Ode to sadness (and pessimism)

Finding a place under the sun, Self-development

Ode to sadness

When was the last time you were sad and felt good about it? Today’s interpretation of positive psychology brain-washed us all into believing happiness is the only acceptable way of living and the supreme goal and slowly let guilt and shame for our own not-so-happy thoughts and feelings creep in. While joy and happiness act as life motivators as shown in Schiller’s Ode to Joy, I’d like us to pause for a moment and rethink sadness, melancholia and pessimism, their value in our life and the dangers of siding too much with optimism and positivity.

It all started with Disney with its they lived happily ever after. But then came adulthood and we realised marriage was just two people asking each other what they want to eat until one of them dies – or finds something better to do. Or better said, what marriage? Because Disney implanted in our brain these expectations of how our partner should be that are not met in reality so we’re nowhere close to marrying anyone. Relationships should be easy as 1-2-3. Nobody told us relationships were all about accepting imperfections, compromising, commitment and living by values rather than chasing immediate intense pleasure, so when things get tough, we can’t really be bothered with working through differences. We’d rather be single than go through the headache. We were sold a romantic ideal we cannot replicate and then suddenly we feel alienated and defective – for not being able to love or commit or connect or accept anything less.

Professionally speaking, we were raised in a meritocratic society, which emphasizes we are all equal when it comes to our chance to succeed and that each of us can get to the top based on our personal abilities – sounds swell! That is also what many uplifting self-help books promote: a sense of opportunity that everyone can make it. Suddenly, you are fully responsible for your fate and for fulfilling your potential, as opposed to ancient times when your fate was in the hands of the goddess of fortune. This meritocratic belief is completely ignorant of any economic, social or even genetic factors that might prevent us from getting anywhere near the top. Just compare the complex career guidance and counseling some children get these days when they graduate from high school with me browsing the brochure of the local university and trying to make sense of the world. Meritocracy also indirectly implies that if those who got to the top merit to be there, so do the ones who haven’t and are at the bottom of the social ladder. Not long before envy and self-esteem issues start lurking beneath the surface and we start being very tough with ourselves.

Why is the suicide rate so high in such prosperous times, where our basic needs are met and we have access to so much entertainment? Precisely because we think we’re fully accountable for our wins and our failures, who we are and where we are, and we ignore the role of chance and other factors. Moreover, we’re an optimistic generation with very low tolerance to boredom, sacrifice, loss or any negative emotion. We seek a comfortable life. We’re the first generation that grew up in times of peace and we were promised a grand life, like in the movies, where we fall in love madly at first sight, it lasts forever, where we do jobs we are highly passionate about, everything is meaningful and intense and we are the masters of our destiny. We seek meaning in our work, forgetting that historically work was just a (rather painful) way to make ends meet. Few of us are happy with our jobs or marriages, yet we cherish these as standard sources of meaning and happiness and judge ourselves against this ideal of normality which has failed most of us. When anything doesn’t fit in those parameters, we are deeply shocked and have an existential crisis. As Alain de Botton, founder of The School of Life YouTube channel points out, bad things are written into the contract of life, a fact stoics like Seneca were very familiar with but which we tend to be oblivious of.

Our society of over-sharing on social media promotes this fake image of prosperity and well-being. Suddenly we have access to information about everyone we didn’t have before and they’re all better off than us. We start wearing masks of happiness, laughter and sink into empty small talk. I still remember when I sensed a melancholic predisposition in a friend in school and how he begged me not to tell anyone because he feared they would all shun him. Cherish those you can open your heart to who listen and understand not only your hopes and dreams, but fears, sadness and insecurities. We all have fair weather friends. Real connection is born when we’re there for each other in rough times as well. We seek relationships where we feel accepted even when we’re less upbeat and where we can talk about things that really matter.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about challenging your fears and limitations, taking the path less travelled, rethinking your world. The problem is when our optimist expectations aren’t in line with reality and that we forget it’s only human to have both positive and negative emotions. I had to be reminded of this myself the other day when I was blaming myself for feeling a bit rundown. I was living under the almighty rule of the happiness imperative, which I hadn’t even realised. Creativity and the greatest insights often stem from melancholy and sadness – imagine a Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending, a disco version of Leonard Cohen or a zenned out Dali. It just wouldn’t be the same. It’s feeling small and mortal that puts things into perspective, what’s important in life, than feeling unbeatable and grand. Imagine all that mental energy we’re using to suppress negative emotions that we could free up and put to better use. So next time you’re feeling sad, embrace it, cherish it – and the lessons it can unveil.


