Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Be The Architect

What if this beautiful new year, you woke up and realized that you have way more control than you ever realized to make your life and relationships really satisfying? Many of us don't fully understand that in many ways, we are each the architect of our own life. I find this a similar dynamic to how we use very little of our actual brain capacity. Many times, people drift along at work, in their marriage, with their children, and in their own life path. You might feel silently slightly sad, or complain to others, or be aware of a sense of longing which calls you to a higher level of being alive. Sometimes the disappointments and difficulties in our lives discourage our spirit and flatten our dreams. The fresh start of a new year is the perfect time to dust off your hopes and dreams, and figure out what you want now.
This could be your year to commit more fully to the lifelong development of yourself, and to having deep and loving relationships with those closest to you. Life is passing by, and you really shouldn't settle for a mediocre life or relationships. You have to take an active role in making positive upgrades in your life-- it's an inside job nobody else can handle. You can start by taking inventory with the different facets of your life. How is each area working out for you? Here's a check-list to begin with:

Marriage/Primary Relationship
Spiritual Life
Physical Health/Fitness
Living Space
Intellectual Growth/Learning
Hopes and Dreams

Take a few minutes to reflect on the list of life components, and identify the one or two where you feel most stuck. Day-to-day life responsibilities and routines can crowd out our ability to focus on what REALLY matters. If you can think of yourself as the architect of your life, this review is like viewing your life from above in a helicopter, and deciding which aspects of your world merit some remodeling this year.
One important mobilizing next step is to do something different (and hopefully better) in the one or two areas you care most about improving. If you keep handling that issue the same way this year, you are likely going to get the same results. Baby steps are a good way to go here. How about a few examples of doing one thing differently?
If you are not happy about your handling of money, you could commit to writing down all your expenditures for a month, asking your partner to do the same, and meet to go over what you discover and set a shared budget. Being good stewards of our finances, and not wasting money, increases the sense of self-confidence, and makes a couple feel closer. Set a written budget together.
If you and your partner are drifting apart, or you are feeling resentful, carrying anger, or are bored, get moving to make improvements as soon as possible. Most people would hire a mechanic to fix their transmission, or a brain surgeon to do their neurosurgery if needed. A few sessions working with your partner and a good marriage and family therapist can do wonderful things to help guide you and your partner into better ways to work through differences, and ways to help make sure you both get what you really need. Be proactive, rather than suffer silently while your relationship is headed for an iceberg. An action step, like inviting your partner to go with you to counseling to make the relationship better and closer, is an incredibly loving and brave action that helps you both move out of fear and complacency. Over half of all marriages end in divorce. Many others aren't happy. Raise the bar and take responsibility for being the co-architect of one of the special marriages that is different: more loving, mutually supportive, encouraging each other to be your best, and being each others' best friend and lover all along the journey. Another positive step? Plan weekly date nights with your partner.
What if you hate your work? Think about one action step you can take. Take some career assessments at your local college (UC Irvine Extension has such a class here in Orange County, California). This is an affordable way to get some systematic, objective feedback on understanding your preferred skills, strengths, values, and work environment. Update your resume. Join a professional networking group for your desired industry. Information interview a few people who are in a position to make suggestions about how you could upgrade your skills or make yourself more marketable. Think about how you used to play as a child, as there are often clues there about the work you would most enjoy.
In any area you select to upgrade your life, there are many right answers about positive and courageous ways to do one thing different this year. Remember, life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. Realizing that only you can be the architect of your best life, and dusting off your dreams and resetting the course is empowering. Find other like-minded people to encourage you and keep up the pursuit of your life lived fully and well.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Family Is A Team Sport

Ever notice how being in a great family is like a team sport, such as volleyball, soccer, or football? The start of 2012 is a good time to refocus the team!

It helps a great deal if you all agree on the goal.

You need to rely on the other players.

Hopefully nobody is working for the opposing team. Be loyal to your team.

You need team meetings. Once a week at dinner works great!

Communicate with the other players as clearly as possible.

Congratulate and support each team player when they accomplish good things.

Keep your eye on the ball.

Work towards improvement for the team; don't expect perfection.

Don't tear each other apart.

Nobody can be the star player every have to take turns.

Put each player at the position they play best.

You need a captain, or co-captains (strong parents).

Provide training for the younger players (for example, how to do age-appropriate chores that give life skills and confidence).

Set clear rules.

Working with families at different points in the family life cycle reminds me that talking with your family about the challenges you are facing, and getting everyone's input, buy-in, and help makes everything so much easier. Whether a family is preparing for mom to start back to work, or adjusting to a loss or an addition of a family member, being honest and talking it over is your best strategy for a vibrant, emotionally-connected family. It's a fresh new year! Suit up your team and get that family teamwork going!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Argue Only By Appointment

All couples see things differently at times. You're each unique individuals, and you probably grew up in families with their own ways of doing things and ideas about what is "right." Happily committed couples learn there is often MORE than one right way to do most things. Emotionally mature people respect their differences, learn to fight fairly and understand that all relationships have some recurring perpetual issues.

Every couple has 4 or 5 perpetual issues that are unsolvable, according to psychologist and marital researcher John Gottman. If you trade in your current relationship, guess what happens? You just get 4 or 5 different perpetual, unsolvable issues! So all couples will disagree. Don't be shocked. What counts is working out respectful, fair ways to discuss these issues when they come up.

How do you fight fair with your partner?

First, I encourage couples to argue only by appointment with each other. Don't launch a grenade as your partner is just leaving for work. No surprise attacks! It's better to let your partner know you want to set up a time to talk with them about something important to you. Ask if now is a good time, or if not, if you can set up a time later that same day or evening. (Your partner is not allowed to just say no.) You need to speak privately, without an audience. I also ask couples to have these discussions NOT in your bedroom, as that needs to be sacred space for you as a couple, not associated with tough conversations.

Next, don't hit below the belt. This means, don't call your partner names, yell, swear, or blame. Make "I" statements, so that you say what you want, need, and feel, rather than blame them.

Stay on one topic. Don't wander from one concern to another. It gets overwhelming for your partner and is not as productive.

Try not to bring up a long list of examples from past years,or since the two of you met. This long train of examples can make your partner feel hopeless about ever being able to make you happy.

Stay solution-focused. Give specifics. Ask for what you want. Allow for hope and the possibility that your partner might want to better meet your needs.

Remember, the intent is to help your partner better understand you and how their behavior affects you.

Having grown-up expectations for your relationship is important. Everything won't go smoothly all the time. You will see things differently. If you work it right, you can grow and become a better person through learning to communicate effectively and resolve conflicts. Perhaps this is a part of the plan, that through being in a close committed relationship, we develop fully into the person we were always meant to become: more open, respectful of differences, aware of your impact on your partner, and an active participant in keeping your relationship alive and grudge-free.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Finding Your Voice

For both teenage girls and adult women, asserting yourself and finding an acceptable way to ask for what you really want can be a challenge. There are social and cultural messages girls get growing up that contribute to women being more hesitant to speak up, and more likely to defer to the needs of others.

Sometimes women grow up thinking that if they find the right partner, he will intuit your needs. You won't have to speak up. This, however, is not a healthy expectation. Even if you find a caring, genuine partner, all adults need to learn to sort out their own internal experiences, give direct feedback in a constructive way, and ask for what they need emotionally in relationships. No one ever reads your mind. There is no perfect relationship that doesn't need any of your input or requests for adjustments.

One safe way to ask for what you want is to put it in this assertion formula: "When you_______________________(other person's behavior),I feel_____________________(your feeling), and next time, I'd like you to____________________________(their behavior. This little assertion recipe, if delivered in a calm and respectful way, will guarantee that you that you are asserting yourself appropriately, not too aggressively.

It can also be helpful to consider the transactional analysis concept of ego states: we each have an inner child, critical parent, nurturing parent, and an adult ego state within us. If we stay in our inner child state, we are afraid to tell others what we need, and we wait passively hoping that those closest to us will read our mind, as if by magic. If we are stuck in critical parent mode, we attack others if we don't get what we want or need. If we come from the adult ego state, we express our needs appropriately and clearly, and listen to the needs of others. In our adult state, we make compromises and solve problems together, communicating from our inner adult and trying to "hook" the other person's adult state.

