relationship

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.

Shame and Contempt, Part 4: Countering Self-Righteousness & Other Righteousness

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

In my earlier blogs in this series, I explored Shame and Contempt as unhealthy and unproductive mutations of Guilt and Judgment, and the ground that Shame and Contempt grow from, and the flipside of Shame and Contempt. Now that we’ve named Guilt and Contempt as potential major players in our inner worlds, as well as looked at the places from where these fickle foes plant seeds and grow, I would like to discuss how to counter the powerful pulls of self-righteousness and other righteousness.

The truth is that we are all good at some things, and we are all bad at some things.  Neither one can ever speak to our value as a human.  Performance, skill, ability, and aptitude are all completely irrelevant to our dignity and worth.

When we stand either over or under another human, we are out of place, and it wears on our souls.

The beginning of change is in observing what has always been automatic, accepted, or unquestioned.  Pay attention to the thoughts and voices with which you speak to yourself, and with which you speak of others.  Notice the elements of self- or other-righteousness.  The more you notice them, the more they will bother you (hopefully).  That dissatisfaction is necessary to finding the change you need.

If you feel stuck, seek an external observer: a mentor, pastor, friend, or counselor who is not overly impressed with you, who will be honest with you, and with whom you can be honest in return.  Work together to identify the places you need to work on.

Stepping out of self- and/or other-righteousness is a challenge, but when you find the room, you will discover a great relief in your being, and a larger amount of freedom and acceptance with and for your fellow humans.

Shame and Contempt, Part 3: The Flipside

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

In an earlier blog, I explored Shame and Contempt as unhealthy and unproductive mutations of Guilt and Judgment, respectively, and how we live as though we believe them even though they are profoundly untrue.

Here, I would like to discuss the ground that Shame and Contempt grow from.

Self-Righteousness

The most obvious and familiar feeling that engenders shame or contempt is self-righteousness.  We are most often aware of self-righteousness in others, especially when it is directed at us.  It is identifiable by our reactions to it: “How dare you look down your nose at me!?”  “Little Miss (Mr.) Goody-Two-Shoes” (I know I’m dating myself here.)  “What a stuck-up jerk!”  “Think you’re better than everyone else, do you?”

It seems apparent to me that we would regard self-righteousness as a negative character trait or behavior when we see it or experience it from anyone.

However, most of us actually practice this at some point ourselves. We experience self-righteousness in ourselves when we say or think things like, “I would never…” or “How could you…”.  When we shake our heads and “cluck our tongues” to say “Tsk, tsk, for shame.”  When we say, “THAT person deserves to be…” . It is at its core an internal feeling of being better than the other person.

What makes self-righteousness distinct from contempt?  Self-Righteousness is the soil from which Contempt grows and flourishes.

Contempt is the external expression of the fundamental (and often unquestioned) internal belief in our own goodness (self-righteousness).

The trap of it is that we tend to highlight the things we are good at or things that we think make us look good, and exclude the things we are less good at or embarrass us.  When we operate from self-righteousness, we act as though we have the right to determine the worth of another person.

Other-Righteousness

Other-Righteousness is a term that I am pretty sure I made up.  I use it to describe the sensation that others are by nature better than oneself.  It functions in relationships when we “know” that our significant other is smarter, better, wiser, etc.  We put them on a pedestal that says, “You know more about XYZ than I do, so I will always yield to your opinion on this.” Socially, we experience the sensation that everyone who sees us is judging us or pitying us.  We feel that they are worth more than us.

Not only do we have this feeling, we believe it.  Not only are we judged, but we deserve to be judged.   We automatically believe that others have no real compassion when we make a mistake, that they are laughing at us or scorning us, and that we deserve it.  It is the core belief in our defectiveness and shame.  It is a wearisome way to live.

What makes “other-righteousness” distinct from shame?  The answer is the same as to the similar question above:  Other Righteousness is the soil from which our sense of defectiveness grows.

Shame is the external or surface expression of the core (often unquestioned) belief in others’ superiority.

Also similar is the trap.  When we believe in our own worthlessness, we highlight and expect all the screw ups and shortcomings and exclude examples of our genuine goodness.  When we operate from other-righteousness, we live as though everyone around us has the right to condemn us.

My next blog will look at how to counter these formidable foes.

Shame and Contempt, Part 2: In our Daily Lives

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

My previous blog is this series proposed that shame and contempt shape our worlds more than we know.  Do they? Here I am going to look at the vicious villians of shame and contempt in our daily lives. Listen to your words and your thoughts.  Pay attention to your verbs.

It may surprise you how often you use “being” verbs in your daily life to describe yourselves and others.

Daily Contemp

Every time I shout at another driver in traffic, “Idiot!” (the full sentence by implication is “You are an idiot!”) I express contempt.  I express my feeling that the other driver’s intelligence is defective, that they are in their very being worthless.  And this, because they did something careless or something that I didn’t expect.

