commitment

Embracing Grief Rather than Running

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC, CCTP

shutterstock_139543490I shared in my previous blog about my journey from fearing grief to embracing it. To embrace grief at any level requires a response from us, and it changes us. 

When we choose to embrace our grief it changes who we are. 

Brene’ Brown expounds on this point when she says, “Grief requires us to reorient ourselves to every part of our physical, emotional, and social worlds”.

Allowing myself to grieve allows my emotions to function as they were meant to.  Acknowledging a sad day or a hard day (even if I have no idea WHY I feel sad or happy) is healthy and good for me. 

When I think about my process of learning to no longer fear grief, I often think about a book I used to read to my boys called, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen.  It is a book about a family out in search of a bear and along the way they run into many obstacles.  Each time they come across an obstacle they say, “We can’t go over it.  We can’t go under it.  Oh no, we’ve got to go through it.” 

This is how I see grief – we can’t get around it no matter how much we would like to, but we must go through it to reach our best chance at emotional healthiness. 

Allowing our grief to exist acknowledges that pain, sadness, and loss are a part of our everyday lives.  Acknowledging these hard and painful emotions normalizes the human condition and experience on this earth.  To live is to have pain.  To live is to have loss.  To live is to hurt.  Therefore we must acknowledge its impact. 

Boundaries Part 1: What are they?

Boundaries Part 1: What are they?

by: Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC, EMDR Trained Therapist

“The whole concept of boundaries has to do with the fact that we exist in relationship. Therefore, boundaries are really about relationship, and finally about love.” – Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend

It can be very confusing to determine when it is appropriate to set limits. Many of us feel we are never supposed to say no, set limits, or let others down. This can be especially difficult in our families, the place where we originally learned about relationships and boundaries.

Common questions:

1.       Can I set limits and still be a loving person?

2.       What are legitimate boundaries?

3.       What if someone is upset or hurt by my boundaries?

4.       How do I answer someone who wants my time, love, energy, or money?

5.       Why do I feel guilty or afraid when I consider setting boundaries?

6.       Aren’t boundaries selfish?

What are boundaries?

  • Property Lines

    • In the physical world, we have boundaries that are easy to see: fences, signs, walls, lawns, etc. The owner of the property is responsible for what happens on their property and non-owners are not. After finishing mowing our own lawns, we don’t then take care of our neighbor’s lawns. Likewise, we don’t let our neighbors dictate how we landscape our lawns, nor do they do it for us. And if someone throws trash all over our property, that is considered a problem.

  • They Define Us

    • They define what is me and what is not me.

    • “We are responsible for the things that make up ‘us.’ We have to deal with what is in our soul, and boundaries help us to define what that is. If we are not shown the parameters, or are taught wrong parameters, we are in for much pain.” – Cloud & Townsend

How Boundaries are Developed

  • Boundaries are built throughout life, but the most crucial times for this development are during childhood, when we are learning limits and ways to relate to the people and world around us.

  • Significant people in our lives teach us how to “do” boundaries, for better or for worse. To understand fully what has shaped how you do boundaries, it is important to look at how you were taught to do them as a child by your primary caregivers.

    • Were you taught that setting limits for yourself was ok?

    • Were you allowed to have your own opinions and make age-appropriate decisions for yourself?

    • What kinds of reactions did you receive when you expressed hurt, disappointment, or anger? Were these emotions “allowed?”

These questions can begin to help you understand how you were trained in they ways you could set limits, say no, define yourself, and use your voice…..all boundaries. After thinking through the answers with regards to how you grew up, go back over these questions with other significant relationships: best friends, girl/boyfriends, spouses, in-laws, bosses, adult children……

Why are some relationships just harder?

 

Why are some relationships just harder?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

I’ve recently seen some articles asserting that ‘if people just communicated and committed to their relationship, then their problems would go away.’ While communication and commitment are very important, I think this overlooks the many people who are committed and communicating but still struggle.

In fact, I find that many people that come in for couples counseling are deeply committed and are communicating very clearly. Then why are these relationships still difficult?

