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.
“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.
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
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.
Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvtZBUSplr4Read More
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 didn’t 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.
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?”
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, you’re 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.
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 they’re having open, genuine and authentic conversations.
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.Read More
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:
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
Charles Duhigg, author of the book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, says 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.Read More
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
P.S. If you’d like to learn more, please visit the new Houston Community for EFT website, http://www.HCEFT.comRead More
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: