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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: 2013

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Year in Review (sort of) and Hope Forward Again

As the year turns again, I've been thinking a lot about hope and about resiliency and about resources.
I've been thinking about complicated grief, complicated life choices, sacrifice, joy and meaning.

Lots of folks this year in my office have talked out and through difficult relationship issues.  Some have stayed in the relationship and tried to climb through the mountain of anger and sadness and do what needs to be done to cultivate a culture of mutual respect and to bring back the love and seen surprising good results. Others have decided to move on and forward.

Some folks have keep at the good - but not always easy - work of understanding more about their relationship with themselves.  Some have dug into the past to see how it effects the present and could shape the future.  Others have been talking about trauma, frustration, grief, addiction and obsession.

Some situations take time to sort through, others give way to clarity sooner.  The questions of who we are, what we need, what we are willing to sacrifice for, compromise on and invest in continue to be important and discussion worthy.

A lot of folks tell me that there is peace of mind and meaning that comes from the search.  That at least the looking serves the purpose of honoring one's self, spirit and psyche.  That even when things are not abundantly clear, there is goodness in knowing the effort is being made to find out more.

And, a lot of folks ask me "What if I try (to heal, figure it out, do this method or that) and it doesn't work? What if there is nothing left to try?"  So this is where hope can be painful.  But I think that there are always new places to explore, and there are old places to explore again in new ways. 

Sometimes, we are even afraid of better.  Someone once asked me "Why does getting better - feeling better even - seem to make me feel worse sometimes?"  And I think that maybe it's because the familiar is so comforting and we think that the fear and the worry will keep us from something really bad happening.  That the things that kept us feeling safe no longer work really as we move forward in life is a daunting idea sometimes.

But I land on hope anyway.  I think that when we are sorting it all through -   be it quickly or slowly - that if we have our sources of nourishment in place, we can keep at it and it pays off.  We just have to take good care of our sources: our supportive relationships, our spiritual life, our service to others, our safe places to talk, our quiet time, our genuine pleasures - the places where we get uncomplicated good feelings -  and then we can keep on keeping on as the rest unfolds.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lee and Mordy and Ellen and " We Compromise: She's Always RIght"

It's sweeping the nation: 

Lee and Mordy's Swiffer commercial and their comic but relate- able exchange.  Lee is talking; Mordy is sleeping.  Lee is cleaning; Mordy is watching tenderly, hoping she does not fall.  He does not do any cleaning, he tells Ellen DeGeneres. And when she asks him to what he attributes the success of a long marriage he says:

"You compromise.  Then I give in."  Everyone chuckles.

And it's sweet.  And maybe we are laughing because we recognize some of ourselves, some truisms about how relationships work, about the ways to make a marriage work over the years.

But - not that I want to put a but into Lee and Mordy - But a few things:

First: It is often a good marital tool to give in.  To grace, to concede, to not have to have our way.  It's okay and outside of abuse, it is often useful.  Except when resentment creeps in and starts to color how we feel.  Except when we dumb ourselves - or our spouse down. 

Dumbing men down and witching women up does not help us to come into our relationships with the emotional strength and maturity we need to make things good.

While there are many general truisms about gender differences (and even some bio genetically based evidence now scientifically supporting how differently men and women process emotion) and while these truisms can help us to laugh at ourselves, grace ourselves and our partner,  the feeling that many men have is that their only way out of discord is to give in.  Often men simmer over long periods of time. feeling either defeated, frustrated or resentful.  And they often then, retreat emotionally.

And women then wonder why their man does share more of himself, more of his thoughts, more of his ideas.  And they wonder why he withdraws, and so goes the cycle. 

If every - or almost every - word or action we do is aimed at creating a culture of support, of building up, not breaking down - if we are conscious of this and careful - women get so much more of the emotional connection they crave and men get so much more of the feeling of respect and effectiveness they need.

Morty did say, too, and first, that you have to love each other.  What he did not say is that it's hard to do in a culture of defeat.  We can - and we should - laugh at ourselves and the dynamics in our relationships and at the gender differences that play out, but only when we are in sync and connected and are laughing on a foundation of clarity and mutual acceptance.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Grace and Grief

and this too

“Grief, as I read somewhere once, is a lazy Susan. One day it is heavy and underwater, and the next day it spins and stops at loud and rageful, and the next day at wounded keening, and the next day numbness, silence.”    ~ Anne Lamott

I just finished Anne Lamott's latest book, Stitches, and wanted to bring you a few quotes; there some more... especially on grief that I will bring you soon as well.

Because we are all, in one way or another, at one time or another, grieving.  And sometimes that grief comes in disguise.  It shows up as anger or fear or agitation or overwhelm or lethargy or depression.  And sometimes even when life is rolling along seeming okay, but our mood is off somehow, grief can be the cause.

What sometimes comes up here in the therapy room is this:  the idea that when we have a feeling or reaction that is really big in current time, it is often because it is a re-trauma, or re-experience or reminder of something from our past.  Meaning that something can happen in a current relationship, a current job situation, interaction or event of some kind, and we feel it deeply.  It certainly has importance in it's own and current time and right, but we may experience it and react to it with more power because of past trauma or past experiences.

It usually helps to know.  To shine the light on things a bit because when we can figure it out, we have a better chance of  recognizing, healing and living better with the grief.   If our past is still effecting the way we respond in the present, then it's shaping our future. 

So that's where grace comes in.  When we allow ourselves all of our feelings, and let ourselves be curious and studious about whether they are old ones or new ones or some of both.  And then we can be open to grace, for ourselves and others.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Flood the Bucket

A friend of mine who is coming out of a very bad breakup was telling me that she is plowing through lots of good books on grief. She is speaking out all the pain to her support network.  She is taking quiet time, saying some prayers, walking and crying and writing and really trying to feel the feelings and bear the pain.  She knows she is grieving.  She knows it will take time.

