Tag Archives | psychology

Create Timeless Rituals with Fun Holiday Traditions

Photo courtesy of Carrie Stephens

Every year I look forward to December 1st with great anticipation. On that day, our family decorates our home for Christmas. We make a huge event out of it – using teamwork to lug all of the dusty boxes from the attic, heaving and grunting under their weight, but loving the exertion because we know what their contents represent. My favorite part of the day comes when, after hours of deciding on the perfect location for all of the glittery snowmen and the mistletoe, we flip open the boxes filled with ornaments. Each tiny but ornate decoration reminds us of all of the happy Christmases we’ve spent together, and we reminisce about years gone by as we select the perfect spot on the tree for each treasured trinket.

Researchers tell us that the fun holiday traditions that our families enjoy every year are actually way more important than most of us probably ever realized. They’re so important, in fact, that families who establish and regularly carry out yearly traditions are stronger and have more tightly bonded members than other families because these rituals instill a deep sense of consistency and reliability in an otherwise hectic world. Traditions that we can rely on help us develop feelings of trust and confidence – two very important characteristics that aid in creating mentally stable and happy individuals.

Because traditions create a sense of unity among family members, it means that people in families who practice yearly traditions will be less likely to seek out feelings of belonging elsewhere in other (potentially negative or dangerous) social circles. This naturally adds even more strength and importance to the familial bond. Family traditions help build a sense of identity in all members of your family, because the customs you create will be special and unique, ranging from the timing of certain events to inside jokes. The youngest members of your family can even gain a connection to their ancestors through rituals that have been passed down through the ages.

Traditions and rituals don’t have to involve a holiday, but as we are currently right in the middle of the holiday season, it just so happens that most of us are spending lots of time preparing for and enjoying holiday traditions at the moment. Because of the emotional connection that is tied to the events, foods, songs and rituals that surround holidays year round (but most significantly the holidays in December), it’s important to be aware of just how important these moments are to your family as a whole, and to your family members as individuals.

In today’s modern society, as we are constantly confronted with the interference of technology and with the advent of an ever-changing definition of “family,” it can be challenging to honor traditions that many family members have strong emotional connections to. We must all work to find a way to put down our electronic gadgets and make compromises that will enable us to keep our time-honored traditions alive. Even as family structures shift, the stability of practicing family rituals will keep any family strongly bonded and emotionally sound.

We here at TinyShift would like to take this moment to wish all of our readers Happy Holidays.  We sincerely hope your family traditions go off without a hitch.


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Afraid to be Alone? Learn Why and What Can Help

Photo courtesy of Matt Janicki

My old dog used to get so upset when I left the house that he’d start crying and howling if I so much as touched my shoes or looked at my keys. Admittedly, I thought he was being more than a bit dramatic about things.

Then I had children, and I learned that babies do it too! Infants go through a very distinct phase of not wanting to be away from their parents when they develop the concept of object permanence - the knowledge that objects and people don’t disappear when out of sight. Infants from age 10 months to 3 years may put up quite a fight any time they are asked to separate from Mommy or Daddy. I experienced this with both of my children; however, one was much more anxious than the other.

Traditionally, diagnosed cases of separation anxiety have been limited to young children, pre-teens, and pets (usually dogs).  A dog is a pack animal and it goes against its nature to be left alone. Human infants are learning object permanence, and adolescents are going through a lot of transitions, during which anxiety is common.

But what if you don’t fall into any of the above categories and you’re still extremely distressed when faced with being apart from a loved one? In the 1990s, Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder became recognized as a specific mental disorder because of psychology pioneer Vijaya Manicavasagar.

If you’re suffering from Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder, you’ll exhibit some of the following symptoms:

  • Major feelings of distress when thinking about being apart from an attachment figure (usually this is a spouse or friend)
  • Excessive worry about this person when you are apart
  • Extreme fear of being alone
  • Fear of going to sleep alone or inability to sleep away from home; insomnia
  • Nightmares about being alone or being separated
  • Headaches, stomach pains, vomiting or dizziness when anticipating separation from the person to whom you are most attached

In your efforts to make small but significant changes in your life, the stress and fear of being alone is definitely something that you should address. Being overly attached to someone as an adult is hard on relationships and individuals.

