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Be kind to yourself — blaming, shaming and criticizing never help

Be kind to yourself

When Grace entered individual therapy as an adult, she told me a story that dated back to her first day of kindergarten:
She had felt terrified that morning. The classroom was so big. The teacher was so stern. Grace’s mother understood and tried to offer comfort. But already the teacher seemed out of patience. She didn’t want the parents to linger, and she asked Grace’s mother to leave.

Then the teacher turned to Grace, who was in tears.

“You need to stop crying. Pull yourself together. Your mom will be back later. Don’t be such a crybaby!”

Grace felt sad most of the day. She would cry any time she thought about her mother.

With the passage of time, Grace learned to hide her fears. She told herself, “You are too sensitive, you cry too much, you do not know what you want, you are not good enough.”

The voice of self-doubt and self-criticism became more and more entrenched in her mind. Even as an adult, she held onto these internal voices. During our session, she told me she is afraid of change, and she is afraid of stagnation. At work, her inner voice, her negative self-evaluation plays in her mind constantly.

But she can’t see that she is hurting herself with all that negativity. Instead, she thinks that if she’s really hard on herself, she will become that wonderful person she is meant to be.

Steven has similar issues. As a child, his parents often compared him to his older brother. They believed the competition would be good for Steven — that it would toughen him up, prepare him for the real world. But Steven kept falling behind in school. He was afraid that he couldn’t ever measure up to his brother, that he would always disappoint his parents. The more they pushed, the more he retreated. Finally he spent most of his time playing video games

Research shows that self-criticism doesn’t help, it hurts. Instead of inspiring or motivating, all that blaming and shaming leaves people threatened, demoralized and unable to act.

In my office while listening to Grace and Steven, I sometimes feel the urge to reach out to them and remind them to be kind to themselves. Yes indeed, we all have our limits, we make mistakes, take the wrong turn and fail sometimes. However, we need to counter the critical voices with self-love and self-compassion.

Kristen Neff and her colleagues at the University of Texas have been researching the concept of self-compassion for years. Neff believes that by practicing self-compassion, we can break the patterns of self-criticism. Breaking from self-criticism does not not mean we do not feel painful feelings anymore or that we do not worry about our actions or ask for feedback from others.

It just means that when we are struggling, when we feel incompetent or scared, we stop blaming and judging.

We can’t always be what we expect ourselves to be. Or what others expect us to be. Failing, getting rejected, getting sick are all parts of life and parts of suffering. When we fight this reality, we suffer even more. How much better it would be if we could embrace ourselves even in the hardest of times and practice self-compassion.

Neff writes, “The very definition of being ‘human’ means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone.”

From the vantage point of my office, I am pleased to see Grace and Steven practicing self-compassion. They’re finding the motivation, self-confidence and resilience that they’ve sought all their lives is finally within reach.

How can you practice more self-compassion? Neff offers these suggestions:

  • Instead of blaming and shaming yourself if you haven’t met a particular goal, try to imagine what a supportive and encouraging friend would say to you instead. Write the words down, and look at them every day.
  • Keep a journal for a week and write down the incidents that have caused you pain and anxiety. How did you react? Did you beat yourself up? Did you blame yourself? Now try talking to yourself in a kinder and more compassionate way.
  • Create a self-compassion mantra. When you start tearing yourself down, think of words that will help you regain your confidence. For example, “I can do this,” or, “I’m in a hole now, but I know I can dig myself out.”

Now that you’re prepped and ready to take on the world, listen to Neff’s TED talk, “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion.”

Here’s the link:

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Don’t let betrayal poison your marriage


Julie and Eric were just work friends, but they started eating lunch together in the office cafeteria. Julie loved talking to Eric. He was a great listener, and he gave her excellent work advice, too.  Over time, Julie started comparing Eric to her own husband, Paul, who didnt seem nearly as interesting or attentive. Eric started comparing Julie to his wife, Joy. Julie seemed much nicer. Before long, Eric and Julie were confiding in each other about their own, stagnant marriages. They were more absorbed in each other than their life partners.