And still.

It keeps on keeping on and she does not seem to be able to get relief, at least not the kind of relief she'd like.  She knows that part of healing means that there is really no way around - there is only through. 

She told me though, that one wise presence in her life told her this:  Flood the Bucket.
Meaning: picture a bucket of water.  Picture a drop of ink in the bucket.  If you stir the bucket, the ink spreads and colors the water.  But if you flood the bucket then the ink just sloshes around and gets lost.  It gets diluted. It gets smaller and smaller.

Flood the bucket with new things, things that comfort, things that add, things that give meaning.  Flood it with good wholesome healing activities, people, places, interests.  Flood it with creativity, art, writing, song.  Flood it with good deeds, fresh air, sunlight.

This does not mean, not by a long shot, that we should not have our feelings, that we should not feel them, or that we should minimize them or ignore them.  Or that having more will erase the pain.  Or that we should be compulsive or overly busy. 

It just means that it can help to be open to new things, new activities, new forms of substance, nurturing, contribution and creativity.  It can help to add life giving things when life feels so dark and so bleak and so vacant.

There is, I believe, so much value to having our feelings, to letting them live and breathe and be and giving ourselves full permission to do so.  But there is also something very valuable to the idea of flooding the bucket.  Of adding life.

A thank you to my friend and her friend for this idea.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Staking Your Territory

Recently I heard the following parable:

A benevolent king was riding through the forest in his kingdom and came upon a poor peasant slumped up against a tree crying.  The kind hearted king ordered his driver to stop and the king got out of his carriage and approached the peasant.  "What's the matter?" asked the king.  "I have nothing," replied the peasant, "nothing to call my own, nothing to my name."  So the king pulled out from his carriage four long silver stakes and took one of them and drove it securely into the ground.  Then the king said to the peasant "Take the other three stakes and walk as far as you'd like.  Put them in the ground as markers and you may keep all the land within them as your own."
With that, the king got back into his carriage and rode away.
The peasant, he walked for several miles and raised a stake high to drive it into the ground,  but paused and decided to go a bit further.  He walked several more miles and once again picked up a stake and began to drive it into the ground, but again decided to go further.
So as the story goes, what do you think happened to the peasant?

He is still walking.

So I was thinking that there are a few different ways to glean some meaning from this: 

First, it's often useful to know - for ourselves - the difference -the line - between ambition and excess.  We do have to search, but perhaps, we do have to define ourselves as some point.
It helps us to know who we are, what we "yes" have and when to say when.
More is not always better.  Having what we need and needing what we have even if we are not on the leading competitive edge may actually yield us a better inner life: more peace of mind, serenity, knowledge of what gives us meaning and what gives our lives value.

And this: Boundaries often set us free.  Free to relax. Free to pursue meaning based on reasonable goals.  Free to be satisfied.  Free to know what our limits are and how to live well within them and because of them. Free to focus on what we have and what we are and what we can do with what we already have and are.  Free to settle -  because sometimes settling is the path to peace and joy.

It's not that we should not look for better - it's just that perhaps there are times that we have to be gracious and conscious about defining ourselves and about what we believe better to really be.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Scholarship for Students with Major Depressive Disorder and Doing What We Are Supposed To Do

This came across my desk, so I thought I'd it pass it along.

The Lilly Reintegration Scholarship, a program that helps those battling with severe mental illness go back to school and reintegrate into society has a scholarship that aids students living with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, has now added Major Depressive Disorder to its list of qualifying disorders.

Since there are quite a few folks who might consider school and are coping with depression but are having difficulties with funding, this seems like a great resource.

And this too: If you don't do the things you're suppose to do, you are likely to start doing the things you are not suppose to do.

So I was thinking about how emotional pain can stop you in your tracks.  And how distracted you can get because of it, and how sometimes, at its worst, it can really get in the way of doing the daily normal routine of life, or doing the stuff that helps move us along toward better feelings and working things out, everything from taking care of our physical health to showing up for our family, friends, job, commitments.

And when we get off track, we more likely to change lanes into something less healthy, less productive, maybe dangerous even.  We do need relief after all.

Sometimes, healing the pain means sticking to right plan, even when we don't feel like it.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Good Things to Say

A few months ago a friend of mine had to make an important decision.  She had asked for my ears and my input (which I gave her).   She called yesterday to thank me for my words and said that they were very useful to her and helped her to move forward.  I was curious (of course) - which words?

Somewhere in the course of our discussion I had said that whatever she decided, I was with her.  That she had my support either way.

I recall that I said it and that I meant it.  I did not know exactly what direction she should take, but we talked out what the options were, the feelings, pros and cons and risks and I felt that I could and would support her either way.

It got me to thinking once again about how important and powerful words are.  How what comes out of our mouth matters a lot.  We can't always know how our words will be received or the impact they will have, but we can heighten our awareness and consider what we say and how and if it reflects what we mean.  It's easier to do when we are not working around or through or with big feelings, but it's good to say good things when we mean it, and when we can.

It also got me thinking about more good things we can say, just in the routine of our day, that can add a bit of support, joy, good vibes and good feelings to those we care about and even to the world around us.  I'm not suggesting we  be false, or chipper, but some genuine  good  and spontaneous words are among the not-so-little little things we can do to strengthen our relationships and build the esteem of those around us. 

Try a few of these: 

For Spouses:                               
 I looked forward to seeing you all day.
 Thank you for asking about my day.
 I love being at your side.
Everything is better because of you.
You work hard for us.

For Kids:                                      
It's an honor (gift, privilege) to be your mother/father.
You are such a great kid.
You have the best smile.
I'm on your side.
I like spending time with you.
I notice how hard you are working/trying.

