Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Gift of Attention

It feels really,really good to have the whole,undivided attention of someone you care about or hold in high regard.It's about the best gift you can give or get. Children love their parents' and grandparents' attention.Even teenagers like to get low-key attention and hanging out together with parents,assuming it's without conversational grilling(how about that Algebra 2 grade?)Husbands like to get positive attention from their wives,so they feel held in the relationship,important and special.Wives love to get positive attentiveness and companionship from husbands to feel visible and cherished.Adult children still jockey for position to notice how aging parents pay attention to adult siblings.

I can remember being in graduate school at Chapman,in supervision with a favorite,esteemed professor and noticing how it bothered me when he got up and fiddled with making coffee while I was getting consultation with him on my first counseling caseload.I finally summoned up my courage part way through the semester and shared with him that I really benefited from his eye contact and full focus while I was with him for a valued hour of his insight and wisdom on treatment planning.It became a standing silly joke between the two of us whenever I met with him after that."Christyn,I am listening!" he would say with a smile in his eyes.

Full attention requires eye contact. It means you are honest if you are distracted,and plan another time when you can give your all. Full attention means sitting nearby the other person,and putting away cell phones,ipads,computer screen,and turning off the television.You can't multitask and give some one your complete attention. It is rare that we get someone's full attention these days and it feels WONDERFUL.It makes you feel valued,significant, and nurtured.It costs nothing!

In the age of 'stuff',we buy our children things,and we drive them to lessons,social events,school,and sports.Maybe this is a novel way at looking at our relationships with our children and our partners,where we give them the best gifts of all---our time and attention.In a hurry-up,fractured world, a little one-on-one time soothes the savage beast in each of us and strengthens the connection between us. Who can you give your full attention to this week? And whose attention do you want to ask for in a humor-filled or direct way? You can change the dance in any relationship by showering that person with your full attention.Just watch;they should be pleasantly surprised by the promotion to a higher level of your attention.Remember, where attention goes,energy flows.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Making Repairs

When you buy a new home,everything seems perfect. If you live there a few years,however,inevitably it will occur to you that some changes and repairs are needed.It might be a leak in the plumbing,or fresh paint,or a desire to redo the backyard more to suit you. Relationships also need repairs and renovation.

How do we repair relationships?

When there are hurt feelings,tension, or distance between you and the other person,
you acknowledge it.You pick a good approach and time and have the difficult,emotionally brave conversation that is needed. You take responsibility for your part of the situation.You apologize for hurt you have caused. You ask the other person about what they are feeling and experiencing.Then you listen. You take any feedback to heart, and are non-defensive.

All relationships have arguments,misunderstandings,and conficts between each person's core needs.What matters is that in more satisfying relationships,people work through the issues and differences and seek to understand each other.When there is hurt or distance,healthy people make attempts to repair the relationship quickly,and healthy partners participate willingly in the repair. Relationship repair takes two.A healthy working through of conflict almost always makes each person feel more known and held in the relationship.

Psychology researcher John Gottman and his team at the University of Washington found that couples who begin difficult conversations with a good start,as opposed to a harsh set-up, are more likely to stay happily married.A harsh set-up includes blame and attack, and probably yelling. This is a sure-fire way to shut down communication with your child, partner,co-worker,or anyone else.Gottman's research suggests that in good relationships,people see the best in each other and accept repair attempts.

Why have difficult conversations at all? High-quality relationships require authenticity,genuineness,and honesty. They need both people to be all in.I love to see people develop their voice in therapy and become emotionally strong and courageous enough to say the truth about what they are experiencing in their relationships. Relationships cannot be great when the people in them don't feel safe enough to say the truth about what they need and want, and be open to the needs and wants of the other person.You don't need the other person to be just like you.They also don't have to be perfect.We just need to be able to acknowledge distance,conflict and hurt between ourselves and those we care about, and be able to talk about it and repair it in non-defensive and open ways.

When bones break in the human body and are set and healed properly,the bone actually can become stronger at that broken place than it was before.In close relationships, we want to acknowledge hurt and pain, and attempt to repair it with a desire to understand both ourself and the other person better.This is the stuff great lives and meaningful relationships are made of.See if you can make or accept a repair in one of your relationships this week,or be brave and start that difficult conversation that is needed.You're worth it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


A parent comes in to counseling and complains that their teenager shuts them out,and doesn't respond well when they approach to discuss problems. The parent is convinced that it is 100% the teen's fault they are not close.That's just how teens are,they say.

A married adult comes in blaming their partner for not meeting their needs, the relationship getting stale,and them feeling disengaged. If only their partner was more fit/worked at a better job/ a better conversationalist/more sexual/more fun/etc. They recognize they are no longer "in love", and are passively waiting to see if their partner fixes things enough for them to stay.They get a false sense of power from hanging out in ambivalence.

An adult whines about their job and their boss, but does nothing to try to improve the situation.They badmouth their supervisor and the company, but don't take responsibility for finding solutions,or finding another job or a career that is a better fit.They rationalize that they can't be expected to give much to their family, because they are so stressed out or unhappy with work.

What is the common denominator in each of these scenarios? Each time we have a person stuck playing the blame game,and assigning 100% of the blame to the OTHER person.It is almost impossible to move a situation forward in a constructive way or improve a relationship when people are stuck in blame.It prevents people from considering some key things:

~What could I do differently?

~How am I contributing to this problem with my attitude and my behavior?

~Can I put aside my ego and ASK for honest feedback on what I can do better with my teenager,my marriage,or my job?