Daily Shame

When I make a mess of things, make a mistake or deliberately do or say something hurtful, if I beat myself up about it, I am operating in shame.  “Idiot!  I can’t believe I did that.”  I am expressing self-contempt, saying that because of this thing, and maybe others like it, I am of no real value in the world.  I believe that everyone who hears of it would agree, and that they would be correct in having me summarily executed, that the world would be better off without me.

Living Truthfully

Of course, we don’t articulate either of these thoughts fully.  If we were to articulate them fully, we would have to retract our statements.

So if (a) Shame and Contempt themselves are lies in their essence, and (b) most often we don’t really believe in the full extent of what we are actually saying, then there is a lot of falseness in our daily lives that we simply accept as “normal”.

Listen to your verbs.  I challenge you to change your being verbs into descriptive action verbs and see what changes in your experience as you walk about your life.  –JH

(Coming Soon: The Flipside of Shame and Contempt)

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!

Wellness in the New Year

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

With a new year comes New Year’s resolutions.  People use the New Year to take stock of how the past year went and what changes or goals they hope to make for the upcoming year. What does wellness look like for you in 2017?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) “defines wellness not as the absence of disease, illness, or stress but the presence of purpose in life, active involvement in satisfying work and play, joyful relationships, a healthy body and living environment, and happiness”  (Source: www.samhsa.gov).

I like that to pursue wellness does not mean that my life is perfect or easy.

To pursue wellness means I am pursuing a purpose and seeking joy. Wellness means that I am seeking healthy relationships, a healthy body, and a healthy environment.   SAMHSA has created eight dimensions of wellness: Emotional, Environmental, Financial, Intellectual, Occupational, Physical, Social, and Spiritual.  One of the great things about this Wellness model is that many of the categories overlap with each other.

Even if my work life adds a lot of stress to my day to day functioning I can still pursue my own wellness. That may look like exercising to increase some of the needed endorphins in my body.  It may mean I pursue some environmental changes and wellness. I can’t quit my job, but I can create space in my home in which I find peace and rest. It may also mean that I create an environment at my desk where I am reminded of positive relationships and purpose. Wellness may also look like me pursuing relationships with co-workers in an intentional way to make my environment more comfortable.

Some of our life stressors may not change too much over the coming year.  We can lose some weight, cut back on the alcohol, go to counseling, or try a new hobby; but will these things balance out the negative experiences?  Wellness allows us to hold in tension the stressful and negative parts of life, recognizing we can still find good.

Where can you find the joy and play in your life this year?  How can you pursue wholeness and wellness in life?

How to Heal the Hurt

Part 1: Why Does It Hurt So Bad?

by Isaac Knopp, PLPC

Relationships can be a major source of pain. The following kind of dialogue is common amongst couples.

Him: My wife is always saying hurtful things that make me feel so small. I just get frustrated and feel like whatever I try to do does not make a difference to her. 

Her: Every time I bring up an issue, he just leaves the conversation or says he does not want to argue anymore. I don’t feel like he understands how much his silence is stressing me out.

As a human being, a counselor, and someone who is married myself, I know how easy it is to experience disconnection. Personally, I resonate with the above couple. Especially when attempts at repairing relationships seemingly end up pushing each other away. 

Is it really a mystery why our emotional connection with our partner goes wrong? Can we not simply name it outright?

When couples come to me talking about their hurt feelings saying, “I don’t know why it hurts so bad, I’m an adult, I should be able to handle it.” I am inclined to take these statements literally, it does hurt! Pain is not entirely a metaphor about other unresolved issues we should grow out of. Pain hurts because having a secure emotional bond is vital to the human mind as bread and water are to the body.

As humans and mammals, with highly sophisticated limbic systems, we need secure emotional bonds with our partner as a part of our built in survival code.

The good news is that we do have a road map for relationships like never before!

Why do I speak about this as a breakthrough revelation? Because it is! In only the last fifteen to twenty years, “science is, at last, beginning to address the core mysteries of human relationships” (Berscheid, 1999, p. 206). We now know that when we are even in the proximity of a loved one, their presence alone acts as a tranquilizer to the nervous system (Schore, 1994). On the flip side, when we feel like our partner is not available or responsive to us, our nervous system receives a shock that can put us in a state of distress. 

Further, we also know that the result of a literal shock is pretty predictable. If I were to stick my finger in an electrical socket, I would receive a shock which would more or less incapacitate me. So, when we are not able to make the vital connection we need in love, often we do not realize we have experienced a shock of another kind that sends us reeling. Usually we react out of our sense of distress. The dialogue mentioned above is very predictable. A man trying to manage his own reaction by withdrawing, and the wife trying to manage her reaction by protesting his withdrawal.

If we truly do have a new understanding of love, how with this help the hurting couple?

Simply put, when a couple understands their emotional bond with their partner they have the tools to work through their distress.

