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Need a GPS for Navigating Life's Challenges?

If you're feeling off-track from your life purpose, here's 12 routes to try.

psychological gps

Need a psychological GPS?

Aiming for personal happiness and positive relationships, yet having trouble finding your way? What are your options when the pathways that you thought would lead to well-being feel instead like they are leading to disappointment, frustration, work difficulties or family, relationship or marital problems?

This GPS is a Guide to Psychological Solutions. Its goal is to offer 12 suggesitons for new routes to get you to where you are aiming to go.

1. Getting upset?

Use off-ramps to be sure that you stay in the calm zone.

As soon as you get excessively emotionally elevated, you create more problems than you are likely to be able to solve. Moreover, the more you vent escalating feelings, the more you actually will be stirring them up, like bellows heat up a fire.

What can you do to stay calm if you feel yourself heating up? Take the pot off the stove. Leave for a few minutes. Take the nearest off-ramp by excusing yourself from the situation. "Excuse me (as you stand and start walking out). I need to get a drink of water."

Better yet, set up a Quiet Chair for calming down from angers that erupt at home. Put relaxing magazines or music nearby. "I'm getting mad. I'm going to my quiet chair for a few minutes." That's a solution everyone with whom you live will be likely to appreciate if you have been prone to anger outbursts. If you have kids and they tend to erupt in excessive anger, you might want to set up Quiet Chairs for each of them as well.

Once you have exited from the provocative situation your job is to return to a calm emotional zone. Calm yourself by distracting your mind with a focus elsewhere: browse a magazine, surf the internet or play with the children. Return for more talking when you can deal from a place of calm.

Most importantly, plan ahead for exit ramp rituals. At a time when you feel in a comfortable mood, sit down and have a quiet talk with your loved one, adult or child, about building shared exit/re-entry routines. With adequate exit ramps, every family can make their home a no-anger zone.

What if a person you live with, adult or child, does not have exit routines for staying in calm mode?

Anger is contagious, so if the other person gets angry, you still need to get out of range. "I need a drink of water," is generally a good exit line. If the other person follows you, exit the house. Staying while their pot boils over does no one any good.

2. Something troubling happened?

Solve problems instead of stabbing out.

When problems arise, immature individuals indulge in blaming.

Mature individuals do not point fingers or look to find who is to blame or at fault. They instead look to understand and then to solve the problem, focusing especially on what they themseves can do to improve the situation.

3. Feeling adrift?

Have goals, a purpose, a project.

"Cars run best uphill." That's a saying from a Sufi master in Pakistan who used to live in the hills where Bin Ladin used to hide out. A friend from my younger years had a similar saying: "You have to fight to feel good."

While fighting in the sense of conflict may be counter-productive to happiness, having a goal, something you are working for, does enhance positive feelings.

Loretta Breuning, a PT blogger who has written a book called Meet Your Happy Chemicals, points out that for dopamine to spurt forth within your physiological system, stalking a goal like a leopard stalks its prey will do the trick. Dopamine invites feeling good.

4. Holding on to too much in your gut?

Put words to your feelings.

Not saying feelings invites emotions either to fizzle out before you've fully heard the message they meant to convey, or to build until they burst.

Sharing positve emotions like pride, delight and love augments the feelings. Negative emotions however will tend to become enlarged if they are not expressed because not talking about negative situations makes the problem situation linger and fester.

Supressing emotions by not saying how you feel also keeps you at a distance from others. Loved ones feel less sense of connection with people who do not say what what they feel (anxious, intirgued, awkward, delighted). By contrast saying how you feel, expressed tactfully, fosters feelings of intimacy. Talking tactfully about negative feelings also can propel you down the road to finding a solution.

Be careful though. "I feel that you ..." does not accomplish verbalizing a feeling. It's saying a thought, and probably a critical one.

Far better is to follow the formula: "I feel (or felt) ______ when you _______."

"I feel sad when you leave so early in the morning for work and then don't return until after the kids are already in bed."

or, "I felt disappointed when I thought we were going out on Saturday night and then you decided you'd rather stay home."

What if the person with whom you live is not able to hear your feelings?

