Monday, August 30, 2010

Mealtime is Connecting Time

We are all incredibly busy. That is why family dinners, at least a few times a week, are very important to keep families connected. When did you last eat dinner with those you love? When I am assessing a family, I always want to know when and if they eat together, as well as whether they worship together, or do other fun activities as a family on a frequent basis.

I'm not picky about how gourmet you get. It's okay with me if make something simple, or bring dinner in. As a structural family therapist, I am interested in a candle being lit, and each family member sharing about their day. It can be fun to ask each person the best and worst thing about their day. Even the Obamas reportedly share "the rose and the thorn"of their day with their family.

Keeping the mood light and positive at family meals. It is great to get as many family members involved as possible with ideas for meals, preparing the meal, and cleaning up the kitchen together. We don't want the children to dread dinner because Mom and Dad are nagging, lecturing or complaining about things the whole time.

In a world of fragmentation and technology, family mealtimes are a needed break. Be sure to role model turning off the television, all cell phones,and put away the laptop. The message is: for these 20 minutes, we turn off the outside world, and our family is the most important thing. We all hunger for punctuation marks that bring us sanctuary and respite. It brings us to the present moment with those we love and focuses us on intentional connecting.

I am realistic. You may not be able to do family dinner every night. We can't in my family, either. Do it as often as you can. Even 3 or 4 times a week will make a difference in how connected your family feels. Every adult needs to help get things going. In contrast to what you might expect, teens most often tell me they like dinner with the family. Several local gift shops in Orange County sell sets of question cards called 'Table Topics' that give you lots of other question ideas.

Plan a family dinner this week. It's not just filling your family's stomachs, its about creating closeness and connection in a world of forces pulling you towards disconnection. You can make the difference in your family. Family meals can be a hassle, or a gift. The choice, as always, is yours and mine.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hello Readers!

I am enjoying writing articles for you to read about building great relationships, developing more intimacy and connection, becoming a better parent,creating stronger families, and personal growth. Readership is growing steadily since I began blogging in May. I invite all blog readers to send me a confidential e-mail at if you have ideas about topics you would like to see developed in upcoming entries. I appreciate your reading along! Christyn

Monday, August 23, 2010

Anger is Just the Frosting

Is there somebody close to you who gets easily angered? Or is it you who takes out your frustrations and disappointments on others? Some people develop the unhealthy emotional pattern of projecting their internal discontent on their loved ones. Dumping anger and rage into your close relationships is like pouring acid rain on them. It is hard for those close to a hot reactor to feel safe enough to relax, be themselves, and feel connected. Living with a rageaholic makes you feel like you always have to walk on egg shells, or there will be an explosion, often for ridiculous reasons.

In sessions over the years, I have had patients confide the kind of things that set them off. Sometimes the reasons for a sense of justified anger are really petty. Imagine feeling entitled to rage at your partner because they don't wipe down the shower or share every interest you have. What about being furious at your spouse for not reading your mind and intuiting your desires without you having to communicate anything to them? At times, I need to stop patients and examine their (unrealistic) expectations. It can be helpful to remember that your partner probably also tolerates behavior from you that annoys them, but hopefully they love you anyway, and see the big picture. In a grown-up relationship you have to ask for what you want, incorporate your partner's unique needs, and learn to appreciate the good things the relationship brings you.

Some people bully others in the family with their anger. This is not ok. If you live with a bully, you need to set your own limits, and take care of yourself. You might tell the bully you love them, and you understand they are upset, but you will talk it through with them later, when things are calmer. A dictator needs a doormat to operate. Don't be a doormat. You can go to a movie, go to the gym, or go for a self-care walk outside and give them time to get back in control of themselves.

If you are the angry one, you should know that researchers tell us it takes about 20-30 minutes to calm our physiology down after being very upset. Your body goes into fight-or-flight mode and blood rushes to your extremities. Evolution prepared your body to run from a wooly mammoth. Digestion stops, and blood flow to the brain slows. Noone thinks well when enraged, so don't try to talk a conflict through then.
Take time to calm yourself down, go running or for a brisk walk, or listen to your "feel good" playlist on your ipod and dance. It will be more constructive if you talk through the conflict later, when you are quieted and have soothed your savage internal beast. Remember, it is called NORMAL for other people, including your partner, to sometimes approach things differently than you do. You are the only person who sees things exactly the way you do.

If you are noticing yourself struggling with anger in increasing frequency, step up your exercise. Brain research shows us exercise increases seratonin levels. Low seratonin levels are associated with aggression, and contribute to mood disorders.
I normally ask all my patients with depression or anxiety, whether adults or children, to increase their amount of exercise for this reason. It helps.