Last month we talked about trust. This month let’s tackle a topic that is even harder for most couples   betrayal.

Distrust and betrayal are not the same; they’re not even related. Betrayal is about lying, deceit, affairs, secrets,  siding with a family member against your partner and/or comparing your partner to someone else.

Psychologist John Gottman, who has done research on both distrust and betrayal, describes betrayal as more than just turning away from your partner’s needs. There’s also an element of contempt, an attitude that sounds like, “I can do better than you.” Or, “Why am I always dealing with the same old thing?” 

Once you start thinking that you can do better than your current partner,  you begin a downward spiral.

You’re not  committing to the relationship. You’re not focusing on the positive but the negative. You’re feeling resentment, not appreciation. Instead of trying to strengthen your bonds, youre letting them disintegrate.

No one is perfectly happy in a relationship all the time. Sometimes it’s easy to feel restless or long for a change. But, if you want to preserve your marriage over time, it is important to find ways to stop these kind of betrayals.

What to do to save the marriage?

  1. Stop the deceptions. Reveal your true needs, even if the conversation may be unpleasant or cause conflict. 
  2. Speak to your partner in a way that he or she can really hear you. Don’t whine. Don’t nag. Don’t threaten or accuse. 
  3. Share your feelings rather than describing your partner’s deficiencies.
  4. Be specific. Describe what is not working for you.

After a few sessions in therapy, Julie found the courage to talk openly with Paul. She practiced a gentle way to tell him about her recent struggle.

She let him know that she has been feeling lonely. She told him that when he is consumed with work or constantly checking his email or stocks, she feels unimportant to him, and that hurts. She shared her desire to talk about the events of the day, and she said she needs Paul to respond with interest and affection.

Paul was so responsive to what she said, Julie felt she could tell him what he really needed to know —  their marriage was in danger because she had been spending time with Eric.

That was hard for Paul to hear. He was angry and also fearful of losing his wife, whom he loved.   

But both Julie and Paul soon realized the time they spent working on their relationship was well worth it. Their marriage has a chance now that theyre having open, genuine and authentic conversations.

With love,


Editor’s note: All of the couples mentioned in this blog are purely fictional, but they illustrate some of the problems shared by my clients over the years.

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Do you trust the one you love? 


Few couples would dream of saying they don’t trust each other.

And yet, it’s the No. 1 issue I see in my office. Most arguments, at their core, are about trust.

It sounds like this:

  • Can I trust you to choose me over your mother?
  • Can I trust you to choose me over your friends?
  • Can I trust you to respect me? Or to help with the housework? Or the kids?
  • Can I trust you to choose me over addiction?
  • Can I trust you not to betray me sexually?
  • Can I trust you not to betray me financially?
  • Can I trust you to accept me for who I am?
  • Are you going to be there for me? Do you have my back?
  • Are you thinking of my welfare?

These are all tough questions. If the answers are yes, you and your partner are building trust every day. And you may not think about how you’re doing it, but here’s what the research shows: 

Trust is built in small moments, bit by bit. Even the smallest interactions are opportunities to build — or destroy —  trust. 

Here’s  an example from my life:

The other night, I was  looking forward to watching my favorite TV program. I wanted to see what had happened after a break-up between two characters the week before.  I had just settled in front of the television with a cup of hot tea when I got a glimpse of my husband, who was reading an email on his phone.  His expression had changed. Suddenly he was sad, preoccupied, in distress.

This was a moment of decision for me. Do I practice building trust or do I act like I did not notice that something was wrong?  Do I ask, “What’s the matter, my love,” or do I start watching my program?

Trying to follow my own advice (reluctantly!), I turned off the TV and gave my husband my full attention.  If I had  ignored him, this one incident was not going to destroy his trust in me. However, an accumulation of missed opportunities would damage our relationship.

It’s easy, I know from the many arguments that I’ve heard in my office, to blame someone else for the breakdown of trust. But sometimes, self-examination is in order. 

Ask yourself: Do you know how to show up emotionally for the other? If you don’t trust yourself to do that, instead of turning towards your partner in times of stress, you might simply shut down and turn away.

Here’s an exercise to try:

Make note of your own feelings when you partner is turning to you and expressing emotions. How do you react when your partner needs you? 

Do you drop what you’re doing and make yourself available?

Do you tense up? Do you look away? Do you reach for your phone? Or do you face him or her and offer your full attention? 

Spend some time observing  your reactions. And try to discuss them with your partner.

If you have trust issues in your relationship, psychologist John Gottman offers help folded into the acronym, ATTUNE. Just practice his formula:

Awareness of the emotion your partner is showing,
Turning toward this emotion
Non- defensive responding

Remember that hearing someone and being there emotionally is the most important gift you can give anyone you love.

With love,


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Let’s rethink the dances and patterns that trip us up


A baby screeches, arches her back and waves her little fists indignantly. Her mother is ignoring her, and she will do anything to get her mom to reconnect.

A young woman glares at her significant other, not understanding why he seems so remote, so uncaring. She nags, she screams, finally she breaks down in tears. She desperately wants him to respond.

Is there any connection between these two scenarios? 

Absolutely. As relationship experts Sue Johnson and Ed Tronick explain in this wonderful YouTube video:

Patterns of distress are very much the same, regardless of age. One person is asking for closeness. The other fails to respond. And trouble ensues. 

So many of us are not aware of this dance, this pattern in which we get stuck.

In the words of Sue Johnson: We can, with the help of science, understand love and loving. And what we understand we can, with delicious deliberation, shape.

Enjoy the video, and try to think about the dances and patterns that trip you up.

With love,


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When New Year’s resolutions take a tumble, remember three little words


Most of us start the New Year with the hope of making changes — to exercise regularly, lose weight, be more productive, be closer to the ones we love, etc. These resolutions usually last for few days or maybe few weeks before they are forgotten. Have yours been forgotten already? Have you ever wondered why that is?

Habits! They have an eternal appeal because they remove the element of choice, but they are often hard to develop or change.

Charles Duhigg, author of the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Businesssays that 40% of the actions people perform each day aren’t actual decisions but habits. And habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. 

Duhigg recommends trying the three-step habit loop for a week to create a new habit.  He describes it as cue, routine, reward. 

  1. The cues are triggers that tell your brain to engage.Time, location, environmental factors, even emotions can be cues.
  2. The routines are physical, emotional or mental behaviors that you want to become a habit. 
  3. The rewards help your brain register — this habit is worth remembering.

For example, when the bell rings (cue), I will study (routine) because it provides me with good grades (reward).

One my clients, Alice, is a writer, and she tried Duhigg’s habit loop to get into the habit of limiting distractions from emails and the Internet while working. She wrote down her plan and put it right above her desk. It read:

After I make tea at 11 a.m., I will go online and check my email because it provides me with an opportunity to chat with my friend.

In her plan you will notice that to break herself of an old habit (being distracted by the Internet), she had to find out a way implement a healthier routine. And, it provided  a similar reward, which was chatting with her friend.

Alice began her morning by writing for two hours, and she stayed off the Internet. At 11 a.m. she made herself tea (her cue!) and got online and checked her email and  social media (routine). After sticking to the routine for three days, she arranged to see a friend for coffee (a treat!). By the end of the week she was feeling calm and productive. She felt in harmony with her new schedule. 

Let me give you an another example from what I observe commonly in relationships.