Some people, and especially people with narcissistic tendencies, are unable to hear their partner's feelings. If you say, "I feel sad," they bring bring the focus back to themselves, "Well I'm sad too!" Or because they assume that everything is about them, they get mad because they think when you say you feel x that you are saying that the feeling is their fault.

In this case, the general rule about saying your feelings may not apply. Say your feelings to others, but not to a narcissist who then will turn on you.

5. Feeling like what you want doesn't count?

Voice your concerns.

When decisions need to be made in any arena, verbalizing your concerns radically increases the odds that your concerns will matter in the outcome plan of action. Sounds obvious, and yet all too often people do not look inside and then verbalize what their gut is telling them.

Some people have trouble hearing others' concerns. Narcissists, for instance, tend toward deafness toward what anyone other than themselves is saying. They listen for what's wrong, to shoot down what others say, or else just ignore it. In the case that you are problem-solving with someone who fits this description, you may need to hang in there and calmly reiterate several times what's important to you.

6. Too many adversarial interactions?

Listen for what's right with what others say.

If your responses begin with "But..." or "No, I disagree." odds are you are listening for what's wrong with rather than for what is right or useful or interesting in what others say.

Listening to show that you are right and others are wrong may seem to you to be boosting your status. In reality, it lowers your likabililty. It also increases the odds that your interactions with others will be adversarial instead of collaobrative.

Narcissism is a state of non-listening. If you feel that you are always right and therefore have no need to listen to others, better check out my earlier blogpost Are You a Narcissist?

7. Tough decision ahead?

Instead of aiming to get your way, or even to find a compromise, aim for win-win outcomes.

When differences create a tug of war, shift your focus from advocating for your way to exploring both your underlying concerns and the underlying concerns of the person on the other side of the disagreement.

Once you understand the underlying issues of importance to each of you, then it becomes relatively easy to co-create a win-win solution. That plan of action may look quite different from what either of you had initially proposed, or may be what one of you wanted with the addition of modifications that make it work for both of you.

For example, Joan wants to buy a new sofa. Jerry says no way.

What are their underlying concerns? Joan is concerned that the colors of the old sofa seem jarring now that they have repainted their living room walls. Jerry is concerned about the cost of buying a major piece of new furniture.

A win-win outcome? Maybe it will be to purchase new throw-cushions that tie together the wall and the sofa colors. Or maybe they can trade sofas with relatives who would love to upgrade their living room with something new and whose nice-enough current sofa would blend great with Joan and Jerry's new wall paint.

A shift of focus from advocating for your specific initial action proposal to exploring underlying concerns opens the way to discovery of a plan of action that is responsive to all of the concerns of both of you.

What are the costs of not seeking win-win solutions?

Insisting on your viewpoint invites anger as each of you become increasingly adamant. If one of you wins, the loser is likely to feel depressed as well as defeated. If you compromise, both of you lose at least some of what you wanted. If you don't want either anger or depression, and therefore hold back from talking about the problem, you'll experience anxiety and tension will grow between the two of you. If the dilemma feels like too much to deal with, you then become at risk for an escape route such as drinking, addictions, or other "olics" like sportsaholic, workaholic, etc.

What's the payoffs for aiming always for win-win solutions?

Win-win made collabaoratively yield far and away the best outcomes. New throw cushions for the old sofa would be far less expensive than investment in a new piece of furniture. In addition, the cusions could make the room that much more attractive, which was important to Joan.

At the same time, when two people co-create a solution that they both feel good about, they simultaenously create good feelings toward each other. That makes win-win problem-solving a double winner.

Any drawbacks?

Alas, the win-win waltz generally 'takes two to tango.' It's a great option so long as both of you are willing to do the essential steps.

By contrast, if you or the person you are dealing with are insistent on staying glued to your original ideas instead of being willing to seek win-win options, the process will get stuck. In that ase, finding ways to get what you want with unilateral strategies like becoming the loudest or the most insistent, or at best aiming for compromises, may be the only remaining options.

8. Need to recover from an upset?

When something has gone wrong or been upsetting, look to find what your part has been in the problem.

To understand your part in the problem you will need to shift your focus from looking at what others contributed to the problem to what role you may, inadvertently, have played. That insight can lead you to awareness of what you yourself can offer toward a solution.