Finding your voice is a lifelong task. You can get better and better at it. Communicating effectively in an appropriate way feels good, and increases your self-confidence as an individual. Effective communication in relationships takes both people operating at a healthy level. How is your partner ever going to hit the mark without your input? While you can't build healthier relationships all by yourself, you can know that you are doing your personal best to be honest, open and expressive in your most important relationships. Sometimes amazing things happen when you communicate more openly and maturely and see what happens. You can change the dance steps in most relationships by changing your own.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Don't Box People In (Yourself Included)

The words we say to ourselves and to the people we love are very powerful. The simple task of becoming more aware and catching yourself boxing people in can cause wonderful changes in your day-to-day quality of life. Let me give you a few examples.

In a relationship with someone you care about, never tell them, "you never......" or "you always......" It makes the other person feel like giving up. I normally stop couples mid-sentence in couples therapy and ask them to rephrase the statement about their partner. It can make a huge difference with your partner if you tell them "you never spend time with me," rather than the more encouraging, "I really like it when you spend time with me, let's work out a way to spend more time together playing."

Keep hope alive in your relationships, by using solution-focused words, rather than blaming statements. It helps to comment on relationship conflicts in a mutual way, for instance, "Let's not fight like this. How about we both cool down and begin again later?" Try your best to make "I" statements, such as "I like", "I don't like", etc., rather than "you" statements, i.e. "You are being sarcastic. You hurt my feelings, etc. Don't tell other people how they feel or what they think. Each person deserves the respect of having their own thoughts and feelings, and it's perfectly okay if they are different from yours. A healthy dose of mutual respect and curiosity about the other person always helps here. Even if you have been together for many years, don't assume you know everything about the other person. You don't.

Be careful with your self-talk as well. I have worked with brillant, loving, and accomplished people who are often engaged in hateful internal dialogue. It is important to good mental health to be your own best friend, seeing your strengths and weaknesses in a balanced way. Even something you do not like about yourself can be fit into an affirmation for encouraging positive change. For instance, instead of "I will never meet someone," it would be better to work with a mantra that "Everyday I am becoming more friendly and warm towards others, I am letting people closer and allowing them to see the genuine me." Instead of "I hate my body," we need to replace it with, "Everyday I am becoming more loving and caring of my body, exercising it, feeding it healthy foods, and loving it the way I love the people closest to me."

Words are powerful, and create dynamics and feelings. Make sure your words don't box you in, or the people you care about, so that you can build new and healthier possibilities for tomorrow. All our lives, if all goes well, we keep evolving and developing our skills and our spirit. You dont want to box out all the wonderful possibilities for you to love deeper, and be a happier, healthier, and more mature person tomorrow. Life and people need hope; make sure your language choices allow room for it!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Staying Out of Judgement /Holiday Edition

This season, from Thanksgiving through New Years, we are each presented with opportunities to interact and spend time with our extended families. What a wonderful time to release the habit of comparing people in your family to yourself, or to others. This is also a great chance to let go of your expectations that family members will or should read your script, behave how you think they ought to, or generally meet your needs. They won't. You'll be okay anyway.

Reduce your expectations of family members. Cultivate the belief that they are probably doing the best they can. You cannot find peace or serenity while judging others and causing conflict.

When we begin to practice tolerance for differences in our family, we take a huge step towards inner calm. Think radical acceptance of family members at holiday get- togethers. Decide in advance not to let anyone knock you off your center. You can always tell the true size of one's character by noticing the size of the thing that upsets him.

Set limits that protect yourself. I have been working with some of my patients this past few weeks on how to self-protect and buffer when relatives show up for the holidays. Plan outings or watch movies together. Get a board game out to play (Apples to Apples is my personal favorite---low-key, maximum interaction, silly, not competitive). Get out and go by yourself on a walk to check out the holiday decorations in the neighborhood. Ask family members to do specific tasks that will reduce the workload on one or two people, and share the leadership on the holiday.

Think of all this non-judgmental training with your family over the holidays as good preparation for carrying that non-judgmental spirit to work, school, relationships and life in general in the year ahead. Not judging others? It's a muscle in your character and personality that can be practiced and perfected. It helps to think about they way you would like to be loved by others. Acceptance, relinquishing control, lowered expectations, and living without comparisons really can contribute to making you a happier person and a beneficial presence to others. Bring on the merry making, and the refraining from judgment!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Wanting What You Have

It seems to me with Thanksgiving around the corner that it is crucial to our happiness to count our blessings and want what we have. Much of life satisfaction is in knowing when you have something wonderful----and expressing and feeling your appreciation for it, as opposed to taking it for granted. Sometimes we need to be gently reminded to focus on the goodness of the people and things we love in our life.

Do you have a devoted partner who loves you despite your imperfections? Let them know what they add to your life, and that you deeply value sharing your life with them. Speak only well of them to others. If you have a problem between you, speak to your partner directly about it, and ask them for what would work better. Demonstrate your faithfulness, caring, and love for them. Carl Jung wrote about the masks we all wear to the world. Often it is our partner and family at home that people give the least thought to or treat poorly. That's just wrong and wasteful. Give your partner your very best.

Are you grateful for your work? Does it provide stable income? Does it allow you to raise your family? Especially in the current economy, we need to feel grateful for the blessing and purpose that work provides.

Do you value your health? Can you walk? Exercise? Do you gratefully care for your health? Without our health, not much else matters. Show your gratefulness for your physical health by taking good care of your body.

Are you thankful for a close friend, or two? Do you make time to stay in touch, and spend time together when you can? Do they know how you feel about them? Friends provide us with support and a sounding board, and become even more valuable the longer we know them.

Are you appreciative of where you live, the community that is available to you, and the neighbors you have? Show your gratefulness by reaching out to someone who is alone or hurting this holiday season. The whole holiday season is often difficult for people who have experienced a loss of some kind this year, whether through a death, a break-up o divorce, or a job loss.

Do you treasure your children and grandchildren, if you are fortunate enough to have them? If your parents and grandparents are still living, do you often express what they mean to you, and what they have taught you? Do you offer them opportunities to share stories and reflections with you? Time together sharing stories often means more to seniors than stuff.

Life's richness is lost on people who always want something else or something more. Often in quiet, unspoken places in your life there are silent blessings that deserve your awareness and mindfulness. Wherever you go, there you are, as the saying goes. Cultivating a heightened sense of gratefulness causes us to stay focused on the richness of everyday blessings, and not get confused that happiness is OUT THERE somewhere, when it is all around us.

Here's wishing you and yours the true spirit of Thanksgiving this week, and as we wind our way into December.

Dropping The Defensiveness

I experienced a powerful moment with a couple in my counseling office last week. One of the partners is stuck in an angry mode much of the time in relation to the other. That person is hurting, mostly, as it turns out, about childhood wounds from parents who were broken and wounding, rather than able to parent. In a flash of insight, soft tears came, and with them, the realization that the walls and defensiveness that were adaptive and necessary growing up aren't helpful or needed in the marriage now. What a shift in awareness. My partner is not my enemy, and is here to help me heal. I can trust.

How things can change when we lower our defensiveness. It allows us to listen from the heart to our partner, our children, our parents, and others we want to be closest to. We can't even hear the other person or take in what they are communicating if we are defensive. It's like wearing big, bulky football pads and then trying to hug someone. Stuff gets in the way.

To put down our defensiveness, we need to calm our own mind. It helps to remind yourself not to take anything you are hearing personally. Don't prepare a counterattack internally. It doesn't mean you agree. You are just giving the gift of listening with an undefended heart, and no agenda.

It can help to ask the right kinds of questions, those that help you understand them and the other person understand themselves better. Don't ask questions that distract or change the subject, but instead deepen what they are trying to express. For example, "Is there more you can say about that?"

In Imago relationship therapy training, we realize that no one escapes childhood without a few wounds. Everyone had some unmet needs while growing up. Until we are parents ourselves, it's hard to understand what a big job being a parent is. Where we heal from childhood wounds is really not with our parents. We heal, if we choose to, in a committed, loving relationship with a partner.If we can put down the defensiveness and the walls, and let someone in to trust. Why would we settle for anything less?

No matter what sadness, loss, or hurt are a part of your story from childhood or earlier adult relationships, you still have time to do the emotionally brave thing. Take down your own walls, defensiveness, sarcasm and quick anger. Lead with your listening ear and your compassionate heart, and watch for the magic that happens.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Something to Look Forward To

Making plans is very important to good mental health. Years ago, my favorite travel agent shared with me her insights about how having a trip planned---even months down the road--- gave people's moods a big boost. I have found it to be true. Anticipation makes the trip or event even better. What do you have planned? A brand new year, 2012, is right around the corner, and it is a blank slate awaiting your creative ideas.

Couples need planned, sacred time to look forward to being together. Research shows that most couples share only a few quality, uninterrupted minutes with each other each day. Having couples rituals you can look forward to, like a weekly date night, and a mid-week lunch or coffee together, gives you connecting points.

