Monday, November 29, 2010

Surviving and Thriving in your Relationship With a Controlling Person

What if the person you love is driving you crazy with their high need for control? This person could be your partner, a coworker, your boss,or a parent. You may be frazzled by this demanding person, who feels like they personally need to be responsible and in charge of just about everything, including the spinning of the earth on its axis! High control behaviors usually come from insecure people, with low self-esteem. Understanding and dealing effectively with the controller in your life is critically important for your mental health and well-being.

You cannot be codependent and live or work well with a control freak. Codependency comes from the literature on alcoholism and the family. Each member in an alcoholic family often has a role---like hero,scapegoat,joker, etc. Alcoholism impacts the entire family as everyone tries to deny or cope with the problem. Codependency is the pattern of painful dependence on compulsive behaviors and on approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth, and identity. People who love or work closely with a high-control individual can take note of typical codependent behaviors and benefit from doing the OPPOSITE.

Codependent people often demonsrate these behaviors:
*think and feel responsible for other people
*find themselves saying "yes" when they want to say "no"
*are unaware of their own wants and needs
*feel safest when giving
*overcommit themselves
*fear rejection
*have a lot of "shoulds"
*feel anxious or depressed
*report they give to everyone else and nobody gives to them
*find themselves attracted to needy people
*feel empty and worthless if not solving problems or helping others
*have trouble accepting when somebody gives to them
*do not feel happy, content, or at peace

This list of codependent behaviors is your handy guide of what NOT to do if you have a high-control person in your life. Instead, you need incredibly good self-esteem and confidence.You must give up the idea of making the controller happy, because it is an impossible feat. You will need to stay grounded. Exercise daily. Keep up your own support system. Get some personal counseling or coaching if you open to having a healthy ally on your side. Use humor to deflect. Lead your own life. Communicate clearly and effectively when you are being stepped on. Let the little things go, but define your line in the relationship where you have to set limits and boundaries. You have to hold on to your own dignity, self-respect,and sense of humor.People are allowed to ask you for anything, but it is your job to stand up for what is reasonable to expect of you and what is over the top.

Taking charge of your own self-esteem, and doing the things which will make you feel more confident, will be a good offense. Keep up your relationships with other people. If your controller is at work, keep up your contacts with other departments at your company, and with professional groups within your industry. Don't let the controller isolate you. Consider taking advanced training or certifications. Keep up your contacts. Manage up, by submitting your own generated monthly reports on what you accomplish, and give a copy to your boss and keep one for your use if the controller starts to minmize or take credit for what you do.

If your high-control challenge is at home or in your personal life, love them, but know your own healthy boundaries. Don't let the controller criticize or tear you down, or belittle your friends or family. See this negative behavior for what it is: an attempt to isolate you and make the controller feel better about their own low self-esteem. People who like themselves, and are at peace internally, do not need to pick apart others. As philosopher Kahlil Gibran noted centuries ago in his book "The Prophet", couples need to develop a separateness that makes them stronger as a couple. Two trees planted too close together cannot grow in each others' shadow,as Gibran writes.

Can you survive, and even thrive, with a control freak in your life? Only if you take safeguards to protecting yourself emotionally and not taking their drama as gospel.You have only one life to live, and don't let the high-control person in your life, at home or at work, make you feel less than, or in their service.You are also a child of the universe, no less than the sun and the stars, and as it says in Desiderata, you have a right to be here and be happy.Seeing controlling behavior for what it is, and knowing how to handle the behaviors with wit, humor, compassion, and limits is essential. Let me know how it goes. (

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Communicating Effectively With Your Teenager

When people plan to have a child, most picture a sweet little baby who fills your heart with love. Most people aren't prepared for the teenager they become a decade or so later. If we knew in advance that they would be moody, or push the limits, or talk back, would we cancel our order?

