The Right Focus
Thursday, March 10, 2011 |
Ahhhh, the digital age and all the toys that come with it – computers, cell phones, e-mails, texts and reality television.
Everything from underwear to crab puffs is available online. If you organized yourself well enough, you could hole up in your house and never venture out into the real world again.
Sure, life today spins past at breakneck speed and with a lot more conveniences than life a generation ago. But how are we changing as people in the midst of all this technology? What kind of impact is it having on our relationships with others?
“Studies have shown us that people spend an average of 53 hours a week with electronic media,” said local psychologist Larry Bugen, the author of three books and a nationally recognized expert on relationships and marriage. “More than 25 percent of young teens are sending out over 100 text messages a day.”
That’s 36,500 text messages a year. Phone calls have turned into e-mail messages. Coffee chats have turned into online chats. After-dinner family conversation has turned into time alone at the computer. All of these factors are combining to create what Bugen calls a narcissistic epidemic in our country.
“All of this is recalibrating what it means to be close,” he said. “I have concerns about how far we are drifting away from each other.”
Bugen has devoted 30 years of his life to helping others develop strong, healthy relationships. He believes he is seeing self-absorption taken to a whole new level in the technology age. In his new book, “Stuck on Me, Missing You,” now available on Amazon.com, he gives readers an opportunity to pause and recognize when relationships are being damaged by too much self-focus, and he offers simple guidelines to get things back on track.
Bugen doesn’t knock the importance of healthy self-interest. We all have to discover our strengths, explore our potential and make a big splash in life, he said. It’s in our DNA and reinforced by our culture every day.
It is important to make sure that big splash doesn’t cause ripples that harm those around us, he said.
Bugen believes the secret to a good life and great relationships is finding equilibrium, a yin-yang between ourself and others. To connect with others, we have to be open to love.
“To become more loving, we must recognize that there is a delicate balance in life between healthy self-interest and interest in loving others,” he said.
According to Bugen, two great forces govern our lives – self-absorption and a need for intimacy.
“We’re pre-wired for both and have to seek balance between the two,” he said. “Care of self must be in harmony with care for others. Without that balance, relationships eventually fall apart.”
The fall from healthy self-interest happens in degrees, Bugen said. Unbridled self-interest becomes self-absorption. Unbridled self-absorption gradually becomes narcissism.
“We are all on that continuum,” he said. “What is important is that you catch yourself at the point of self-absorption, before slipping further into narcissism. Narcissism jeopardizes the secure, stable love bonds we need to survive.”
Narcissism is breeding something else just as damaging to humans, Bugen said. Loneliness.
“Nothing is more traumatizing than isolation,” he said. “We are all wired for attachment. We see that need in infants. It doesn’t go away when we are adults. When our partner becomes narcissistic, we feel lonely and isolated.”
Too much focus on ourselves may also damage our children. What do they learn when they see that kind of self-interest prevail at home?
“Mom does her thing; Dad does his thing,” Bugen said. “Kids see their parents with the world of community activities and not with each other. They see things out of balance. And they’re hurting because they aren’t getting enough love and true attention themselves.”
None of that sounds good. Who wants to slip further and further into a self-concerned abyss where important relationships begin to chip into pieces and fall through our hands? But how can you tell if your life is heading out of balance, and you are damaging your relationships with the people you love?
Bugen’s advice? Slow things down. Take the time to think about the things and the people that matter most to you.
“To me, what matters most are relationships,” he said. “One good way to check yourself for balance is to sit down and do an inventory of the five most important people in your life. Then ask yourself if you are drifting more into yourself and your own business and further and further away from them.”
Sometimes, saving your relationship means getting over yourself.
“When you recognize that you have an uncompromising nature, you know that you have crossed a line somewhere,” Bugen said. “You’re heading down that slippery slope and into trouble.”
To help couples refocus, repair their relationships and live more happily and fruitfully together, Bugen offers six gifts in his book – six characteristics people can develop to keep narcissism at bay: humility, forgiveness, acceptance, compassion, sacrifice and vision.
“There are times we must acknowledge that we have created pain and misery in the life of another – humility,” Bugen said. “There are times we must release others from the death-grip of resentment – forgiveness. There are times we need to express gratitude for something real, something solid, within the relationship – acceptance. There are times we must expand our circle of care beyond ourselves – compassion. There are times we must purge the trivial from our lives and commit to what truly matters – sacrifice. And, there are times we must affirm stable, core values that define our lives and choose to live them.”
Those six principles are gifts that cost us nothing but last a lifetime, he said.
“Emergence from self-absorption depends on our ability and determination to honor those gifts,” Bugen said. “Without that commitment, couples are merely living on parallel tracks, just going through the motions of life together.”
The mother lode of the seven deadly sins is pride – a lack of empathy for others, in Bugen’s opinion. It’s at the heart of narcissism.
“We’ve all created an image of ourselves that we want others to see,” he said. “We invest in that image at all cost. What gets lost are genuine relationships.”
Bugen defines humility as an acceptance of being human and all the imperfections that come with it.
“Beginning with the acceptance that being human is good enough, humility involves learning how to live with and take joy in that reality,” he said. “It is a somber reminder of our helplessness. We are not in control.”
Acceptance requires a journey inward and facing the fear of “not being enough.” Even with forgiveness, relationships can go belly up without empathy and compassion, Bugen said.
“Our very survival depends on a shared humanity built upon compassion,” he said. “It is a chosen pathway from oneself to another that allows love to flow.”
Sacrifice, Bugen said, means putting someone else before yourself. It means giving up something we love now for something we might love even more later.
“Sacrificing for others is literally a gift to oneself,” he said. “We go to a higher more virtuous plane.”
The last of the six gifts is vision.
“To have vision requires that we see in different ways,” Bugen said. “We must see within ourselves to find stable, core values that supersede fleeting self interests. We must see beyond ourselves to find some other person, cause or thing more loved than ourselves.”
Bugen finds inspiration and confirmation in his own partnership with his wife, Claire Bugen, the superintendent of the Texas School for the Deaf. The two have been married for 40 years.
Claire encourages him in his interests and gives him many gifts everyday that make his life happier and more fulfilling. One of those gifts was his first camera 40 years ago, a little Konica. That camera opened up a rich world of photography for which Bugen has a recognized gift. Photography is now a passion for him. His photos have been published in national magazines, including Popular Photography.
Psychology and photography have a lot in common, Bugen said. Both represent the balance between what is in focus and what is out of focus in our lives.
“[Photography] turns off my mind, and I have a very busy mind,” he said. “I’m very much in the moment when I am photographing something. I’m chasing butterflies and watching leaves floating in a stream.”
What is the secret of happiness? Will being less focused on ourselves help us find it?
“Well, Aristotle’s definition of happiness was success at living life,” Bugen said. “It’s important to have a core set of values to guide you. People should take the time to reflect and foster what is most important in their lives. The secret is to get past the past, live more fully in the present and move forward in life.”
Burgen is the author of two previous books, “Death and Dying: Theory, Research and Practice” and “Love and Renewal: A Couple’s Guide to Commitment.” He served as board chairman for Hospice Austin, where he has been a founding member for 27 years. He has also been on the faculties of the University of Texas, the Central Texas Medical Foundation and the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest. In 1990, Bugen shifted the direction of his psychology practice to couples counseling – helping partners understand that love relationships evolve. It’s something that he finds satisfying.
“We’ve all needed help at some time, and most of us can remember how vulnerable we were during these times,” he said. “The thought that I occasionally make a difference in someone’s life means a great deal to me.”
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