Families need plans for the holidays, plans for vacations together, and plans for family fun nights at home or road trips for the day. All of these things are terrific agenda items for a family meeting. Round up the family (dinnertime works well) and ask for everyone's ideas, suggestions, and help. Cooperation works here; get each person's buy-in and assistance in advance.

As an example, with the holidays coming up soon, have a brief family meeting to decide what you want to do. Set a time to decorate together, wrap gifts, invite cooking help, etc. Holidays are much more fun if you don't try to make it happen all by yourself. Consider dispatching your teens to go help grandparents who may need holiday errands or decorating done as well. The gift of time is the best gift of all.

When I am working with people who have survived loss, it is important to me to not only help them move through the grief, but eventually re-invest in planning for the future again. Making plans for fun again means you are going on with your life, despite a loss. It is a choice to enjoy life again.

Check your bucket list. If you have always wanted to go back to grad school, take up the tango, or travel to the Amalfi coast, perhaps this is the time to begin a little research, and activate a plan to make it happen. If you are feeling bored, it's possible you are being boring, and need to break out of a world that's gotten too small. Ruts are optional. Dreaming, and planning the steps to work towards making dreams happen, are some of life's great experiences. After all, living a full and satisfying life includes the joy of making fun plans!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Kim & Kris: The Case for Pre-Marital Counseling

Ironically, Kim Kardashian filed for divorce this week from professional basketball player Kris Humphries, after just 72 days of marriage. Her mom/manager, Kris Jenner, told viewers on Good Morning America this morning (while on tour promoting her own book) that this was something that didn't just happen one day, and that Kim has been unhappy for some time. Really?

Some of the media reports suggest that Kim and Kris couldn't agree on whether to live in California, or in Minnesota, where Kris plays for the Timberwolves. Wouldn't it have been a good idea to discuss all of these issues and sort them out with a professional marriage and family therapist BEFORE planning the lavish, televised wedding?

Sometimes couples feel awkward about initiating conversations with their fiancé about their needs, preferences, and expectations of each other. One very smart move is getting some time set up to meet with a good therapist, and let us be the bad guy and ask all the hard questions. I love to prevent relationship problems and poor matches when I can. Marriage and family therapists know the most common pitfalls marriages have, and we have the resources to assess both of your family backgrounds, communication styles, beliefs about parenting, ability to resolve conflict, and much more.

Wouldn't you really like to know what your partner thinks the two of you will do about managing money? It would help so much if you had a joint plan on how you are going to work through differences in a respectful way, and got a chance to practice it with a coach who can teach you a safe format for requesting changes from each other. What an advantage it is for a couple to agree on lifestyle differences like having or not having children, or where you will live. I also want couples to plan how they will maintain closeness and intimacy after the wedding, including date nights, couples rituals, time away together to reinvigorate you,and the pursuit of high energy fun together.

Over my years in private practice, I have worked with couples who were able to identify that their lifestyles or values were really not compatible. That's a valuable outcome, too, because you have just saved both people the pain of an unhappy marriage, a divorce, and the collateral damage to children from that marriage. There are some incompatibilities that are bigger than how much you love each other. It turns out that love is not enough for a great, satisfying marriage. It takes two mature people with a clear understanding of the roles they want and expect, and common ground on the big issues:affection and sex, faith, children, relationships with both families, money, fair and direct communication, openness, and faithfulness.

Perhaps we have a mistaken belief in our current world that you find the right person, plan a destination wedding, and live happily ever after. Being aware of the most common problems that couples have, and getting clarity on finding and being the right partner is very important. Understanding your partner on a deeper level---and understanding yourself-- is also needed. Illuminating the patterns you each saw in your families growing up, and what you want to repeat or change, helps. Don't assume anything about your partner. The best insurance for a fantastic, alive marriage is being able to understand and appreciate your differences, genuine agreement on the big issues, and having solid skills to work things through when things come up. Pre-marital counseling can give you the opportunity to give yourselves the best chance for real, lasting happiness together.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Significance of Dinner

I love the Norman Rockwell painting of the family eating Thanksgiving dinner together. It just gives you a warm feeling inside to see them all seated together around the dinner table, connecting, and enjoying each other's company. As a structural family therapist, I have always been a big fan of eating dinner together as a family. As the fall season continues, it gives us a new chance to get healthy patterns about dinnertime going again that may have gotten disrupted over the summer.

These are busy times, and much of our day we are headed in different directions from our families: to work, school, lessons, sports, errands, etc. Dinner is more than about the food. It is the emotional connecting point of the day. Whether you have a family with children still at home, or have just a partner, sitting down together and breaking bread is a big deal. It gives you time to share a little about your day and adventures, and to hear about the day that your loved ones have had.

Get everyone involved in setting or clearing the table, cooking, serving, or cleaning up. Have age-appropriate expectations. If you have little ones with you, dinner may only get to last 10 minutes, but older children may do well with 20 minutes. Being a part of the family means helping with this evening ritual. It is something you can each look forward to. If you have a faith, take turns sharing a prayer or having a word of gratefulness before eating. You are the architect of your family, and you can decide to give your family more meaning and connection. This is just one of many ways to be intentional about making your home and your family a close, loving, and connected place that nurtures each of you.

Families are busy, and we need to be realistic. Family dinner may not be possible every night, but make it happen as often as you can. Even 3 or 4 nights a week makes a significant connection.

Keep it positive. Adults need to not whine and complain about work or other things. Set a positive tone, and take an interest in each person's day. Michelle Obama has explained how in the First Family, she asks each family member to share the rose (best part) and thorn (worst part) of their day. Sometimes I have everyone at my house share the funniest thing that occurred all day, or the most interesting. Don't use dinner as a time to lecture or berate. There are some terrific boxes of questions that children often enjoy as a part of the dinner ritual, too.

Even if you live alone, you can still make dinner time positive and sacred self-care time. Turn off the television. (Dinner should be a technology and phone-free zone.) Turn on some music. Eat slowly. Eat with reverence. Enjoy the experience. Light a candle. Use the china. You're worth it. This is about being your own best friend, whether you live alone or not. There is an emotional and spiritual aspect to eating in a reverent way, seated, not rushed, and aware.

Researchers, family therapists, and smart families agree- families that have dinner together multiple times per week are closer. Children and teens behave more responsibly and are better students. Fight to keep this important connecting point,the evening meal, as glue in your family. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What's Your Growing Edge?

People need goals.We need things we are learning,or striving to get better at.All our lives,we have an innate need to keep growing emotionally,intellectually,and physically.In life coaching,we call it "your growing edge".

When people say they are bored,it often means they are being boring.We can get in ruts.We can go to the same restaurants,see the same people,go to the same places,watch the same television shows,and shop at the same grocery store.We each need to take responsibility for mixing it up.Instead of the passive/victim role of being bored,we can shift to take the active role of keeping ourselves interesting and sharing those interests with those we care about.Sometimes our world becomes too small.This sense of boredom may be just the push we need to get a growing edge.

When people don't develop a healthy growing edge in mid-life they can get depressed.In contrast,some individuals act out inappropriately to resolve boredom in mid-life.It would be healthier to find a way to create a growing edge which develops your mind,spirit,career,personal goals,or reaches out to help others.

One of my favorite books,the classic "The Three Boxes of Life and How to Get Out of Them",reminds us that many people compartmentalize their lives far too much.Many individuals will do all of their play as a child,all their learning in school,and then work as an adult until they play again when retired.When we continue to learn,play,work and serve others throughout life we can stay more fun,vital,and energized.

What's your growing edge? Is there something you always wanted to learn or teach others? Is there a trip you always wanted to take or a book you wanted to write?As the recent premature death of Apple co-founder and technology inventor Steve Jobs reminded all of us,life is fragile.Living our lives fully and giving our gifts is incredibly important to happiness and satisfaction.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Understanding Your Dreams

Did you know that everyone dreams each night? It's just that when we rush to jump out of bed when we hear the alarm and start our day,our dream experience slips out of our awareness.One great way to understand more about your inner life is to keep a spiral bound dream journal,where you jot down notes about what you remember as soon as you arise in the morning.This way you can look for patterns in your dreams,and relate the dreams to what you may currently be experiencing in your life.Keep your dream journal right by your bedside,as dream memory can quickly fade.

In a dream journal,be sure to record your feelings in the dream,along with what you remember about the action,animals,people and images.Later,you can use that dream material to better understand deeper levels of youself.Over my 20 years in private practice as a therapist,clients often bring in their dreams and we collaborate together to understand their meaning.

