of friendship attachment style you have:

What kind of friend are YOU? Take the quiz and find out!

I’ll be talking more about overcoming the challenges of adult friendships in the coming weeks, so join my email list to get notified of new posts.

How Connected Are You, Really?

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Years ago (circa 2010), I resisted buying a smart phone because I didn’t want to feel too “connected” to others. I didn’t want to see my emails as they arrived in my inbox all day long. I didn’t want to be able to browse Facebook while I rode the BART train. Having a cell phone on my person at all times was connection enough.

Now, it’s normal to be online at all times, to be reachable 24/7. In many cases, it’s what’s expected of us.

In 2013, I caved and got my first smart phone. Now, I can’t imagine life without it. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that.

Social media, telephones, email, DMs, Instagram, FaceTime, text messages, smoke signals, The Internet…

They were all created so we could connect more easily with one another. No matter the distance. Or the time zone.

But how connected are we…really?

According to the Health Resource & Services Administration: “Two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated.”

In 2020, we have more ways than ever of staying in touch and connected with our loved ones. Why, then, have rates of loneliness doubled in the past fifty years?

The answer is likely multifaceted, but I wonder if part of it has to do with the quality versus quantity of connection.

In my work as a clinical psychologist – as well as, you know, being a person in the world – I’ve encountered so many people who say that they feel overwhelmed and actually stressed out by all the different methods of communication at our disposal. Instead of interpersonal connection being a source of emotional replenishment, relaxation, and just plain fun, it’s begun to feel more like a job. Another item to check off our already-packed to-do lists. AKA High quantity.

In addition, although advances in technology have made makes it easier for us to communicate, I’m sure I’m not alone in noticing that it has also allowed our communication with one another to become…briefer. People used to write each other long letters. Then it was long phone calls. After that, long (by today’s standards) emails. Then, posts on each other’s social media walls/feeds. Now, instead of commenting on someone’s post, we click and there’s a like, heart, laugh, cry, or angry emoji to replace a conversation. A quick acknowledgement, designed to say: “I see you.” “I hear you.” “I agree with you.” “That’s funny.” “That makes me angry.” “That makes me sad.” AKA Lower quality.

Tons of messages and notifications may be coming in all day every day, but in 2020, present, mindful, engaged communication and connection is becoming harder to find.

If what I’ve written so far resonates with you, or even if it doesn’t, I have some questions for you:

When was the last time you experienced meaningful connection/communication with another person?

What do you think made this possible?

What do YOU need to feel you’ve connected in a meaningful way with another person?

How do you make the many means of connection (email, text, phone, social media, etc.) work for you without becoming overwhelmed?

Though liking and sharing these blog posts is always welcomed, in the spirit of examining communication, I challenge you to write a short (or long) comment below, sharing your answers to one, two, or all of the questions above. I’d love to read what you have to say and respond to you (yes, you).

PS: Friendship is such an incredible antidote to feelings of loneliness and disconnection. What kind of friend are YOU? Take the quiz and find out!

Give Yourself Permission to Suck in 2020

There is a no rule that says you have to be perfect right out the gate, such as on the first day of school or work or trying a new exercise or project or undertaking.

But sometimes our critics – both self-imposed and external – will tell us we don’t have the right to a natural learning curve.

As 2020 starts, I want to remind us all that if you care and you’re trying, you don’t have to be perfect for it to mean something. For it to be worthwhile. For YOU to be worthwhile.

Reminding ourselves that we don’t have to be perfect – in fact, even giving ourselves “permission to suck” as the author John Green says, can be incredibly life-giving and liberating. If you’re sucking at something, at least you’re doing something.

Take some time to notice your perfectionistic thoughts and tell yourself you’re “good enough” as you are. Distance yourself from people in your life who don’t understand that learning and growing doesn’t happen in a straight, perfect line. You don’t need that toxicity.

Surround yourself with support, love and compassion.

You deserve it.