A different personal narrative

Finding a place under the sun, Self-development

Money chasing monkey business - Copy

As the new year unfolds and everyone draws up resolution lists packed with new gym memberships, money-making strategies, remote destinations and language classes, I came across Emily Esfahani Smith and her four pillars of meaning and thought they’d make a good foundation for 2018.

After years of research, Emily argues that it’s not the pursuit of happiness that should govern our life, but the pursuit of meaning. No news there. According to her, meaning is achieved through four pillars:

  1. belonging: developing loving relationships where we are appreciated for who we are rather than our beliefs.
  2. purpose: putting our qualities to the service of the greater good or of others.
  3. transcendence: connecting to a higher reality through art, religion, writing or, for me, dancing.
  4. storytelling: the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

The last one immediately stroke a chord. I’ve always been fond of reading and writing but never thought of what a lousy personal storyteller I was when it came to sharing how I became what I am today or even small things like how’s your new job. When it came to my personal narrative, since I’m a perfectionist, I often concentrated on the shortcomings and areas for improvement: what could/ should be even better but isn’t? A discourse of longing and expectation that doesn’t let you enjoy the present moment even when you have it good because there’s something even better you’re missing on. I call it the anxiety of becoming, where you feel your life takes place in a constant waiting room towards your next destination. I have led a pretty interesting and diverse life so far, so I was always trying not to sound arrogant to the point that I wasn’t really given myself recognition for my achievements or didn’t come across as confident.

Let’s take a friend of mine who was drugged by a mother of a 3-year old while backpacking in Latin America and woke up on the backseat of an abandoned car in only a bikini surrounded by police, her bag gone. Her narrative: I’m better equipped now for further travel (she’s got another four months) and feeling grateful I’m safe and with friends. Needless to say my first reaction would’ve been to get an urgent medical check, file a police report and get the hell out of there. If your narrative is on the negative side even when things are good, imagine how you’d react when misfortune strikes.

The storytelling pillar reminded me of Steve Jobs‘ recount of his path to success and how he connected the dots years later, showing that even what seemed like disasters back then turned into blessings. When you tell your narrative, does your story have a positive sound to it? Does it make you feel content? or is it more whining and complaining? What was awesome about your journey? What has it taught you? How has it contributed to the awesome person you are today? Are you grateful or bitter? Do you take responsibility or do you blame others?

The storytelling concept is not alien to cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT, where one’s interpretation of a situation, rather than the situation itself, triggers feelings and behaviors and ultimately, our satisfaction and sense of meaning of our life overall. To improve our storytelling we need compassion and kindness towards yourself and self-love. Mindfulness i.e. a focus on and non-judgemental observation of thoughts, emotions and behaviours, helps identify the basic human need behind them. This need, if unmet, can trigger a certain unkind discourse we tell ourselves about ourselves. It takes some acceptance of vulnerability and understanding that we all share this humanity, where we may feel unworthy or unloved and that’s ok. At the same time, we can limit our frustration with ourselves and be less harsh if we satisfy that need in multiple ways and bring this into awareness.

So this year’s resolution is not to maximise the money-chasing monkey business or fly to remote locations, but to tell myself a different personal narrative and being more grounded. As Marcel Proust puts it, it’s not different landscapes we need, but a different perspective:

“The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes”

The gift

Finding a place under the sun, Self-development, Teaching

On her way‘You ask me what is the greatest happiness in this world?

To hear the hum of a little girl in the distance after she asked you which way.’