Dreams do hold meaning,and can inform you about your needs.Dreams can help you understand concerns you are holding on an unconscious level which can guide you in making neede changes.A wonderful new book,called "Into Your Dreams:Decipher Your Unique dream Symbology to Transform Your Waking Life(Janece Hudson,EdD,Adams Media,2011) has some clever suggestions.Name each dream at the top of each page in several brief words,and date it.Below the dream,write a short account of the previous day's activities,including your thoughts,feelings,achievements,decisions,and disappointments.Hudson suggests if you can do this every night for a week,you will learn a great deal about yourself.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Do Parents Have Favorites?

Short answer:yes,they do.The October 3,2011 issue of Time magazine features a cover story with a review of Jeffrey Kluger's new book,"The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us"(Riverhead Books,2011)

Did you always suspect that Mom liked your sister better? Could you tell you were the apple of Dad's eye? You might be right! Children can tell that not all siblings were created equal.Parents sometimes give differential treatment to siblings for a variety of reasons:gender,birth order,attractiveness,intelligence, or one child's special emotional/physical/educational needs.A parent may identify more with one child,who may be a better personality style fit,bear a physical resemblance,share the same birth order as the parent did in their family growing up,or a host of other reasons.

Siblings jockey for position as "best" child,often looking for their own unique area to prove mastery and show off success to parents.This can continue throughout the life cycle,and can cause great heartache to parents and children both.Parents can help by encouaging different areas of mastery,and celebrating when their children succeed in their own way.I often tell families that a certain amount of competitiveness between siblings is both normal,and helps develop assertiveness.Parents also need to communicate their belief that there is room for two or three(or however many children there are in the family) good children in the family.Care in avoiding labeling the children is also key."Meet Justin,he's our brainy child!" Does that mean noone else can suceed on his turf?parents need to be aware what power there stated perceptions have about their children.Children think we are powerful and know everything,until they become teens and realize we don't.

Experts see that there are emotional costs to being singled out as special by Mom and Dad.Fovorite children may feel guilty,feel pressured,or suffer with poor relationships with their siblings.Nobody likes the class pet, not even at home in the family.

When parents do have to spend more time or emotional energy---for instance with a child who is physically disabled or who has anxiety or depression,researchers suggest parents explain the reason for the imbalance briefly and honestly.It's their family,too,and you can bet your children are already aware of it.

Their may be biological underpinnings in why siblings compete for limited attention and resources.Geges are selfish,and each child wants to get what he or she needs. It is pretty much impossible not to have some competitive themes in any family for parents' approval,and later in work situations for managements' approval.

Parents should make every effort not to show or admit favoritism.Good enough parents do their best to see that each child gets what they need,and that they are each seen as multi-dimensional individuals,with unique gifts.They are not to be compared to each other or anyone else.The angst of sibling rivalry generally fades over the family life cycle.

I can think of no better life outcome than leaving adult children who are close, love and accept each other.I hertily recommend this weeks' Time magazine article and/or Kluger's book to you.As for me? I have three favorite children I love dearly.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Why Therapy Works

Therapy can help you move forward,get unstuck,and make your relationships stronger and more intimate.Cognitive therapy can effectively reduce the symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.Counselors can help you sort through old patterns and scripts you may have been living with that are holding back your development as a person.

The therapeutic relationship between a therapist and a client is a markedly different experience than any other relationship you can have in the real world.Everything you talk with them about is confidential(barring anyone being in danger,where the therapist has a duty to keep everyone safe).It's not a reciprocal relationship like a friendship,so other than paying the hourly fee,you don't have to "take care" of them.The therapist is focused solely on you,and can give you feedback on behaviors and feelings you are experience that may be keeping your pain going.

Therapists can teach you valuable things.You might want to learn how to fight fairly in your marriage relationship.Most couples don't have any training on how to work out conflicts:about money,sex,parenting,in-laws,time together/time apart,etc. Unless you learn to resolve differences in a respectful and loving way,people tend to repeat the same fatal mistakes in successive relationships.A good therapist can teach you to listen more deeply,be more aware of how your behavior impacts your partner,and empathize more with how things may feel from your partner's perpective.

You might want to become a better parent,and find yourself more frustrated with your teenager than you would like.The therapist can help you understand your child or teen's developmental stage and needs,and help you build a plan for responding more effectively. Few of us get any training for parenting,and it's possibly the most important job you will ever have.

You might be adjusting to a big life transition: a loss like a divorce or death of someone close to you,a shift from one phase of life to another---like developing an adult life after college,or becoming an emptynester, or adjusting to a new marriage,a blended family, or a relocation. A therapist can give you practical suggestions and strategies to help yourself be successful with the transition.Because of a therapist's special training,and their years of experience in helping guide people through similar life situations,they can help you cope in better ways.

Sometimes people are living with unresolved pain from childhood experiences and family relationships.Counseling can be the perfect safe place to unload your emotional backpack,make sense of it,sort it out,and go forward without carrying that pain.

You want to select a therapist that you feel comfortable with,and can be open with.It is good to check with them about their training and experience in helping others with similar concerns.Many therapists have specialties. You want to make sure they are licensed,ask about hours,their hourly fee,and office location.I often recommend that people speak to several therapists before deciding who you feel comfortable with and confident in.

I consider working with my counseling and coaching clients a great privilege. Helping people live more fully,love more deeply,and lead a more satisfying life and career is about as good as it gets.Therapy,if done well,could make the rest of your life so much better,and be money and time very well spent.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Becoming Your Own Best Friend

Everybody could use a supportive best friend who has your back,challenges you,and encourages the best in you.Maybe you already know them,and your new best friend is you.How can you become a wonderful friend to yourself?

Pay attention to your need for inspiration and positive input.If you are acting like a good friend to yourself,you will always be on the lookout for contact with people who lift you up and make you want to be a better person.Be on the lookout for interesting workshops,speakers,books,places,and experiences which will get your personal energy level up.Make plans that you look forward to,and which keep you having a growing edge.People aren't happy when they are bored,and some fresh ideas and input are refreshing.

Don't let anyone mistreat you.Stand up and be a champion for yourself.Move away from anyone who is toxic,negative,critical,or needy enough to swallow your spirit whole.Notice how you feel after spending time with people you know.Do you feel energized,relaxed,and refreshed? Or do you feel drained and worn out? Reschedule accordingly! Set limits and boundaries,with work and with family and friends.Surround yourself with only quality people who are courageous,honest,and kind.

Remember your rights as a human being.You have a right to be yourself.You are allowed to have your own thoughts,feelings,and ideas.God made you unique,and if you can't give yourself permission to be yourself,noone else can.Speak up.Don't allow anyone to belittle or demean you.It's your your own best friend,to be protective of you.

What serendipity to find a wonderful best friend who has been there beside you all this time.Imagine that!

Treat yourself kindly.Do extreme self-care.Exercise,eat,and sleep intentionally,like you are here to last.Get rid of the Russian Olympic judge in your head who runs a negative commentary.Forgive yourself,and forgive others for not being perfect.Realize we can hit our own restart button anytime,and become a better parent,partner,or person anytime.While we can't redo the past,we can live well today.Allow yourself to apologize,and begin again.Eliminate your internal critic.

Try not to judge yourself or other people.It's not our job.Generally,most people do the best that they can at the time,and when they know more they can do better,in relationships,and in life.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Helping Your Child Through Your Divorce

People dream about falling in love,getting married,starting a family,and living happily ever after.Nobody dreams about getting divorced,tearing that family apart,and sharing custody of the children you love with an ex you're angry with.I always strongly encourage parents to work it out if you possibly can.The facts are that in the U.S.,half of all marriages do,sadly, end in divorce.

If you do have to go through a divorce,it is incredibly important to pay attention to your child's developmental stage and needs as you transition through the divorce process and beyond.Parents need an adult listener to talk to during this difficult time.Your child needs a good relationship with both you and your ex-spouse.It is easy and tempting for adults in the painful trauma and loss of divorce to reach out to their children for support.Don't do it.The boundaries between adult and children are incredibly important.Long-term it's only doing more damage to your child to try to get them to align with you and support your position against the other parent.

Parents separating and the setting up of two---rather than one--households,can feel like a free fall for children and for teens.It's upsetting to deal with all the change and transition between the households.Try to get the focus back on the children or teens as soon as you can.Reestablishing routines,such as bedtime,storytime,family meals,game night or movie night,homework times and places,worshipping as a single parent family are all helpful.

Minimize distractions.You are more needed than ever by your children in the time period during the separation and divorce,so this is not a good time to date someone new and add an additional change for your child or children.Limit your work hours the best you can when the chidren are with you.