~If I get feedback, can I listen with my heart,and not dismiss the feedback to protect my pride?

~Is it a comfortable bad habit for me to project my insecurities,frustrations,and dissatisfactions on a person,relationship, or job?

~ What AM I DOING that undermines this marriage,relationship,or job? Do I use poor timing or approach in talking with my teenager about problems? Am I undermining my own marriage by texting past or potential partners,or doing other disloyal,secretive behavior? Do I do nurturing,loving actions and behaviors for my partner that make them feel important,cherished,and valued?Do I put in poor quality work at my job and justify it somehow?

I know I have an emotionally mature person to work with when they can look past blame, and introspect with an open heart about what they contribute to any situation non-defensively.Every relationship has a dance, and by changing your own dance steps you redefine the dance.It's been said that in relationships each person may wish to get the other person to change, but we need to grow to realize that we can only change ourselves. The best relationship improvements come when each are open-minded,not rigid,and own our own baggage.This is the stuff great relationships and great lives are made of.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Authentic Happiness

Martin Seligman is a psychologist,researcher,writer,former president of the American Psychological Association, and also a self-identified former grouch. This insight about his own tendency to see the negative, and his review of the psychological literature as being mostly illness-focused, lead Seligman to founding Positive Psychology. Instead of researching anxiety and depression, Positive Psychology studies what brings people happiness,satisfaction,and meaning.This week, I enjoyed rereading Seligman's classic book "Authentic Happiness",and rediscovered why I love Martin Seligman and all the great,unexpected surprises he has to teach us.

Would you believe that most of us have a set point for happiness?(This is similar to the natural set point for our weight that we usually return to, even after intense dieting.) Seligman's research suggests that what we can try to do is operate from the high end of our natural happiness range.

What does Seligman observe about happy people?

1. They spend time with other people and have strong,caring relationships. They aren't usually loners.

2. They are more likely to be married. In his study, Seligman noted that 40% of married individuals identified themselves as very happy, compared to 20% of singles. Most truly happy people are in a caring, commited relationship. Married people also tend to live longer.

3.They have a faith.

4.Money isn't that important, once you have a certain level of security.Very poor people are often unhappy and distressed, but even lottery winners return from the initial euphoria to their previous level of happiness within a year. Money can't buy you happiness.

5. More choices don't necessarily make people any happier. It's the commitment we make to the choices we took that make us happier. Sometimes too many choces just make us overwhelmed.(Think of Robin Williams as a Russian immigrant in Moscow on the Hudson,overwhelmed and distressed by all the cereal choices at the American supermarket.)

6.Developing our character strengths also makes us feel happy and satisfied. Cultivating traits like kindness,patience,courage,acceptance, humor,flexibility,and resilency all make us feel more content.This is the largest method of impacting our level of happiness.

I recommend all of Seligman's books on finding happiness,avoiding learned helplessness and leading a positive life.Even Seligman shares he learned to stop raining on the happiness in his family.Do your part to add some happy to the mix in your relationships. Each person is charged with the responsibility of creating our own happiness and sharing it with those we love,rather than squeezing it out of others!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Emotional Blackmail

Is there a terrorist in your relationship, your family, your group of friends or your office? Emotional blackmail is a nasty pattern of manipulating for control of the outcomes that everyone needs to know about, and watch out for.This pattern can be very confusing to the people targeted by it.You may find yourself walking on eggshells in order not to awaken the beast within the blackmailer.They must win at all costs, regardless of the impact on those closest to them.

Author and psychologist Susan Forward coined the term in her 1997 classic "Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt". Susan also penned several other books I recommend to patients, including "Toxic Parents", "Men Who Hate Women,and the Women Who Love Them", and "When Your Lover Is A Liar". All are great reads with lots of practical strategies.

Why would people resort to using emotional blackmail in relationships? Most people who use this strategy are insecure, needy, and dependent. In their childhood or past relationships, the blackmailer has been frustrated at not getting their needs met, and they are using this unhealthy, controlling method to avoid a fear of loss.They threaten to end the relationship if they don't get their own way at all times. They pout.They prey on your kindness,and try to whip up feelings of guilt when you are asking for something completely reasonable.For example, if you spend time with your friends, this relationship is over. Somebody call the relationship ref to drop the penalty flag!

While emotional blackmail can occur anywhere in your life, it is most difficult to deal with it when this manipulation is launched by those closest to you----your parent, partner or child. Through the use of FOG(fear, obligation,and guilt)the blackmailer twists the story to make the reasonable person feel bad and want to give in and placate to get peace. Wrong move.If you let this pattern continue, your self-esteem will be damaged,and you will feel distant from the other person. You will not feel you have the safety of give and take in the relationship, because they can withdraw affection, love, time, money,promotion unless you give in. Every time. This is emotional terrorism.

In healthy relationships,people are not forced to do things that don't feel right to them or compromise their authentic self in order to preserve the relationship. This is like being in a relationship on a banana peel,ready to be released at any moment. In healthy relationships, in contrast, partners can disagree without attacking each other personally or making threats, and return to a feeling of closeness and safety. There is a respect for the differences between individuals.Forwards' book has good, practical ideas for how to regain limits, set boundaries,regain your emotional strength and integrity if this difficult drama is happening in your life. Get educated about emotional blackmail,and begin taking care of yourself,and past your own fears.

Emotional blackmail is not good for people or relationships. It kills the joy when people can't relax and be themselves in a relationship. Don't give anyone the power to control you in this way.The price is too high.Take back your ability to set reasonable limits and disagree respectfully.Afterall,if two people agree about EVERYTHING,something is fishy.