For Bosses and/or Co-Workers:  
I appreciate your guidance/input/encouragement/feedback
I'm glad we work together.
Thank you for being such good company all day
I like the way you think.

For Parents:                       
You really took/take good care of me
Thank you for looking out for me
I remember the time you ..... Thank you for that.

For Friends:                    
I'm blessed to have you in my life
You're a good friend.
You're good company
Thanks for being here. Thanks for always ....
Of course saying good stuff has to fit your own style, tone and timing.

And I'm not suggesting that the difficult stuff gets brushed under the rug, I'm saying that good words often get lost, and its too bad because they really can help create a better culture and foster good feelings, which then go along way during the tough times.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

And: Do I know enough about myself to make a good decision?  For anyone in emotional pain inside and in a difficult situation outside, these are essential questions. 

But sometimes we get too caught up in the first question to really delve into the second one.  And the second one is usually what informs the first one.

I'm not just talking about difficult marriages, though most often this is where the first question comes up.  But also jobs, communities, housing situations, friendships, houses of worship, therapy. When we are thinking of making a change, and we start to wonder more deeply about what is bothering us, we have to go beyond the externals.  If we focus only on what is wrong with the other person, people, environment, situation, we miss out on a lot of good information about our own character, needs and tendencies - information that can help us live better and make changes with a deeper degree of inner peace and certainty.

It usually means unpacking the hurts, the angers, the invisible bricks in the wall that separate us from feeling the connection that we need.  Most always there are external factors, mistakes, personality issues, actions of others that contribute to our bad feelings, our ambivalence, but the more we know about our own history, loyalties, needs, beliefs and feelings, the better chance we have of making changes that serve us well.

Often, it takes a little while to understand the complex set of feelings we bring into our decisions.  And sometimes, we want to get away from the bad feelings, not the person, or the situation.  In those instances, it  is especially valuable to learn whether or not the feelings can be resolved or transformed before we make a change, especially if we are feeling urgent (unless we are in real danger).

Sometimes change is the solution, but sometimes, no matter where we go (or who we are with) we will eventually bump into the same bad feelings.  When we think that there is even a small possibility of this being true, we have to slow down and answer the second question more fully in order to do a good job with the first.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What About Syria?

Some of us are close followers of world events; some of us less so.  And sometimes, things heat up on the bigger scene so much that we almost have to be aware of what's going on.  And we have to somehow filter what we hear, see, feel and believe and figure out if we are supposed to act, react, weigh in on it.  Sometime we wonder what we can do anyway.  Sometimes things seem so overwhelming and so big that we just sigh and do our day.  Sometimes we carry with us the burdens of the bigger world.

Personal, private, emotional reactions to world events vary greatly of course.  Some folks are moved and distracted, some are grateful for their own circumstances in comparison, some are afraid, compassionate, annoyed, outraged, some all of the above at any given moment.  But we still have to live our lives in our own routines.  We have our own worlds to contend with, to take care of and to function in. 

What do we do with our own world in the context of the bigger world picture?  Is there anything we can do that is useful to both?

I'm thinking yes, of course.  Because how we react to world events shapes us.  Most of us have mixed motives for most of the decisions we make.  Sometimes we are selfish, or self protective, sometimes generous, giving.  Whether our actions are driven at any given time by our feelings, our beliefs or our thinking, we and others are shaped by the choices we make.

And this is where I think we can combine our efforts for both a better inner world, a better outer world and a better world for everyone. And too, for those in emotional pain, get some relief:

We can give charity (does not have to be big amounts, it all helps)
(check this out)
We can give time (just a little counts)
We can say something kind to someone.
We can work on our own pain.
We can be sensitive to the pain of others.
We can give someone the benefit of the doubt.
We can get curious before we get hurt.
We can smile at someone, compliment them, ask about their day.
We can sit quietly and send good vibes into the universe, or pray, or say a short meditation.
We can give someone our blessing, our good wishes or our attentive compassionate ears.

I'm not saying we are going to bring world peace by working on inner peace or peace in our worlds. But I think it's a win-win when we try.  Even as we deal with our own fears and angers and difficulties, when we are willing to open a dialogue with ourselves, or with someone with whom we need more peace and take a deeper more curious, gentle look, we create new hope, new possibilities, new energy.
Doing these things shapes us for the better.  Doing these things adds good vibes to the world.  Doing these things adds to the collective good will in the world. 
Some of us are called to do more, much more.  But for most of us, we can help by being awake to ourselves, and taking  a good action (even if its small) that will bring us better feelings about ourselves, and send good karma into the world.  And maybe even create stepping stones for bigger change.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Feeling Groovy

It's August (you know this).  And though here in the office it is as appropriate as always to be talking about emotional pain, frustration, self worth, a better inner and outer life, it's good also to visit the idea that we should talk about the good stuff too, and that we need to rest our minds sometimes.

What does this have to do with it being August? -  I think this:  We need some levity and some breathing room sometimes.  Maybe more than sometimes.  And since August is often a vacation month, and the time just before school starts, and the holidays come upon us and life gets grooving into another cycle, it's a good time to remind ourselves about weaving some lighter thoughts and some restful moments into what can be the heaviness of our issues, our pain, our troubling circumstances.

Doing so does not take away our pain, or mean that we are disloyal to it, or that it is not valid and attention worthy. It just means that we can pay attention to other parts of ourselves and life.  It also helps our minds to take a breather, which can give us a new perspective, a new angle and a renewed sense of resiliency.

What kind of levity and breathing room am I talking about? Nothing fancy.  Taking a slow walk.  Staring at the stars.  Doing a short meditation (choosing a soothing phrase, closing your eyes and repeating it over and over slowly for five minutes once or twice a day), making a short list of what you "yes" have in your life that is good (eyes, ears, clean drinking water - to name a few).  Making a list of what you do well, have accomplished.  Donating to a charity. Watching an ant hill.  Going to the ocean. Sitting quietly with yourself a bit without media or your cell phone.