Watch out especially for your oldest child or a child of your own gender,who may want to get close and partner you emotionally.It's not their job! Over time,they will be so grateful if you protect what is remaining of their childhood instead of having them make you feel better.Get professional counseling if you are having trouble doing this.You really do want your child or children to have the very best relationship they can have with both you and their other parent.

Children and teens need to feel reassured that both you and their other parent still love them, and that they didn't cause the problems.Be aware of any leakage of anger and hostility about your former partner.Count on even small children listening to your cell phone calls.I have had children tell me they hate hearing one parent badmouth the other on phone calls to friends.Some children even figure out a parents codeword for the ex-partner.In general,don't blow off steam about the child/children's other parent when they are with you.It takes self-discipline,but you will help get your children through this with less trauma.

Structural family therapists note that the family is destabilized in a divorce,and one or more children will probably want to leave the sibling subset and come join the remaining adult in the home in the executive unit.Don't let this happen,and instead do the personal growth to become a strong and capable single-parent.You will be so glad later that you didn't lean on your child or children.Your goal should be to help the children to continue to grow and develop as normally as possible,despite your divorce.Teens are especially vulnerable when parents divorce,because they are so aware of everything,and they are trying to individuate from the family just as the family they always knew is disolving.

Longitudinal studies of the children of divorce lead by Center for the Family in Transition research psychologist Judith Wallerstein show us that children of divorce have their own grief process,apart from their parents grief.Children of divorce often reeperience their grief at various developmental milestones in their own lives.Children fare better if both parents stay invoved--financially,emotionally,and physically.

It can be helpful for your child or children to speak with a therapist with special expertise in treating children and teens.It is important that the therapist is not aligned with mom or dad,but is a safe place for the young person to sort out their own feelings about the changes in their family,and to help them adjust.

Parents could also use support:parent coaching,a divorce support group,and/or individual counseling.Even a little coaching can make a huge difference in staying on-track with your parenting role and working through your own feelings about the divorce.

Divorce means loss for adults and for children.How things are handled,and using care in maintaining adult/child boundaries will help stop the emotional bleeding,and help everyone move along to have a good life anyway,despite the divorce.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Emotional Vampires---Know Any?

Who are your emotional vampires? The way to spot an emotional vampire is to notice how you feel after you spend time with them.If you feel refreshed and happy,they are not one.If,on the otherhand, you feel depleted,exhausted,and like all the blood has been sucked out of you, you may have been hanging out with one.

Emotional vampires are downers.They whine and complain.They love to blame others and take no personal responsibility for their part in any difficulty in any situation or relationship.They find conflict enjoyable.They pick fights,and issue ultimatums.They need to direct MOST of the conversation.There is very little of you in the interaction.Negativity and other toxic emotions swirl around the vampire like the Peanuts character,Pigpen, who is surrounded by a cloud of dirt.

You cannot do a makeover on an emotional vampire type of personality.Your only recourse is to save yourself.Limit the exposure you have to this toxic individual.Rebalance yourself by spending time alone restoring and calming yourself.
Actively schedule time with other people who you can be encouraged by.Get their toxic influence neutralized by exercising regularly and doing other forms of extreme self-care.

Basically,as soon as you identify the emotional vampires in your life,it is very important to begin managing their impact on you through all means available.Drive your own car.Limit the amount of time you can see them.Develop broken record statements to respond rotely to their avalanche of negative thoughts,feelings,and experiences.Don't be naive and think you can help solve their world view.Their mindset is causing the problem,and they are the only person who can change that channel.Mindsets are an inside job.

Energy vampires and emotional vampires in your life? Identify their draining dance as soon as possible,move as far away as you can,and keep a close watch on how your emotional and physical health are impacted by these individuals.Halloween season or not,nobodys' life is improved by letting vampire clients,coworkers,friends,or family feast on you.Healthy relationships provide support and encourage both people. Emotional vampires leave you needing intervenous feeding,and deplete you for hours or days afterwards.Carry on,and watch out for these vampires.Carry BIG limits.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Making Relationships Thrive

You can't plant a garden and forget to water,feed,or weed it and expect it to grow.If you do that, you will walk outside and find it dead at some point.Close relationships also take tending to be at their healthiest. What skills does it take to make your closest relationships really satisfying? Here are a few:

1. Be intentional about spending time together.A relationship can't thrive on e-mails,text messages,periodic phone calls,and ignoring each other. Step away from the technology,and have some fun together.In his research on happy couples,John Gottman found that the happiest couples have high-energy fun together on a frequent basis.While small and school-age children often seek out fun with parents and grandparents,we have to reach out more creatively to engage teens.Join teens on their turf,and invite them to bring a friend,or sweep them away for a meal out with you one-on-one.

2. Recognize and celebrate the positive.Catch your partner,child,or family member doing something positive,and compliment them.Be specific.Most people feel thirsty for positive feedback,and besieged by negative feedback.You can create circles of encouragement in your relationships by pointing out positive effort,persistence,creativity,follow-through,and courage.You can create a relationships where you bring out each other's highest self.

3.Build positive momentum.Cherish your shared history by making photographs of good times spent together visible in your home environment.Couples can create an "us" bulletin board in their space,where favorite moments of your shared history are celebrated.Identify fun traditions you can look forward to,like date nights for couples,game nights for families with younger children,or family meal traditions that are unique to your family.

4.Resolve differences directly and effectively.Learn to fight fairly in your relationships.If you have a problem in a close relationship,talk in confidence with that person directly.Don't be triangulating by talking to a third person.Stick to one topic.Listen to the other person from your heart,for understanding.

5.Apologize when you have done something to hurt the relationship.Own up.Ask for forgiveness.

6.Be generous:with affection,with kindness,with your time,and with forgiveness.

7.Imagine yourself in the other person's shoes.Empathize.Be aware that situations in life and in relationships look different from the other person's perspective.Be conscious that the other person may have different needs and wants; relationships are a team-sport,and it's not always all about you.

8.Ask for input from the other person about any ideas they have to change,improve,or upgrade the relationship.

9.Listen.Really listen,putting away distractions.It feels wonderful to REALLY be heard in your closest relationships.

10.Let the other person know what you love about them,and often.Today is the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist strikes in the US,and a good day to remember that life is indeed fragile,and that it's important not to take the people closest to you for granted.Taking advantage of the moments we have with our loved ones is crucial,as noone is promised tomorrow.

We each have it in our power everyday to take care of our closest relationships so they flourish and grow fully.Very little in life means more than our closest bonds.Since relationships are never in a static state,but always dynamic,we either deepen our relationships by our daily behaviors,or we passively outprioritize them with other things.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reinventing Yourself

As the season changes to fall,the warm summer weather fades,children and teens are back at school,and its time to freshen up our lives a little.Just like the year has seasons,so do our lives.

Over the last week,I read a new book about the last third of Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis' life,went she began a career in publishing at age 46,as her children were late teens,and she was not as needed by them."Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis",by Greg Lawrence(Thomas Dunne Books,2011)is a warm and interesting portrait that examines the question of how Onassis reinvented herself after the passing of her second husband.For many years,Jackie was overshadowed by the powerful men in her life,and her role as wife and as mother.In her mid-40's,she really didn't have a clear purpose,and was ready to keep her mind busy with a new one.

JKO didn't need the money she would earn as a book editor.She only earned a few hundred dollars a week to start,and she had plenty of money in her trusts from both previous marriages.The author suggests that Jackie had always loved reading,and found authors interesting,and their work important.

Even Freud knew that we need two elements in our lives:love and work.Just one is not enough,and may put unnecessary srain and pressure on your work or personal life.The two elements balance each other in creating a more deeply contented person.Caroline Kennedy,in a recent interview done in advance of the September,2011,release of her new book,states that her mother often expressed wanting both meaningful work and love for both she and her brother,John.

Creating a meaningful life means reconsidering the mix of people,purposes,and use of time periodically.Different developmental stages for us as individuals,and as families,offer us opportunities to consider:

1)Am I contributing in the way I want to others?

2)Is there a new challenge or skill I would like to master?

3)Are there unlived experiences I want to pursue now,while I am healthy?

4)Does the way I am spending my time still make sense now?

5)Am I bored?

In Lawrence's book,the writer follows Jackie's battle with cancer,her early death,and how it impacted her friends in the publishing industry,and those outside of it.Scott Myers is noted for remarking when he was told of Jackie's terminal cancer,"This was a true tragedy,because I got a strong sense that this woman,at this point,had life figured out.She had surrounded herself with this constellation of cultured,wonderful people,she had many interests she cared deeply about,she was constantly immersed in new and stimulating ideas.She had strong family ties,her personal life was solid,and that she had places that she loved..."