We have outside stressors

Many of the sources of relationship difficulty have nothing to do with the effort invested in the relationship. In fact, studies show that some of the biggest predictors of relationship difficulty are largely outside of the couple’s control:

  • Poor health
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage after 20 weeks
  • Low income
  • Multiple children with ADHD
  • Partner with mental health issues
  • Death of a child

If your friend seems to have an easier relationship than you, it may have more to do with your different stressors than it does with different effort. Actually, I find that most couples that come to counseling have been working tirelessly on their relationship. If they weren’t trying, they wouldn’t be coming to counseling. But with major or persistent stressors, communication can become a minefield. And it’s not always as easy as learning a few communication skills.

I am overjoyed when I see people who have easier relationships. But there is something uniquely encouraging about a couple that is still trying after years of difficulty. It takes a special type of courage and commitment to seek the help you need to better love your partner, even when it’s hard.

Our families are different

The families we’re born into also impact the ease or difficulty of our relationships. For better or worse, parents model what relationships are like, and some people have better models than others. We can choose to act differently than our parents, but in stressful times we tend to fall back into the patterns we saw modeled (or against the pattern, in an equally harmful overcorrection).  

Parents teach us what love is, how to show it, and how to receive it. They also teach us how to view ourselves. If our parents were neglectful or abusive, they gave us a distorted picture of our self. Without working through these issues, this lack of self-worth will lead us to look for that worth in our partner—creating challenging and often volatile relationships.

This requires more than a simple resolution to change. It takes awareness of how our families impacted our view of the world, relationship, and our self. Since our families tend to be our normal, we often need an outside perspective to help us heal from this impact. This doesn’t mean that you are too weak to handle it alone; it means that you are strong enough to pursue what is necessary to change it.  

We get stuck in a cycle

Couples often get stuck in patterns of relating that rob them of their joy in connecting. These cycles have nothing to do with their effort, compatibility, or how much they love each other. In fact, the fear of losing the other is often what escalates the conflict.  

The most common negative cycle is the pursue/distance (or attack/withdraw) pattern. People usually aren’t even aware that they are in this cycle. Most often, each partner simply sees the other as being unnecessarily critical or distant. It is hard for people stuck in this pattern to see the bigger picture.

Beneath this cycle, both partners truly value their connection, but they seek to preserve it in different ways: the pursuer by attacking  (to get through to them) and the distancer by withdrawing (to avoid conflict). Their mutual attempts to save the relationship (seen as criticism or lack of care by the other), only escalate the problem as each person doubles down on their ‘go-to’ strategy for preserving the relationship.

In these cases, demands for more communication will only push the withdrawer deeper into his bunker. Instead, we need help gaining awareness of our own role in the harmful cycle, so that we can interrupt it and develop a healthier pattern of relating.

Everybody’s relationship is different

It isn’t useful to compare our relationships to others, because everyone’s history and circumstances are different. Learning a few communication skills may be very helpful for someone whose relationship has had few stressors, had model parents, and hasn’t been stuck in a cycle.

For others, there will be too much anxiety and conflict in the relationship for communication skills to be the answer. This doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, that you don’t love each other, or that you aren’t compatible. Relationships are messy, and life often leaves us in places where we need help sorting out the pieces. In my opinion, one of the surest signs that someone loves and is committed to their partner is that they are willing to seek help during the hard times.

What if I don’t feel grateful?

What if I don’t feel grateful?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

20648028973_184236efa9_mRecently I was in a group where they talked about how important gratitude is for living a happy and healthy life. I remember thinking “yeah, sure, that’s all fine and good, but what if you don’t feel grateful?”

They explained to me that gratitude isn’t primarily a feeling; it’s a discipline. It’s like a muscle that we can strengthen or allow to atrophy. And there are a number of ways we can exercise our gratitude muscle:

Make a list of what you have to be grateful for every day

Keep a gratitude journal. It can be just a simple notebook or something more elaborate. Schedule a time to write five things you have to be grateful for daily. If you do it every morning, you will remember it throughout the day. If you do it at night, then it will shape how you look back at that whole day. (After a while, you’ll find that you’re having a lot more good days). The list doesn’t have to be of big things. In fact, it’s better if they’re not. Even the smallest positive event counts.