Li Po

My dear friend from high school gave me this book for my birthday, The art of happiness by Christophe André, which derives specific lessons from famous paintings on how to experience happiness and pairs them with quotes and intriguing insights. I was a bit nervous how I was going to find the time to go through it, since our generation is ADD-ed all over the place. This quote made me pause for a while. It reminded me of the joy to contribute to other people’s development that I rediscovered while volunteering as a literature teacher and empowerment trainer in Micronesia and when I started this blog.

Most people think they tick this box by parenting, but why say ‘a little girl’ and why is she moving away than nearing if this is about parenting? Parents can get overprotective and prescriptive in their attempts to guide their offspring towards what they think is best for them (see post on Lifetraps of all the ways things can go wrong unintentionally). Our attitude is more neutral and less controlling towards someone we don’t feel we own in one way or the other.

You don’t need to be a parent to make a powerful contribution in someone else’s life. Just by showing kindness, encouraging them directly or indirectly when no one believes in them or by sharing an idea they’ve never thought of before at the right time, you can point them the way. What way? Towards where? To their next stop.

Someone was saying our talent is not a right, but an obligation: it’s a gift that was lent to us for the benefit of the others, not ourselves, and it should manifest itself sooner or later. Nowadays it’s so easy to overlook our talent and feel we’re not good enough at it as we compare ourselves to others incessantly. In the movie Good Will Hunting, the following question is raised: Can you imagine if Einstein would’ve given up his gift just to get drunk with his buddies every night? Similarly, once we get over ourselves as the centre of the universe and having fun while experimenting the world, we realise that who we’ve become and what we’ve learnt is our gift to the world. We have a sort of moral obligation towards the well-being of others and to help them find their way – in a non-intrusive or prescriptive way. And listen to their hum as they stroll away.

He lost his humanity when…

Global citizenship, Self-development

I recently attended Romania’s first peace forum and there was a lot of talk(s) about non-discrimination, extremism, value-based conflicts, but what struck me were this lady’s words: ‘He lost his humanity when he chose violence‘. Jo Berry, founder of Building Bridges for Peace, shared her touching story of when she sat face-to-face with her dad’s killer, 16 years later after he planted a bomb in the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party Conference. Why did she do it? Because she chose to. And she empathised.

My first reaction to her choice of words was that surely there’s nothing more human than to react to our surroundings by the emotions we display and that involves anger and yes, that can lead to violence – so why say humanity and violence are incompatible? We’re living creatures animated by emotions. But then I realised that’s the beautiful thing about humans that sets us apart from other living creatures: that we can rise above our instincts through reason, practice, understanding, feeling, empathising. So when the IRA chose to bomb, it was the expression of so much anger that led to the abdication of humanity.

We cannot make peace with the others until we made peace with ourselves: peace in, peace out. A 2004 film I happened to watch a few days later, Crash, was a mix of intertwining stories about how built-up alienation, loneliness, anger, frustration is the source of violence and discrimination. A powerful must-watch film with a witty ending. So when you mistreat a person, you take it out on him or her for all the times you were disappointed, hurt, angry, insecure or experienced an agonising strife for individuality. Our natural preservation instinct is so ingrained in our DNA that it has made us automatically view differences as something threatening and unwanted. Don’t be ruled by fear. It takes a conscious effort to go beyond and understand.  It’s what defines our humanity.

One day after the Manchester bombing, I can’t help but feel angry, but also saddened that someone could feel they had no other choice to express themselves or solve their problem than by killing others. Angry for the lost lives, but also for the racism and division they’ve generated. He, too, has lost his humanity when he chose violence.

Undemonising men and responsibilising women

Finding a place under the sun, Love, Self-development

Responsibilising women‘Men are pigs, they lie and they cheat.’ Now how many times have you heard that one before? One too many. It’s time to abandon the sex wars, so I’ll get straight to the point. Ok, sometimes they do. So do women. The problem is women adopt this victim attitude and blame men by default. What women often forget is that they always have a choice and should take responsibility for its consequences. And that we are all free to be at whatever stage in life we feel ready for.