So both the year, and our lives, have seasons.Adapting,reinventing,and updating are key skills that make individuals successful in creating a meaningful life.Making our passages is a critically important life skill.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

When Is Grief Over?

When grief hits you,it hits hard,and it feels like it will last forever.Whether it's the loss of a loved one through death,or the end of a love relationship,grief is an equal opportunity emotion that each of us experience during our lifetime.Grief changes you.

Having grieved a relationship with someone you loved dearly makes a person more tender,more appreciative of the sweet and happy moments,and more aware of the fleeting nature of time.It makes you keenly aware to not let your love go unexpressed.It reminds all of us to stay in the present as much as we can.

Over twenty years ago,I worked with hundreds of bereaved people when I interned at the Counseling Department at a large hospital here in Orange County,California.I got to experience walking beside many individuals as they took their journey through loss.It was an honor to do so. I still feel privileged today to walk beside my counseling clients as they grow through loss.Grief experiences can be very individual,like your fingerprint.There are,however,some things that can be generalized about living through loss.

The amount of grief you feel is in direct proportion to the amount of attachment you felt for that person.Losing a young child,for example,is extremely difficult because a parent and a young child have identities that still are intertwined.This is why one person can lose a sister,for instance,and it will have very little impact because they were not close,while it could be a profound loss for someone else who was quite attached to their sister.

The nature of the loss also impacts the intensity of the loss that is experienced.A sudden death or end to a relationship carries more shock,while a loss after an extended illness or years of fighting before a marital separation,allow for anticipatory grief.Expected loss is still difficult,you just have warning that it is coming,and hopefully have time to express yourself to the loved one you are losing.

Normal grief hits in waves.You can cry and fall apart when you see something or hear a song that reminds you of the beloved.Afterwards the tears pass.It helps to know that you are not depressed,or going crazy.This is grief.Grief does not normally impact self-esteem,like depression does.Remember,tears are good.That's why I have boxes of kleenex on every table in my counseling office;tears heal.

Your family and cultural background also impact the way you experience grief.Certain cultural groups,like Asians and Germans,for example generally show less emotion,and this is true for grief expression as well.Their experience is just as profound,but may be experienced more internally.In contrast,other cultural backgrounds may make the expression of grief more emotive,such as with Hispanics.Your cultural and religious faith may also guide and help direct some tasks of mourning,such as holding a wake,visitation at a funeral home,or the Jewish tradition of placing the grave marker a year after the death.Rituals are helpful with the mourning process.

Any unfinished business in the relationship also will impact grief.Death or divorce mean the end for whatever hopes you had for getting your needs met by that individual,so if it never met your needs some personal counseling may be in order to sort out your complicated feelings about the loss.Then you can heal and go on and pursue happiness afterwards.

When is grief finished? It's a wonderful question. There are subtle changes that over time begin to help you realize you are healing.You begin to enjoy things and people again.Your energy returns.(Grief is hard work for your body and spirit.)You find yourself smiling again.Over time,the healthy resolution of grief involves removing the emotional energy that was invested in the relationship with your loved one,and reapplying that energy in another place in your life.It's been said that grief and loss cause us to break a little,and that's where the light gets in.Loss provides the bittersweet contrast that makes the good times even more precious.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Manning Up: Book Review

How come men are getting weaker,and women are getting stronger? Why are people of both genders in a new prolonged pre-adulthood into their mid to late 20's and even beyond into their 30's? What caused these social changes,and what are we to do about it? This is the focus of an interesting new book,"Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys"(Basic Books,2011).

The writer,Kay Hymowitz,is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute,and has written several other books on American culture,family,and childhood,as well as numerous articles.Hymowitz does a superb job in this book of laying out the various economic,demogrraphic,cultural,and psychological factors that have contributed and lead us to these societal and developmental changes.

So why are men getting weaker?Industrialization and urbanization are factors that make warrior qualities more irrelevant.As women get more educated(and there are currently far greater numbers in undergradute,graduate,Ph.D and professional school),and more opportunity to work,it is no longer a male domain.Even Time magazine this past spring had a cover story on the "Beached white male",whose skills and and power are less valued in the workplace.

In comedienne Julie Klausner's book,"I Don't Care About Your Band",she details successive relationships in her 20's with men who had a man-child psychology.We see a lot of self absorbtion now of men in their 20's and 30's more interested in play than growing up and taking responsibility.Sometimes parents and partners allow men to stay children.

A media culture and movies that perpetuate the little kid in a man's body are also an influence.Think of the character Seth Rogen played in last years' film, Knocked Up,or many of the movie roles played by Will Ferrell,Adam Sandler,Owen Wilson,Jim Carrey and Vince Vaughn. They are all extremely funny,but not exactly the kind of masculine we saw in The grapes of Wrath,or It's a Wonderful Life.Lots of commitment phobic,eternal child self-indulgence.

Media images impact men and women in their 20's and 30's.Television shows like Friends,Two and A Half Men,Sex and The City,amd many others glamorize a single lifestyle that goes on far longer than it did for people in our $0's or older.My own parents were married at 19,and started a family at 22.There wasn't a lot of goofing off scheduled for the 20's then.

The current generation of 20 and 30-somethings had different parenting.Parents were in hyper-gear taking them to lessons,sports,art class,music theatre and more.Everyone got a trophy.This is a generation of young adults often with very elevated expectations about living your passion,lifestyle needs,and pursuing your dream job.I don't think our grandparents were worried about that during the Great Depression.Sometimes middle-aged boomer parents enable,enmesh and coddle their offspring,and become codependent in enabling a prolonged adolesence and helping adult offspring launch into adult lives.

Hymowitz's book,"Manning Up"does a great job at providing data on how contraception and the women's rights movement of the 60's and 70's has impacted age of marriage,careers,and gender roles. Some of the expanded opportunities for women are great.Some of the impact on men is mixed.We still want men who are not wimps or eternal children.We want men who MAN UP.I often think of this as I guide young women in counseling,making sure they choose someone they can respect, so that they are not the 'better man' in the relationship.

Becoming an adult requires manning up--or its equivalent for women--- and living independently,paying your own bills,and having all of the self-esteem and self- respect that comes with it.It means having the resolve and the commitment to work a job and not quit it til you have another.It means pursuing your dreams,but working 3 or 4 part-time jobs to support yourself while you do it.It is having the maturity to see that your work,while it's important,isn't everything.One also has to build a life,not be narcissistic, and care about and commit to other people.I heartily recommend this book to you.It will make you think about how our culture is changing,and what you want to do about it in your little corner of the world.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

How to Invite Your Partner (or Another Family Member) to Counseling

One question I often get asked by my clients,and proepective clients,is "How do I get my husband/wife/partner/family member to join me?" It's important the way you approach this one.

If you have already begun counseling on your own,it may be appropriate to think about getting a referral to a neutral therapist,who has no prior history with either of you,or at least discuss that as an option with your therapist and with the family member you want to do some joint counseling with.If the three of you decide to go ahead and do the joint counseling together,you will all need to make sure that the person who joins you feels comfotable,and can have a voice in the counseling,too.

How do you ask someone to join you for joint counseling? You invite them! Let them know how important they are to you,and that you want the relationship to be at its very best.While you can work on the relationship with them on your own, you can let them know that it would be incredibly helpful for them to give direct feedback about the relationship with you to you and the therapist.I like to imagine what each relationship could be like if both partners took 150% responsible for the relationship.

You want to make it safe for your partner or loved one to enter a new situation,like starting conjoint counseling.Don't berate them. Encourage them to be a part of making things better between you.Ask for their help and input.We are all somewhat unaware of how we come across in our most intimate relationships.The other person holds a great deal of useful information about how it is to be in relationship with you.Choosing a therapist with a warm,active,and solution-oriented style can help make it easier to get started,too.

Life is too short to be in relationships that aren't highly functioning.We wouldn't usually do our own brain surgery,cut our own hair,or repair our own car.Enlisting a relationship expert,a marriage and family therapist,to coach you and your loved one can make a huge difference in just a few seassions.A recent study showed 85% of our happiness comes from our close relationships.Why wouln't you get a tune-up so you deal with conflict well,encourage and enjoy each other?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Getting In The Driver's Seat In your Life

I recently read business coach Brian Tracy's new book,"No Excuses". It was a great reminder about how wonderful it is to be a person, or be around people, who have an internal locus of control.It's like you are in the driver's seat in the car that represents your life.People who have an external locus of control are in the passenger seat in their car.

