relationships

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.

The Difference between Dangerous and Unsafe

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Whether we are talking about job sites, relationships, or simply walking down the street, we routinely confront the question of safety.  The fact is that we live in a dangerous world, and safety is a real question for all of us.

I have recently struck upon a difference between dangerous and unsafe.  The world is a dangerous place, but it is not always unsafe.  In terms of relationships with other human beings, we are all dangerous to each other: we all have the potential to cause hurt, whether deliberately, by mistake, by ignorance, or by accident.  

What makes a person safe or unsafe is how they handle their dangerousness.  It’s what they do when they have caused hurt that makes the difference.

Driving a car is a dangerous thing in its very nature.  How I handle that responsibility is what makes the difference between being a safe driver and an unsafe (reckless) driver.   The reckless driver des not acknowledge the inherent dangerousness of driving a 2 ton vehicle at 40 miles an hour among dozens of other 2 ton vehicles.  A reckless driver does not consider what the other vehicles might be doing but demands his or her own way, and that everyone else must make way for their vehicle.  People who are reckless in relationship behave similarly, and they act in relationally unsafe ways.

I can get into a wreck whether I am a safe driver or not, but it is more likely and typically more severe when I am reckless.

Let’s talk about relationships.  My responsibility when I speak is ALWAYS to speak the truth and to be respectful. That responsibility never changes and is never removed.   If I speak to you harshly for any reason at all, I owe you an apology, period.  Having said this, I have to acknowledge that there are a lot of reasons I might speak to you harshly.  I might be having a bad day.  I might be in a hurry, or in pain.  You may have done something to offend me.  You might have made a mistake that affected me somehow.  You might have been a jerk toward me and I responded in kind.  In this, I am dangerous: I have a lot of potential to hurt you.  

What makes me safe or unsafe is how I handle that responsibility both before and after I cause hurt.  

I am a safe user of words when I consider the words and tones I am willing to use, when I resist the tendency to speak in anger or harshness.  I can still get into a “wreck” so to speak:  I am still capable of speaking in hurtful ways.  When I am safe, I will do so less often and with less intensity, and I will stop myself sooner.

When I do cross that line, what happens next is important.  If I blame you or say you deserved it, I am creating an unsafe environment.  If I refuse to acknowledge the hurt, I am creating unsafety.  If I tell you you’re too sensitive or that you’re making a big deal out of nothing, I am creating unsafety.   If I say “I’m sorry, but…” I’m actually saying, “This is why I ‘m not sorry,” and I am creating unsafety.

What makes me relationally safe is when I own my responsibility and the fact that I broke my responsibility, and I genuinely apologize for crossing a line.  When I am open and accepting of the fact that I am human and fallible, I am more willing to be called out on misbehavior and better able to resist the defensiveness that naturally arises.  If I can accept my own humanity, I am likely more able to accept your humanity and we can have a human conversation. 

We are always dangerous to each other, but it is never a foregone conclusion that because we are dangerous, we are unsafe.  As we pay attention to the dangerousness of living and interacting with other human beings, take up our responsibility for conducting ourselves appropriately, and own our mistakes and limitations, we engage in “safe driving”.  So… buckle up, it’s dangerous out there.

Seven Desires of Every Heart

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

In their book, The Seven Desires of Every Heart, Mark and Debra Laaser outline the following seven universal desires that every person has – regardless of age, gender, culture, or religious background:  

  • To be heard and understood  

This includes thoughts, feelings, needs, struggles, and opinions.

  • To be affirmed (specific and concrete acknowledgement of someone’s strengths)

This includes specific and concrete acknowledgement of one’s strengths.

  • To be blessed

Not only being affirmed for specific strengths and things we do well, but knowing that we are worthy and loved just for being who you are (not what you do).

  • To be safe

This includes physical, mental, emotional, and sexual safety.  

  • To be touched

We never outgrow the need for non-sexual touch and particularly a lack of confusion between sexual and non-sexual touch.  

  • To be chosen

  • To be included (more of a community aspect than “to be chosen”)

This is more of a community aspect than “to be chosen” above.

When you think about your own life and experience, how have these needs been met or left unfulfilled for you?  Perhaps it would be helpful to read that list again.  Often, when needs are met, we are not even explicitly aware that we had the need because it was inherently satisfied.  However, when our needs are not met, it can be overwhelming and stir within us very strong emotions.  We can become angry with the person not meeting our needs. We can become angry with ourselves for having the need.  Or think there must be something wrong with us for having the need in the first place. Unmet needs, particularly in childhood, can shape us deeply.

If you can identify one or more needs above that have been left unfulfilled in childhood, in a previous stage of life, or currently, I would encourage you to consider – what does it look like to grieve that unmet need?  Perhaps it looks like naming what has been left unfulfilled and allowing yourself space to sit in the sadness of the fact that you, as a human being, have a fundamental need that has not been met.  Can you give yourself permission to do that?

The motivation for considering these unmet needs in your life is not to point a finger of blame for pain you have experienced, but rather to grow in awareness of how your heart and mind have been shaped and how that impacts the way you engage in relationship with yourself and others.  And to consider where there is cause for rejoicing…and where there is a need to grieve.  Doing so ultimately allows us to live whole-heartedly and connect more fully with others.

What Not to Say to Someone Struggling

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Sitting with someone else in their pain can be hard.  We don’t know quite what to say. We want to fix it. Make them happy. Change their perspective so it doesn’t seem as bad. Keep them from wallowing in their pain. Or maybe we just don’t want them to bring us down. Feel their pain. Or for something to be required of us due to their struggle.  

This blog is for myself as much as it is anyone else, because sometimes – when someone else is struggling – we say things without even realizing how hurtful or unhelpful they might be.  In hopes of reducing the number of times this happens for all of us, I offer this list of “what not to say to someone who is struggling”:

  • “Just wait until…”

“You’re struggling with being single?  Just wait until you’re married, then life gets hard…”
“You’re struggling with being a new parent? Just wait until you have three kids…”
“You’re stressed out working part-time?  Just wait until you’re working full-time…”

Just wait until.  It can be hard not to compare our struggles to those of others, can’t it?  When someone else expresses a difficulty and we feel that our current position has more challenges, more pain, more stress, it’s difficult to meet that person where they are and offer empathy.  It is easy to diminish the pain of others when we don’t fully know what it is like being in their shoes.  We are all different. We have different strengths and weaknesses; different personalities that make certain things harder for some than others; different support networks; and we’ve had parents and teachers who have equipped us differently to handle life’s challenges.  If we are farther along in a particular life situation (relationships, parenting, working, etc.), it is easy to forget that the first time at something is often the hardest.  There are lessons you learn along the way that lead and guide for future increased responsibility, depth of relationship, etc.  If we had more supportive, loving, present parents than others, we forget that that makes a profound difference in our ability to handle stressors.

If you find yourself saying “just wait until” …what keeps you from being able to step out of the place of comparison, see the other’s struggle where they are, and offer a response of empathy?

  • “At least…”

“You’re struggling with paying your bills on your current income? At least you have a job…”
“You’re struggling with pain your parents caused you? At least your parents are still alive…”
“You’re struggling with being a parent?  At least you were able to have kids… “

At least. I find myself saying this to a friend when I want to point to what is still good or what didn’t happen that could have made their situation even worse.  At times, this can be helpful. Putting situations in perspective and finding things to be grateful for is not bad.  But when I consider my motivation for saying “at least”, it is often because I am afraid of feeling the other’s pain or “giving them permission” to sit in the pain of what is happening.  When I say “at least”, I am indirectly saying – “you can’t be sad/disappointed/angry/etc. about ____, because it could have been worse.”  Instead of validating their emotion in response to a bad situation and being with them in it, I basically said “you just need to be grateful it wasn’t worse.”  

What keeps you from giving the other space to feel their emotions before pushing them into a place of gratitude?  

  • “It’s only/You’re just…”

“You’re struggling with your husband being deployed? It’s only 3 months…”
“You’re in 10th grade and sad you just broke up with your girlfriend?  It was just a high school relationship….”
“You say you’re struggling with depression?  You’re just sad…”

“It’s only” and “you’re just”.  These are the phrases of minimization.  Of invalidation.  Communicating there is no reason to feel what is being felt.  Or at least to the extent that they may be currently felt.  Thinking that if they only had my perspective, they would see it’s not that big of a deal.  And again, while it can often be helpful to frame our experiences within the context of a bigger picture or in light of gratitude, I ask us to consider our motivation when inviting another to do so.  Does it help us avoid having to acknowledge that what they are going through is hard for them? Do we view our suffering as greater and therefore need to make sure others know that what they’re going through isn’t that big of a deal?  Can we be humble enough to consider how they, unique as they are, might be feeling this pain?

What keeps you from validating another’s pain rather than minimizing what they are experiencing?

If you read the responses above and a specific interaction with a friend or acquaintance came to mind, know that you are not alone.  Feeling another’s pain is uncomfortable. Often scary. And awkward. It requires something of us in that we have to see life from the other’s perspective and feel things on behalf of someone else.  

What keeps you from being able to step out of comparison, give someone space to feel their emotions, or validate their pain?

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?