Unhappily Ever After: How to Move Forward Without a Peaceful Resolution

 One common, but infrequently discussed, reason that people come to see a psychologist is when a unhealthy relationship ends but they are stuck feeling like they can’t move on orlet it go.  It’s normal to want a somewhat peaceful resolution – like agreeing to disagree, an apology or some acknowledgment of your point of view. Unfortunately, when things end badly, it’s unlikely that you will ever hear the words, “I’m sorry,” or “I made some really poor life choices that affected you terribly and I’m going to make it up to you if it’s the last thing I do.”

 

The stress and anxiety of thinking about someone out there who is potentially bad-mouthing you or moving on and having a happy, consequence free life without you can be pretty hard to take. Tossing and turning in bed, replaying the things you wish you had said to them over and over again. Worrying that you might bump into them at the grocery store. Every restaurant you ate at or thing you enjoyed together feels like it should have a trigger warning on it .

 

The images and thoughts can be all consuming and life draining. It’s also a bit like having OCD – where you’re brain gets stuck on an obsession and wants resolution. If the other person is unwilling or unable to make peace, then it can feel like you’ll be stuck in the emotional muck forever.

 

The good news is that you can learn to move forward without anything from the person who hurt you. You don’t need their apology or their permission in order to move on and live a happy life. Here are some tips to help get you started:

 

1. Remember it’s not just you who is stuck – it’s your brain. The brain doesn’t like it when things aren’t neatly resolved – and this extends to our relationships. It probably stems back from when we lived in small tribes and had to get along or die. Those who felt the most uncomfortable with conflict lived to pass their genes on to future generations. Just because we can now move away and join another tribe doesn’t mean that conflict bothers our brains any less.

2. Refocus on fun activities. Help your brain move on by refocusing your attention on to other activities. Brains can only do so many things at once. You can help it move forward by doing things you enjoy and meeting new people.

3. It takes two. Remind yourself that it takes two people to fix a relationship when you start beating yourself up about what you could’ve or should’ve done. Your not the only one who is responsible for trying to sort out disagreements. Everyone makes mistakes in relationships and relationships only last when both parties are forgiving and are committed to working things through.

4. Focus on the future. When someone keeps hurting you or isn’t willing to work things through, it’s important to focus on cultivating new, supportive relationships. If you have some good friends or family in your life already, put your energy into further strengthening those ties. If you are coming out of a relationship where you were kept isolated and have lost touch with others, you can learn to trust the right people and protect yourself through therapy and make new, healthier connections going forward.

5. Meditate. Meditation is a great way to train your mind to focus in the right direction – and pull yourself out of an endless loop of blame, anger and doubt. It is good to learn from an experienced meditation teacher who can help you cope if any strong feelings emerge in meditation – as they often do – but with time you can learn to skillfully stay with whatever feelings may come and go.

 

There are many situations where people have had to leave relationships without resolution – from an angry falling out with a good friend to being shunned from your family for having different religious or political beliefs and everything in between. People tend not to talk openly about these experiences out of shame and stigma – but therapists know that it is an all too common experience. Despite the pain, there is hope for a brighter future where you surround yourself with like-minded people who love and support you.

Breaking Bad Habits

Trying to break a bad habit is simultaneously the simplest and hardest thing in the world. The problem is the brain is a creature of habit and can work against you when you are trying to make healthy changes. One way to reduce your stress when you are trying to establish new healthy habits is to remember that you don't lack willpower when you have a craving - you have a healthy brain that is trying to get you to stick to your (albeit, unhealthy) routine. 

Mindfulness is one tool you can use to help change how you respond to cravings. I love this TED talk by Judson Brewer on his research on mindfulness and habits. Another good resource is Jeffrey Schwartz' book, You Are Not Your Brain

Understanding why your brain has cravings, along with support and a plan, can help you calm your cravings and start living healthier and feeling better than you could have ever imagined. 

Resolving To Live Better

Many people resolve at the start of New Year to do things differently. Starting a new diet or exercise program, getting more sleep or worrying less are all great ways to improve your life and take care of your health. I'm often asked, because I'm a psychologist, whether resolutions are a good or a bad thing - and I think they're great.

We all have to start dreaming about the ways we can make those changes that are good for us. Maintaining that initial motivation is the tricky part. The good news is that there are several things you can do to enhance the likelihood that you will reach your goals. I did an interview for the CBC a few  years ago about sticking to your goals and a particular technique we use in cognitive therapy called response cards. 

Whether you're starting anxiety treatment, training for a marathon, or finally wanting to write that novel watch the video for more info on how response cards are a simple but effective way to stick to your plans! Watch the video and start making the changes that will make you happier today.

