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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Marital Matrix - Four Truths and a Lie

I just wanted to share a few observations about marriage that I've come to believe.  There is so much information about how to make marriage work these days, so many ideas, therapies, predictions, so much advice.  It's hard to know how to sort it all.  And most of its pretty good, actually.  Tons of books, blogs, vlogs, podcasts... sometimes we just need to keep listening and reading and unpacking and trying to find our truth.  But from where I sit, having been working with couples for over 20 years, I offer you four truths and a lie.  (A bit oversimplified, but relevant nonetheless):

Truth One:    Too much entitlement felt by either spouse can take down a marriage
Truth Two:    Too little self esteem  in either spouse can take down a marriage
Truth Three:  Difficult in-laws can take down a marriage
Truth Four :   Too little or unsatisfying sex can take down a marriage
One Lie:         Its not worth trying to fix it

Abuse aside (and I am not defining it here), it is worth it.  When we thrive as individuals, the marriage does better.  When the marriage thrives, the individuals do better.  Yes, its painful.  Yes, there are lots of feelings, and undercurrents and thoughts and perspectives and beliefs and perceptions and things to sort through.  Sometimes, we'd rather be right than married.  Sometimes we'd rather suffer silently.  Sometimes we just want the other person to suffer, or to understand or change. 

Sometimes we'd rather believe that nothing is going to help.  Sometimes we have an overblown or underblown sense of how things should be, whose fault it is, what our capacity (or our spouse's) for change is, and whether we really need or want help.  Sometimes, we proceed in ways that we ourselves don't even realize.  And maybe we don't care.  Sometimes we are too angry to really listen, or to try or see if maybe we could have an entirely different experience.  Sometimes we are afraid to rock the boat, even if the boat is adrift.

In my office, sometimes I help people separate and resettle well.  Sometimes I help them stay married and make things better.  Sometimes I help them figure out which one of the above they really want to do and why.  And sometimes we just talk through the pain of it all until the next right thing becomes clear and  we know what to do and how to feel better. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Parts and Parts and Rules of Three....

"I want to feel better more than I want to get angry"
"I am living with the pain, but not so much in it anymore"

Two things I heard this past week that I thought were worth noting.  And of course, easier said than done, and sometimes getting there takes some time and some emotional storytelling and some unpacking of pain, ideas and desires.  But perhaps we do have a choice.  Even if we can't flip the switch right away.

Just honoring the different parts of ourselves, just knowing they exist, and not judging them, can go a long way.  There are always different parts, different ideas, different feelings inside of us that are competing for our attention.  Our need to be heard, to be understood, to be loved, to be taken care of, to be a good partner, to be generous, to feel good about our choices, to feel safe, to please others, to do the right thing, to get satisfaction, pleasure, sex, care, respect, love. 

Sometimes they shift back and forth in seconds.  And when we talk or act or decide while there is a lot of shifting going on inside of us, we can do some damage.  When we can wait it out and let all of our parts have their say, and then see, see what really we need, what we are really voting for, what effect we really want to have, if we can, then we can prioritize and honor ourselves and move forward  better.

The more we know when our parts are popping around trying to be heard and trying to protect us, the more we can slow down.  Just knowing it helps.  Then the insights will come.  And we will better be able to decide.  When we keep in mind that when we are feeling too much or not enough... that's when we should try not to talk, act or decide.  (My Rule of Three).   We can discuss things with someone we trust, but we hold back from saying things on the fly to whomever we are in distress with or about.  And we don't take any action of any kind or make any decisions.  We just keep drawing back to the other rule of three.  When we feel revved up - we wait three:  three minutes, three hours, three days... whatever we need to do to not act on our feelings in the heat of a moment.  And to honor them and ourselves by allowing ourselves to have all of our feelings and letting them run through us without judging them. 

Just knowing, just drawing back to these ideas can change our choices, and our choices can change us and change our realities.  We are not as alone as we sometimes think we are.

Monday, May 29, 2017

I Just Don't Know What to Do....

Across the wide range of topics that come in up my office from relationships, to career, to sex, to parenting, folks often say, in many different ways "I just don't know what to do....."

It's very delicious indeed (better than Rocky Road Ice Cream) when we have clarity.  Not the clarity that comes from anger, or revenge or fear or low self esteem or crazy brain on revved-up thinking.  But the clarity that comes from a calm, cool, sweet, quiet, peaceful place in your psyche or soul or heart and settles in like a soft feather or a cool pool of water.... and stays with you a bit.  And you just know.

But that's more and more rare these days.  We are so very distracted.  Our quiet time in minimal.  Our interruptions are maxed.  Phones buzzing, etc.  So I think we are a bit more blocked than we'd like to be from our own innate health and wisdom.  But there is a go to, I believe.

