Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why Aren't We Sleeping?

I ran across a cute article in last Sunday's New York Times called "Bedtime Stories" that got me thinking of all the concerns we have around getting a good night's sleep. So many of us aren't sleeping well. I always ask my patients how they are sleeping, because it can be an indicator of anxiety or depression. If you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or don't wake up feeling rested in the morning, it can mean something is wrong. Sleeping too much, or hypersomnia, or too little, insomnia, can also be cause for concern.

Almost everybody does better with a sleep routine. Try to go to sleep and wake up at about the same time every day if you can. When I am working with families with school-age children, I encourage the parents to set bedtimes. Since school will start again in the next month or so, I like parents to reset the bedtime for school a week or so ahead to give children time to adjust their sleep cycle. Children do well with bedtime routines like bathtime, storytime, cuddling, prayers, lights out. Be sure to rotate Mom and Dad into the routine, so children learn bedtime is an equal opportunity for bonding. Parents need to agree on the bedtime so we have adult time after that.

Most adults I know need to wind down to bedtime. Watch the caffeine after mid-day. Limit the exercise late at night, which can be activating. Consider the environment in your bedroom as well. It needs to be a pleasant temperature, a soothing color scheme, and free of clutter, toys, or work gear, like computers. If you are in close confines, like a dorm room, clear your desk as much as you can so it is not in your line of sight as you try to sleep.If you go to sleep and can't fall asleep after 15-20 minutes, get back up, and go into another room to read until you feel tired. Then go back to your bedroom to sleep. We don't want your unconscious mind to associate your bedroom with tossing and turning.

Some years back I enjoyed hearing Boston psychoanalyst and writer Thomas Moore, who wrote Care of the Soul, speak about the bedrooms couples sleep in. Moore considers the master bedroom sacred space, and encourages couples to revere it, be mindful of protecting it for you as a couple, and not making it a workspace or family gathering area. Make your bedroom your sanctuary.

Children are wonderful, but not after 9pm, and not in their parents' bedroom, please. Apparently Brad and Angelina disagree with me on this one, but I saw in a recent interview that she admits they are both exhausted. I want children to begin to feel capable of self-soothing and sleeping on their own---or with a sibling---but not needing to sleep with Mom and Dad. I am trained as a structural family therapist, and I like some boundaries and happy, well-rested parents. Single parents often feel vulnerable and can be too willing to have a child sleep with them. Not good for your child, and what happens if you remarry later?

I prefer that couples sleep together. The New York Times article this week spotted a new trend for couples to sleep separately, but most researchers agree this is not healthy or best for most couples. Why would you want to miss spending the last few minutes of the day together? Sometimes there are medical issues like snoring, sleep apnea machines, or medically-required sleep postioning which complicate your ability to sleep all night in the same room, but being aggressive and creative in finding solutions is important to keeping couples close. At times I work with couples who need different amounts of sleep. Thinking creatively together about how you can cuddle before the first partner drifts off to sleep, or having the early riser come back to bed a while later, is all it takes to meet in the middle.

Think also about the choreography of your evening routine. Doing peaceful, calming activities before bed, like listening to calming music, or giving your partner a backrub, are much better for your falling asleep easily. Inviting the 11:00 news into your bedroom and falling asleep to your subconscious focusing on the BP oil spill is a recipe for a difficult night's sleep. Children also love to have parents massage their worries out of their backs or shoulders at bedtime. Even for a few minutes. Wind down from focused activities, computer work, e-mail and financial paperwork at least an hour before bed as well.

Keep paper and a pen by your bedside table. We all dream every night, but the dream material slips away if you don't catch it right away and note the images down. Dreams can be a powerful tool to understanding more about what is going on for you at a subconscious level.

There are lots of reasons people don't sleep well. Before you ask your doctor for medication, which can be addictive, it is essential to establish these good sleep patterns and see if that will help. Understanding your natural sleep cycle, and what you can do to help yourself, is good self-care in this part of your life. Speaking of which, it is late tonight, and I am off to dreamland myself. Sleep well.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Respect: Key Ingredient for Great Relationships

One of my missions in my counseling practice is to guide people to create relationships that include mutual respect. Couples that practice respect for the differences between them, rather than trying to criticize each other, are so much happier. Parents who treat their children and teens with respect find it much easier to require it back from them. Learning self-respect and how to teach other people how you wish to be treated is an important part of maturing. Treating strangers with respect and kindness makes you a class act.

You can feel when you are being treated with respect. It feels wonderful. The person makes eye contact with you. They ask your opinion. You don't get interrupted. You can relax and be yourself, because you aren't teased, belittled, or the object of sarcasm. You feel just as important as the other person.

