Introducing The Mental Well’s Guest Contributor Series. From time to time, we hope to bring you a variety of different voices to add to the Mental Well. These guests may range from mental health clinicians, health and wellness consultants, individuals sharing their personal successes, and other such content that is designed to help you Draw Out Your Well. Our very first Guest Contributor is my good friend, Andrew Ronquillo.
Andrew Ronquillo, LPC, SAC, licensed mental health and substance use disorder clinician.
I’ve worked for over 5 years providing outpatient therapy services to men and women ages 16 to 65. I primarily provided cognitive behavioral therapy interventions, however I draw from other areas such as solution focused, mindfulness, and trauma informed practices. Beyond the professional world I live with my wife and our little family of cats and a shiba inu dog.
Andrew is an outpatient psychotherapist at Aurora behavioral health, in Wisconsin.
RAISING DOGS & TRAINING PEOPLE
Photo Credit: @taojones
I don’t trust people. He’s no good for you. She’ll never change. People always let you down in the end. Get close to me, stay around long enough, and I’ll end up hurting you so don’t bother.
Have you heard these kinds of sentiments before? In my office, and in my mind, I’ve listened to the ideas and the emotions woven throughout this kind of talk.
Regardless of whether we identify as extroverts or introverts, we are inherently social creatures, which means relationships are a core aspect of our lives. What exactly is it that makes a good or even a great friend?
Trust, loyalty, generosity, understanding, genuine validation, encouragement, consistency, helping us in our time of need, making us laugh when we really, really need it… these all sound about right. The common thread among them is both obvious and complex: love.
Photo Credit: @worldsbetweenlines
For example’s sake, think about the kind of relationship that people have with their four-legged friends. Dogs have a phrase associated with them you’ve likely heard at least once before: Man’s Best Friend. Best friend? How does a creature that has a truly limited comprehension of your language earn such a prestigious title in the arena of that core area of life, relationships?
That answer lies beneath the sparkling coat of paint we so eagerly apply to them: unconditional love. (If you’re not a dog person don’t check out just yet, I genuinely believe the same principles apply to virtually any class of “pet,” be it furry, finned, scaled, gilled or invertebrated – and yes, I made up that last word).
We can have the worst day of our lives, and they dish out no serving of shame. We can forget to feed them, and they don’t bring it up days or years later in the midst of a flaming argument.
A dog’s life is simple: feed me, affection me, play with me, and above all dedicate time to me. Do that, and you are bound to have a relationship full of love. They don’t have fantastic expectations of our performance or appearance, not like people project on us or we place on ourselves.
The myth in raising Man’s Best Friend is the unconditional aspect of love: there absolutely ARE conditions, even with the simple yet deep furry friends. If you don’t get me toys to play with me I find toys to entertain myself – to a dog a sock and a stuffed chew toy are no different, in fact, the sock is more appealing because it smells like you.
Meet the conditions and love grows. Fail to meet those conditions, and you end up as a bad dog.
If you forget to feed me too often you are teaching me that I have to feed myself – looks like this human food on the counter is available since you left the room to tend to something else.
If you punish me long after an undesired behavior occurred, I only learn to fear you and worse: maybe I’m just a lousy creature (this one is especially important because the only time a dog can truly grasp that it did something wrong is if you address it at the moment).
Meet the conditions and the love grows, if you want to see a pleasant display of the fruits of this labor YouTube “dogs greeting owners after a long time.” Fail to meet those conditions, and you end up with what gets labeled as a bad dog.
Where is the parallel then, to that essential piece to life’s puzzle in forming loving connections to people?
Photo Credit: @leorivas
When we reflect on the conditions of being with another person, we can get a clearer picture. What do I need from them, and what do they need from me? Consistently met dedication of time, affection and/or praise, comprehended communication, and expectations. If we revisit those sentiments from the beginning, we gain understanding.
I don’t trust people. He’s no good for you. She’ll never change. People always let you down in the end. Get close to me, stay around long enough, and I’ll end up hurting you so don’t bother trying.
These are learned beliefs, from the lessons of experience in moment after moment of an important person(s) that failed to honor the conditions time and time again.
There many aspects to how or why we let our fellow people down in life, I suspect it has to do with early teachings that people continue to follow. We aren’t so different from that dog who steals the pizza off the human’s plate while they were distracted – we want and need to experience enjoyable things in life.
Learning is based on reinforcement, so any skill that rewards us with something enjoyable gets memorized. That dog must wait until we physically look away, a person can look us in the eye and deceive us.
The trickiest part with people is our words: what gets said, versus what gets heard, what comes out, or what stays in, how it’s expressed and when we finally speak up.
People have written articles, published books, taught courses, and given expensive seminars on this word: communication.
Lazily I won’t give actual citations, but I can confidently and honestly state the following: I’ve heard that when people are surveyed on their ability to be “a good listener,” a significant number of the population rate themselves higher than their ability – put simply people think they’re better with this skill than they actually are.
Photo Credit: @roller1
Herein lies a core component to our challenge in creating collaborative connections: failure to communicate (to quote a line from a classic film Cool Hand Luke). It’s one thing if I am aware that I am struggling to understand what you are saying to me and by extension what you expect from me, at least there I have the potential to ask for a greater explanation.
When I incorrectly believe that I’ve gotten the message and then operate as such, it’s like doing an assignment with half the instructions in another language – I take my best guess at the vague images, but I’m set up to make errors; therefore my probability of upsetting you increases and those essential conditions for love to thrive is in jeopardy.
Two driving forces push this process in our daily interactions with people: our brain’s tendency towards efficiency and the ways we lean away from discomfort. With language we seek shortcuts: “I do not agree with that statement” can be reduced to “nah” or “wrong” or “nu uh.” “I understand you expect me to do X, Y, and Z by this time tomorrow” can be watered down into “I got it” or “I know.”
The leaning away from discomfort refers to emotional discomfort which can take all sorts of forms – I don’t like appearing stupid, so I won’t ask questions for clarity, I anticipate you won’t like hearing what I have to say so I won’t say it OR I’ll soften the feedback, I won’t express my wants or needs because I associate that with being too needy and therefore cross into the territory of perceiving myself as a bad person.
You can slice this stuff a thousand different ways, and the way it often turns out is people get into the habit of communication shortcuts that chop off their ability to meet those conditions (and ensure others have a fair chance at realistically meeting their expected conditions).
As a therapist, I get the privilege of striving to be a consistent, caring listener in people’s lives. Countless times people in my office comment on how they “have never told anyone this before” and how “talking to you isn’t like talking to people in my life.”
The latter is relevant because when I ask them to reflect on it, they usually come to this is conclusion: they expect that I will treat them in a non-judgmental way and I consistently demonstrate that.
Professionally I am there working on better communication. Just because I’m a therapist does not mean I inherently comprehend each of their statements or the depth of meaning they are exploring.
I openly acknowledge the limits of my understanding to my clients and will use my words to invite them to clarify and correct my comprehension of what they are telling me.
I often think back to wisdom a colleague shared with me in my early training days:
We teach people how to treat us.
Dogs let us know their needs by barking, biting, chewing, leaving messes (of all sorts) on a clean carpet to communicate my needs aren’t being met.
As people, we have a greater challenge but can be equipped and become experience wielding a beautiful tool to build meaningful relationships: our language.
The commentary and opinions provided in our Guest Contributors Series, are solely represent that individual’s beliefs and opinions, and are not necessarily representative of The Mental Well.