communication

Survival Tips for the Holidays

by Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

Here are a few small tips for changing the ways you engage with your relatives around the holidays. It isn’t easy to change the ways we relate to people we’ve known most or all of our lives, but it is often worth the work. This list is by no means conclusive, but a good place to start.

Take people at their word.

Try to notice how often you are attempting to read between the lines of others’ words or times when you feel expected to know what someone else feels or wants without them actually saying anything. Reading between the lines or finding the hidden meeting is common in family systems that operate more passive aggressively. Taking people at their word forces others to speak up on their own behalf, say what they really mean, and address one another with respect.

Mean your words.

The reverse of taking people at their words is true as well. If you are frequently not saying what you truly mean, then feel upset when others are not doing as you want, odds are you were not meaning your words. Speak directly and kindly, and you can avoid many of the passive-aggressive communication games that conflict avoidant families tend to get bogged down in.

Check your expectations.

Holidays are filled with expectations and typically time with family is also, therefore holidays with family members can be a double whammy. It can become the perfect traffic jam of various expectations.

Know your limits.

Try to realistically assess your limits on various planes prior to making your holiday plans. Are there certain family members you have a lower tolerance for spending time around? Is your social/extroversion threshold depleted more quickly at family gatherings? Are there certain relatives’ houses where you become a worse version of yourself longer you stay? Does being around babies and toddlers bring out the worst in you? Is your alcohol tolerance lowered in family settings? Assessing your limits prior to making your plans can help you make a more informed choice, and perhaps plan action steps toward self-care when you can’t predict that your limits will be tested and or pushed.

Know your triggers.

This one is similar to knowing your limits, in that it can be helpful to do some self-assessment prior to walking into family dynamics that are laden with emotional landmines. Try to think about instances in the past when time spent with family has led to blow-ups, arguments, hurt feelings, or even the silent (or shouted) conclusion that you’ll never go back again. Try to see if there’s a pattern between these various situations. Do you tend to be triggered by your mom’s passive aggressive comments? Do you tend to be triggered by your brother’s constant bragging about his successful career? Do you tend to be triggered by your niece talking all of the toys leaving them for the other cousins? Whatever your triggers, knowing them in advance can help prevent them from being a surprise, or even activated at all.

Make a private game of unavoidable unpleasantries.

Now, this is a little bit nuanced because it needs to be done discreetly and with wisdom, but can be helpful in surviving unavoidable unpleasantries. However, if you and your spouse or sibling share a negative feeling towards a person or behavior, you can make a private game out of how often you have to witness or endure that behavior. For example: does your dad tend to condescendingly correct other peoples grammar? Making bets on how often that will happen during the time that you spend with him. Does your aunt make snide comments under her breath? Rather than fume as you, it can be a survival strategy to find a way to laugh about it. What makes this game nuanced is you certainly don’t want others to find out about it or extend it to the point of being disrespectful.

Why Communication Skills Can’t Save Your Marriage

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

In 6th grade I remember we had a day set aside where we watched videos on bullying in order to promote awareness and prevention. As part of this educational program we were taught how to communicate our feelings using “I” statements, and some small pieces of what we now call assertiveness training. Though I’m thankful this is even a part of some school curriculum, I’m not so sure it works. The next time I actually ran into a bully my heart was racing a little too fast to remember my “I” statements and the strategies for assertiveness.

It is a prolonged myth in popular culture and even in the field of counseling that teaching communication skills is effective at creating connection in distressed relationships.

Most of the research shows what my 6th grade self knew – our physiology takes over in the moment and our “skills” go out the window. So does that mean we are doomed to distress? Absolutely not. It is possible in the midst of our distress to really get at the heart of the matter and connect with one another, but it takes hard work. When something cues up our “fight or flight” response our emotional system (limbic) has already processed what’s happening multiple times before our rational system (prefrontal cortex) even comes online to explain what’s happening. From there we make a decision – and if our relationship is distressed we likely make a decision that is confusing to our partner. Take the following example:

Sarah is angry at John because she feels she is doing all the chores and he comes home and just sits on the couch. Really underneath it all Sarah feels she isn’t appreciated and seen for who she is and all she’s doing – but instead of being able to connect with this deeper place, John only experiences her anger coming after him. So, John responds by going into his ‘shell.’ He shuts down out of fear, freezing and hoping desperately to not make another wrong move. Deep down he feels like he can never get it right – like maybe something is just fundamentally wrong with him – but though this happens inside what John shows on the outside is further avoidance. He shuts down, closes up – his face goes blank and he has no words. This makes Sarah even more scared she is losing John, and so Sarah tries even harder to get her man back – so she pokes harder to try and get him to respond. But, this makes John feel even more paralyzed with fear and shame, and he shuts down even more…and round and round we go!
The point is, we can have all the communication skills in the world, but when we are dealing with the most important relationship in our life – the person to whom we put our trust that they will be there for us and available to us in our time of need – when it feels like they aren’t we can be hi-jacked by deeper waters that render our “skills” mostly meaningless.