When Susie starts nagging (cue), Bill’s brain goes into automatic mode (routine). He recognizes that they have had similar fights many times before. Bill’s routine response is to defend himself and try to prove how unfair Susie’s accusations are. In turn, Susie’s routine response is to insist that Bill is missing the point. Their conversation spirals down a very predictable path. This way of relating has become a habit. At the end, they both feel frustrated and stop interacting. The reward is that  the fight stops, yes that is true, but their relationship grows more distant with each argument.

Learning to look for the three-step habit loop in our every day life helps us deal with relationships better.

If you want to get rid of a bad habit, you have to find out how to implement a healthier routine to yield the same reward. Susie and Bill had to learn new habits to break the argumentative routine they were stuck in. In therapy, they came to understand the emotions that kept driving those negative habits.

Once the habit loop has been reworked,  we need to believe we can make it a permanent change. “For a habit to stay changed, people must believe that change is possible.” says Duhigg.

Habits aren’t destiny. Using the three-step habit loop and surrounding ourselves with positive reinforcements, we can transform our lives.

Good luck!



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What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness


What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life?

If you think it’s fame and money, you’re not alone but, according to psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, you’re mistaken. As the director of a 75-year-long study on adult development, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction. In this talk, he shares three important lessons learned from the study about how to build a fulfilling life.

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Try something new this holiday season

holiday season

There is no better place for me to find inspiration than in my office, where I have the privilege of listening to my clients. This time of year, the common conversation threads have to do with the holidays and having too much, yet not enough.

What is too much this holiday season?

The list will sound familiar  too much traffic, too many gifts to buy and receive, too much food to make and consume, all in all, too much. 

What is not enough this holiday season?

This list will sound familiar, also — there’s not enough time, not enough love, not enough being, resting, mattering, connecting.

We all long for those moments, and yet we make sure they do not happen. Believe me, I don’t just mean you — I am definitely including myself in that struggle. We over plan and over schedule, and we do not ask for help or for the things we want and need.

Take Bill and Susan, for example. Once again Bill missed buying his wife a gift. He knew the problem; he didn’t know what would please her. Was Susan understanding of his confusion? No, she was angry. Why does she shop for everyone yet no one shops for her? This year, she vowed, she’d make sure Bill knew what it felt like not to matter. 

Sam and Mandy, however, are a different story. This year they decided they will create their own traditions and share with each other what they always missed growing up. Mandy  wanted to know that Sam would go shopping for HER, and he agreed. But first, she gave him a list so that he could succeed at getting her what she wanted. This holiday season they will cook a meal together, one they consider festive and elegant. They will invite the people they love to join them. Sam and Mandy are making the holidays work for them.

Most of us will do a bit better than Bill and Susan this season, but not as well as Sam and Mandy. Maybe the holidays will dredge up unpleasant memories. Maybe we will have to spend time with relatives who we usually spend the whole year trying to  avoid.

Here is the advice I will try to follow this holiday season: Set boundaries. Say no. Keep it simple. Accept that some holiday gatherings will be less than perfect, that there will be family tensions and over-cooked meals.

When you feel disappointed or down, share those feelings with someone who will listen and support you. There is nothing shameful about struggling this complicated time of year.

And finally, be gentle with yourself. I guarantee it will improve the holidays and the new year.

Thank you to all of you who have been reading my blog, and happy holidays to all of you. 



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Forgiving others is the gift you give yourself

Forgiving others

If I were to ask my readers to raise their hands if they have ever found themselves NOT on speaking terms with a friend, a relative, a sibling or an ex, I bet a high percentage would wave their hands.

Unfortunately it is common to feel betrayed, hurt or violated in one way or another by the very people we are supposed to be able to count on for protection, love and support.

Celebrities and political and religious leaders often end up disappointing us and betraying our trust as well. Some of them try to ask for forgiveness publicly, but they sound self-serving and more focused on salvaging their own social standing than truly making amends.

Still, there are times when we really do want to forgive the person who has hurt us, but we’re not sure how to handle our conflicting feelings. How do we do that hard work? How do we find peace and healing after such betrayal and disappointment?