The simple act of bringing to mind the good things in your life has a huge impact on your wellbeing. But it takes intentionality to notice the good. We are much more skilled at noticing the negative things that happen to us. They tend to stick out more than the good. (And when you’re depressed your brain actually goes to negative memories more easily). So it takes an act of the will, a habit, to make your brain notice the positive. You will be surprised by the results. In time, your feelings will follow.

Strengthen gratitude by looking outward

Another way to exercise your gratitude muscle is to notice those around you in difficult situations. They can be close to home or on the other side of the world, but they can’t be people to whom you usually compare yourself. Comparison is toxic to gratitude; it is like gratitude kryptonite. The purpose of comparison is to judge (either your self or the other). This leads to dissatisfaction on one hand or pride on the other. Either way, it’s destructive to gratitude.

Looking outward is different. Its purpose is to empathize and help. Helping someone is invigorating, provides a sense of purpose, improves self-perception, and helps put your blessings in perspective. Not only that, but it benefits someone who needs you and gives them a reason to be grateful.

Purposefully remember in hard times

There are times where it is hard to be grateful. This is just reality. Seasons in life are hard, painful, and seemingly hopeless. During these times it can be difficult to think of current things that make you feel grateful. In these periods, it helps to look intentionally at the past and the future. Remind yourself of good events from your past and dwell on potential positive opportunities in the future. This is a habit that you have to nurture; it won’t happen automatically.

Our brains can get stuck in a negative rut, but we can short-circuit our brains by forcing ourselves to consider other options. Think of yourself as a lawyer cross-examining your negative brain. Bring evidence of any positive experience to the jury of your mind. Look back for anything, however small, that disproves the case being made that your life has been uninterrupted tragedy. Then look forward for any possibility that things will be better than you are currently expecting.

Extra Credit

For extra credit, you can make a list of five positive outcomes that could happen in your future. Developing a positive view of your future is a great antidote for hopelessness. (Notice that I said developing a positive view). A life of gratitude doesn’t just happen overnight; it has to be nurtured, exercised, and grown.

Having an attitude of gratitude is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. Consider starting a gratitude journal today. Your brain will thank you.

7 tips for a healthier marriage

by: Andy Gear, PLPC
1. Avoid blaming

In our consumer culture it is tempting to look for ways to change the other person. We often look at the people in our relationships as we would products and want them to perform to our liking (Doherty). However, it is ineffective and destructive to try to change someone else. Instead it is much more effective to initiate change in your own behavior. In most cases changing how you approach the relationship will have a positive effect on the marriage, regardless of your partner’s intention to change. This is a countercultural way of living, but one that will improve relationships immensely if lived consistently.

2. Take time to reflect

Changing the way you act in relationships requires a great deal of self-reflection. We must think about who we truly are and how we want to live. It is vital to see beyond our surface frustrations to the softer emotions that are driving our fears and longings. If we do not reflect, we will see our marriage issues as merely frustrations with the other person’s behavior. In order to communicate with your spouse effectively you must know what is going on inside you.

3. Determine true needs

Reject the consumer mentality that your partner must meet your each and every desire. Spouses cannot meet every one of our needs and that is ok. We can distinguish between our needs and desires. We all have hopes and desires, but it is unfair to establish goals for another person. Determine what you truly need from your spouse, and what are simply desires or qualities that can be met by a friend.

4. Communicate your needs directly

Communicate to your spouse what you truly need in the relationship honestly and directly. Though it may be terrifying, we must have the courage to communicate our honest feelings to our spouse instead of someone else. If we do not communicate what we most long for in the relationship, our partner is unable to respond to our deepest needs.  But if we communicate our deepest feelings we open ourselves up to the possibility of closer intimacy.