To be a good enough parent of a teenager, it helps if you can recall how it felt when you were a teen yourself. It's a tough in-between age, where you are no longer a child, but you don't yet have the freedoms of being an adult. Can you remember feeling really self-conscious about your changing body, and the current state of your complexion? Teens worry about whether they have enough or the right friends,rejection,popularity,getting a boy/girlfriend,grades,getting into college, growing up, and about handling the future. That's quite a lot to worry about. Many teens also worry about family problems more than parents realize---a parents' drinking,arguing and unhappiness between parents,financial stress,illness,divorce,parents' dating and affairs, and more. Perhaps you can connect with the things you worried about in your family when you were growing up.

To communicate effectively with your teen, the adult needs to see past moodiness or difficult attitudes, and remain loving and kind. The adult needs to show the maturity not to be reactive and hostile back. It is important to build on your teens' strengths, take an interest in their activities and friends, and actively listen more than you talk. The adult needs to take the lead in setting a warm, friendly tone at home. Smile. Greet them. Welcome their friends gathering at your house. Set reasonable limits, and enforce them consistently. Teach and empower them to learn to do as much for themselves as they can, knowing this will help them feel more capable.(Think part-time or summer job,learning to do their own laundry,and how to cook basic meals.)Be interested in their future dreams, and help them work towards them.

If you are a step-parent, you need to try even harder. You don't have the built-in biological advantage, and there is all of that horrible "step-parent as ogre" imagery in the Disney classics. Be nice and be loving, and don't be petty or critical. Let the biological parent, your spouse, be the heavy and provide the discipline as needed. You just love them up, and provide support and encouragement.

Here are some other tips from Active Parenting of Teens. Avoid these common communication breakdowns:

*commanding, ordering, directing
*giving advice
*distracting/storytelling about yourself

All of the above behaviors will make your teen shut down and give up on you. Don't push the teen you love, and live with, away. Open up the communication by being a beneficial presence in their lives. If you want them to trust you and open up to you, you will need to earn it by demonstrating love, optimism, hope, and belief in your teen even at the hardest times. That sweet,vulnerable child is still in there, just struggling to make their way through the turbulent teenage years. You will be so glad later that you didn't give up, and hung in there to go the distance until your teen makes it safely into adulthood.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Happiness Lessons From Golden Retrievers

I have a soft spot for golden retrievers. Could be related to the two I live with, Jake and Madison, who are 3 years old and such wonderful companions. They are always in a good mood, happy to see me and the rest of the family. I just never considered before how much they have taught all of us about leading a happy life, until I recently read Dean Koontz's new book, "A Big Little Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog"(Hyperion Press,2009).

Dean Koontz is the author of more than twenty #1 New York Times bestsellers, usually fiction. Here lives and writes here in Orange County, California. This gem of a book, however, is about Trixie, his beloved golden retriever, who he had for ten of her years after adopting her when she wasn't able to coninue her training to become a service dog, due to some elbow surgery.

"A Big Little Life" is full of wonderful and wise insights about what Trixie taught Dean and his wife, Gerda, about life, love, and happiness. As Koontz shares, "Trixie didn't need a new Ferrari or a week in Vegas to know joy. For her, bliss was a belly rub, a walk on a sunny day--or in the rain for that matter-- an extra cookie when it wasn't expected, a cuddle, a kind word. She lived to love and receive love, which is the condition of angels".

I loved the writers' tender relections about how Trixie taught them so much. She loved home, and her toys. She liked her walks and mealtimes to be the predictable security in her day. Trixie was curious about nature and people. She only asserted herself when it was necessary, with a bully. She sized people up right away, and Koontz observes that she was usually right. If Trixie didn't like somebody, best to give them up. Trixie wasn't jealous, didn't covet or deceive. Trixie remembered kindnesses and the people who showed them. She loved to play.

Koontz reflects on how Trixie insisted they shorten their work day to 5:00 or 5:30, because Trixie liked having a balanced life with her Mom and Dad, and she preferred they not be compulsive about work. Trixie required Dean and Gerda to learn to take breaks.There is a beautiful and tender quality as Koontz expains how they learned to be totally present with her, listen to her, and understand her. Trixie was grateful for her home with Dean and Gerda koontz, and enjoyed the simple things in life with great deliciousness and delight.