The key is finding a way to meet one another in this deeper place with an open posture, seeking to understand why they are there and meet them in the chaos to connect instead of self-protect.

When We Lie to Our Kids

by Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

There are many reasons why adults lie to kids. Kids are gullible. It’s in their best interest. It’s to protect them. They wouldn’t understand the truth. It’s easier. It’s just a little white lie.

Once you begin to erode your kid’s trust in your word, it’s a very slippery slope.

One that is much more difficult to climb back up than the discomfort or inconvenience that sometimes accompanies telling the truth. Even “small” lies can cause severe damage. A tornado can destroy a house, but so can termites.

Here’s the truth: Kids know. Maybe not every time. Maybe not very early on. But soon enough, they know more than we adults realize, and by the time we do, we’ve already damaged their trust in us. Researchers at MIT have confirmed this truth. Think about when you were a kid and you were internally questioning something an adult told you. I bet a specific scenario or a specific person readily popped into your head.

Kids inherently and subconsciously know they are dependent on adults to survive. This is why a child going out the front door and walking wherever they please is a rare event. It is what causes that brief panic in a store when a kid feels lost. Many children are not even willing to go into the basement alone. Their security is in their attachment to a more competent and trustworthy individual, an adult, because of their inherent knowledge that they are not competent to care for themselves in this world. There is a very healthy importance to this attachment, and in order for it to be healthy, it has to be one they can depend on. Lying and withholding information causes deep fractures to the security of this bond. More simply, it causes deep hurt to our children.

When kids are lied to, not only do they begin to question their trust in the person who’s lying, they also learn to mistrust themselves. When what they know or feel is true is being redefined for them as not true, they are learning self-doubt and a mistrust of the world. When a kid is told that what they know is true, is untrue, they are learning that they can’t trust themselves. This makes them susceptible to bullying, mean friends, sexual abuse, manipulation, abusive dating partners, and the list goes on.

So while a little white lie can feel harmless, it has the power to do far more damage than the truth.

Kids, Feelings, and Parents, Oh My!

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

Inspired by How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk, by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Parenting is exhausting.  Taking part in relationships with adults who struggle to communicate their emotions is hard enough, but engaging with kids who don’t know what they are feeling or how to tell you their feelings is even harder!  Being in tune with our children’s emotions and experiences allows us to more naturally engage in our relationship with them.

Just because kids are “young, little, a baby” does not mean their emotional experiences are less real or matter less than our own experiences.

The author of How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk describes her experience of parenting and how she “could be accepting about most of the feelings [her] children had, but let one of them tell me something that made me angry or anxious and I’d instantly revert to my old way [of parenting]” (page 3).  Her old ways were when she would disregard, minimize, invalidate, avoid, or ignore another person’s experience.

How do we feel when someone disregards our feelings?  How do we feel when people pretend they didn’t hear what we said? Or, when people try to “help” or “fix” a situation when all we want is someone to listen.

When we feel listened to and understood it is easier for us to manage our emotional responses.  The same happens with our children.

When they feel listened to and understood, they are able to work through their emotional experiences and problem solve more clearly.   Often, children are just wanting someone to intently listen to them.  Our attunement to the conversation and small responses, like “uh-huh” allow our children to know we are paying attention.  This response only works if you are looking at them, not at a screen!

Children need help naming their emotions and giving words to their experience.

The naming of emotions acknowledges their experience and helps to increase their engagement in the relationship. It also helps to teach children about emotions.  It can be helpful to have an emotions chart on the refrigerator with faces on it, or for older kids a wheel of emotions.

Being in relationship with our kids is hard work. This hard work is laying the framework for better relationships as they age. We hope they have learned about their emotions and how to verbalize them and deal with them safely.   We are teaching something important to our children that they don’t yet know is important!

Does Validation Matter?

Validation: Why it matters.

 

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

We have all experienced a situation where we have not validated a person’s beliefs or behaviors as we interact with them.  We also know what it feels like for someone to ignore our feelings, minimize our experiences, or change the subject of a conversation when the topic really matters. Validating our own feelings and those of other people is an important skill to have and to hone.    

What is validation?  Validation means “acknowledging that a person’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors have causes and are therefore understandable”.  

To validate someone means we are looking for the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them.

Why is it important?  Well, it shows that we are listening to the other person and that we are trying to understand them.  It helps to strengthen our relationships because we can avoid a power struggle over who is right by validating the other person.  When we don’t validate others, it hurts.

How do we do it?  Pay attention to what the other person is saying.  Actively listen and reflect back to them what they are saying, without judging them!  We have to use our observation skills and we have to be pay attention to the conversation.  It is important to notice the little things, how is the person standing, are their arms crossed, is their face red, do they look like they are getting ready to cry?  All of these clues help us in conversation.  