Your choice of language often is a revealing source of information about where you are seated in your life. People with an internal locus of control use language that is positive,action and future oriented,and they own their own choices and consequences.They speak about "I want","I choose",or "I don't want".They try to see their own part to any difficult relationship or situation,and endeavor to change it.

People with an external locus of control use language that reflects victim status.They complain,blame, and whine,rather than solving problems and moving along.They might say "I have to",or"I should".These individuals blame others for their disappointments.They focus on the past,regrets, and unfairness. The truth is that life is unfair,and bad things do happen to good people.As I coach my clients,it is important to grieve losses and sort out painful things that happen,but not to take up permanent residency in that neighborhood.People in this passenger seat in life blame others and avoid using their own personal power to enact change or have a good life,anyway.

Notice this week if you can discipline yourself to use language that reflects that you are sitting in your own driver's seat in your car.Take responsibility.Blame noone.Solve problems.Make a plan and take an action step to deal with a relationship you are hurting about,or a situation you don't like.Watch what happens,and feel the good self-esteem that comes from driving your own car!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

When All the News Is Negative---How to Cope

When I was working out on the treadmill at the gym early this morning,I was watching the news.It was overwhelming,scary,and upsetting.The stock market had its' worst day since 2008.Our U.S. government credit rating got reduced to an AA+.US Navy seals were tragically killed trying to rescue other soldiers in Afghanistan.London is ablaze and looting is widespread. Amy Winehouse dies at 27.It's hard to keep your spirits up.

How do we keep all this sadness from engulfing us and making it want to pull the covers up over our head and stay in bed? Here are some strategies for not getting immobilized by the downbeat flood of information:

1.Set boundaries.Turn off the news.Read it in the morning,and put it away.Never listen to the news last thing before bed,as it will make your sleep more less tranquil.Keep a bedtime for the computer and cell phone as well,several hours before yours.

2.Make a list of things and people you are grateful for,either daily or weekly.

3.Get outside.Research shows us that most urban dwellers are nature deprived,and getting outside to connect with nature,go for a walk,notice trees and animals ,or watch for signs of the season changing, will help your mind relax. Breathe deeply.Take in the fresh air and breathe out any tension or worry.

4.Seek spiritual solace.Pray,or do whatever you do or go wherever you go to feel closer to God.

5.Exercise.Get active,and as much as you need to,in order to get the worry out of your body,and preferably early in the day.Exercising is activating for your brain and body,so close to bedtime isn't good.

6.Help someone.Some of these worries are huge,and taking action locally to do something for an older person,a child,or someone in worse circumstances than you will put things in proper perspective.Action is ALWAYS better than angsting,which is passive and fruitless.Feeding the homeless with an organization I'm involved in with my 17 year-old daughter really helps us as much or more than it helps them.

Hang in there.Tough things pass.Take an active role in not taking every negative thing that occurs in the news enter the core of your being.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Life Lessons from Frank Lloyd Wright

While I was in Chicago this past week,I had the opportunity to visit and take an architectual tour of Frank lloyd Wright's home in Spring Valley,Wisconsin, which he called Taliesin.The home is on a protected space of 600 acres of low,rolling hills overlooking a beautiful river.The word Taliesin comes from his Welsh family background,and it means brow of the hill,descibing how the home creates a brow on the edge of the hills.This place is also still the home base for the Frank Lloyd Wright Fellowship,where advanced architecture students still compete to come and live here to learn about his style of architecture.

Wright is the best known American architect of the 20th century,and founded the idea of organic architecture,involving the inclusion of nature,light,and natural elements in his homes and buildings in an innovative way that had never been done before. Wright disdained the "boxes" that most architects constructed for people to live and work in.

Wright was a self-made man,incredibly visionary and talented.He didn't finish college,and often lied about his education,training,and his age,making himself two years younger as he got older.His commission of Fallingwater,an exquisite home built interlaced and sort of spilling down a waterfall in Bear Run,Pennsylvania,had engineering issues,but was selected years after Wright's death in 1959 as the most important American building of the twentieth century by a society of American architects.

Wright changed the way people think about living and work space,realizing that people have a deep need to bring in light,art, and nature into their everyday lives.He was years ahead on understanding how disconnection from nature becomes a problem in modern life.Even now,in 2011,mental health experts are considering creating a new mental health diagnosis in urban life for a future version of our diagnostic manual,the DSM-IV,tenatively called Nature Deficit Disorder.

While brilliant in some areas,Wright had some flat sides.His personal life was a mess.In Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Ada Huxtable's biography,"Frank Lloyd Wright:A Life",she explains how compicated it was. Wright fathered 8 children,but said he had NO fathering instinct,and physically and emotionally abandoned at least 7 of them.This was strickingly similar to Wright's father departing after his parent's divorce and having no contact with him after leaving.

Wright was raised by his emotionally unstable mother and her family.He never attended his father's funeral,but is known to have visited his grave a number of times alone over the years.In his own writings,Wright described the architect swallowing his father role. Life lesson:horrible plan,and very damaging to the chidren all their lives to have him physically and emotionally absent.Divorced fathers are still very much needed in their children's lives.No other man ever takes your unique place in your children's lives.Judith Wallerstein,Ph.D.,and her researchers for the center for the Family in Transition in Mill Valley,California have done 50 year longitudinal studies following the children of divorced families,and abandonment by father after divorce is about the WORST possible outcome of divorce.

Wright's relationship with his mother was peculiar as well.She doted an him and enabled his poor choices while ignoring or even being abusive of his sisters and step-siblings.He didn't bother to attend her funeral either,but she gave him the land for Taliesin,where he had grown up.Her large portrait is nearby his desk,over the fireplace in the office he worked from at Taliesin.They seemed to have an odd, love-hate dynamic between them.

Wright married 3 times,and left his first wife in tremendous scandal reported in Chicago newspapers in 1911.He left his first wife and children in financially dire circumstances to have a long-term love affair with trhe also married wife of one of his clients.She left her husband and small children to run away with Wright to Europe.Wright's mother forgave all his blind spots,and helped finance the building of Taliesin for Wright and his lover to live in,outside the public view of living in Chicago.Wright begrudgingly let his mother live with him both in Chicago,and later in Taliesin,since he had huge financial problems,creditors calling,and bankruptcy concerns,and she contributed land and resources.Life lessons:special relationships where you remain financially dependent on a parent are not healthy,and it is important for parents NOT to feed a child's narcissism or sense of entitlement.

Frank Lloyd Wright was an incredibly inspired and talented architect,and changed architecture with his ability to literally look outside the box.In his personal life,Wright's oversized ego and concern for image made him unwise in his personal relationships,and irresponsibe with his finances.He was a terrible father and husband,and used young architects to his own advantage.Frank Lloyd Wright was a fascinating study of a man who was enviable in his talent,vision,and energy to reinvent himself,but with incredible deficits in relationships,and gaps in his practical skills,honesty,and ability to spiritually mature across his lifetime to mentor others.It is intriguing to me that someone who could be so in touch with nature and the essential needs of the human spirit for beauty could have flat sides in the critical areas of parenting,life balance,being financially grounded,and living with integrity and honesty in close relationships.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The George Carlin Letters:Fun Summer Read

I just finished a fun summer read called "The George Carlin Letters: The Permanent Courtship of Sally Wade".It was written by George Carlin's partner of ten years,comedienne Sally Wade,with commentary by their dog,Spot,as well.The book is a delightful look into their love relationship or bubble as they called it.The book is a sweet personal view of both Carlin and Wade,with copious notes and cards they sent each other in their years together.

You've got to love somebody witty enough to write:"What if you met your Maker and it was Mattel?" There are lots of cute lines they had for each other,including when Sally was hormonal and George told her it was "like living with a chemistry set".Each couple has a chance to build their own,private,tender,and funny world between them.Carlin and Wade give the reader a window into the wit and humor these two enjoyed in day-to-day life.It sounds like they had so much fun together. Who could imagine they collected found change from public places? They hated to be apart.They had rituals for jumping on beds in hotel rooms like frogs.Both teased they were actually each from Jupiter.

I loved reading about how they encouraged each other.Sally can have a little stage fright,and George would go with her to little clubs and help her get in to try out her new material.George clearly felt she was the love of his life,and when he put that pure love to pen and paper,the resulting cards,notes,and drawings are touching,funny,honest and very dear.Wade's book also reports their disagreements,and how they got through them.Carlin asked Wade to marry several times, but she said no.They had their own little ceremony on Jupiter Island,but these two were soulmates,with or without the paperwork.