If you are experiencing a lot of anger, it will also be helpful to reflect by yourself or with a good therapist WHAT YOU ARE HURT ABOUT. Often the powerful sensation of intense anger is just the frosting. Underneath the anger or rage is often long held hurt, perhaps dating back to childhood. Perhaps current situations trigger old wounds that make you react in disproportionate ways. The hurt is like the cake beneath the frosting, and helped create the story you tell yourself about your life. What if your angry rages keep the pain going and rob you of closeness?

Why is important to clear the hurts beneath your anger? Pretty much everyone has some unmet core needs or wounds from childhood. Sorting them out can help you be in the present, and not destroy the chance for getting your needs for closeness and intimacy met now with your current partner and family. If you don't get a handle on your unchecked anger, you will recreate your personal story (i.e. " nooone ever loves me enough")again and again. This saddens me when I can see it happening. Life is short. Why would anyone choose to create the same sad scenario over?

When you examine the hurt beneath your anger, you can begin to experience the joys of real intimacy and the real person you love, rather than your old projections. Anger, when examined and understood, can be channeled and redirected into healthier patterns. Letting rage run your life and ruin your relationships is a huge mistake.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Approachable Parent

Think back into your growing up years in middle school and high school. When you had something that you were concerned about, who did you open up to? Did you feel comfortable enough to talk with either of your parents? Today's blog entry is about becoming an approachable parent, and steps to become one.

Let's start by thinking about the qualities of a friend you might open up to now, as an adult, about something you are concerned about. My guess is that you are MORE likely to open up with someone who is:

*a good listener
*cares about you
*has a wise, well-balanced perspective
*confidential (isn't going to tell others)
*doesn't tell stories and get the focus back on themself
*calm,not a hot reactor
*doesn't give advice or suggestions unless asked to do so
*available, will make time for you a priority
*instills hope, doesn't give up on you
*makes eye contact, doesn't multi-task while talking with you
*makes you feel important

Teens tell me that they shut down and go elsewhere to discuss problems or heartfelt concerns when parents are dictators, yell,react,judge, berate, or are otherwise hard to talk to. No parent is perfect (me included), but when you can be an approachable parent MOST of the time, it can transform your relationship with your son or daughter. Over time, your child or teen will grow more confidence in their ability to be safe opening up to you.

Building strong families and healthy relationships has everything to do with creating a sense of ease that "we can talk about anything or get through any obstacle together". Being relationship saavy means realizing you can not only use the approachability factor with your children, but also your partner, your siblings,your older parents, your grandchildren, etc. When those closest to you feel safe to open up when they are hurting it is one measure of true intimacy.

When changes, loss, or challenges are going on in the family it is especially an important time to be approachable. When you are in emotional pain yourself, it is easy to forget about how scary a death, separation, divorce, job loss, or move can be for your son or daughter. Sharing only age-appropriate information, keeping adult/child boundaries, and being emotionally available to your children is critically important at these times. It will help your child move through a difficult life transition effectively, and you will be aware if they need professional support like counseling.

So, put away the laptop, the iphone, and turn off the tv a bit this week. Ask a child or teen that you love how they are, how they feel about the new school year starting, or how their friends are doing. Pick a relaxed setting,and be low-key in your approach. As adults, it is up to us to raise the level of openness and interest in how the young person's life is going. We don't want our sons or daughters to experience us being to self-absorbed to care, or to difficult to talk to. If they are out of the habit of trusting you enough to open up, it may take a while. Don't give up. We are here for the long run, and your efforts to be more approachable will make a difference in the months and years ahead.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Relationship Drama Reduction

In this Sunday's New York Times, there was an interesting article called "Girls, Interrupted", about a summer camp program for middle school girls. The 2-week programs helps young women learn self-confidence, how to deal with mean girls and bullies, and avoid drama in relationships. The article got me thinking about the skills grown-ups also need to maneuver the world of relationships and conflict in a healthy way.

So here is my quick tool kit of skills all young adults need to develop, and mature adults need to perfect in order to have satisfying relationships and have good self-esteem. They are:

1. Know how to apologize. Be specific. Don't do it again.

2. Ask for what you want. This greatly increases your chances of getting it. Don't expect others to read your mind.

3. Be direct. If you have a problem with someone, tell that person directly. It only complicates things to tell a third person. (See my recent blog article on not triangulating)

4. Be honest.

5. Take out your own trash in your relationships. This means that each person in the relationship is responsible for managing their own stress level, not taking out your bad day or bad childhood or previous bad relationships on the other person.