Number one: let’s take, for example, the case of a man who just got out of a long relationship and isn’t ready for commitment. It’s his right. He’s not there to support needy women 24/7. If he’s true about his intentions and meets a woman who is looking for the real deal, the woman has the choice to have a fling or move on until she finds her man. What some women do is stick around, hoping they’ll win over the guy. Why? Because women have a natural instinct to fix or change men. When they don’t succeed, they cry on their friend’s shoulder that the guy was a scumbag. Why? He was just not ready and said it upfront. There are many other guys who are: plenty of fish in the sea, what made you stop fishing? Your choice! The only thing to reproach a man would be if he was misleading and made the woman believe he was committed when he wasn’t. But then again, women tend to self-induce that impression that the man loves them. Why? Because somehow women have been taught that if a man is mean to them, he likes them.

Number two: cut that ‘I was born to love you’ fantasy! A man is not supposed to love you now or indefinitely. When that happened, life expectancy was low and one of you died in your 30s. A man is entitled to fall in or out of love and so are you. This should not affect your identity or self-esteem. You are still your wonderful self. You cannot define your worth based on someone’s irrational desire or chemistry. That’s insane! How can you blame someone of something they have no control over? Tip of the day: easier said than done.

Number three: women love to have sex just as much as men. They’re not pure and fantasise about getting married and having children all day. They don’t love endlessly: women get bored too, some don’t want children or life-long commitment. Otherwise all men would be saints out of lack of partners in crime. With people tying the knot later or never, women have sex outside of committed relationships. Just because a man came along, that doesn’t mean the woman is by default picturing him as her husband. Or that women want to be tied in shitty relationships just out of fear of being single. However, for women attachment is more powerful and comes easier. If you’re going through a ‘girls just want to have fun’ phase, take responsibility for what it entails.

Number four: you’re in a toxic relationship with an abusive man. You deserve something better. I once read a book called Feel the fear and do it anyway. It might be petrifying and if you’ve been in that relationship long enough, chances are your self-confidence has been torn to shreds. It might be extremely hard for endless reasons, but remember, you always have an option: to leave or stay. 

‘But women are intrinsically emotional. You cannot teach them reason.’ Oh c’mon! No one said women should start being robots and stop feeling. Just by knowing that your worth is not determined by the size of your fan club is not going to make rejection less painful. Who? Me? No, ME. I might still feel disappointed, hurt or even not good enough. I will feel it, embrace it, let it overwhelm me and move on. I owe this to the little girl I once was not to let my life become a complete emotional mess. I hold the reins. It’s always easier to blame it on someone else. I might seem insensitive, too tolerant or blamed for siding with men (when there shouldn’t be any sides because we banned sex wars at the beginning of this post), but I believe there’s always a choice. It’s time to take responsibility for our life and our emotions.

Laughter: the good and the evil

The Laugh-1911

Humour is the most sought-after quality of our century: we love an entertainer, a clown. I love watching a good comedy or hearing a good joke: that feeling of my body shaking all over with laughter. We spend our days scrolling through Facebook, sending each other links of memes and funny animals or seeking each other’s company for laughs over a glass of something. Well, we are told we need to be happy. What could be wrong with a bit of laughter? Isn’t it a sign of happiness?

Look at Robin Williams. Is it? Often the most bruised inside laugh the most to hide it. I’ve recently noticed friends talking about very sad problems while laughing – it felt so wrong and bizarre. But then again, I do it as well. It’s a reflex to dedramatise the situation, to protect ourselves from losing it, but then do we still genuinely experience emotions or do we just turn numb? Or do we even address important issues or just clown around? Pack up our schedule so we have no alone time to be faced with the seriousness of things? Or do you remember that feeling when you don’t have the courage to say it out loud and then you say it as a joke to test the ground? Jokes are usually half true.

When I think of laughter, Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose comes to mind, where a series of murders and suicides at this abbey are linked to the subversive nature of laughter. When the mystery is solved (sorry for the spoiler), we find out that a blind old monk had put poison on the pages of a long-lost comedy book by Aristotle because laughter eliminates fear (including of God), and while it’s ok for it to be the common man’s recreation, learned men should not start believing it’s admissible to laugh at everything as that would make the world relapse into chaos.