These are things that bring in some restful thinking, some respite from working on stuff, things that bring good feelings along to help you walk and work through the more difficult ones.

For a easy start: give this a listen. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

It's Not About the Nail (or is it?)

If you haven't seen this video (It's Not About the Nail)  give it a look!

Of course, "it" is actually about the nail, too.  But before we can get to the nail itself, we need to feel emotionally connected, supported and heard.  We need to feel understood.  That is part of the point really.

 Sometimes it takes a bit of bravery and some time to find out what, exactly, our particular nail actually is.  And when we have some good guesses , we can ask some good questions about the nail like: how did it get there in the first place? What unconscious purpose does it serve?  What is our reluctance to taking a look at it?  What if it were not there? 

Sometimes, the nail goes away just by studying it a bit.  Or just by having someone understand what it's like to be suffering.

And of course, the video highlights what often is the difference between male/female needs, experiences and approaches.  It's serious stuff, actually, in many ways, but the video brings a bit of levity.


Monday, July 29, 2013

(Can You?) Get Curious Before You Get Hurt

It's easier said than done of course.  But it's a good mantra to keep in mind.

When couples come in to work out all the various bumps and bruises - some serious and some less so - that are part of growing, deepening and maintaining a solid relationship, getting curious can really go a long way.

Here's what I mean:

Most of time when someone - especially someone we love/need/want/rely on - says or does something that hurts us - we get bad feelings.  Especially if we feel misunderstood, betrayed, disrespected, or unimportant.

We feel the bad feelings and we act or react, and often things spin out from there.

But if we can slow ourselves down, just a bit, and get curious first, we can often get relief.  It doesn't mean we should not feel how we feel, or should not allow ourselves to know and have all of our feelings - but there is something to be said for learning more about ourselves and about the person who has hurt us. 

As we are feeling our feelings, we can ask some gentle questions like "What may have set the stage for his/her (comment, behavior, feeling)?"  Or "What is bothering him//her that may have led to this?"  Or "What fears, doubts, insecurities does s/he have that may be operating under the surface?" "What may I have said or done that might have contributed to the circumstances?"  "What am I afraid of that may be blocking me from responding differently?"

The answers are not necessarily excuses or allowances, but sometimes when we are willing to get curious first, we can see a bigger, deeper picture - a picture that is often true of the human condition and of the power of our unconscious minds.  It can bring us some understanding,  And sometimes that may help us respond and feel differently.  It may make all the difference in what happens next.

Sometimes it also may mean that we have to acknowledge that we are not always who we want to be, and that people we love may not always be able to give to us the way we want them to or think we deserve.  But when we get curious we can often work with ourselves and with those we count on and look to new and better ways of being and feeling.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"I Only Knew Me"

My friend D recently decided to put her three year old in summer camp.  A sweet and short few hours a day at a day camp would give her daughter some social time and her a breather on a few summer mornings.  It was good camp and the only glitch was that her little girl would probably not know anyone else at the beginning.  D was a little concerned about how that would go but decided to try it anyway.

When she picked her up the first day, her daughter ran happily over to her.  D asked her "So, how'd it go?" "Fine!" said her daughter.  D asks her "Did you know anyone?"  Without a pause, and with a big smile and shrug, her daughter said "I only knew myself."

So D tells me that she this amazed her.  And together we marveled at her daughter's words and what they meant.

I'm sure we imbued a little.... but perhaps not too much - and anyway-why not get from it what we did, which was this:
How much better life can be and is when we are comfortable in our own skin, and when our relationship with our self is in order.
What a good feeling to feel like we know ourselves and that that is enough sometimes.  And that what we know is good.  Even and especially (for us grown ups)  if that includes knowing our shortcomings, our fears and our needs.  And how relieving if we know that even when our needs may not always be met, or met deeply enough, that we can deal well with new situations, difficult people, difficult relationships, difficult feelings and still feel safe.

We don't have to always have the answers but being open and interested in the search can bring  peace to our inner world and ease our path in our outer world.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Unconscious Allegiances, Forbidances and Fear of Success

I've often written about how we are shaped by the emotional imprints of our early life, and how freeing, useful and purposeful it can be to take a look at those imprints in order to help us have more of the life we want.

I wanted to bring you an interview that writer and book publisher Lynne Klippel did with Judith Shervin, Ph.D and Jim Sniechowski ,Ph.D, who wrote What Really Killed Whiney Houston.  It will speak especially to writers, but really it's a message for all of us about what holds us back from moving forward in our lives - especially in our creative outlets.  I think their message can be universally applied as well to any endeavor we are contemplating, as well as to our relationships.

Drs. Shervin and Sniechowski discuss the idea of releasing internal permission and what holds us back from doing and having and creating. They speak about what we give our heart to and why, as well as the voices we hear that make up our belief system.

Product DetailsHere in the office when we unpack the obstacles to our success  and contentment and shine the light on what gets in the way of recovery from addiction, satisfying relationships, healthy livelihoods, creative energy, we often uncover old loyalties, beliefs and ideas.  And while these may have protected us in the past and  helped us to survive, now they hinder us.

This short interview gives a good, clear and enjoyable synopsis of how this happens and how to begin to do things differently.  Have a listen and you'll see what I mean.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Status Quo - Do We Like Our Pain?

It sounds absurd on the surface.  That we would like our pain.  Like it and want it.  But sometimes below the surface, in a place we are not so directly in touch with, our pain functions somehow for us.  It may keep us feeling safe in some way, immersed in what is familiar to us.  Or attached to a person, a situation or a way of being that we don't really know how we could live without.  Sometimes, we get so accustomed to the status quo, or to our sadness, our hurt, our anger, that we tell ourselves there is no other way to feel, no other way to be or to do things.