I’ve recently met several people who were really struggling with being alone, and the suffering of their partner was what was I noticed first.  Most spouses simply can’t deal with such neediness and many turn away from the relationship. Ironically, many people with Separation Anxiety have trouble forming lasting relationships.

Any type of anxiety is something that can be treated successfully. If you or a loved one is suffering from feelings of excessive fear and nervousness that are out of proportion to the situation at hand, don’t be afraid to turn to a professional for help.

I did, and it made a major difference in my life. The right medication combined with talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy eased my anxiety and helped me start functioning normally again. In your journey to take control of your life and get on the right track, remember that asking for help is a very courageous thing to do, and  in the case of a mental disorder, it will make all the difference.

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The Vote is in: Strangers Often Nicer than Friends

Photo courtesy of Susan Babbitt

I’ve been totally awestruck by the plethora of good samaritans who have been helping people recover after the destruction of Hurricane Sandy. I became more and more interested in the situation as rescue teams from all over the country came to our aid. As I sat at a red light one day, my jaw dropped as a fleet of Mississippi patrol cars and rescue vehicles went past, speeding north, where the damage was the worst.

On top of what I read and witnessed about those highly damaged areas - people continued to ask if I needed any help, asking what they could do if my home or family had suffered any damage.

Thankfully, although we were right on the edge of disaster, my town was barely affected by the storm at all.  I did what I could to help those who were greatly affected by Sandy, but continued to be genuinely astonished by the simply Herculean efforts put forth by some of the volunteers.

One thing that seemed noteworthy to me was that a huge percentage of the people reaching out to me - offering help, prayers, good will?  Were complete strangers.

Now – don’t misunderstand me here – friends and family checked in too – but I was literally inundated with a huge number of concerned people that I simply didn’t know.  I found that interesting and confusing, and I wanted to learn more about this – the kindness of strangers.

Most of us have heard a friend complain that her spouse or significant other takes her for granted, ignores her, or pays more quality attention to other people.  On a related note – many times people talk so poorly about a family member that you’d think they were discussing a mortal enemy. Avoiding phone calls, skipping out on family events, screaming matches, name calling and blatant disrespect are all common behaviors among some families. What amazes me is that these very same people are more than willing to go above and beyond for people they don’t (or barely) know.

The main psychology working behind this behavior is the belief that family members and spouses can’t reject us, no matter how poorly we treat them. Of course, this isn’t necessarily true – especially when it comes to married couples, as evidenced by the divorce rate.

But what else is at play here?  During my research on the topic, I learned that the ‘kindness of strangers’ phenomenon occurs more often in people who were taught as young children to treat strangers with a high level of respect.  These same people also often view their spouse or significant other as a virtual extension of themselves – and those with low self-esteem consequently end up treating their spouses as poorly as they treat themselves.

There’s also something known as the ‘closeness-communication bias’. Psychologists have found that, although partners usually think they are communicating their wants and needs well - the truth is that many couples are interacting at or below the level of people who have just met.  This communication breakdown occurs when people spend so much time together that they stop taking the perspective of “the other person.” When couples and close friends talk, they often have an unfortunate ‘illusion of insight’ which leads them to leave out critical details that would not get left out while talking to a stranger. In short: we end up explaining ourselves and behaving ourselves better with strangers, because we make so many assumptions with those closest to us.

There is so much to be gained from the kindness of strangers. I’ve been completely fascinated to learn what motivates us to help people we barely know more readily than we’ll help our own family members and our husbands and wives. While the kindness of strangers has literally helped millions of people who were left devastated by Hurricane Sandy, what we can learn from their kindness and their behaviors can even help us in our close relationships. Since we’re all working to be as happy as possible, naturally we want our loved ones to reap the benefits of our happiness, too.

And maybe the best way to do that –  is to treat them like complete strangers.

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The Illusion of Control and Why You Need to Let it Go

Photo courtesy of Elsie Esq

The illusion of control is a very real psychological effect that has been studied and debated by renowned psychologists for years.

The arrival of “super-technology” and phones that are nearly smarter than humans have given us constant access to every aspect of our lives. Information is instantly obtained; gratification is never delayed. Questions are answered in mere moments with text messages, mobile email, and the internet. We are immediately alerted to any and all changes in our friends’ lives, our watched eBay items, and our bank accounts.  It seems there is nothing that can’t be solved, figured out, or Googled.  And, if Google doesn’t know – maybe Siri does.