Ok, that’s a bit extreme – though good surprise factor and interesting perspective. Laughter does wonders to our well-being. However, I do believe that always clowning around prevents us from establishing a true connection with others, but ourselves as well, and since deep relationships are what we need to lead a fulfilling life according to a 75-year Harvard study, well keeping it shallow just won’t cut it. How often do you get asked how you feel? And more importantly, how often do you actually believe the question refers to emotions rather than your health? And how often would you even feel comfortable describing your feelings to others? or even be able to identify them? We talk so much…and yet, what do we talk about really?

So go on, I dare you: have a heartfelt conversation about things that matter to you or someone else and tell me how it felt. Be vulnerable and let it all out. Or try to listen, empathise and be fully present. And try not to laugh or trivialise the matter. It’s harder than you think, but it’s important.

William of Baskerville: [Chasing after Jorge who runs with the Second Book of Poetics by Aristotle intending to destroy it] But what is so alarming about laughter?
Jorge de Burgos: Laughter kills fear, and without fear there can be no faith because without fear of the Devil, there is no more need of God.
William of Baskerville: But you will not eliminate laughter by eliminating that book.
Jorge de Burgos: No, to be sure, laughter will remain the common man’s recreation. But what will happen if, because of this book, learned men were to pronounce it admissible to laugh at everything? Can we laugh at God? The world would relapse into chaos! Therefore, I seal that which was not to be said. [he eats the poisoned pages of the book] In the tomb I become. [he tosses the book at the candle, which ignites a fire that destroys all the books in the abbey tower]

Letting go: the monkey business


20170318_175514Once upon a time, there was a farmer who was very upset because a monkey kept destroying his crops. He loved the little animal and didn’t want to hurt it, but he also needed to feed his children. One day a beggar came by and taught him a trick. He took a coconut, made a tiny hole in it, put a banana in it and tied the coconut to the tree. The monkey came, grabbed the banana, but got trapped because it wouldn’t let go of it and its hand couldn’t slide through the tiny hole with a tight fist. The moral of this true story: attachment is monkey-business. It deprives you of your freedom.

Similarly, we get trapped by our own desire. We shouldn’t get caught up in wanting things to be a certain way when they clearly cannot be. Choose our battles wisely – tell what is within our control and what isn’t. We need to learn to allow things to be the way they are and make a conscious detachment from the object of our desire. The faster we learn to do this, the more peace of mind we’ll have because things are not going to always work out our way.

Jon Kabat Zinn believes letting go is one of the nine attitudes indispensable to mindfulness, together with having a beginner’s mind with no preconceived ideas, non-judging, acceptance, trust, patience, non-striving (ie the ‘good-enough’ attitude), gratitude and generosity. Zinn thinks that, just as when we breathe we inhale and exhale, receiving and releasing are a natural part of life.


Non-violent communication: are you a jackal or a giraffe?

Love, Self-development

Non violent communicationI’ve always been proud I could speak my mind no matter what. I thought it was a duty towards myself – and others. I also expected others to do the same. Until I became more emotionally aware of my effect on others – and how that’s the most valuable currency there is. I was coming across as blunt, criticising and borderline rude. Why? I was just being honest. Quite often, the form is more important than the content or the intention.

Marshall Rosenberg’s giraffe and jackal stance on interpersonal communication

I’ve recently watched a quite lengthy but fun presentation by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg on non-violent communication. I highly recommend it: that man’s a stand-up comedian. Rosenberg coined the terms giraffe and jackal language in interpersonal communication, where the former is the language of the heart, the giraffe being the animal with the largest heart (up to 40 lbs), while the latter is a language of criticism and demands that only triggers counterattack and defensiveness. He describes an easy six-step approach to having productive communication as a giraffe in conflictual situations that I’ll try to do justice to.