Others hopefully will follow your lead, looking to understand their contributions to the difficulty and at what they can add to a solution.

As the authors of the book on negotiation called Getting to Yes say succinctuly, it's helpful to assume that 'the problem is the problem.' Stay away from assuming that what's wrong with the people. Focus instead on what in the system can be fixed.

For instance, if your feelings were hurt when your loved one came home and didn't say hello, talk with each other about how to design a better system for re-entries into each other's life spaces. Instead of labeling each other negatively, e.g., as "self-absorbed" or "too needy," find a "system" for re-entry that works for both of you. Maybe the new system could be that the person who returns home last will say loudly, "Honey, Hello! I'm home," and then head to the bedroom to change clothes and rest for five minutes. After that brief rest, joining in the kitchen with a big hug and sitting down together to talk at least briefly will complete the re-entry ritual.

10. Feel bad about something you did?

Assume that mistakes are for learning.

Mistakes are not for punishing. They are not for holding resentments. They are not for self-flagellation. MIstakes are for learning.

To heal after upsets, find the mistake (or other 'mis' such as a misunderstanding, a miscommunicaiton, a misperception, etc). Acknowledge your part in it, and then figure out how to make the situation better.

Apologies can be helpful. "I'm so sorry that I ______" At the same time, a full apology that will truly lead to change culminate with explanations of what you have learned, that is, what you would do differently in a similar situation should it occur again in the future. Mistakes are for learning.

One key: DO NOT dwell excessively on what the other person has done that was problematic. You will gain far more from recognizing and learning from your own mistakes than from analyzing the mistakes of others. Mistakes are for learning.

11. Feeling under attack?

When others attack you, listen first for the grain of truth and validate that. Second, listen to understand the attacker via their projection.

When angry or paranoid individuals blame others for problems, listening to their blame statements can inform you what the blamer subconsciously is thinking, feeling and doing. For example, if a politician blames "Wall Street" for stealing from the people, while there may be a grain of truth in that proposition, odds are that the politician is wanting to steal from you (higher taxes, etc).

To validate find some aspect of what was said that you can agree with. E.g., "Yes, people in the world of finance do seem to end up earning a lot more money than most people."

Projection occurs when one person's feelings, thoughts and actions are "projected" onto another person, much like a movie project projects a film onto a movie screen.

For instance, if an angry person declares that the house is a mess because you have not been doing your part in household chores, it may be helpful to see the truth in that reality. "Yes, I have been falling behind in housekeeping." At the same time, to translate the projection aspect of the angry remark, ask yourself, "Has the acuser also been falling short on household duties?" Odds are the answer there will be yes as well.

Understanding how the acusation applies to both of you can help clarify a potential solution. Maybe, for instance, now that you have children in addition to full time jobs, neither of you have the time you used to have for household upkeep. In that case, hiring a housekeeping service might be a good idea.

12. Not enough positive feelings in your life?

Gratitude promotes well-being.

There's a reason why religious rituals such as prayer usually include large doses of praise. Praise and appreciation are forms of gratitude. While gratitude may be nice for whom ever is being appreciated, it also is good for the person who is expressing it.

Expression of gratitude, appreciation and the like in relationships generates good will, increasing the well-being of both partners. Now that's a win-win solution!

So the more sharing of positivity of any type, the better. Appreciation, affection, agreement, smiles, laughter, and gratitude all augment the strong and warm bonds that make longterm attachments such a gift.

And so...

Which of these 12 routes sounds likely to be helpful as you navigate the challenges in your life, aiming toward a place of increased well-being and relationship goodwill?

Just like traveling from Boston to Denver may require multiple roads, aim to use as many of these pathways as you need to get to your objective.

Meanwhile, a word of wisdom from the 11th and 12th century Persian Sufi mystic Omar Khayyam:

Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.

------For an indexed listing of Dr. H's posts, see Dr. H's Blogposts on her clinical website.-----

Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, has authored From Conflict to Resolution for therapists, plus the Power of Two book, workbook, and website that teach the couple communication skills for successful relationships.

Click here for a free Power of Two relationship quiz.

Click here to learn the skills for strong and loving relationships.

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