psychology, relationships, Uncategorized

The Psychology Of Holding Out For Something Else

I just got out of a relationship with a perfectly lovely individual. He was tall. He had a job. He was nice to me. He came from a corn-fed, family-values-type background. And yet, part of me was never committed to us. Part of me wanted to redownload Bumble (a less sketchy version of Tinder), attend the singles dances, and/or Facebook stalk the groomsmen in my friends’ wedding photos. It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy; I think I was. But something deeper, something more sinister like a full-body version of restless leg syndrome was lying in wait, prompting me to look a little longer at each of the wedding band-less men who checked me out at the grocery store. I felt unsettled.

Many of you may follow this up with “But Cait! That’s how you know you’re not in the right relationship.” I would agree with you, but I would also counter with “But what if I have felt like this to some extent in every relationship I’ve been in. And what if I admitted to feeling like this to some degree in every school I’ve ever attended and in every job that I have ever held? Do I get to write all of those off as ‘just not right,’ too?” To which you would respond, “DAMN DANIEL, I didn’t mean to start an existential query. We’re going to stop inviting you to Bachelor viewing parties if you can’t engage in normal chit-chat.”

Although I might vocalize it more frequently than is socially appropriate, I believe that I’m not the only one my age who feels this way. Also, there is science to back this phenomenon up.

FOMO, or the fear of missing out, is actually an primitive condition rooted in our drive to survive. Our survival as an individual and our survival as a community/people/species was once determined by our ability to be aware of threats to both ourselves and to our larger group. To be in the know often had life-or-death consequences. For example, to not be aware of a new source for water meant that you missed out on something that could keep you alive. When people evolved from transient hunting and gathering situations to stable farming communities this innate need to be in the know began to be utilized in a different way. Survival became less based on an individual’s efforts and more dependent on community interconnectivity. Thus our instinctual drive to need to know became less about physical life-or-death threats and more about societal life-or-death.

The problem is that although we don’t need to respond to being in the know with the same urgency that our caveman forefathers did, our brains still experience these evolved threats in an archaic manner. The limbic system, specifically the amygdala activates and responds to these threats in a visceral fight-or-flight response. What was once essential to our survival and triggered very infrequently now becomes problematic as our awareness of possible “threats” have amplified through the ever-increasing platforms for information and awareness (social media, newspapers, the internet, group texts). A constantly triggered amygdala can lead to prolonged and habitual stress, depression, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, etc.
Of course this problem is larger than Instagram-fueled travel envy for a group of twentysomethings. Walk in a straight line long enough and you will bump into a single young adult who is struggling to the point of debilitation with navigating their relationships, careers, and future. FOMO is making us afraid to act, for the fear that any movement is movement away from a potential route to our end-all-be-all happiness.

Here’s the thing, though. All decisions reduce more freedom than they create. So what starts out as the action-promoting thought process on our real-life Choose Your Own Adventure book becomes a battle of making choices versus preserving freedom. Our amygdala is triggered. What information are we missing that is vital to our survival? Having too many choices promotes indecisiveness, and so we are left in a perpetual state of ambivalence towards making a decision on our futures.

This ambivalence is a luxury, which is only made affordable through the current state of globalization, advanced technology, and upward mobility in society. A case could be made that it only exists because of the endless sea of opportunities as they react with the subjective experience of the emerging adult. Emerging adulthood, a term coined by developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett, is the phase of the life span between adolescence and adulthood, roughly age 18-27. This stage is characterized by “identity exploration, instability, self-focus, and feeling in-between.” So in a social climate and an age hallmarked by ambiguity, emerging adults have developed intolerance to the unknown. Many stand by as opportunities to contribute, connect, and progress come towards them and then slip through their open fingers.

What can we do to not fall victim to all of this? I’m not 100% sure, since I am more of a fellow traveler than an expert on this subject. However, I have found some things to be helpful in reducing distress and in enabling me to be functional in the midst of uncertainty.

Build awareness.
Are you being picky because of this FOMO phenomenon or do you actually not like your job/school/love interest? Figure out how to differentiate between the two. Try to recognize the circumstances around which you are most triggered to have a FOMO reaction. IDK go to a therapist or something.

Reduce your social media usage.
Take a break from Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat/Twitter. Just delete Twitter because that thing breeds anxiety and toxicity. Give your brain a vacation from identifying threats that aren’t even relevant to your situation.

Focus on now.
While it is near impossible to only focus on the present moment when you are simultaneously at an age where you need to make important decisions, know that anxiety can only live in the past and in the future. Use thought-stopping techniques to shut down debilitating rumination loops regarding the diverse ways your future might be limited. Read this quote and breathe.

“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
― Corrie ten Boom


“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”
― Aldous Huxley, Brave New World



I prefer my rants to be done in person. However, for the sake of speeding up the administration process I will have to make do with the cliché blog post.

Valentine’s Day 2013 I awoke to the following text from a guy that I was seeing off-and-on at the time: “I hope you never get married and have a successful fulfilled single life forever that is sustained only by yourself and your friends and family.”