I would recommend this sweet book for any animal lovers, Dean Koontz fans, and everyone who chases happiness. Trixie Koontz also authored several children's books(as told to Dean Koontz),with proceeds going to CCI, Canine Companions for Independence, here in Oceanside, California, where Trixie was trained. Have a happy week, and enjoy the little things. Trixie would have liked it that way.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dealing With Difficult People

Into each life, it seems, a few difficult people must be sprinkled. Knowing how to spot them, and what to do with people who annoy ,or are toxic to you, is an important skill to develop. Effectively managing your relationship with difficult people can lower your sress level, cut the drama you experience, and keep your expectations in check. As the holiday season approaches, many people prepare to spend time with extended family. Sometimes the coming family togetherness brings warm feelings, but for others it means managing challenging personalities all gathered up at your house!

Here are some of the difficult people, profiled for your convenience. Just to be seasonal, let's picture them all around your Thanksgiving table. Got the picture? There are:

1.Negative Nancy-Everything is horrible. I hate turkey. I'm bored. My nose hurts.

2.The Energy Vampire-What can you do for me next?

3.The Critic-I'd give that pumpkin pie 2 points on a 10 point scale.It's not like Mom's.

4.The Dumper- Shall we sit down and talk some more about my problems?

5.Touchy, Touchy- I am easily hurt by everyone at any moment. Can you all walk on eggshells please?

6.Mr. Perfect- I can never ever apologize, because I have very little insight, a big ego, and I prefer to blame others rather than look at my part in any situation.

7.The Bully- And for my next act, I think I will intimidate everyone else here for the holiday, because I like to run the show.

8.Miss Fussy-Is there butter in that? I can't eat butter! Can't we have some other kind of vegetable? I don't do peas.

9.Scrooge- I can't possibly contribute anything to this gathering. I hate holidays and get-togethers. Bah Humbug. Can't wait until it's over, and I can crawl back in my hole.

10.Misbehaving- Don't mind me, I'll just be here telling inappropriate and off-color jokes.

We could go on and on, but you get the idea. It is helpful to identify the challenging people in your life, and rehearse a strategy for coping with them. First,
anticipate the contact. Make a plan. Can you manage the contact in some way that you keep it light, use humor to diffuse the difficult person, or put space between you? I have often encouraged my patients, over the years, to rechoreograph gatherings with difficult family members in a new way. Can you meet at a restaurant, so noone does dishes, and you can leave and not feel trapped? Can you go for a walk before or after the meal? Can you organize a card game or board game that will redirect the conversation in a lighter direction? Can you organize an activity or outing that gives everyone something else to focus on?

Perhaps your difficult person is at work, or is your spouse. Don't give up your personal power. The size of our character is determined by the size of the things that upset us. See if you can find ways to step away from someone who is frothing at the mouth with toxic content. Keep a sense of humor. Acknowledge their point and change your focus to someone else. Seat yourself next to people you enjoy at get-togethers. Shift the placecards if needed.(I give you permission.) Move about to find someone who makes you laugh or lifts you up! Smile and step away from toxic people, knowing that prolonged exposure will bring you down.

When necessary, set your own boundaries. We are each responsible for training other people how we want to be treated. We are allowed to not answer some questions, not share everything, not feel close or safe with some people. You can be nice and move along. Seek out YOUR people.

Have realistic expectations for the difficult people in your life. Preplan options for handling expected bad behavior, and keeping your own sanity and grace. I always like having choices, because it takes you out of a childlike or helpless role and makes you an active participant about how you wish to deal with toxic people and behaviors. You will feel proud of yourself for not letting the bad guys win.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Facebook, Texting, And Your Marriage

To have a wonderful, deeply intimate, and lasting marriage, both partners have to "close the exits". In our parents' generation, this might have been not ignoring your partner by reading the newspaper at meals, instead of conversing with your partner. Or, it might have meant don't zone out watching television next to each other every night. Mix it up, and keep the relationship fresh by having some high-energy fun together. Get out together to date nights and to do active things frequently. Pay attention to the sexual relationship you have with your partner. Be fun, and don't take the many available exits to intimacy.