  1. Problem: describe the problem as an observer without passing judgment or criticising

According to Indian philosopher Krishnamurti, the highest form of intelligence is the ability to observe without evaluating. Unfortunately, we’ve been fed this moralistic judgment way of looking at things, where they’re perceived as right or wrong, good or bad. Focus on one thing the person does that you’re not happy about. Notice the difference between: ‘My wife is full of insults‘ and ‘My wife called me a slob because I did not take out the trash.’ The former puts a diagnosis while the latter records facts. Rosenberg thinks any evaluation in terms of wrongness is a tragic expression of an unmet need and only leads to violence while also decreasing the likelihood of the need being met. We should not  be judging moralistically the person for who they are, we should just be making need-serving observations whether someone’s behaviour is working towards meeting needs. Needs are the life-seeking expression within us.

2) Feelings: express how that behaviour makes you feel

When this happens, I feel (hurt).‘ We should take responsibility for our feelings. There’s always a choice. Be conscious that the root of feelings is needs.

Jackal talk is when we manipulate others and make them feel guilty for making us feel the way we do. By using words such as rejected, ignored, used, betrayed, misunderstood, we make a diagnosis of the others and how they treat us rather than express our feelings.

3) Need(s): express/bring attention to your need that is not met

Get power with people rather than over them. This is done by bringing people’s attention to our needs and appealing to their innate sense of giving and helping from the heart rather than luring them with a reward or scaring them with punishment: ‘When you do that, I feel…because I need…‘ They should not hear criticism. Express the need without reference to the other person or how it should be met. Notice the difference between ‘because I need love’ and ‘I need you to love me‘. Besides, the same need can be satisfied by any other person in any other way. Needs are universal, while preferences are specific ways needs we want needs to be met.

4) Request: ask rather than demand concrete actions you’d like the other to take

Don’t list what they shouldn’t do, but concrete actions you would like them to do. Take responsibility for what you want. Sometimes, because of our upbringing where we were told what to do,people might hear demands even when they’re requests and act defensive. We can make the distinction by seeing what happens when we don’t do it, if punishment or passive aggression.

5) Response: imagine what the other person would respond

Their envisaged response might indicate whether they heard a demand or a request.

6) Empathy: hear the other one out emphatically – need identification and establishing a connection

Rosenberg believes all a person is saying is ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ and it’s sad that sometimes they only know how to say it in such a nasty way. No matter what the person is saying, if you translated it into ‘I’m in pain because a need of mine isn’t met,’ you would be more understanding and open for discussion. Try to identify your interlocutor’s feeling and need behind their behaviour: ‘Are you feeling…because you are needing…?


In short, non-violent communication aims to meet everyone’s needs in a non-coercive way and by appealing to our innate yearning to give. For this, we need to establish a true connection first by hearing only feelings and needs rather than thoughts and criticism. There’s no wrongness implied. Then we should express requests not demands and make sure that’s what our interlocutor hears too. All people are saying is please and thank you, but they’ve lost the means to do it in a nice way.

Lifetraps – or 11 ways you are sabotaging your relationships

Finding a place under the sun, Love, Self-development


What makes women attracted to ‘bad boys’? Do you ever find yourself reliving similar situations like being attracted to the wrong type of people that make a healthy relationship a unicorn? This goes back to your childhood – no surprise there.

We’ll have a look at what the 11 lifetraps are, their origins, some inappropriate coping mechanisms, how they prevent you from having the right relationship for you, and the successful (but not easy, unfortunately) way out. Strangely enough, attraction is stronger with partners who trigger your lifetrap.

What are lifetraps?

As a child, your basic needs were simple: safety, autonomy, connection to others, self-esteem, self-expression and realistic limits. And yet so many things can go wrong while raising a child that I seriously doubt any of us are sane. When these basic needs are not met entirely, the child can develop inappropriate cognitive patterns: distorted learnings about himself and the world. Then the adult will apply this pattern throughout his life and will seek situations that reconfirm it in a self-defeating and self-destructive way. It’s what we call a lifetrap and it affects how we relate to others and ourselves. Lifetraps become so central to our sense of self and identity that we prefer to relive them although it hurts than to give in to insecurity about not knowing who we are and what the world is like. The lifetraps were adaptations to our conditions as children, yet we tend to relive them in an environment where they serve no purpose anymore.