5. Respond to each other’s needs

Respond to your partner’s feelings, reassuring them that you are there for them (Johnson). Be emotionally responsive to each other’s deepest fears and needs. It is not about agreeing with the other person’s view but trying to understand where the other person is coming from. Our problems often have more to do with the hurt and the disconnection than about the disagreements. Seeing one’s partner respond empathetically to their deepest needs has a deeply bonding effect. This does not imply that we solve them, but that we show that we understand. Showing your partner that they matter to you helps create a safe and secure relationship where one can be less defensive (Johnson).

6. Clarify your commitment

Knowing that you are both committed to the marriage can help lower the emotional intensity of your conflict. It helps to understand that the frustrations you are pointing out in your partner are not deal breakers. Agree that you do not want divorce to be a part of the conversation (Doherty). With this commitment, you can take the time to improve the marriage at its root, rather than frantically trying to rescue the marriage from the brink. Of course not all couples will be able to tell each other that divorce is not an option, but for those who can, this can reduce tension and improve your ability to work on your marriage.

7. Fight for the relationship

Relationships naturally weaken when they are neglected. Resist the urge to simply fight for your own needs, instead fight for the needs of the relationship (Doherty). Take responsibility for the relationship and be intentional about it.  Work together to look for creative and practical ways to continue to connect in your daily lives. Make it a priority. Staying together even through a difficult marriage (except in extreme cases) is rewarding, both for you and for your entire family. But keeping that close connection requires work, commitment, and making the relationship a priority.  


Fiction, Hollywood, and Real Relationship

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

SPOILER ALERT:  for those who haven’t read the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series, there may be plot spoilers in the following paragraphs, though I will try hard not to reveal too much.

My wife and I were discussing some of our thoughts about how the books The Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay ended, and how they served to wrap up their respective series.  We were thoroughly disappointed in each and for similar reasons.  The core of our disappointment was the principle of “putting a bow on ugly”.

The Harry Potter series ended with an epilogue titled “19 years later”, that (we felt) too neatly and agreeably attempted to wrap up all the threads from the series.  The fact that Harry named a child after the person who most utterly despised him and treated him viciously even behind closed doors was just too much.  I can see coming to respect him, but one simply does not name a child after an abuser of this magnitude.  All the ugliness seemed to have inexplicably vanished.

The Hunger Games series tried to do the same thing, though the attempt at closure was somewhat better.  The author at least attempted to acknowledge that ugly existed in the post-story world, but it was still resolved too simplistically and without the flesh to make it believable for me.

Hollywood and fiction train us to expect that all the loose ends can be resolved, that resolution equals “happily ever after” or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.  They train us to need things to work out that way.  This is most plainly true in the (despicable and utterly useless) genre known as “Romantic Comedy”.  I cannot say more without using profanity.

Think of the sense of disappointment or unease when you watch a movie in which resolution is not clean or neat. We recently watched the movie Moneyball, which does not conclude with a “Hollywood Ending”.  I can only say that the events depicted happened within the recent lifetimes of many, and as such could not be modified to fit the pattern described above.  I feel that if they were more ancient history they would likely have been changed into something completely victorious.

This is fine, and even necessary (to a degree) for celluloid.  The unfortunate side effect is that because reality is very much different, many people are left with a sense of disappointment and even despair when real life does not work that way.  The truth is that human beings are generally a broken, selfish lot that is capable of both great goodness and great evil, often within a single breath.

The fact is that intimacy, real relationship, and engaging responsibly with another human being is often like a wrestling match.  The very best relationship in the world experiences conflict and disagreement, hurt and offense, misunderstanding and tension on an ongoing basis.  The couple who tells you that “never a harsh word is spoken” is either whitewashing, outright lying, or they are not experiencing real, deep intimacy.

If you are going to really do deep, intimate relationship with another person, you’d better know how to fight.  I don’t mean knowing how to eviscerate your opponent in the shortest period of time.  I mean knowing how to hold in tension the following two truths: 1. This other person and I are on the same side,  and 2. There is pain and friction between us.