Build Your Flexible Thinking Muscles With This Simple Tool

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I recently wrote about all or nothing thinking (also known as “black or white thinking”), and the negative impact that rigid, inflexible thought patterns can have on a person’s well-being.

In the aforementioned blog post, I discussed mindfulness as a powerful, key tool for challenging these types of distorted thoughts. In short: by using mindfulness, we can become more aware of distorted thinking patterns as they occur. A mindfulness foundation sets the stage for your success, because as G.I. Joe says: “Knowing is half the battle.” You can’t start to challenge or change something you aren’t aware of.

Today I want to share another tool for building your flexible thinking muscles that you can start putting into practice right this minute. It’s simple, really:

Use “and” instead of “but”

This is a technique I learned from an amazing CBT rock star therapist during my graduate training. He loved this approach so much, he almost never used the word “but” in conversation. In the years since , I have also put this into practice, in both my written and verbal communications.

Integrating “and” into your mental vocabulary instead of “but” can help to cultivate a more flexible approach to your thoughts and feelings. It reminds us that things that seem incompatible can exist and be true at the same time. They can both be valid instead of one cancelling out the other.

You can practice this approach in your self-talk, as you notice all or nothing thinking occurring, and even in your verbal or written exchanges.

Let’s put it into action with an example:

“I’m a really hard worker and devoted to my job…but I didn’t get a promotion” versus: “I’m a really hard worker and devoted to my job…and I didn’t get a promotion.”

Does one feel different from the other? Even though two “truths” can appear to exist in opposition, they are capable of co-existing.

Some more examples:

“I love my mother so much…but she drives me crazy.”

“I love my mother so much…and she drives me crazy.”

“I worked so hard to make that project a success, but it didn’t happen.”

“I worked so hard to make that project a success, and it didn’t happen.”

“You cleaned the kitchen, but you didn’t mop the floor.”

“You cleaned the kitchen, and you didn’t mop the floor.”

“My partner is loving and kind, but it’s hard for me when he’s socially awkward.”

“My partner is loving and kind, and it’s hard for me when he’s socially awkward.”

“Having a dog is great, but I hate having to clean up after it.”

“Having a dog is great, and I hate having to clean up after it.”

“I had a pretty good day today, but my depression hasn’t gone away.”

“I had a pretty good day today, and my depression hasn’t gone away.”

It might feel a bit awkward or strange to try this exercise…AND you should stick with it for a bit to find out how it goes (see what I did there?).

Remember that your brain is neuroplastic, meaning that it can change. By using this simple, easy-to-practice exercise, you can begin rewiring your brain to adapt a more flexible thinking style. Start today and see what happens!

If you’ve been using mindfulness to become more aware of your moment-to-moment, day-to-day thoughts, I doff my hat to you! You are setting yourself for success, and for changing your brain! (Isn’t that amazing?)

And if you haven’t started a mindfulness practice yet, download my free, guided audio meditation. It’s perfect for beginners and will guide you through all the steps of mindfulness mediation:

Eight Minutes to Calm: A Free Guided Audio Meditation Delivered to Your Inbox Today!

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This site is for informational purposes only. It isn’t intended to diagnose or treat any mental health problems and is not intended as psychological advice.
© 2020 Gina Davis, PsyD. All rights reserved.

The Courage to Have a “Good Enough” Holiday Season

Lots of people feel down or angst-ridden during the holiday season, and many will say that this malaise stems not from too much fruitcake consumption (surprisingly), but from our expectations – of ourselves, others, and the holidays themselves. The fact that society and the media constantly pump us full of unhealthy messages regarding how we should feel, behave or spend time during the holidays doesn’t help.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the damage caused by All or Nothing thinking, a type of cognitive distortion that involves seeing things in absolute (ex: perfect or horrible, success or failure, always or never) terms.

Since then, I’ve come to notice that there’s a lot of cultural all-or-nothing thinking involved in the holiday narrative as well:

You’re either the Merry Whos of Whoville, or The Grinch.

You’re either Nephew Fred, or Ebenezer Scrooge.