I have seen family relationships transform when parents stop lecturing and ask teens for their help or their ideas. Family meetings are more fun at every age and stage when you let the children give input, on everything from how to save more money, to planning family activities, or dividing up chores.

We are not all equals in the family, as the parents are the executives. Families work much better as democracies, where everyone gets their say, even if they don't get their way. Parents sometimes need to make the final decision, but the family is a great place to practice the respectful exchange of ideas. I am often amazed at how much more fun family life is when we get everybody interacting respectfully and identifying solutions and new possibilties.

Couples can be closer and enjoy each other more when they celebrate the unique perspective, experiences, and thoughts that each partner brings. Using a respectful tone and appreciating your partners' thoughts and feelings draws them closer to you. They feel they can relax and be at ease. I want couples to feel they can talk about anything---money, work, interests, family, sexuality, politics, faith, hopes, and dreams. You can only open up at this intimate level if your partner provides you with the comfort of respect.

When you respect someone, there are rules for how you interact with them. You watch your tone. You don't yell or name call. You apologize if you catch yourself being disrepectful. You aren't too proud to ask for forgiveness when you have hurt the other person. You allow the other person to have their own opinion. You avoid criticism and sarcasm. You don't use the words 'always' or 'never', which box your partner in. You appreciate their differences, and understand that there is often more than one way to do things.

It all has to start with self-respect, and knowing that each of us deserves, as our birthright, to be treated in this loving way. You have to exercise your own self-worth and require respectful treatment in your most important relationships. As you practice repecting yourself and others, it will become your natural order and you will witness magic in your relationships.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Listen and Change the World

I have a fun little experiment for you if you'd like to play along. Today, as you go through your day, notice the number of people who really listen to you. Then try to observe yourself, and see how often you are really listening to other people whose lives you touch today. I have this hypothesis that if everybody had at least one real listener in their life, we could radically change the world for the better. Every person has their story to tell, and it opens up heartfelt channels of communication to be one of these valuable souls.

Ever notice how people many times aren't listening? Sometimes people stop talking, but they aren't hearing the other person. They could be preparing a response or a rebuttal, or figuring how to get you to finish. At times, people are making a mental list of other things they want or have to do after interacting with you. Perhaps you can feel it. The listener may want to turn the topic back to themselves.

Listening is a powerful tool to make the world a better place. Gandhi wrote, "the more efficient a force is, the more silent and the more subtle it is. Love is the subtlest force in the world". Giving your time to slow down, and take the time to listen, is one of the best ways to love someone in your life. My elderly grandmother lives nearby, and I notice how the very best thing you can do for someone in their 90's is to sit and listen to their stories about long ago, so that they can recall and relive them. You don't have to be older to want this. People all across the lifespan value a good listener.

You can feel yourself melt when you experience the gift of someone truly listening from the heart, for understanding. It feels completely different than someone listening to you with an agenda of their own. I have had children and teens tell me they long for a parent to provide this kind of loving, non-judgemental listening. I have had adults, both men and women, tell me they started affairs to get this kind of attention when they couldn't figure out how to get it from their partner.

When I worked for the Counseling department at St. Joseph Hospital in the late 1980s before I went into private practice, I was a part of a team of health care managers who trained the staff in 'The Healing Touch'. That program focused on the high-touch interpersonal skills of listening, slowing down, and making eye contact, among other skills. Studies show hospital patients care about whether health care providers use these people skills. The people in your life, at work, at home, and in your daily interactions care, too!

Here are a few tips on active listening:

1.Make eye contact.

2.Sit down if your talker is.

3.Summarize what you hear them say in your own words when they stop talking.

4.Ask questions to deepen your understanding and make sure you get it. Listen to the answers.

5.Thank them for telling you, epecially if it is something it was hard for them to be honest about. In truly intimate relationships, I generally want to encourage each person to build a sacred trust that there isn't anything you can't talk about with each other. Try not to be defensive, or the person speaking will shut down.

6.Try to empathize with what they might be feeling. Take a guess at what that feeling might be. Phrase it tenatively, and they will adjust it if you are off a bit.

7.Don't interrupt or storytell about you. It feels horrible and dismissive.

8.Don't be distracted as you listen. It cheapens the gift.

9. Don't multi-task if possible. If you are really distracted, say so, and ask if you can meet up with that person in a few minutes, when you can give them your undivided attention. Then, make it happen!

10.Set up a separate time to have them give you their complete and undivided attention as your listener if it is appropriate.