Inappropriate coping mechanisms

The way lifetraps develop or manifest depends on the temperament and genetic predisposition. If two children were abused, one might become passive and one might fight back. Coping can range from surrender, escape to counterattack.

By surrendering we are just perpetuating the childhood situation into adulthood passively.

The disadvantage of escaping is that we never confront that situation that causes negative feelings so we can never change our perception and overcome this trap. Instead, we go for emotional numbness.

Counterattackers avoid being vulnerable and acknowledging their problem. Instead, they’d rather act exactly the opposite, hurting other people in the process.

Now let’s look at how lifetraps originate in unmet needs as a child.

Need: Safety and Security – Lifetraps: Abandonment and Mistrust/Abuse

If your parents divorced, if one of them died, was alcoholic or depressed, or if they sent you to be raised by your grandparents, you might develop the abandonment lifetrap. Being scared that people will leave you, you could become very clingy, possessive or quite the opposite: very cold and unavailable. You’re attracted to unstable people or situations like a magnet and stability makes you anxious. Or you could avoid relationships altogether, although you might tell yourself you’re looking for loving stable relationships.

People who were abused physically or psychologically (criticism, humiliation, blackmail, threats) develop a mistrust/abuse lifetrap and expect the worst from people, always on the lookout for ulterior motives. They develop superficial relationships, don’t open up, are jealous or surprisingly, they can be strongly attracted to abusers who treat them badly or perpetuate the abuse themselves.

Need: Connection to others – Lifetraps: Emotional Deprivation and Social Exclusion

Children need a lot of attention, affection and guidance. If as a child you felt you were deprived of enough TLC, as an adult you could feel extremely lonely, distant, emotionally disconnected, like no one loves you or cares for you. You are chronically disappointed in other people. The emotional deprivation lifetrap can make you grow cold and be attracted to cold people, thus engaging in relationships that reconfirm the world is a lonely place where you don’t fit in. Healthy relationships seem boring. Or you could counterattack and become narcissistic and extra demanding.

We all need to feel accepted by others. It’s equally important to accept ourselves. If as a child you were bullied or felt different because of a certain characteristic like coming from a poor family or being too fat/skinny, you will perpetuate this social exclusion lifetrap by avoiding to socialise.

Need: Self-Esteem – Lifetraps: Defectiveness and Failure

Childhood experiences like being constantly criticised or made to feel inferior by comparison to a sibling can make you lose the sense of your value and worth and be filled with shame. Praise and encouragement build self-esteem and confidence. The difference between defectiveness and failure is that the first is inward, where your own flaws make you feel unlovable, while the latter is external, where you feel you are bound to not succeed.

If you feel defective, unworthy of love and are self-punitive, if you expect rejection or lack of achievement, you will trigger situations that will make it happen: people who will criticise you or you’ll find yourself in situations that are above your capabilities. You might engage in short-lived passionate relationships with no chance of ever working out or where you’re mistreated because you feel that’s all you deserve. Or, on the contrary, be hypercritical of others or abuse and neglect your partner, devalue them so you don’t care too much when they reject you. Sometimes, acts of superiority or putting people down actually conceal a lack of self-worth. You might be extremely sensitive to criticism and overly-jealous. You could overcompensate by seeking success and putting all your self-worth in external recognition.

When you feel a failure, you feel like an impostor even when you’re successful, like you fooled people into believing you’re more capable than you really are. Your inner feelings made you avoid taking the steps to advance your career or specialise in one field and thus you might be lagging behind compared to your friends .

Need: Autonomy – Lifetraps: Dependence and Vulnerability

If your parents were unsupportive of your attempts to venture out and explore the world on your own, to take responsibility for your actions and choices and exercise good judgment, a dependence lifetrap can make you cling to people and feel you’re incapable of making it on your own or succeeding in new endeavours. You minimise your successes and magnify shortcomings. You’re afraid of change and decisions because of a lack of faith in your own judgment. Or you could overcompensate by an independence driven to extremes which conceals feelings of incompetence.