When I talk about knowing how to fight, I mean knowing how to understand and express my own feelings and thoughts in a way that does not accuse or attack the other, even when it is plainly and wholly their fault.  I mean learning how to uphold their honor and dignity while feeling the painfully powerful desire to rip their eyes out.  I mean knowing how to view conflict as a necessary part of doing relationship, and not as a threat to relationship.

It is often one of the hardest lessons to learn in relationship that resolution is not about coming to agreement, but rather it is about coming to a deeper understanding of the other person, and thereby learning how to craft a unique relationship between the two of you.  No part of that process is clean, neat, or simple.  It is ugly, and to expect or demand otherwise only leads to disappointment.  You can put a bow on it if you like, but that doesn’t make it easier to look at.  It takes patience, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love.  When you’ve come to the other side of it, it will still be ugly, but there is a beauty in what has been created by moving through it that will last a lifetime.

Learning to be Mentored by the Lord

By:  Lianne Johnson, LPC

This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak at a conference being held at Twin Oaks Presbyterian Church.  The conference was called, “Beautiful.”  I was by no means the keynote speaker.  I simply led one of the breakout sessions.  I was asked to speak on the challenges and joys of being single.

While we talked about the many statistics associated with those that are single, as well as the lies singles are often tempted to believe about themselves, we purposely spent most of our time talking about what it would be like to be mentored by the Lord.  Since the bible would tell us that all of our thoughts and actions flow from our heart, it made sense to focus our attention not on changing our actions but on beginning to think about changing our mindset when it comes to our relationship with God.  This is where the idea of being mentored by the Lord comes into play.

In our society we have a human way of thinking about being mentored.  It usually consists of an older person taking a younger person “under their wings” to teach them things about life.  When I think of the word mentor, I am reminded of my mentor in life.  Her name is Karen.  Karen was (is) wonderful.  From  pretty much the very first moment I met Karen she began investing her life into mine.  She spent time with me, she invited me into her families home, she taught me about God and about life.  I am forever grateful to Karen and her family for the many ways they have remained (even to this day) committed to my growth as a human before the Lord.

As I think back on this mentoring relationship, I am struck by some realities that need to be present in any mentoring relationship.  This is what I came up with (and honestly this is what Karen taught me)…

1.  In any mentoring relationship both parties must be FAITHFUL.  Both the mentor, and the one being mentored must be committed to one another by faithfully meeting.
2.  In any mentoring relationship both parties must be AVAILABLE.  Both the mentor, and the one being mentored must be emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually available to one another.
3.  In any mentoring relationship both parties must be TEACHABLE.  The one being mentored must be relationally in a place to trust their mentor to challenge, correct, and learn from them.  (And honestly, the one mentoring will also need to be teachable.)

Is this making sense?  I hope so.  So now what if we take these same characteristics of a human-to-human mentoring relationship and apply them to the Lord-to-human mentoring relationship?

The beautiful thing about now applying these characteristics to God is that He is already FAITHFUL and committed to us.  He is already AVAILABLE to us.  He is already committed to TEACHING us His ways so that we are safe.  Where the Lord-to-human mentoring relationships can often break down is our lack of being faithful to Him, our lack of being available to him, and our lack of allowing Him to transform us.  Most often, I would say, we lack these characteristics because we do not trust Him with our good.

Intimacy is a function of time.  The more time we spend with anything, be it a person or a thing, we will know it better.  What if you chose to spend more time with God?  What if you chose to allow Him to mentor you?  To love you, to nurture you, to learn from, to become familiar with Him.  What if you moved slowly towards the Lord through prayer letting Him know you don’t trust Him?  He will listen.  He will move towards you.  And you, by risking, will begin to know and believe your identity in Him and feel safe.  Over time….over time….over time…

I’m still learning how to allow the Lord to mentor me.  Everyday.  Some days I fall flat on my face trying, but at least I am trying.  And no matter of how “well” I am doing at the Lord-to-Lianne mentoring relationship He always remains.  I cannot, nor will I, ever change His love, commitment, or presence in my life. Whew…..