We may even want to believe this on some level, because the idea of being or feeling differently seems so far fetched, so out of character or requiring of so much work and commitment that we just stay where we are, telling ourselves that things are what they are.

Acceptance of our feelings and of other people's character and of life on life's terms is often the starting point of healing, and of new feelings, new ideas, new ways, new hope.  But sometimes we rest on this because it's too frightening to push ourselves to go deeper and to study and be curious about how the status quo works for us.

Sometimes, in relationships, for example, keeping a status quo of fighting and resentment and animosity - real as those bad feelings and hurts are - can serve to keep us from waking up to new or sleeping parts of ourselves, or can help us remain loyal to a parent, to a past love, to some idea or philosophy we have, or to protect us from a kind of intimacy or vulnerability we are vaguely aware and frightened of.

Looking at why we hold on to the status quo can help us live more conscious lives.  Since we mostly hold on in unconscious ways, this takes some unpacking, some talking and some gentle curiosity.   We may have to look at how we back away or lash out when we are angry and what effect that has on our ability to be close.  Do we infuriate people?  Push them away? Or lead with our resentments and entitlements?  How aware are we of the effect we have?  And what effect do we want to have on our partners and on our own sense of self?

There are lots of layers, and lots of possibilities.  Sometimes we have to lean in to the practical advice of using the right words and communication skills.  Sometimes we have to shine an analytic light on the situation and dig around in our psyches to see what keeps us in feeling states and in situations that both work and don't work, and what if anything we might want to address in an effort to live and feel genuinely better.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Emotional Mountains or Mole Hills

One of the great discussions that happens here in the office is this:  how is it that what is so very important to one person can be so much less important to another?  

It seems like a no-brainer of a question really, but it pops up in all kinds of different ways when we are working out our relationship issues, our character issues and our emotional pain.   Why is it that what feels so big, so important, so meaningful to one of us, means less or packs a smaller emotional punch to another.

Some folks need more emotional connection and more emotionally packed conversations.  Others need more "quantity" time.  Some of us need a lot of contact with our family of origin, extended family or friends.  Others need more alone time,  marital time, time with the kids.  Some of us value more material things, others more spiritual. 

Some folks prioritize physical health, some emotional, some spiritual.

Some of us need a clean house, for others messier is fine.  Some of us think that cooking for a spouse is crucial;  some value gifts, remembering birthdays, anniversaries or favorite foods. 

So on the surface it all seems reasonable, rational, understandable. Workable.

Except when these things get infused with expectations, and when they become the barometer for determining  or defining our self worth or the worth of others.  And more so when they become the barometer for how much we are loved or honored or cared for in the relationship.

I'm not saying they don't matter.  They do.  It's just that differing on these things does not necessarily mean we are not loved or valued.  When we push our own priorities too far, we may be pushing other good things away as well.

We all draw our lines in the sand.  We determine how much we are willing to give and why.  How much are willing to tolerate.  We make our own terms and we decide how far we are willing to go to sacrifice our terms in order to stay with a person or in a situation. 

And sometimes we think, "if he did this, then I would do that."  Or "if she would just.....then I would...." and there is truth to this.  We do negotiate terms, but often, we view ourselves as the one who is doing all the giving.  And sometimes we are doing more or less at any given time.

I think we do better, though, when have an idea about what our emotional mountains are, and what others' are. And when we accept them, and not argue them down, or infuse our own with too much power, we have a better chance of feeling better and getting and giving more. 

Our emotional mountains and mole hills are usually what they are because of what has shaped us earlier in life, even if we are only mildly aware of it.

It's not that we should tone down what we need (though sometimes that's one right thing to work on),  or that we should not aim to honor and respect the needs of our partners, it's just that we have to consider that our mountains may be someone else's molehill and we have to work with that. They are not always a sign of love and value.  There's more too it than that.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Leading With the Anger (going in circles)

One of most common concepts that comes up here in the office for couples is this:

Leading with our anger affects the relationship. Usually negatively.  I know I've written about this before, but it bears repeating.

Here's the dilemma: If we are hurt, angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, we want a few things, usually from our partners.  We want to be understood.  We want our feelings and our opinions to be validated.  We want to be in sync with him/her.  We also, if things are super bad, want to punish, frustrate or hurt our partner.  Usually we come to this when we cannot communicate our feelings or don't feel they are received in any other way. 

And here's the problem:  When we don't get what we want - what we feel we need -  we tend to  - depending on our own individual character - lead with the anger.  Some of us explode, curse, yell, name call, bang around.  (I'm not addressing physical or emotional abuse at the moment).  Some of us retreat, ignore, avoid.  Either way, it's leading with the anger.  And it has a devastating effect on the relationship.

It seems at times like its a chicken and egg thing, meaning:  she gets hurt so she yells, so he backs away so she yells so he doesn't respond so she insults him so he ignores her so she gets more hurt so she threatens so he gets mean so she gets hurt so she gets mean back..... Or he feels disrespected and loses it and she gets hurt so she loses it so he gets hurt and feels like a failure so she nags so he gets frustrated so he yells at her so she gets hurt again so yells at him so......

You get the picture.  So where do we break out... or break in?  What do we do with the emotional pain?  How do we release our anger without damaging our relationships?  How we get understood when we feel there is no one listening?  How do we live - can we live - without being understood as much or as deeply as we feel we need to be?  How we stay in sync or with good feelings when it hurts so much, when we feel we are right?  When we believe that we have a point, more than a point and we can't seem to make headway or live with the day to day distance, fighting or fallout?  How do we feel safe, protected and good about ourselves?