The Best Way to Deal With Bullying and Harassment

Bullying does not build character and it is definitely not something that anyone should learn to tolerate. Harassment takes a toll on your confidence and can lead to stress, depression and anxiety. In extreme situations the consequences can be tragic.

In an ideal world, schools and workplaces would use best practices and policies to shut down harassment and bullying. The reality is that those who are often hired to enforce those policies (if they even exist in a particular organization) are poorly trained and have little practice dealing with high conflict situations. They might use buzzwords like “restorative justice” or “zero tolerance” without really understanding how to use those strategies effectively.

You should know if you are ever in this situation how to protect yourself! Therapy for bullying helps by teaching you how to shut down critical comments, set clear limits and when necessary how not to internalize - or believe - the terrible things the bully says about you. Verbal self-defence skills are key to getting through or shutting down a bully (as long as they are not physically violent - then you need a slightly different set of strategies to get out and stay safe).

It’s also important to know when to change schools or jobs. If you are one person going against an institution that is not responding to your concerns, leaving is a legitimate course of action. Most of us feel like we failed or are leaving with our tails between our legs. However, a psychologist can help you see that this prevents so many more problems when you don’t have the power to change the situation.

Lawyers are particularly good at walking away from a losing proposition. If you don’t have a case, or the law isn’t on your side, they won’t pursue an issue. This is also a good way to think about injustice at school or at work. It may be wrong - but if you don’t have the power to change it do what’s necessary to take care of yourself.

If you are struggling with harassment and bullying, the one thing to remember is that it rarely gets better with time. Don’t wait to take action when you see a problem early on. Learn about your rights from your union or lawyer, get help learning the assertiveness skills necessary to protect yourself, and once you have exhausted all avenues, consider leaving. Everybody deserves respect and compassion - and if you don’t have that as a minimum at work or school then you need to find a way out.

A Gentle Approach to Anxiety Treatment

Once you have decided that now is the time to treat your anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is tempting to work as hard as you can to get better as fast as possible. This is great and one of the reasons that we offer Rapid Relief sessions at the Vancouver Anxiety and Stress Centre. In one or two days, we go through all the things you need to learn about anxiety in a condensed period of time. It’s kind of a personal workshop on what you need to know about your anxiety  - like why your brain sends false alarms, what makes anxiety worse, how to talk back to your anxiety, etc.

 

 

The important thing to realize though is that rapid doesn’t have to mean rough. It’s important to go gently when treating anxiety and at a pace that feels comfortable to you. Many people are anxious when they start therapy that they are going to be pushed to face their fears at a breakneck pace. If done properly, treatment should stretch you but not so much that you feel overwhelmed or burned out. When it comes to anxiety, slow and steady wins the race.


Having treated my own anxiety, I know how exhausting exposure therapy or facing your fears can be. It’s so much better to pace yourself, listen to your body, and build your confidence as you take your life back from anxiety. Being kind to yourself during treatment makes it so much easier - and in the long run, it actually goes much more quickly when you listen to your energy level while working with your therapist.

ANXIETY VS. STRESS

what is stress what is anxiety

People often wonder about the difference between anxiety and stress and if you use the same strategies to treat both concerns. Cognitive therapist generally see the two problems as separate and we have different strategies that work for anxiety and stress. 

Dr. Beck (who developed cognitive therapy) often uses this model to explain anxiety (and you might have seen me talk about it in the first Quiet Mind Video in the online class page):

Anxiety = Overestimation of Danger + Underestimation of Coping

With anxiety we see situations as more dangerous than they really are and feel that we can't handle things if they do happen. This is contrast to fear which is the accurate estimation of danger and coping! If I bump into a bear on a hiking trail, I would be accurate in estimating that the bear is dangerous and that I would have trouble coping if it attacked. 

Stress on the other hand was defined by Hans Selye as the body's response to any demand for change. In later years, he was quoted as saying that, "Everybody knows what stress is but doesn't really know."

What became clear in stress research is that your perception of a situation determined whether it was stressful. Now those of us who are interested in helping people cope with stress often use the following model of stress:

Stress = Anything you wish was different

Most situations that cause anxiety are also stressful (because who wants to be anxious) but not all stressful situations cause anxiety. For example, sitting through a boring meeting or class may not cause anxiety but could be stressful if you are itching to get out of there. 

What helps anxiety is facing your fears (using gentle baby steps) and showing your brain that you can cope and there is nothing to worry about.

What helps stress is problem solving, having more fun and taking things you don't like off of your plate. 

What works for bears (and other real dangers) is avoidance and carrying bear spray just in case!

This is a bit of an oversimplification, but understanding these models can help you understand why your psychologist is asking you to take certain steps to reduce your anxiety and stress.