Since it is George Carlin,there is some racy stuff and bad words,but their love story outshines it all.When Carlin left to go to his final hospital visit,he left a note on Wade's computer keyboard for her to find later,reading:The permanent courthip of Sally Wade.Isn't permanent coutship a lovely idea? It implies we are always trying to please our partner and make them feel special.No taking each other for granted.I bet George Carlin is up in heaven smiling about this book.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Friends Are Good Medicine

A week or so back,I read a cute and thought-provoking essay in the Wall Street Journal about friends,and how having them helps your marriage.It was one reporter's observations about how having girlfriends to turn to helped her be a better partner,and have more realistic expectations about her relationship with her husband.

The reporter's musings got me thinking about the role that friends play in our lives. They validate and normalize our life experiences. They comfort us when we go through loss or difficulty.They share our personal history.They know our cast of characters.If they are a good friend,they are not afraid to call us on things.They encourage us to be brave and do the right things.They commiserate with us about things that annoy us.They may see our patterns.They know our strengths,and our weaknesses.The right friends are people we admire and respect who lift us up and let us lift them up,too.They hurt with us when we go through difficulty,and share our joy when life is good.

Close and meaningful friendships mean even more over the lifespan.In adult development,friends mean the most in our teen years and again from midlife on.Some of us get caught up thinking your partner can be everything you need in our twenties and thirties,or as we are in the busy new couple and then parenting years. As children are preparing to launch,reestablishing friendships is a crucial help in making the successful transition to being an emptynester.

Choosing friends who you respect is important.You are likely to be influenced by your close friends.Do they have integrity? Are they honest? Do they take pride in their life's work? Do they strive to be a good parent,partner,and person? Do they deal with life's challenges and losses,or do they hide behind addictions?Are they stuck whining and complaining,or are they living their life fully?

Because of personality style differences,such as extroversion and introversion,different people need different amounts of friends.Introverts prefer people one-on-one,or in a small group setting.True extoverts like the more the merrier.This is actually a continuum from one extreme to the other,with people falling all along the line about what is normal for them.Your partner may need more or less time with friends,and that is perfectly okay.Healthy couples can individuate enough to allow for these differences and not feel threatened by it.

When are friendships NOT healthy and good for you? This is true if your friend aids and assists your weaknesses(think tendency to overspend,drink too much,cheat,lie,etc.).Any friendships which are a secret to your partner are wrong and deceptive,and dishonor both you and your loved one.Friendships which are not balanced are not good,as when one friend does all the initiating of contact,or pays every time,or one person constantly dumps on the other.

The healthiest friendships are fun,have common goals and interests,and feel reciprocal and count-on-able.Some friends can go long time periods without contact and remain close despite big gaps in continuity.Some friendships go the distance in your life,while others seem to have a frehness date and a natural ending once your life situation changes.

There are lots of documented physical and mental health benefits to cultivating strong and meaningful friendships.You are blessed if you have one or more of thge really good ones.As we mature emotionally that no one person can meet your EVERY need,like one stop shopping.Having close and supportive friends promotes your ability to be a better partner and person,and keeps your expectaions realistic that your fantasy partner who intuits your every need and wish,without you communicating,is silly.Real love and authentic connection with your partner and your friends is so much more satisfying.Friends really can be good medicine.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Multi-Faceted Life

It's a mistake to have your life be too small.One tool that I often use with my coaching and counseling clients is what Susan Jeffers calls a "whole life grid". On it there are 12 to16 different squares,each of which can represent an area of your ideal life.

The squares in your life grid could include labels such as:

















These are sample ideas to get you thinking. Then,on one sheet of paper,you make the appropriate number of boxes and label them with these titles. In each box,you write,in pencil,a goal that you would like to achieve,and one small step you can plan to take towards that goal.For example,in your friend category,you may want to expand your friendship base. The small step could be inviting someone you know, or a friend you have lost touch with,to do an activity with you.Then keep updating the steps as you complete one,and set the next.

In this way,your life begins to be more multi-faceted,and continually evolving.It is not healthy or smart to have all your eggs in one basket,or all your energy in one life box,like your job,or a relationship. The happiest and most satisfied peoplke have a broader base of support and a wide range of options and interests.Have some fun making your own whole life grid,and beginning your next steps to a more interesting life.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Spirituality and Mental Health

I just returned from a family trip to London,and was,again,moved by Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral,as I sat inside and the afternoon light streamed in through the ancient stained glass windows.I had visited these same churches years ago when I first got out of college, but it was very meaningful to return years later and share the experience with my husband and our daughters.

Then,this morning,I had the honor of attending an intimate religious ceremony for a young woman I know,and see her affirm her faith,with generations of her family standing nearby for support.It was very moving to hear first hand about the journey of faith in a young person's life as they transition to adulthood,and choose to practice their faith.

What does faith and spirituality have to do with mental health? Actually,quite a bit. Numerous studies have seen higher levels of happiness,contentment,and meaning in people who have developed their spiritual side. Having a belief in a divine spirit,something bigger than yourself,can be comforting and healing. Life is full of random hits,losses,and disappointments.Having a source of meaning which trancends the physical and the here-and-now can be a great strength and solace.It can be a resource as I help people with anxiety or depression.

Developing our spirituality can also help provide us with ethics,an honor code,and a sense of right and wrong.Often people develop their spirituality after becoming parents, and being challenged to teach their children about their beliefs.This is a normal part of family lifestage development.Many children are naturally curious about life,death,God,and other spiritual matters.Sometimes children lead their parents to a spiritual path.It is also in the second half of life that our normal life tasks include more reflection,contemplation,and awareness of spirital matters.

Developing your spirituality offers a host of benefits for your mental health and well-being. It increases the chances of your life having a meaning,your relationships being sacred,your conscience working,and you being a happier and hardier soul.Discovering more about your spiritual life, and what feeds it, is an important way to develop yourself on a whole different level.
It can guide you towards the light and away from,as Carl Jung called it,your "shadow self".We all have one.Spirituality and faith can help us with forgiveness,of our flaws,and other peoples'.

I remember hearing the Dahli Lama speak years ago at UCLA,and how frustrated he got when someone asked him about a quicker way to enlightenment and real happiness. His short answer? There is no shortcut to creating it;our soul work is out there an a daily basis for us to develop ourselves,or not.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Moving Back Home After College

After the refrain of 'Pomp and Circumstance' ends,and the photos are developed,many families are finding it makes sense to have the recent college grad move home for a while as they look for work and restart their life.It's a little like after the party,for everyone involved.Here are some thouhts on easing the transition and adjustments for the graduate, and for the rest of the family.

The graduate left home 4(or possibly 5)years ago as a teenager,and now returns home as an adult,but not yet self-supporting.They have had their own routines,friends,priorities,and life. They are probably grieving,missing friends and their college lifestyle.Now they arrive home,and noone knows what should come next.For the first time in years,there may be no concrete plans or goals.It's like getting off a really fast ride at a theme park,coming to a dead stop.You feel disoriented.College life gears up at about 10pm,when middle-aged parents in suburbia are winding it down towards bed.

Parents may feel a mix of happiness to have the adult child home,and panic and anxiety over what their son or daughter can be doing next.Parents wonder if their offspring will sleep until noon forever, or someday find meaningful work and their own health insurance.Parents and younger siblings have probably adjusted over the years to day-to-day life on their own,and the whole family system has to adjust when the college grad reenters daily family life at home.

From studies of the family life cycle,we know that entrances and exits are the most difficult times for families.Entrances that stress families include births,marriages,adoptions,and family members reentering the family orbit,such as moving home. Exits that stress the family dynamics include serious illness and death,emotional cut-offs,and divorce.

What helps in the adjustment process?

1.Talk about the adjustment,how everyone can help in the process.

2.Having a few clear rules of the house clearly communicated.Issues like laundry days,quiet times,groceries,mealtimes or how food is going to be handled,parking, cleaning etc. need to be discussed.

3.Expectations about actively looking for work or taking other steps forward need to be communicated and agreed on.

4.It is healthy for all family members to contribute something to the household.Perhaps the recent grad can pick up some chores, run errands,or cook sometimes to help.

5.Be kind.Everyone in the family is adjusting to less personal space,more demands,and less freedom.We all have our little patterns,and it is easy,but not advisable,to get testy about needing to change our pattern.

Remember,we were all looking for our first job once,and its not an easy task,especially with the current economy.Keep exercising.Manage your own personal stress level.Get out of the house some,by yourself,with friends,or as a couple.This, too, will pass.The graduate only needs one good offer to get started into the next phase of life,launching and moving on.