6. Don't be a black hole or an emotional vampire. Have reasonable expectations about how much love, time, attention, etc. you expect in any relationship. You will frustrate the other person if you give the message that "it is never enough for me".

7.Don't whine. It is so unattractive if whining becomes your permanent residence. If you are stuck at the whining address and want to change it, see a good therapist who can help get you unstuck.

8.Take responsibility for your own actions and contributions to problems and relationship conflicts. As a psychotherapist for the past 20 years, I can tell you relationships start to get better when both people realize they are part of the problem and part of the solution.

9. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. We are all human and can learn from our mistakes if we choose to.

10. Follow through on your promises if humanly possible. Be a person of your word. Live with integrity.

11.Don't exagerate. In a Facebook world of hyperbole(omg) it is important to report facts accurately. Avoid 'always' and 'never'. Too much drama!

12.Move away from the bullies, the mean girls, and the people who 'just don't get you'. Life is too short.

13. Never text where the situation calls for a conversation. Texting in such situations is wimpy and/or heartless.

14.Be humble. It's so refreshing.

15.Be open to learning about yourself and others when conflict occurs. If you talk it through, you may learn some valuable things.

16. Admit your mistakes and imperfections. People will admire you for your openness and balanced perspective.

17.Try to focus on the repair in a conflict, rather than swinging for more damage.

18.Speak up if you feel tension between you and someone who matters to you. Otherwise, continental drift can occur.

19.Set boundaries to protect your important relationships. If you don't, then you aren't protecting that relationship, and you cheapen what should be special. You make it no big deal to be your partner.

20.Kindness matters. Watch your tone, volume, word choice, and non-verbal cues, so that the person you have a conflict with feels respected,rather than talked down to.

With these skills in your relationship tool kit, you are ready to create relationships with more fun, intimacy, and understanding. And less drama!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Last Burst of Summer

How has your summer been? We are now entering the last glorious, unstructured days of summer before the season turns to fall. Did you make it to the beach or lake? Did you get out the boardgames and play them with your children? Did you make s'mores by firelight and watch the stars at night? Did you sneak out of work early to ride your bicycle or go for a hike? Did you make time for an afternoon nap in a hammock or couch or float on a raft in a pool?

It's now or never time for this summer. It is so important to be in the present with yourself and with those you love. Time to schedule some downtime, a movie day, or a roadtrip before we regroup for the start of fall. What have you missed out on this summer? Even wonderful summer tastes like ripe cantelope, barbequed corn-on-the-cob, and ice cream may be part of your happy childhood memories you can recapture easily.

A number of families I work with are making transitions soon. It is bittersweet to prepare to send your teenager off to college, or back to college for another year. Our oldest daughter is starting her senior year at college, and applying to grad school for next year. We are making our fall pilgrimage to help her move from her summer apartment off-campus apartment to the new one on-campus. Since it is our fourth year helping her with this process, we are getting it down to an easy and smooth flow. Imagine how good we will be at this when we send the younger kids in the next couple of years!

Fall is a new beginning. It is time for a trip to Staples for school supplies. It is a fresh start for parents to reset chores, family meetings, allowance, bedtimes, and schoolyear curfews. It is a good time to relook at the family budget (ala Dave Ramsey) and commit to paying cash, not credit. Fall approaching is a natural time to go through our closets and take a look at our clothes. The change of seasons is a an appropriate time to set goals for what we want to accomplish at work or in our personal life before 2010 is completed in a few months.

Enjoy these dog days of summer. See if you can't fit in a little more relaxation and joy before the summer wraps up Labor Day weekend. These lovely summer evenings, with their long twilights, will soon be gone. Soon enough it will be September, and I will be looking in our hall closet for the fall wreathes made of leaves. (Is that where I put those last year?) Savor every moment remaining of Summer 2010. You deserve it, so appreciate every last delicious moment of summer before it is a sweet memory.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Try Never to Triangulate

Triangles are great for geometry, but they are not healthy for relationships. When I work with couples and families, I often map out the communication patterns. Going direct to the person you have a concern about is generally much more constructive than telling a third person. It requires integrity, emotional bravery, and honesty to do so.

Let's pretend you are married, and you have a complaint about your partner, and how they are treating you. You could choose to discuss that gripe with a friend, your coworker, the children, your former partner, your sibling, or your mother. These are not the best choices from a therapist's perspective. It would TRIANGULATE a third person into a relationship that should be a two-person relationship dyad. A marriage relationship is a sacred trust, and you violate that when one of you "invites" someone else into that trust. Also, rarely do people present a balanced view of what they themselves are contributing to the conflict when talking to an outsider. It is tempting and easy to make yourself the good guy and your spouse the bad guy. The truth is probably in between, with both you and your partner contributing when there is dissatisfaction.