Parents sometimes are overprotective or not protective enough and instill in their children this feeling that the world is a dangerous place to live in. This excessive fear, be it of diseases, earthquakes, bankruptcy, flying or being the victim of crime, can be taken well into adulthood part of the vulnerability lifetrap. You will seek a partner to take care of you and reassure you that will prevent you from proving yourself.

Need: Self-Expression – Lifetraps: Subjugation and Unrelenting Standards

Sometimes parents might have such fixed ideas of who their child should be that they delete their personality completely and deny any self-expression. This child will relive the subjugation lifetrap by entering relationships and jobs where they’re dominated and controlled. They’ll put other people’s needs first out of guilt or fear of being punished or submit to a life of routine. They’ll watch passively how life happens to them and won’t be in touch with what they want. Frustration due to lack of assertiveness and too many unmet needs will build in and take the form of suppressed anger and sometimes passive aggressiveness or even a rebel, domineering and aggressive behaviour to overcompensate.

Encouraging a child to do his or her best is different from always expecting them to be the best. A parent’s love should be unconditional. The unrelenting standards lifetrap can make you be extremely demanding and judgmental of yourself and others and forever dissatisfied: nothing is good enough in the ongoing strife for perfection (also see Fixed vs growth mindset). To you the world is divided between top achievers and losers. The pressure to always achieve generates a lot of anxiety.

Need: Realistic Limits – Lifetrap: Entitlement

It’s easy to spoil a child when they’re the most important thing in your life, but you’re destining them to an entitlement lifetrap, where they lack self-discipline, frustration tolerance, and have unreasonable expectations of what others should do (for them). They demand: they cannot take a no. They’ll be perceived as self-centred, narcissistic and even abusive and will always put the blame on others. Their demands will drain the people around them. Or by counterattacking they could develop entitlement as a result of multiple deprivations while growing up and start demanding everything as an adult. This lifetrap is the hardest to change because it’s not necessarily a pain spot for the concerned person, but more for the people around, so the person has little motivation to change.

Overcoming lifetraps

Lifetraps are deeply ingrained in our perception and identity. It takes constant observation and self-disciplined intervention to change.

But first, start with identifying your lifetrap and for this you need to reach deep into your childhood and allow yourself to be vulnerable, to feel the pain. More often than not, a couple of lifetraps overlap, but tackle the one that’s more approachable first.

Talk to the child you once were and comfort him or her.

Then ventilate your anger (in a letter or out loud) against whoever did you wrong as a child.

Prove that your lifetrap is not valid: bring evidence pro and con your lifetrap ie things that confirm or invalidate your perception of yourself and of the world.

Friends can help give you a clearer picture of yourself. No need to go in this alone.

You can summarise the evidence in a flashcard you keep with you.

Identify patterns in your past (relationships) that manifest the lifetrap. Draw a list of habits that reinforce your lifetrap and ways to change them.

Develop a thorough action plan to challenge each debilitating situation, trait or habit. But approach change gradually with what’s more manageable.

Resist strong chemistry with people that are likely to just reinforce your lifetrap by leaving you or criticising. Instead, go for more stable, emotionally available partners where the same attachment will appear with time.

Don’t allow people to mistreat you anymore. You deserve much more.

Accept love – as strange as it may sound, it’s not such an easy thing to do.

Change is to be brought through empathic self-confrontation, where you are gentle and compassionate with yourself while striving to change.

Do not blame your parents. Take responsibility for who you are.

Further reading

If you’d like to know more about these lifetraps, their origin and how to change them, I recommend reading Reinventing your life, by Jeffrey and Klosko, which includes a self-diagnose questionnaire, lots of case examples and separate chapters on how to tackle each lifetrap. I hope it’s as eye-opening as it was for me.


Letter from my old self

Finding a place under the sun, Global citizenship, Love, My story, Self-development

Last night as I came home a letter was waiting for me. Who writes letters these days? It must be another bill. My heart leapt with joy – almost the same thrill from back in the day when I used to receive love letters from my high school sweetheart. I recognised the writing: it was mine! I wrote it while volunteering in Micronesia a year ago. It was a love letter indeed – but of the everlasting kind. Thank you, old self.