One thing we can do, just to start, just to try, is to not lead with the anger.  Yes, we do have to look deeper, I do believe this.  Its never about just one thing, or just one angle and we have to be willing to take a real and longer look at ourselves and our responses.  And take good care of our anger and our pain.  But we if we lead with the anger, no matter how right we are, no matter what we believe we deserve or how much love we think is there, or what that love should mean, we are just keeping the circle going. 

We can lead with something better.  A wish, a need, a real acknowledgement of the other's feelings or perspective, a feeling, a kind word, a pause before we charge and react.  Even if we are right, even if we are hurt.  When the feelings are so deep and wide it's hard, but if we don't change what we lead with, or be open to the effect it has, no matter how right or justified we are, we will (as the 12 step folks like to say) only always get what we only always got.

Monday, April 22, 2013

More Thoughts on Fear

"We do not have to get rid of anything.  No matter how troubling, frightening, or annoying the message emanating from within us, all we have to do is perceive ourselves as separate from that toxic message and disagree with it."  And even when disagreement seems too much to ask, we can still disobey.   ...    And....

...When we move toward the fear, understanding that the fear does not need to change as we are willing to change our relationship to it, we stand up for ourselves."  ~ Thom Rutledge from Embracing Fear

I couldn't choose which quote to bring you (as is often the case with me) so I am bringing you both.  Truth is, there were more than a few nuggets in Thom Rutledge's book Embracing Fear.  And since today someone said to me "I am anxious.  And I am anxious about being anxious, "  I thought it was a good time to write about fear once more. 

Since fear is often the driver, we can find so much hope in looking at our fears.  And since fear is often lurking underneath anger and hurt and frustration, we are doing ourselves a deep disservice if we don't face it.  I am not talking, of course, about rational fear - a lion in the parking lot.  I am talking about deep fear.  Fear of being alone, of not mattering, of making mistakes, of being helpless or worthless or terrible or left.  Of not being able to care for ourselves or meet our basic needs.

We all have these fears.  They are human.  They may take different shapes, speak in different voices within each of us.  When we unpack them, face them and answer them, we often find enormous relief.  Even when they are masquerading around as rational, if we shine the light on them we can talk back, plan, pray and make progress.  They do not have to control us.  Strong as they can feel, they are not facts.  And to Thom Rutledge's point, we do not have to get rid of them. Which is a relief, because even though they may go away, getting rid of them may not be possible.  What is possible though, and so full of hope is that we can get to know them and face them.  We can reduce their hold on us.

Many folks tell me that they believe that the fear is keeping them safe.  If they are afraid, they will stay vigilant.  And then nothing bad will really, actually happen.  It never ceases to impress me how much fear means to us, and how we defend it to ourselves, believing we don't really have to deal with it.  Believing we can control outcomes with it.

I am equally impressed with how quiet irrational fear can be and how we can be operating under its influence and not even know it.  I am so hopeful when I remember that the work is do-able.  When we are feeling angry, cranky, off kilter, edgy, explosive, fear is often hiding somewhere underneath, and our task is not to fight it off, but to let it breath and diminish it's power.

I've often written about the value of looking at what has shaped us, what has informed the voices that we use to talk to ourselves, and to look at what has protected us as children and whether or not that is working for us now.  Fear is part and parcel of this work, of our path toward a healthy and well core and spiritually fit inner life.  When we study our fears and respond  differently to them, we are doing that work of creating a better inner world.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Allowing Our Minds to Open Up

"To win without risk is to triumph without glory" ~ Pierre Corneille

Someone reminded me of the above quote recently and we got to talking about winning in the psychic and spiritual sense: victory over our fears, doubts and negativity.  And the internal glory of a positive emotionally healthy life.

I have often written about practicing the ability to bear discomfort.  And practicing the ability to feel our feelings without self attack, without  hurting our bodies, our spirit and our relationships.  I have written about the importance of developing resiliency through emotional pain and that how we respond can make all the difference in our inner and our external worlds.  When we risk and win here, we do triumph with glory, in ways that quiet and true.

When we are in emotional pain, in transition in our lives, or we have become used to living with a certain combination of internal pressure and mindless survival,  we can lose sight of the idea that there is a better way to function, a better way to live.

People often come to therapy during a time of crisis or transition.  Sometimes for support, sometimes to unpack the pain and get curious about what has led to it, contributed to it and how to get relief.
There is always a process of course, unique and individual, but I think that the real change happens when we risk allowing our minds to be open not just to how we are feeling and the human nature of our character , but to what we can and are willing to do  to shift how we think.

For many folks, negative fear based thinking is a default setting because they have needed it to survive, to protect themselves from difficult circumstances.  For others it's what was modeled for them early in life.  There comes a time, though, when what seemed to have helped us cope in the past, no longer serves us well.  Shifting our thinking can feel risky emotionally, but the benefits are many.

The risk then includes not just practicing the ability to bear discomfort, but practicing the ability to bear comfort.  We have to get used to the idea that it's okay to be okay.  That when the crisis passes, when the transition is fading into a new normal, we may feel somewhat better but we still have work to do.  There is more to be won.

And that work is to continue our self discovery, to find out what lights us up, what opens us up to creativity and meaning and a life well lived.

(Radu Razvan Gheorghe | Dreamstime Stock Photos photo credit)

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Is Your Mind Undermining Your Marriage?

What comes up a lot here in the office when we are talking about marriage and relationships, in addition to the pain, the joy, the hope, and all the real communication (both verbal and physical) stuff is this:  What we tell ourselves often has an impact on how we negotiate building a life with someone. 
Where does your mind go? Take my brief quiz:

Husband comes home late, does not call to say he will be late.
Wife Thinks:
A) He is an inconsiderate creep who puts everyone else before me.
B) He does not really love me (I am not that important to him).
     B.Part 2:  I am therefor not lovable and am worthless
C) He probably has no idea how much I'd like a call, I'll have to let him know again how happy it makes me when he remembers.

