On the back of a holiday photo I received recently was a troubling note that belied the lovely smiling faces of the melded family on the other side. In the picture were grandparents, parents and grandchildren, as well as step and half-siblings. They were dressed alike, snuggled closely with one another, and beaming. However in the handwritten message was this: “Since you know about Positive Psychology, I hope you can help me to change my family. They are so negative, and I’ve tried everything to make them more positive.”
What you can change…
While we like to think that we know who is to blame for our relationship misery, changing yourself may be the key to changing other people. What are some of the things that you can change? Before there was a field called Positive Psychology, Marty Seligman wrote the first book of his I read, What You Can Change and What You Can’t. In it Seligman presented the importance of rigorous empirical research when choosing self-help and mental health approaches, but with the caveat that we must keep in mind what is and what is not changeable, since it is a big leap from the research lab to the user of research findings. Seligman said:
“The knowledge of the difference between what we can change and what we must accept in ourselves is the beginning of real change. With this knowledge, we can use our precious time to make the many rewarding changes that are possible. We can live with less self-reproach and less remorse. We can live with greater confidence. This knowledge is a new understanding of who we are and where we are going.”
Since Seligman wrote this, cures have been found for many psychological illnesses, others have been removed from subsequent versions of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, various editions)as they are no longer considered abnormalities, and we can even prevent mental illnesses, for example, by teaching the skills of optimism and resilience. So what can we change?
Getting back to the holiday card message, you can begin by changing you. It will involve some work, but the results change not only you but everyone you come into contact with. (More on this later.)
Explore Your Strengths
First, learn your being, knowing, and doing strengths. The being (VIA) strengths (24 of these) include your character and values. People who don’t have your Signature Strengths may seem as much like you as cats are like dogs. Your knowing strengths (these are infinite) encompass everything you have learned about, and people who don’t share your knowledge may even appear ignorant to you. Remember that they know things that you don’t, too. Your doing (Strengthfinder 2.0) strengths (34 of these) are about the way you apply your talent themes in automatic ways. You may find that you thrive on achieving goals or winning others over while others are arrangers or activators. While it is natural to find value in others who are like us, all of the strengths are valued by people, so consider learning about your strengths as a gateway to what is valuable about others, too.
Next, monitor how often you feel the negative emotion disgust. When something disgusts you, what do you do? Think of a food which you really, really hate, or the smell of something rotten. That visceral reaction is disgust. The overwhelming desire to spit something out is not reserved for food. It is active in relationships, too. When someone else disgusts you, it is extremely difficult to like them. When you begin to feel disgust, switch to something—anything—admirable about the person. Everyone has something, and you can challenge yourself to find things that appeal to your strengths. For example, if you have curiosity as a strength, find out something new about the other person. If you tend to have lots of self-regulation, but aren’t always flexible, focus on the value of another person’s zest, energy and openness.
Watch How You Respond
Finally, practice Active Constructive Responding (ACR). For me, ACR is an antidote for disgust, too. Try to elicit something good recently experienced by the other person. Sharing good news is called “capitalizing”. Cultivate ways to say, “What’s new?” Try, “I heard that you had a very interesting vacation.” Be enthusiastically (fake it till you make it here) interested in the other person’s capitalizing. Instead of being annoyed by the person who goes on and on—It’s all about me!—listen for places to ask questions so that there is some give and take. In workshops I ask people to be in the ACR role for 5 whole minutes, so stick with it. Don’t fall into the trap of talking about yourself, or trying to one-up the other person. You’ll just be more irritated, and that’s not constructive. ACR makes the other person feel understood, validated and cared for. You’ll both like each other better!
Change Others by Changing Yourself
So how do you change everyone else while changing yourself? Remember that I said it was possible earlier on.
- Keep the focus on what works. You’ll be happier when learning about your own strengths and using them in new ways, according the Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson.
- Use those strengths and positive emotions to undo disgust and other negative emotions. Positive emotions have many nice outcomes, especially the reversal of negative emotions. Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory, and the Undoing Hypothesis explain how.
- Practice Active Constructive Responding, the tool for positive and interactive responding to the capitalizations of others. What you say in response to the good news of others is a better predictor of your relationship outcome than how you respond to problems, Shelly Gable has found.
- Instead of grieving the relationship you don’t have, keep an eye on what is good about the one that you do have. Look for opportunities to thank others since gratitude is as good for the giver as for the receiver.
So can you change your family? Yes, a little bit at a time, starting with YOU. Step out of the box. You just might have put yourself in there.
Today from the author: “I’m grateful for Tucker, my new Lab puppy. He brings love and laughter to my home and office.”
Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.
Fredrickson, B.L., & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 313-332.
Gable, S. L., Gonzaga, G., & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Social Support for Positive Events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 904-917.
Kok, B.E., Catalino, L. I. & Fredrickson, B.L. (2008). The broadening, building, buffering effects of positive emotions. In S. Lopez (Ed.). Positive Psychology [Four Volumes]: Exploring the Best in People. Vol. 3 Capitalizing on emotional experiences. (pp.1-19). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company.
Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths. New York: Gallup Press.
Seligman, M. E P, Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.
Seligman, M.E.P. (1994). What You Can Change . . . and What You Can’t*: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement. New York: Knopf.
The puppy pictures were both taken by Sherri Fisher.
The Addams Family picture is drawn from the ideofact archives
The ACR picture is here.