Johnson, Susan M. (2012-02-24). Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection (Basic Principles Into Practice Series) (p. 24, p. 26). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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.

Does your past matter?

Does your past really matter?

by:  Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

shutterstock_155509727How often to you pick up a novel or biography you have not previously read, flip to a random page in the middle of the book, and start reading from there? Have you ever tried to sit down in the middle of a movie and pick up the storyline? Our lives are stories full of experiences that connect and impact what comes next. So when we say that the past doesn’t matter or our childhood has no significance when it comes to what’s going on in our lives today, it seems to me more like it’s wishful thinking than what is actually true.

I think there are different reasons why we want to downplay the significance of our past, specifically our early years. Sometimes it seems to stem from a desire to believe we’ve moved past it all, grown too strong and mature for any of those vulnerable years to still have the power to impact us today. For others the motivation to downplay prior experiences comes from an avoidance of the pain which accompanies them.

The reality, however, is that our lives are a whole intricate story.

Think about it this way: what’s the first thing a doctor asks about? Your medical history. What do you want to know about a car before buying it? Accident history and mileage. Similarly, when you are getting know someone new, whether a friend, co-worker, or date, conversation will surely be filled with facts about the present, but part of getting to know them is also understanding their past and where they come from, both literally and figuratively.

Neglecting the importance of our past, especially our early impressionable and very vulnerable years, is a misstep that hinders our growth and depth in the present.

History is a mandatory subject in school for a reason. We can become students of our own histories and discover how and why we got to where we are, potential pitfalls and blindspots we operate with, and relational patterns and styles that may contribute to our present relational struggles.

Is Grief Good?

Is Grief Good?

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

shutterstock_174741554To allow yourself to experience grief, and to choose to engage in the on-going act of grieving, is difficult and takes courage. I believe it is something we must actually choose to learn how to incorporate into our lives. According to Brene’ Brown, who has studied emotion and vulnerability for 15 years, we fear the emotion of grief the most. I agree.

As humans, we tend to run from what we fear. So if we fear the emotion of grief, then it makes good sense to say we will likely run from feeling and experiencing it in our lives to the best of our ability.

Why do we fear grief so much? As I asked myself this question, I realized I believed lies about grief and grieving.

Here are some lies I have either believed myself or have heard from others –

~”If I let myself feel sadness or pain, it will only make it worse.”
~”If I let myself acknowledge my grief, I will never be able to function again. It will engulf me.”
~”I don’t have time to be sad.”
~”I need to think positively and not dwell on the bad (on the pain).”
~”The pain from my grief will be so painful, I will not sustain under it.”
~”If I let myself grieve, I am just having a pity party for myself.”
~”Grief only comes when someone dies, and no one has died, therefore I shouldn’t be in pain.”
~”Something is wrong with me because its been “this much time” and I am still sad about ____.”

There are some deep-rooted misbeliefs exposed in the comments above. The assumptions exposed are that grief is bad, weak, wrong, only “okay” when someone dies, and that it exists on some sort of definable timetable.

I started learning a lot about grief and grieving 5 years ago when the landscape of my life radically changed through my divorce. Wrestling with betrayal, and the loss of our intact family, is something I am still grieving. My days are no longer shadowed by grief, but it still pops up from time to time. Some days it may pop up for a moment, some days it may take up residence for a few hours. It has taken me awhile to learn that I will be “okay” in living a life now sprinkled with grief on a daily basis.

I didn’t start out okay with my grief. For the better part of a year after my life had radically changed, I was angry at the pain of my grief. I tried to numb it, run from it, and mask it into something it wasn’t. I fought it, and I suffered for it.

I had to learn how to not fear grief, but rather how to embrace its presence. I had to learn grief is not containable, it cannot be managed, and it lacks predictability. It can last a moment or remain for the better part of a day. It does not ask for my permission to overshadow a day. I also had to learn that when grief rears its head, it doesn’t mean I am weak.

My journey to no longer fear grief is much like my process of no longer fearing thunderstorms. As a kid, I feared thunderstorms (and if i’m being honest here…my fear lasted into my early adult years). It didn’t matter if a storm came in the day or night. To me, the loud bangs of thunder and sudden flashes of light freaked me out! Now as I sit with my youngest son during a storm to calm his fears, I wonder, “What was I so afraid of? It’s just a thunderstorm!” I believed unfounded lies about storms: “something bad is going to happen,” “what if it never stops,” “I am not okay and I won’t be okay until the storm goes away…” and on and on my thoughts would go. Do you see the similarity between storms and grief? With both, I feared what I didn’t understand.

Allowing ourselves to feel grief, is as important as allowing ourselves to feel joy. When we try to numb only the emotions we dislike, feeling we set in motion the beginnings of living an emotionally handicap life. Over time, we will not only numb the emotions we don’t like, but the emotions we like become numb as well.