Truly listening is a skill that is difficult to master. We can each always improve on our ability to give this wonderful connecting gift to others. It costs nothing, but few things mean more in life. Together, we can change the world; one life and one listener at a time. As Mother Teresa said,"let us not use bombs and guns to overcome the world. Let us use love and compassion". Listening can be a powerful tool to revolutionize your relationships and make your most effective impact. All of us can learn to do it well.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's Not About The Food

Eating is such a symbolic act. For years, in working with teenaged girls in my counseling practice, I have observed what a big concern eating and body image are. Food, unlike other substances that people can avoid if they need to, has to be dealt with daily.In the Orange County Register this last month, I read a story about the skyrocketing obesity numbers for children and teens in Orange County, California, where I live and work. Clearly, there are some odd things going on with eating and food, and some of it isn't even about the food. It is about unexpressed emotion, boredom,family mealtimes becoming extinct, inactivity,exhaustion,emptiness and even spiritual needs.

Why do so many teen girls in our area overrestrict, binge,or misuse food? Why are so many adult women so at war with themselves over their weight and body image? Girls with eating disorders get skewed thinking about food, about control, and about their value. The social/media impact of a celebrity-focused culture and the picking apart of any imperfections doesn't make it any easier to grow up a girl here. How high do girls set standards for beauty and thinness when air-brushed magazine covers deliver fantasy that even those stars can't approach in person? Girls need a lot of support from parents to develop their skills, talents, and selves on other deeper levels. Most teens struggle with feeling that they have very little control. Let's help give our daughters positive ways to feel some leadership and control, rather than reducing their value to their weight.

As adults, we all have our own story with food. Many people have comfort foods.(What do you eat when you are upset?) Role-modeling healthy emotional patterns and not numbing emotional distress with eating is so important. This is one of those accountabilty areas where it really is what you do, not what you say. Teens will often tell me they are taking notice of their parents' food and exercise patterns.

As a family therapist, I am a big fan of family dinners, as often as you can. Light a candle, and have everyone share a high and low point of their day. You'll be surprised how much closer you will feel as a family. Little kids and teens, too, tell me they love this time to reconnect. I am realistic. I know it can't happen every night---not even in my family--- but do it as often as you can. Never use the dinner time to lecture, nag, grill, or berate the kids. Make it fun,light, and enjoyable, even if it's for 10-15 minutes. Try not to be the food police and monitor the amounts. As a family therapist, I am concerned about the connection between you and other family members. As children grow into teens, the connecting moments are fewer, so don't less these wonderful opportunities slip by.

I really enjoyed reading Geneen Roth's new book this week,'Women, Food, and God'. Geneen shares her own struggles with food, being overweight, losing the same pounds over and over, and coming to her own realization that it's not about the food. Facing our worst fears and dealing with what we really need emotionally and spiritually is the answer. Sometimes eating is the easiest or quickest response to a negative feeling, but it's not the best. Like most things in life, the easiest solution isn't the best one in this arena.

Weight is a complicated issue for lots of reasons. Some people lack accurate information on food choices, how to work with your metabolism, and plan meals that are convenient, fast and healthy. Some need better information on how many calories they can consume daily, how many calories they need to burn, or what a healthy weight range is for your body type. When this is the case, I often refer to my favorite dietician to work out a plan with my client.

Relationship issues also impact emotional eating. Your partner commenting on your weight or food choices makes some people mad. (Where are the brownies anyway?)
Parents and friends comments push girls to sneak eat or otherwise go underground on their use of food. Partners can sabotage healthier food or exercise patterns if they find the change threatening. Every relationship has a homeostatic set point, like the set point on your thermostat on your heating and air conditioning at home. Anything too far from the normal range gets your partner's attention.

Whether you are a permitter or restrictor with food, you want to be mindful of eating in a reverent way, with awareness and intention. Try not to work out feelings with food. Eat when you are not distracted or driving. Make food a social event when possible, remembering that the nutrition is only part of what you are needing. When grabbing for food, ask yourself if that is what you are REALLY needing. Many people eat late at night when they may need to go to sleep, or when feelings bubble up from the day.

Eating and connecting ourselves to others are potentially great rituals in our day. It's all about how you play it.And it's about so much more than food.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Extreme Self-Care

In life coaching, one of my first plans with clients is to begin encouraging them to initiate extreme self-care. You have no doubt heard of extreme sports. Why not extreme self-care?

For many of us, it is easy to forget about yourself, while you are busy with work, home, relationships, finances, parenting. Self-care is not about being selfish. Many people are far to the selfless side of the continuum, so moving over to the middle
where you provide loving care for yourself and others may feel selfish, but it really isn't. Each of us is a limited resource. Taking responsibility for recharging yourself and your emotional and physical energy is in not only your best interest, but also everyone whose life you touch.
You are not the energizer bunny.

Self-care is the little breaks you give yourself in your day, week, or month that give you a chance to bounce back, and reenergize in a healthy way. These small acts of kindness are things you do for you. Often just a little permission to reflect on what you are most in need of will be enough to get you started. It might be doing something restful or active, and could refresh your physical, emotional, or spiritual self.