We need to notice how a person is acting, listen to what a person says, and respond according to what we see and hear to help create and improve connection in relationships.

What’s the impact?  Like I said, validation helps to create connection. Validation challenges us to be present in conversation. We have to be listen to what the other person is saying in order to respond in a way that helps a person to feel understood. Validation can de-escalate a situation because you’ve avoided the fight and acknowledged the other person’s experience.  

Give it a shot!  

 

 

 

 

Information adapted from DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents, Rathus, Jill H., and Alec L. Miller. “Validation.” DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents. New York: Guilford, 2015. Print.

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

 Can't Sign

“Can’t is a four-letter word.”  “Can’t never could.” “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Did you grow up hearing any of these phrases (or something similar)?  Encouragements from parents and caregivers to help you face a new challenge that you currently weren’t able to conquer.  An acknowledgement that negative thinking or giving up too easily with “I can’t” will hold you back from growing and learning to do new things. Instilling and maintaining a “can do” attitude is important – to push through the fear of inability and courageously take a risk, believing that you can do something and acting out of that hopeful and determined belief.  If you don’t try, you won’t grow and learn.

But somewhere along the way, after pushing through our fear or inexperience to get beyond “I can’t” when we are young, we can develop a belief that we can (and should) be able to do everything. And be everyone to everyone.  And never disappoint anyone.  We forget that we are human, and with that reality comes certain limitations – limitations of having finite time, emotional capacity, energy, and abilities.

For some of us, “I can’t” still comes too easy and holds us back from trying something new or risking…and if that is you, I encourage you to consider what makes “I can’t” roll off your tongue. Is it protecting you from the risk of failure? Does it feel safer to remain in the comfortable place of what you know?

But for some of us, embracing “I can’t” can be a path towards freedom.  A way to embrace our humanity and draw healthy boundaries around what we were made to be and do. Some versions of “I can’t” change with seasons of life while others remain true our entire lives.  “I can’t be a mom, work full time, be President of the PTA and have a perfectly kept household.” “I can’t have a chronic disease and do everything the way I used to.”  “I can’t be responsible for your emotions.” “I can’t obtain everyone’s approval.” “I can’t be perfect.”

Saying “I can’t” isn’t always about fear or failure, sometimes it’s the healthiest acknowledgement of our humanity that puts us on a path towards freedom.  Where might it be helpful for you to say “I can’t” today?

-Melinda Seley, PLPC

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.

Don’t Judge?

Don’t Judge?

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

To judge is to form an opinion, or to form an estimate or evaluation.  When I hear “don’t judge” in the way it seems to be most often used -particularly social media-  I think about how impossible it seems.  We judge things all the time.  We all instinctively form opinions about everything from food to cars to people.  We can’t avoid having opinions.

SERIOUSLY?

I think the intent of the “Don’t Judge” maelstrom is mostly well-intended.  I think a better word for what people are trying to say would be “Don’t Condemn”.  It seems that nobody reacts negatively when I judge someone to be pretty or smart or competent.  It is when I move from judging to expressing contempt for others that I have crossed a line.

My opinion about the relative appearance of a person is powerless in and of itself.  When I state that a person is ugly in appearance, I am revealing my perception about that person.  I am not stating a fact.  Another person could find the same person attractive.  Neither the positive nor the negative opinion a) alters the actual appearance of the person in question, or b) measures the worth of the person in question.

What is more, asking me not to state my opinion or to change my opinion is to devalue me.  It means that my thoughts and feelings don’t matter or shouldn’t exist if they disagree with yours or make you uncomfortable.  I don’t have to call you handsome if I think you look like a troll, nor does the fact that I think you look like a troll make you in fact, a troll.  It does not even mean that you are actually, objectively, “ugly”.  I am not bullying or being contemptuous when I state my opinion.

My opinion becomes contempt when I attempt to declare the worth of a person or thing.  If I look at the person I deem unattractive and proceed to tell them, “Your mother should have aborted you,” I am expressing contempt.  When I say “You should wear a bag over your head so the ‘rest of us’ don’t have to look at you,” I am expressing contempt.  I am declaring what you are worth (an objective reality) on the basis of my subjective perception.  I express contempt for your being, which I have assessed on the basis of your appearance exclusively.

We are devastated by opinions because we equate them (and often they are expressed) as measures of our worth.  We are devastated because we somehow have come to believe that our worth is actually connected to what the other person is saying.

The vast futility of contempt is that it absolutely cannot do what it is trying to do: change the actual innate value of the thing (or person).  

Having an opinion does not make me a jerk.  It’s how I express that opinion that matters.  I can hold it for my own self and leave others to make their own assessments, or I can condemn the object of my opinion as worthless.  Either way, how I express my opinion says more about me than it does about who or what I am describing.  –Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

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.