I recommend these 10 steps for forgiving others:

  1. Talk it out first with someone you trust. Explain exactly what happened and why you feel hurt and betrayed.
  2. Promise that you will take care of your hurt. Do what is necessary to feel better. In other words, forgiveness is for your benefit, not for anyone else’s.
  3. Remember that the goal of forgiveness is to find peace. You want to re-write the story so that it is less personal and less hurtful.
  4. Also remember that forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person who hurt you.
  5. Often times the hurt that was done may have passed, but what persists are the feelings, the stories we tell ourselves internally, our physical reactions. The hurt might have happened many months or even years ago. Forgiveness is healing from these feelings that seem to color how we see our lives and how we see ourselves.
  6. Every time the hurt and upset feelings come up, be gentle with yourself. Practice self-compassion.
  7. If someone is not able to give you what you want, lower your expectations and accept the limitations of the situation.
  8. Seek those needs in other relationships. Instead of continuing to play the hurt over and over in your mind, focus your energy on people who can help you get your positive goals met.
  9. Forgiveness is about personal power. A life well lived is the best resolution. Look for beauty and kindness all around you.
  10. Re-writing the story of the hurt is a courageous choice that only you can make.

Research on forgiveness from Stanford University shows that people who practice forgiveness improve their mental and physical health. Forgiveness also bolsters feelings of self-confidence and peace and fosters more positive relationships. In my work I am able to see the relief and joy that seems to fill people’s hearts every time they give themselves the gift of forgiveness.

With love

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Ready to end the same tired, dead-end fights? It may not be as hard as you think.

When I meet with new couples, they usually know the topics that trigger arguments:

In-laws. Money. Kids. Housework.

What they don’t know is why  both parties get hurt time and time again.  

I often hear men say: “I don’t want to say how I feel because I know it will upset her, and then we stop talking for hours and sometimes days.”

Women share: “If I tell him how I feel, he usually wants to fix it for me, and I really do not want things fixed. I want him to understand me.”  

Both end up feeling disconnected, distant, frustrated — as if they’ve lost their best friend.  And that, really, is the problem.

According to the latest research,  human beings are wired to form a few precious bonds with others in order to thrive. When we know a few special people are looking out for us, we are healthier and happier.

When we lose those secure connections with our most important other, however, that triggers a special kind of alarm system in our brains. What happens next is the the familiar “fight, flight or freeze” response.

What I’ve learned from years of training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy or EFT is that couples don’t need to learn how to argue better or more persuasively. Instead, all of us have to recognize that we are emotionally attached and dependent on our partners, the same way children rely on their parents for survival and comfort.

In years past, therapists used to teach couples how to better communicate or how to negotiate and divide tasks fairly. This was known as behavior exchange or, “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” The techniques were helpful for a while, then couples found themselves in the same old ruts again.

It is more helpful, I think, to help couples strengthen the emotional bond between them. They’re not children anymore, but they still need  partners who will offer support, comfort and reliability. My goal, and the goal of EFT, is to help couples improve their relationships by being emotionally open, attentive, attuned and present. As a bonus, they can say goodbye to hurtful, dead-end fights.

With love,


P.S. If you’d like to learn more, please visit the new Houston Community for EFT website,

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The New Frontier of Sex and Intimacy by Dr Sue Johnson

Sex and Intimacy

Instead of reading my blog this month, I hope you’ll watch the TED Talk on sex and intimacy by my mentor and friend, Dr. Sue Johnson.

But before you reach for your earbuds, here are some points that she makes that may surprise, intrigue or simply confirm some of your long-held beliefs: 

  • Passion is a longing for connection twined with safety that allows you to enjoy erotic play.
  • The best sex is between securely attached people who read each other’s cues.
  • Women need to feel safe before they can descend into arousal.
  • How couples connect emotionally is also how they connect sexually.
  • Now, you’re ready to enjoy the TED talk!

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