What many psychologists have debated over the years is whether feeling totally in control of all of life’s situations is a good thing or a bad thing. Originally dubbed a ‘positive illusion’ in 1988, controversy has since arisen. Will our ever-increasing control over certain aspects of our lives lead to higher productivity levels, better pay and more happiness? Some say that positive illusions, like feeling more in control, can motivate people to follow through on tasks they might otherwise have abandoned.  Others have a much different opinion.

The opposing point of view is that the illusion of control is, in most cases, just that: an illusion with no basis in reality.  However, this phenomenon, whether real or not, can lead to a very powerful and very real desire to have control over everything, leading to high levels of anxiety when things don’t go as planned, which quite honestly, is what most of life is about.

For some, the need for control can become quite controlling in itself.

What we must keep in mind about our ability to control our lives is most simply stated in the serenity prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

In other words: Be realistic.  Making positive changes in your life is the greatest and most beneficial form of control you definitely can assert. By letting go in situations you simply can’t control, you’ll be able to be more present, getting the most of everything life has to offer.


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Does Measuring Mood Make Sense?

Photo courtesy of Celia

Is it possible to improve your mood simply by observing it?

That’s the question sites like Moodscope have been attempting to answer. I decided to check out the daily mood-tracking site for myself after a friend told me about her experiences there. (Before I go on, I should mention that her feedback was highly positive, and she felt a real benefit from her ongoing participation). I was intrigued by the site’s claims that you could lift your mood simply by answering questions on a daily basis, and so I set out to see if it would work in my case.

Moodscope asks you to pop along once a day and answer a series of questions about how you’re feeling at that moment. Then it turns your answers into a number – your mood score. Over time, you’re supposed to see patterns in your mood emerging as your mood score changes, and you can then bring about personal improvements.

On my first visit, I was immediately surprised by the simplicity of the test. You’re given a 20-item list of emotions and you’re required to respond with how strongly you’re feeling them, with the options ranging from 0 for very slightly or not at all to 3 for extremely. Generally, I’m not a fan of this kind of test, which forces you to pick between a set of numbers completely unrelated to the question. If the question was “how many apples did you eat for breakfast?”, I’d be far more accepting of this line of answering, but saying that my current level of happiness is a 2 or that my hostility score is a 3 seems a little absurd to me.

After taking the test each day for a couple of weeks, I could see that I wasn’t really getting anywhere. The way the test is supposed to improve your mood over time is through the Hawthorne Effect – a reaction to testing whereby you make improvements simply in response to the fact that you’re being studied. There have been some arguments against the effectiveness of the Hawthorne Effect, while others have denied its existence entirely.

In any case, there is something to be said for the concept of quantified self – the act of regularly measuring various aspects of your life, such as heart rate, blood pressure, weight, calorie intake, and exercise, for the sake of improvement. I actually think it’s pretty neat to make positive changes in your behavior from these kinds of observations. But shouldn’t we draw the line at our moods? And if we don’t, what’s next? Measuring the human spirit? Or measuring all our emotions on a line between fear and love?

While I can appreciate Moodscope will work for a lot of people, I didn’t find any personal benefits in it. For me, it just doesn’t make sense to assign a number to something as complex as our moods. But please, if you’re interested, try it out and decide for yourself.

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Are You Sabotaging Your Projects By Broadcasting Them?

Photo courtesy of Andrew Allio

Common goal-setting wisdom says that you should tell as many people as possible about your goals in order to achieve them. This is so that you can then draw the strength of your personal support network when times get tough, and they can hold you accountable. The theory is that the more people who know about your goal, the more you’ll look like a failure if you don’t follow through, and so you’re more likely to work harder.

I, however, was surprised to hear this perspective, because in my own experience I have found exactly the opposite to be true – i.e. telling people about my goals actually makes me far less likely to achieve them. In the past when I have kept a project to myself, I found myself more determined to work harder to get the job done so that I could brag about it.