When we don't know what to do, even when we have a list of good options and we still don't know, we can start with a different list:  The What Not To Do List.  That list, we usually have a bit more clarity on, especially the basics.  

Lets take Parenting for example.  You may not know what particular parenting approach is the best at the moment, or what the right words are exactly, or whether to say yes or no or maybe or I'm not sure ask me later.... Or to validate, or just listen or to suggest or to wait or to reassure or guide, or encourage or give in or hold out or lay low or come close or/and... add your own...But we always can fall back on our list of What Not To Do.  What we know does not work, or is against our parenting creed, or goal or the effect we would like to have, or what goes against common wisdom.  (Hitting, name calling, yelling, condemning,  threatening, bullying, judging, ridiculing, attacking, accusing, ignoring, shaming, demanding, berating...  add your own...).  

Same with relationships.  We are not perfect.  We slip up.  But we generally know what points us towards closeness and what creates distance.  We usually know what not to do and that when we do something from the Not List, we are most likely feeling very angry or hurt or insecure or afraid.  And we are not looking past it (hard to do in the moment, of course, but possible with practice and perspective).

Expanding the What Yes (or Maybe) To Do List can often take some time, some unpacking, some poking around in our hearts and minds and psyches and thoughts, and some talking, of course.  And there is always, my favorite:  Do the Next Right Small Thing.  That is, when we know what that is...

But in a pinch, and there are usually a bunch pretty regularly, we can take heart in Not Doing anything from the obvious Not list.  I am not saying that on some irregular occasions there might be something on the Not list that should float over to the Maybe List. (and I do mean float, as in, calm, and planned and coming from wisdom). But we can take heart and go easier on ourselves and others when we  don't know what to yes do, that at least we stayed away from the What Not to Do List and that whatever else we choose, perhaps with some faith, with turn out to be for the good.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Foggy Drive

I've suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened. - Mark Twain 

A friend of mine recently told me that last week she was driving to work up the New York State Thruway and there was a ton of fog.  There were times that she absolutely just could not see.  She was moving slowing and carefully and the fog was in and out.  There were times that the road appeared again, clear as day, and then the she'd drive into a patch of fog.  It was only for a moment or so, even at its darkest.  But those moments seemed so long, especially when she could not see the road.  She said she began thinking about just pulling over to the side and waiting.  But she also realized that although she could not see it at times, she knew the road was there.  She knew the road well, and she knew she was headed in the right direction.  She knew she would get there.  Sometimes she had to slow way down.  Sometimes she could travel a little faster, but she trusted that she was still on the road.  She could feel it.

So (driving safety aside), I'm thinking we can use this.  It's sort of like gravity, we don't question gravity.  We just know that it operates all the time, at all times on earth, without exception, unless we create very special circumstances.  We don't  let go of our coffee mug in mid air, because we know instinctively that it will fall.    My friend just trusted that the road was there.  

It's the same way with our innate wellness and wisedom.  Many people walk into my office and want to be fixed.  They believe they are broken.  They feel broken.  Often they believe someone else broke them, or they were never well or wise to begin with.  But just like the road, just like gravity, our wellness and our wisdom is there.   Sometimes the fog rolls in.  Sometimes our innocent human thinking and our emotions run through us and cloud our wisdom and our wellness and our vision.  Sometimes we even want to believe we are broken.  We want someone to fix us.  We want to be rescued or saved or taken care of.  We believe that if we have to do it ourselves, or take care of ourselves that means we are not valued or worthy or that we matter.  We hook all of our self worth to how others treat us or take care of us.  We need to feel broken in order to get fixed in order to believe that we matter.

Of course we need human care and love and nurture from others.  We need to know we matter. And these things help us clear the fog.  But really, the road is always there.  There is always gravity.  We are well and whole and wise and we can get glimpses of it, insights, relief, when we trust that we may be in a foggy patch, but that it will clear,  and we will move through it.  It will move through us, if we let it.  Sometimes, we do have to wait it out, sometimes we keep moving, but the fog will lift.  And the road is still there.

I'm not suggesting anyone drive unsafely, literally, in bad weather.  But I think we can use the idea to help point us to how we can move forward with faith, even when we can't see so clearly at times, as long as we know we are generally on the right road.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Power Lines: It's Not Our First Thought That Matters

Many of us have the idea that we cannot control our thoughts.  Sometimes we are ashamed of our thinking, or we feel ruled by it.  Sometimes we question it, and other times we just take our thoughts as givens.  We don't even know we are thinking sometimes, let alone feeling what we are thinking and reacting to it.