You’re either gallivanting through the snow-lined streets dressed like an elf, handing out candy canes and holiday cheer with reckless abandon, or sequestered in your damp, dark apartment cursing the world and crying into an emptied Chinese take-out box.

You either love the holidays, or you despise them.

If you are reading this and feeling the strain of all or nothing holiday expectations (self-imposed or otherwise), I challenge you to try something different this year:

I challenge you to take a “good enough” approach.

Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott coined the concept of the “good enough (parent)” in 1953. Winnicott, through observation of thousands of mothers and their children/babies, recognized that a “good enough” parent, by failing to adapt to every need of their child, actually helps the child to adapt to the realities of their external environment.

A “good enough” parent will not, for example, try to be perfect themselves, and in turn not expect their child to be perfect. They are realistic – instead of projecting idealized fantasies onto themselves as parents or their child, they work to understand and respect their child for who they are. A “good enough” parent will provide an amount of help or support needed, but won’t overindulge the child, and they are mindful of the child’s experience of childhood instead of over-focusing on the child’s future as an adult.

The “good enough” approach benefits the child in allowing them to be seen for their true selves, develop skills for adaptation and survival, and hold realistic expectations for themselves, others and the world.

Winnicott’s “good enough” parent concept can, I believe, also be applied to other areas of life: The “good enough” partner, neighbor, employee, adult child, friend, sister. The “good enough” high school orchestra performance, project presentation, report card, slice of pizza, performance review, art project.

The “good enough” holidays?

So how can you adapt Winnicott’s “good enough” approach to let yourself off the unrealistic expectation hook this holiday season?

Don’t expect things to be perfect, or even try to make them so. I know for some of us recovering perfectionists, this will be a challenge, but it gets easier with practice and exposure. “Good enough” is the new name of the game, and it’s better than being perfect. Perfect is setting yourself up for failure, disappointment and, at the very least, exhaustion. “Good enough” is about being authentic, kind to yourself, attuned to your true needs, and practicing compassion.

Focus instead on what YOU want to get out of the holidays, and on what you can control. Instead aspiring to live out some Hallmark Channel fairy tale (no hate to Hallmark Channel movies, by the way), maybe what matters to you personally is getting to talk to a few friends and family members, relaxing with a favorite book or show, eating some yummy food, volunteering for a few hours, or making one person smile. Reflect on what will make your holiday feel meaningful and reject the notion that things need to look, be, or feel a specific way.

Practice mindfulness. I’ve written about mindfulness many times on this blog, and it keeps coming up because it’s an amazing tool that can be applied to any situation. Mindfulness is the practice of waking up to the present moment and allowing it to exist as it is with non-judgment and acceptance.

It is NOT about trying to fight with or change your feelings or thoughts.

Don’t try to turn off the urge to make your house look picture perfect for Kwanzaa – be mindful of and acknowledge this feeling, but choose not to act on it. Don’t attempt to shut down the longing you feel for your family to get along at Hanukkah, even though they never do – feel the feelings and acknowledge that it’s hard when things aren’t the way you hoped they would be. Don’t try to jolly yourself out of feeling lonely because you don’t have a romantic partner to share Christmas with – let yourself feel everything that comes up, with gentle self-compassion.

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In the end, choosing to have a “good enough” holiday season takes courage. It requires you to go against the grain of all the societal messaging, the dysfunctional consumerism, the perfectionism, “shoulds” and noise to instead carve out your own path and create your own traditions, based on your values and needs. It may feel scary and unfamiliar to do this at first, but the result could be a memory you end up treasuring for many holiday seasons to come.

Happy “good enough” holidays!

If you are having a really hard time and/or having thoughts of hurting yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They are available to talk to you 24/7. Even during the holidays.

Works Cited:

Beat Back the Holiday Blues (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2013) https://www.nami.org/holidayblues

To Be Good Enough (Ratnapalan & Batty, 2009) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2654842/

The Good Enough Parent is the Best Parent (Gray, 2015) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201512/the-good-enough-parent-is-the-best-parent