Happy Valentine’s Day to you, too. Incredulous that any person, let alone a guy I was sort of engaged with romantically, would say such a horrible thing to me, I responded accordingly: a set of angry tell-off texts. At the time I couldn’t understand what he meant.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I received a text message from a guy I hadn’t spoken to in quite some time. The text led to a life update conversation where I excitedly relayed the opportunities that my post-graduate world had to offer. I listed off possible courses of consideration including my thoughts on why certain locations would be ideal. The guy responded, “Don’t worry. You’ll get married wherever you move.” I was immediately repulsed. Had he not just read the same message that I typed out? Why would he choose to focus on marriage as the only means of life merit? What a sexist and outdated response! My pulse quickened as I pointedly texted “It’s like you didn’t even read what I just wrote.”

What is interesting to me is that a year ago I would have probably emphasized the same topic as highest on my list of priorities. I’m not admitting to being brainwashed into some archaic belief system. Frankly, it is of no use to me to place blame on anything for my accumulated values. What is important is that I whole-heartedly believed that my happiness was going to peak in the form of marital bliss and that every moment up until that point was best spent searching for that. It sounds ridiculous as I type it out, I can see that. But it is the truth.

I’m not exactly sure what the point of this is, maybe just to point out that I’m different now. As I privately ponder the change that has occurred, possibly to be relayed in a future post, I would ask that you engage in your own self-reflection. And since I always tell my clients to actively advocate for how they want to be treated while they are undergoing change, I would like to take this opportunity to do the same.

To those who offer me relationship advice and martial optimism, I say thank you. I understand that each of us has our own set of values and that your kindness should not be taken as offensive just because my priorities currently are different from yours. To you I also say, right now I am happy. I am filling my life with the things that make and sustain happiness for me. I feel content and complete, even as a young adult in a constant state of flux. I have found that as I give and receive love in any form, whether it be through friendship, romantic relationships, religion, service, employment, or hobbies my happiness is increased. I would suggest that everyone offer well wishes for the development of love in whatever form from here on out, instead of unconsciously perpetuating a limited definition confined by a status of belonging.


Home Is Where My Heart Is

My whole adult life I have been running around operating on the grass is always greener perspective, chasing an elusive concept of the “one big thing” that will make me happy. A lot of my resulting unhappiness has come from the fact that even on that apparent greener pasture I am still the same person, with an uncanny ability to find unhappiness everywhere I look.


With one exception.


As a high school student and self-proclaimed bare-footed liberal, I could not wait to get out of the protective bubble of suburbia and experience the world as it really was. My first escape came in the form of college and then Hawaii and then back to college and then study abroad and then back to college.  I bounced around the west coast and landed in LA, a place I had decided was prophesized for my eventual happiness. I lasted 2 months before I moved to the more peaceful Malibu, where I now reside as I finish up some more college. Throughout these pinball-like motions I have always had one constant in my life. My home. The more I ventured out the more I was able to appreciate my home for what it was, what my angst-ridden teenage self couldn’t recognize: a safe-haven where happiness abided.


Now I will be the first to tell you that my home isn’t perfect. Well I would try to be the first but every member of my family would start talking at the same time so I would attempt to be the loudest to tell you. My bathroom shower refuses to drain properly, no matter how much Drano we invest in. Our nervous rescue dog had a bad habit of shedding whenever she moved (a side effect of her previous abuse) and although she has been gone for a few months now I still find dog hairs in my suitcase when I return to school from a trip home. Family-wise, we are all stubborn and have uniquely selective memories for who said what which leads to animated retellings of family events to timid houseguests. But more overwhelming than the dog hair and the nightly symphonic snore-fest is this intangible aura of security and warmth that oozes out of every doorway and around every corner. Just pulling up to the drive has a therapeutic effect on my internal brokenness.


In a recent mindfulness activity in school, my professor had us picture a safe place in our heads to describe as we explored it mentally. Lots of the students imagined open fields or sandy beaches, exotic and vibrant landscapes depicting isolation and freedom… analyze that. I was instantaneously transported to my queen-sized bed, post-Sunday afternoon nap, nestled in lush down comforters as the room begun to be flooded with the aroma of freshly made bacon. My dad cooks on Sundays and often he favors the breakfast-for-dinner approach. Because of this my neural pathways always associate Sundays with bacon after church and family togetherness. I followed my mental image as I made my way out of my room, down the hallway to the family room where my mom would be perched in the corner of the sectional, underneath the reading lamp thoroughly concentrated on some mystery novel. Bacon sizzles in the background as I locate the lazy-boy and get comfortable. My cat, Mariah Kitty, joins me. Her purrs become synched with the rise and fall of my chest. All is well.


For some reason, when I am at home the world seems brighter. I am enveloped in this loving acceptance from those who know me, all of me, and still choose to love me. Sure they are my family but as a family therapist I can tell you that unconditional familial love is not as commonplace as you think. It has often been at my most damaged times that I have retreated to the safety of home to repair and rebuild, surrounded by the support and willingness of my parents to accompany me on my journey back into trial and error. Here I am afforded the opportunity to become a different person or, more importantly, be stripped down to the original functioning model, one that is not plagued by past experience. Here I am healed. Here the grass is always greenest because of the tender nurturing hand of those who tend to it.