There are lots of creative applications for extreme self-care. I usually encourage my coaching clients to brainstorm about all the possible fun ways they might do this. Self-care could mean more alone time, taking a yoga or cooking class, sprucing up your appearance in some way, or changing something in your home that would make it more inviting for you to relax in. This is just to get you thinking! Be creative and have some fun considering ways to boost your self-care. It doesn't have to be expensive. Several wonderful favorites of mine are free and outside, like taking our golden retrievers, Jake and Madison, on a walk ,or to the dog park. Pure happiness and very willing participants!

Each of us has to teach the other people in our lives how we want to be treated. It is much easier to radiate self-confidence and self-esteem if you pay yourself first sometimes with your own extreme self-care. You will feel more energized and less needy, and that is a geat way to begin your week.It will also make it easier to set boundaries, take charge, support others and all the other good stuff you do all week.

I would love to hear from you if you are practicing self-care and would be willing to share your ideas. You can reach me by e-mail at christynnelson@gmail.com or post a comment after this blog entry.

Have a week that is supercharged with self-care.You will be a good role model for others and refill your tank so you can meet other important peoples' needs in the week ahead of you. Only you can make this happen and elevate your standing on your own priority list.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Why Everybody Needs Boundaries

Everybody needs to learn to set boundaries. I often work with my counseling clients on this front. It is especially difficult for women to set limits and boundaries, and most challenging to set them with the people you are closest to. Today I want to share some of my observations about setting boundaries at home and at work, and how this abilty is key to really living an authentic life and being yourself.

There is an image in a classic old psychology book called "Feeling Safe" that I love. Picture a young person growing up and moving in to a house. The house represents a sense of self. There are many rooms in the house, symbolizing different aspects of the self that one develops over time. The doors to each room need to be opened or closed by the young person whose house it is. The doors are the limits or boundaries which help our developing teenaged self learn to feel safe.

It may be interesting to you to reflect back on your growing up years and recall how safe you may have felt (or not) to explore the different aspects of your self and be supported by family. Were you allowed to let Mom or Dad in closer or push them out a bit when you needed to withdraw a while? If you were allowed to set boundaries as a young person, it helps later in life. Many teenaged girls and adult women struggle with being able to set limits and not feel guilty. There are gender specific experiences in being raised a girl that contribute to this being difficult as well.

Being able to develop your toolkit for setting limits and boundaries is important for personal happiness and to live an authentic life. It means you can make straight-forward, reasonable requests of others. It means you have some standards for how you want to be treated, and that you provide others who are important to you the same fair consideration. It means you and the other person are both allowed to say 'no' sometimes.It means you don't put people-pleasing as your only value. It teaches you to respect yourself and commands respect from others. All relationships have a power dynamic, and setting boundaries helps you hold on to your power over yourself at not be voiceless or enable a tyrant.

Setting boundaries does not mean being defensive. Defensiveness is stonewalling, being hostile, withholding love, and other immature communication stategies.If you saw your parents using defensiveness as their style, it is probably your easiest strategy to emulate. Unless you stop the legacy of defensiveness and choose to develop healthier emotional habits. Defensiveness hides destructive,hurtful,and sneaky behaviors, while boundaries protect your best and higher self.

Where do we need boundaries to protect our best self? Here are some of the areas where we definitely do:

2.With Our Partner(Love, Honor and Negotiate!)
3.How Conflicts Get Resolved (AKA Fair Fighting)
6.Inappropriate Questions
7.Inappropriate Requests
8.Parenting(Variable boundaries dependent on age and maturity)
9.Extended Family
12.Volunteer Work
13.Protecting the Emotional and Physical Intimacy with Your Loved One
14.In our Sexual Life
15.How we Cope with Disappointment, Frustration,and Hurt
16.For Privacy With Clergy, Doctors,and Therapists
17.With our Time
18.With our Self
19.With what we Say
20.With the use of Alcohol and Drugs
23.Children's Activities
25.Privacy(allowing access appropriate to how close the person is to us)

Lots of areas of our lives come to mind. Being able to set boundaries effectively gives your life meaning. When you set limits you protect what is within them, and makes those things have greater value.If you have no boundaries,or loose boundaries, you are not making anyone truly special in your life and protecting them, or taking good care of yourself. Watch for footprints on your back as you become a doormat to others. For more on this topic, I suggest reading "Where to Draw the Line:How to Set Healthy Everyday Boundaries" or the classic "When I Say No, I Feel Guilty".

You can set boundaries, and like training your muscles at the gym,it will get easier with practice.You can show your children a healthier pattern. Mature people not only set limits, but go direct rather than indirect, set differing boundaries depending on what is appropriate to the relationship, and really mean yes when they say it.