Especially in the world of addiction work, we often hear the idea that we are powerless.  And we are, I think, to some degree.  We are powerless over certain things and certain situations and certainly when it comes to other people.  But to what extent?  To what extent are we not powerless? To what extent do we effect other people?  To what extent are we effected by others? To what extent can we tune in to and work with our thoughts? Where are our power lines?

We all have a natural human flow of thought that moves through us.  And we are powerless over those thoughts as they initially run through us.  But we are not powerless over how we respond to them.  We are not powerless  to increase our awareness of them. We are not powerless to question them, slow them down, examine them and decide if they are true or false, or if we are assigning good and bad to them based on how we think of them.  And we are certainly not powerless over putting or not putting ourselves in places, or with people or in circumstances that we know will trigger thoughts that we may not want to have running through us.  We are not nearly as powerless as we think we are, or even as we might like to be sometimes.  I'm not saying that its easy necessarily, but I am saying that life can look pretty different and so many things can get so much better when we open up to the idea of opening up our minds to how we see things and what we believe.

Many times while we are unpacking the pain and examining the thoughts and the stories and our assignment of good and bad to things, we bump into our own inner competing priorities, needs, parts, morals and desires.  It's not always easy to sort it all out, but we stand a much better chance when we at least have some idea of where our power lines are.

Friday, December 23, 2016


“If you are willing to look at another person’s behavior toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react at all.”

― Yogi Bhajan

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
-Viktor Frankl

"Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value"

"We cannot try to solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them"
-Albert Einstein

"Whoever wants to reach a distant goal must start with small steps."
-Saul Bellow

"You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day.  This is a power you can cultivate.  If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind.  That's the only thing you should be trying to control." - Elizabeth Gilbert

"Its funny:  I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience.  But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty end old tools - friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty - and said 'Do the best you can with these, they will have to do' and mostly, against all odds, they do.
-Anne Lamott

"Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of overcoming it"
-Helen Keller

"The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.  You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.  Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever have earned"
- J.K. Rowling

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference"  - Reinhold Niebuhr

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Pointing in the Right Direction (What do we really want?)

We have all probably been there, and most likely over and over again.  There  being that point and place where we have in mind what we should be doing, or how we should be handling something, or responding or behaving, and how we do end up handling it or responding or reacting.  There being how we want to act or feel or respond. Or at least, think we want to.  Sometimes its with our temper (this is step one in anger management), with our food, with our relationships, with our wellness routines.  We think we know what we want.  And we do.  On some level.  Mostly.  Probably.  Consciously.
But when we don't follow up with actions that support it, and when habit starts slipping into obsession, or out of control behavior, or even just too many slip ups, we can be well served by taking another look at want we want and where we are really pointed any why.

Slip ups and set backs are a normal part of any quest for better.  They are a learning opportunity, a source of information and a reason to stay curious about life and about our minds and hearts and psyches and bodies.  Sometimes we don't respond the way we seemingly want ourselves to because old habits are deep grooves in our psyche.  Sometimes its because we are in the same mindset that we've always been in.  And usually the mindset that got us into difficulty is not the same mindset that can get us out.  Even if we say we want to.  We need a new way of looking at how thought works, and how to work with our mind.  We need to start, and restart, and restart and look again and again at where we are really pointed and why.  Even if we think we know.  Especially when we think we know.  If we keep slipping up too much, its a signal that we need to take a look at what we really want. And its sometimes not as simple as it appears.  We sometimes have compelling, innocent, understandable ideas and thought stories that end up ruling our responses, instead of what we say and "know" we should be doing, saying.

All the great techniques and therapies and programs in the world (and there are many!) won't take hold if we are pointed unconsciously in the wrong direction.  And we often are!  And for good reasons! For example, someone who repeatedly picks fights with their spouse and knows they shouldn't or is trying to work on things because they know words and communication and language are so important in creating relationships, may keep engaging in fights anyway.  Someone who wants to stop bingeing may keep doing it even though they think that don't want to.  There are so many examples!

But sometimes, underneath, we have competing reasons.  We are often ashamed of them, or think we should be.  We often think we don't have a right to them, so we can't acknowledge them.  Sometimes our only communication seems like it is through what we are doing, or we, want to be understood, feel right, or feel powerful or understood or avoid emptiness.  Sometimes we feel punitive or we don't want to let someone off the hook.  It's usually anger on top of fear on top of desire.  And we don't give ourselves permission to unpack our motives honestly.   Especially if our mood has slipped out from under us or if we are lacking sleep or nutrients or a place to talk it through.

We can do it though.  We can have mixed motives and forgive ourselves for them. We can take a look at what our priorities really are, where we are pointed, what effect we really want to have and why.  We can do it without shame, without filtering and without letting anyone else off the hook.  There is so much freedom in this, and then we can begin to walk where we want to really be walking.