Wife calls husband a lot during the day and then complains that he does not care about her:
Husband Thinks:
A) She is too needy, and does not support my work.
B) I am constantly disappointing her.  Why do I bother?
     B Part 2:  There is no way to please her.  I am failing at this.  Maybe I really am incompetent.
C) She must need more of a connect with me, which is fine, and I'll have to help her to know I'm thinking about her and am with her, but that talking a lot during the day makes it hard to concentrate on my work, which is part of how I see myself taking care of her and the relationship.

Husband wants to spend some time with the guys.
Wife Thinks:
A) He is clueless, inconsiderate and does not know how to love.
B) I get it, but deep down I know that others are more important to him than I am.  He is not putting any effort into us, he'd rather be doing other things.
     B Part 2:  I am not good enough.  Because I feel so lonely I'm pathetic.
C)  Good, all couples need some friend time.  It's good for the relationship.  Hope he has a blast.  Wonder if I can encourage him to tell me about it.

Wife does not like to cook meals too often.
Husband thinks:
A) She is lazy, not interested in my needs or feelings
B) I can't get her to step up.  She only yells and complains all the time anyway.
     B Part 2:  I don't deserve happiness.  It is what it is.  I guess I just have to suck it up.
C)  She does a lot of great stuff for me and puts in a lot of good effort.   I wonder what can I do to bring us closer and encourage her to cook more.

So okay, it's not always this simple.  And if we are struggling with old resentments, philosophical differences, it feels like a big mountain to climb. But still, the little things are not so little and they add up and create a culture within the relationship. 
So how our minds work really matters.   Our feelings matter.  They need to be unpacked and understood.  If we want to have close, happy relationships we need to work on how and why we see and experience things the way we do.  Looking at our minds does not mean that we are wrong or that the other person does not need to step up or join in the work.  But sometimes we do have to be curious about how and why we have come to think about things and the effect that has on our words our actions and on our lives, our relationships and on what we really want.

And just as PS, check out this article on feeling appreciated and women and divorce.  (Folks often bristle when I bring up the idea that expressing gratitude on a regular and repeated basis is crucial to a relationship - even for the basics and day to day stuff.  It creates a better culture, among other things.  Yes, its hard to do when you are hurting and angry and frustrated, but it is one part of making things better.)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Less is More Sometimes (More or less anyway)

Often when we are struggling with relationships, with career issues, mood issues, we start to think that more would be better.   And sometimes it is.  We can sometimes have more.  And in fact in therapy having more is often a goal or a theme to explore.  But more of what is really the question.  Because we can't always have more of everything.  Some things, if we have more of them,  create more problems, more issues, more pain, more conflict.  Other things, though, we can have more of.  And these are most often the things that we should really be striving for.  Like more serenity, more inner peace, more humility, more satisfaction with our sense of self, our relationships, our jobs, our environment.
A friend of mine recently told me that her 12 step sponsor told her that her life seems to sometimes be a combination of Peter Pan and Eeyore.  Part "I don't want to grow up" and part "Poor me."  I asked her if she was offended by this observation.  And surprisingly she said not.  She told me that she thought her sponsor had a point.  That she has often approached life this way, wishing that she did not have to take care of herself, do her part in her relationships, consider other people's needs, points of view and  foibles.  And that she often does lapse into self pity, thinking that everyone else has it better, comparing her insides to other people's outsides (often with a lot of help from Facebook). 

We talked a lot about how those parts of her are not the only facts, not the only parts of her.  She is also funny and kind, generous and a great listener.  She is quite a good photographer and talented graphic artist.  Sometimes we and others can tend to focus only our (and other's) pathologies and not also account for the rest of our parts. 

Still, my friend felt helped by her sponsor's honesty and candid comments.  She felt that by accepting all the parts of her self, she could begin in real earnestness to have more.  Not necessarily more spouses, or lovers or hobbies, jobs or money- though we do sometimes need to assess whether a change in relationship or job or living environment may be the way to go-   but more peace, more insight, more joy, more attention to her spirit, and more ease and more relief.   And because less is more sometimes: less self pity, less self attack, less reliance on others for too many of her emotional needs.

And somehow we got to thinking that it's first things first sometimes.  It may be better to have a better internal life first rather than attempting to change our boss, spouse, kids.  When we have more inside, it's much easier to figure out if, when  and how we need to have more outside.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Heart of the Matter

A friend of mine had a root canal last week.  She was in a good bit of pain, but the procedure went smoothly and now she is feeling much better.  We got to talking though, about how much she wished emotional pain could be like a tooth ache.  We could feel it hurting and then get numb and have the source of the pain pulled out by the roots.  Emotional surgery. And then afterwards, we get to feel much better pretty much right away. 

The ache becoming a distant memory.

But it doesn't seem to work that way with feelings.  At least not all the time, and not the heavy ones. And after we talked it up a bit, we thought maybe we would be short changing ourselves anyway if it were possible to just dig out the hurt and move on.  We would miss out on all the information the pain gives us about what we need, what's important to us and what it means to be mindful in our own hearts and minds and bodies.  And all the info we get about our ability to survive and thrive and grow.

I'm not saying we should stay in the pain all the time, certainly we need relief, but since we can't do a root canal on our emotions, we can give ourselves a chance to get to the heart of the matter.  It  is not always possible to know exactly what we are feeling, what hurts, when we are in a painful moment, or a crisis.  Sometimes we have to take a step back, pull apart the different pieces, examine them and figure out what feelings make up the bad feelings.  From there we can see what our part in things is, how to move forward, how to deal well and in ways that leave us feeling resilient and steady, instead of off kilter and frustrated.

I used to be able to use the image of a typewriter, but it only works if you remember using one and what would happen if you pressed down on all the keys together.  So if you do, it's this: They would jam, and then in order to start working again, you'd have to pull each key back one at a time.  So this is how I think of emotional pain sometimes, like a jam.  And we have take the time to pull each key, each feeling out and take a look, and then we can get to the heart of the matter and get moving again.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why Me?