Several psychological studies have delved deeper into this topic, attempting to work out exactly how people’s minds behave when they tell other people about their goals. What they found was that test subjects got a great deal of satisfaction in their goals being acknowledged after sharing them with somebody else, so much so that their minds were tricked into feeling like they had already achieved the goal.

Several experts believe this satisfaction felt from sharing plans actually makes people less likely to go out and do them. Sounds a bit counterintuitive, I know. But I can’t tell you how many of my friends have told me about a great new project they’re about to start working on, only for the project to disappear into obscurity within days.

My advice to you would be to look back at some of your past goals. Do you always follow through with your plans, or have you started more projects than you’ve finished? If you’re the kind of person who is motivated about having your family and friends cheering for you, and you’re worried about how you’ll look to them if you fail, then broadcasting your goals might work well for you.  If, on the other hand, you gain greater motivation from the thought of keeping things under wraps and having a big ta-dah! reveal at the end when you’ve actually accomplished something, then do just that. You could find your next project a lot easier to stick with.

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Can Being a Team Player Actually Make You Dumber?

Office Party
Photo courtesy of Jason Pratt

You might think this is the setup for an elaborate Jersey Shore joke, but according to recent research from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, the social dynamics of small group settings, such as office meetings or get-togethers with friends, can actually affect cognitive function negatively, making you behave less intelligently than you would if you were on your own and not receiving social feedback.

While it may be tempting to use this as an excuse for your behavior at the Christmas party last year, a more relevant issue is how your performance at work or on personal projects could be affected by the subtle dynamics of the group you’re working with. According to the study, group members exhibit decreased cognitive function when they feel concerned about their social status and ranking in the group. The stress of worrying about how you are being perceived can temporarily interfere with your ability to solve problems and make decisions. That interference goes away when you stop receiving social feedback cues that you interpret as being indicative of your standing in the group.

Employers often seek out people who are eager to work as part of team, but could that tactic be backfiring on them? Do you feel that group situations bring out the best in you, or do think you do your best work on your own? Do you think there is a way to create more of an even playing field in group settings so that people are less likely to be made aware of differences in social standing?

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How to Redefine Positive Thinking for Living in the Real World

Positive Attitude
Image courtesy of Eric Chan

Ask any motivational speaker what the keys to success are, and I promise you the words “positive attitude” will be in there somewhere.

Which is great, and I fully agree, but with all the life-improvement programs out there promising magical results if you just think happy thoughts for long enough, I think many people misinterpret what a positive attitude really is, and then get frustrated when their misinterpretation ends up backfiring on them.

At one time or another, we’ve all been that person – the one who keeps pretending everything is fine as their hard work burns to the ground around them. The theory behind such behavior: “as long as I stay true to my positive attitude, everything will be okay.”

But… that’s not a positive attitude. That’s denial. And ignoring problems is almost never the way to fix them, though I see people doing it all the time and calling it their “positive attitude.” And then when their projects fail, they claim they tried the whole positive attitude thing and it turned out to be a load of crap.

Telling yourself that everything in your world will be amazing all the time is not only unrealistic, it can actually keep you from reaching your goals. Pasting on a fake smile and powering through as if nothing’s ever wrong is not what having a positive attitude is about.

A better path to attainable progress is to be optimistic about the overall picture, but still recognize issues when they arise. Prepare yourself for the fact that problems will occur, and accept that as part of the growth process. Throwing your arms up in the air and saying, “see, I knew positive thinking was too good to be true” doesn’t help. Neither does smiling and pretending that positive thinking fixes everything. Instead, try taking the more empowering standpoint of accepting that you’ve derailed, and reminding yourself that you are capable of figuring out what the solution is. Then you can take the appropriate actions to get yourself back on track and actually feel positive about it.

We all want to move forward with our lives, but we also have to accept that progress is rarely linear. Not only is it okay to experience setbacks, it’s a great opportunity to learn from negative experiences and prove to yourself that you really can recover from anything.

If you’ve got something that’s blocking you at the moment and you’re either wallowing in frustration or trying to drown it in positive thoughts, take a few minutes today to sit down and actually work through the issue (if you have an iPad, Unstuck is a great app to help with this). What are your options for moving forward? What can you do to keep this problem from happening again in the future? Use a positive attitude not as a magic wand, but as a tool to deconstruct obstacles and build something stronger.

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