In the past several years in my counseling practice, I am seeing more marriages hurt by social media, and the availability of secret texting,to create dangerous detours to the marriage. When old flames can become your Facebook friend, and a veil of secrecy hides hurtful secret messaging, the temptations abound. Some couples are beginning to discuss these dangers, and how they want to handle potential boundary violations to the marriage, which may hurt your partner and ultimately end the marriage. These are important questions couples should discuss. What do you and your partner feel about recognizing each other as partners on Facebook? Some couples share their passwords. Others discuss it with each other when an old romantic interest surfaces and makes contact. There are no easy or universal answers, but each person should be mindful of the terrible risks involved and the temptation to the middle-aged ego.

Couples therapists across the country are noticing the same trend and risks with social media and technology that I am seeing here in Newport Beach, California. On November 2, National Public Radio ran two related stories by my AAMFT colleague, therapist Jennifer Ludden. NPR's program All Things Considered ran a story on "Can Social Media Break Up A Marriage?", and one titled "I-Phone Makes 3: Marriage In The Digital Age". The world is clearly changing, and relationships and marriages are trying to figure out how to navigate these uncharted waters. Both of Ludden's articles and her interview can be accessed through NPR's website, and look for All Things Considered, under programs.

Here's what I know as a couples therapist for these last 20 years. Be careful. Be mindful. Things can start innocently, and go very wrong. Be aware of how lies, secrecy, and confiding emotionally in someone else, besides your partner, can distance and undermine your marriage. Be conscious of not interrupting your sacred time with your partner to do business on your I-Phone. Protecting the special bond between you and your mate is each partner's sacred responsibility, or you cheapen the value of what it means to be your partner. Temptation is more available----and more secret----- than ever before. And a deep and enduring marriage, with a marriage partner who loves and cares deeply for you, has never been more valuable. Closing the exits to secrecy and betrayal means protecting something more real and more lasting than flattery. Real intimacy requires real boundaries.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Your Life With Passion and Purpose

I just finished a great new book by business coach Tom Ferry called "Life By Design: 6 Steps To An Extraordinary You" (Ballantine Books, 2010). Ferry asks us each to take 100% responsibility in our relationships and at work for making them come alive with passion and purpose. Just think what would be possible if everyone stopped blaming and making excuses for things not being how we want them, and dug in to make it happen!

Ferry identifies 4 addictions which keep people from living as fully as possible. They are:

*Addiction to the opinions of others

*Addiction to drama(yours and other people's)

*Addiction to the past

*Addiction to worry

Each of these 4 addictions can become your habits, and keep you from being fully present and engaged in a creative, solution-focused life, being your best self, and sharing the highest quality of relationships with those you love. Contemplate how much easier and more fun your life might be if you gave up one of these addictions, like worrying. I believe that some of the stongest limitations on who we can become are self imposed by our beliefs. Negative self-talk is a good example of something you want to become conscious of, because it keeps you locked in old outcomes.

To increase the personal power we have over our own lives, Ferry suggests we do several things. First,release anything we feel incomplete with---perhaps old anger or grudges we are carrying around with us. Next, Ferry agrees with many writers in Psychology that we need to identify people and things we are grateful for, and express that gratitude and appreciation. Finally, we must set our intentions and declare them in positive, present-tense self-statements that we can repeat to ourselves throughout our day-to-day life. In this way, we clearly and positively state to ourselves what we wish to accomplish or experience, and channel the force of our subconscious mind working towards our intended goals, rather than against us.

I recommend Ferry's book, and like a number of the exercises he offers as ways to unleash the full potential of who you are, and stop living by default. After all, who wants to live a life by default? It's been said that the unexamined life isn't worth living. Stopping to reflect whether your life is in alignment with your core values, and whether you are making the most of your relationships, is worth some time and attention.