I know I've touched on this before.... but I think it's worth repeating. 

One of the most amazing and simple options (though definitely not easy) we have - especially when we are hurting, angry, frustrated, hopeless - is to ask questions.  To get interested and curious.

Questions are a good relationship tool, as well as a good trick for helping us to understand ourselves better.

Often, we ask all the right questions, but we ask them without really stopping to ask them for real.
For example, "Why me?"  "What's wrong with you?"  "What's the matter with me?"  "Why doesn't s/he pay better attention to me?"  "Why did this happen to me?"  "Why does this keep happening to me?"  "What do you want from me?"  "Why can't you just do what I need you to do?"

I could go on and on with examples.  But the point is this. Usually when we ask these questions of our partners or of ourselves, we ask with a tone of fury or attack.  Self attack or attack of our partners.  The same is true when others ask it of us.  And tone usually reflects lots of hot feelings that are important and need to get aired and sorted out. 

But it's sad in a way, because when we ask them with an attack tone, things get can get much worse. And when we stop there, and just ask the questions as if they are only expressions of our pain, we miss out on the best and most promising part.  These questions, when asked with gentleness, sincerity and openness and a willingness to really understand our underlying fears and motivations and defenses and needs, and those of our partners, lead to much better everything.  Better communication, better love, better grace all around.

Just the pause and the right kind of tone and question can give our partner and our own self a feeling of being heard, validated, listened to, joined, loved.  We don't have to agree; we just have to be willing to be curious before being explaining or arguing.  We have to be willing to pause long enough for the muck to get sorted through and more layers revealed. 

It's hard when we feel wronged or deprived.  And we don't really do it so naturally.  We have to practice.  To help ourselves to want to be open and curious about different levels of understanding our psyches and our partner's psyches.  To not be tied always to our worst beliefs about them or about ourselves.  But if we don't allow for a new way of approaching things, where else is there to go?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Building or Breaking

"It seems like you are offering me everything yet giving me nothing."  ~  anonymous....

But when I heard this sentiment, it resonated with me because it is the emotional experience of many of the men and women I work with who are in relationships that feel unsatisfying, difficult or frustrating.  It reflects the  sensation that comes along with feeling minimized, compartmentalized, or unappreciated.  And disconnected emotionally.

Many people experience this feeling in many of their relationships.  Others, only in their primary one.  Men will often tell me that they feel that their wife is capable of tuning into their partnership needs - for a well run home, good feelings, support, sex, food, companionship - but that they don't feel she shows up really, that she gets caught up in her own feelings and needs and does not deliver for him.  That while she takes care of the kids or the house in some ways, she does not really give him the idea that he is successful, useful and appreciated and that she wants to partner with him.

Women say the same thing, but in a different way.  That they believe their husbands could call more, talk more, pitch in more, care more, love more, pay attention better but that they don't really step up.  Somehow they think they are showing up by earning money (and they are), or pitching in now and then, or what seems like now and then only.  But it does feel like enough, and that they are focused more on their own needs for an uninterrupted work life, some guy time, or down time, not on her need for emotional connection.

The pain picks up when the focus becomes what we don't get, what we don't have and when the feelings of being unappreciated, over burdened and misunderstood get maximized and the feelings of what we do have, what we do get become minimized.

We can most always benefit by studying how our own histories in our own earlier lives have shaped our emotional receptors, and we can most always benefit from tuning into the idea that when we get further and further into the feeling of being offered everything but being given nothing that we can begin to break our relationships and our partner instead of building them.

When the feelings get too big, too hot, too painful, it's hard to refocus on how to build.  We forget that it's even possible.  That there are positives, and that most likely we do get, and sometimes more that we think we do, more than we feel it.  And that it is possible to have and feel more and better if we take a good serious look at how react to what we feel, and what we believe and why.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Is This the New Definition of Marriage?

Last May a favorite Aunt of mine passed away, just after her 60th wedding anniversary.  I had the opportunity to spend some time with her before she died.  I asked her what she thought the secret was to such a long and resilient marriage.   Of course many have answered this question in many different ways, (and for some New Year's comic relief, check this out).  But my Auntie told me that if she had to narrow it down to one or two things, it would be that she and her husband were never mean to each other even when they felt like being mean to each other, and that when they had a big disagreement (which they often did) they would get into the car and drive to the parking lot of the local library and talk until they came to some compromise.

It can't (and most often is not) be that simple.  I have been asking around a bit lately to learn what people believe is the new or current (if there is one) definition of what marriage is (not what it should be, or what you'd like it to be, though that certainly counts) but what does it seem to be these days.

One answer I got was this:  "Marriage today in America is two people who reside together without much or any sex, very little emotional connection and a lot of unexpressed or badly expressed frustrations and disappointments, who go through the motions because some part of them does not want to be totally alone, leave the kids, have to rework the finances or the living arrangements and cannot really fathom how something different would come to be.  At least after awhile that's what it becomes."

How sad is that, I was thinking.  And yet I know it to be true for a lot of folks, in varying degrees.  But I would like to think that we have not accepted that definition as a given.  I would like to think, and I do, that we can have something different, something enduring and meaningful and connective.  True and satisfying love and partnership.

We do not have to accept the above definition of what of marriage is.  And while I think that many folks have, perhaps, unrealistic expectations of marriage at times, I think we can have better inner lives, better marriages and some real syncranicity between the two.  We do have to keep tending to our emotional health, because if we don't, then we may very well be defining our inner lives poorly as well.

I'm not necessarily a New Year's Resolution kind of person, but it is a time for reflection and perhaps redefinition of our selves and I think, yet another opportunity to expand our choices and move forward.