In all relationships, we do communication dances. If we change our dancesteps, it can create pressure for the other person to change their dancesteps also. When you
are not at ease with someone who matters to you, I encourage you to schedule some quiet, uninterrupted time to talk with them and get their perspective. An attitude of curiosity about yourself and the other person is very helpful here. Don't approach the other person from a superior or know-it-all position. Instead, try to express your concern and ask for their perspective. Surprises are not good in this part of a relationship, so meet to discuss changes that are needed only by appointment with each other. No surprise attacks as your partner heads off to work in the morning!

Direct communication feels better. It feels terrible to hear someone close to you is badmouthing you behind your back, and this is a wimpy and ineffective approach. Only the other person you are in a relationship with shares the power with you to make things better between you.

If you need coaching on how to become a more courageous and positively assertive person, see a therapist. A good therapist can help you understand your communication style, how your family communicated when you were growing up, and better ways to do it now. A competent therapist can help balance your view, and take responsibility for your part of the communication dance. In healthy relationships, we recognize everyone contributes to what is being experienced. There often isn't a bad guy.

Direct communication works well in parenting, too. When there are changes in the family, we need to be able to say the truth to children and teens,at age-appropriate levels, about what is happening, and how it might impact them. This could be true about talking about a vacation, a move, a parents' job loss,expectations with school starting,illness,or family changes like a separation or divorce. Children and teens feel worse when they sense impending changes but noone is talking about the elephant in the room.

It is also important to be direct with positive communication, like appreciating the good things another person brings to a relationship. Buckets of tears have been shed in my counseling office over the past 20 years by children, teens, and adults who are in close relationships with people who are so broken that they can't say 'I love you' or share what they appreciate about the other person. Like we are supposed to mindread? Expressing directly what you LIKE about the other person and APPRECIATE about their behavior is powerful. Why would you deny yourself this connection?

When in doubt in your relationships this week, find a way to go direct. Your relationships will get stronger, and you will like yourself better. Your relationships can only be as healthy as you are. Your relationship skills dictate the quality of what you experience. Truly, as scientist and writer Jon Kabot Zinn,Ph.D, titled his book on mindfulness, "Wherever you go, there you are". Let's leave triangles to geometry class. To build great relationships, let's be grown-up, courageous, and direct.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Fighting Fair

All couples disagree at times. If you don't, somebody isn't participating! As a couples therapist, I am always interested in couples I work with finding respectful, fair ways to disagree with each other, without creating damage to the relationship. There are some keys to making sure your disagreements don't tear you apart.

Don't expect your partner to be exactly like you. This is a great place to start. If you need to have everything your way, you are better off staying single. Being successfully partnered means appreciating that there are often several correct ways to approach most things. Seek to understand your partners' preferences, needs, and patterns. Understand that your partner will think that the way things were done in their family growing up is the right way to do things, while you have your own,unique, family imprints. If we each get emotional blueprints for how relationships work, we need to be tolerant and respectful that our partner is working from a different blueprint. It's not right and wrong. One of you may have grown up with dinner always at 5:00, or the wife doing all the parenting, or the husband managing all the finances. If your partner got a different script, you've got to be able to discuss and negotiate kindly.

Argue only by appointment with each other. Don't launch into an argument when your partner is on their way to work or another important commitment. Set up a time to discuss an issue if needed.

Stick to one issue per discussion. I have witnessed couples spiral into negativity and unproductive defensiveness when they float from one issue to the next. This is the mistake: any fight can move from one issue to everything and the kitchen sink.

Don't call names, raise your voice , or swear at your partner. These are damaging behaviors that will cause your partner to resent you, distance fom you and/or fear you. You have to feel safe with a loved one to feel you can be intimately connected. Children and teens also have shared with me in family counseling that these same "below the belt" argument strategies from parents make them shut down and give up on you.

Stay solution-focused whenever you argue. Avoid boxing your partner in by using the words "always" and "never". Ask for what you need and try to listen nondefensively to your parner's perspective.Be specific about what would help. Aim for win/win solutions you can both feel good about. Some decisions might need to be 51% to 49%, with the partner who cares more about that specific issue taking a slight lead. Don't be a bulldozer and expect that you should win them all. Be willing to say you are sorry.

Couples most often fight about a few things: physical intimacy, money, time,children,
and extended family relationships. I want couples I work with to feel that there isn't anything that can't talk through. The secret to a happy life as a couple is choosing a mature, loving, and kind partner and treating them extremely well. Now that is really winning in my book.