Sunday, May 29, 2011

Stay Calm and Carry On!

It's been said that our biggest fear, underlying all other fears,is that we won't be able to handle it(whatever it is).In life, it is incredibly important not to overreact,and instead,pause,breathe,and choose a response.Most things are not terminal. They might be disappointing,or frustrating,or scary, but reacting in panic is only going to complicate matters.

In love relationships,harsh set-ups and responses only push your partner away and make them more unlikely to open up and include you.If you want to solve lifes' problems together, staying calm and not freaking out helps encourage your parner to turn towards you.People who are in perpetual panic mode are exhausting to be close to.

On your own,staying calm and centered helps you to solve problems more effectively. It saves a whole lot of time and energy which could be wasted "awfulizing".Being dramatic takes a geat deal of emotional enegry that could be channeled into problem solving and adapting. It can help to remind yourself of other difficult situations you've gotten through,and identifying what you did that worked out well. What are your strengths? What internal and external resources do you have? Remind yourself that any life crisis will pass.

In parenting, being a harsh or emotional reactor makes it less likely your child or children will turn to you for support or input.They will think you are either a hothead or too fragile,and not be open when they are in trouble.If you wish to be someone they turn to,act accordingly!

At work,you can't afford to stress out. Co-workers will think less of you if any little thing sets you off. It will seve your career better to act AS IF you are calm and centered,even if you don't always feel it. Feeling follows action.Truth is,every day when we get up we face stressors of different kinds,including at work.That's why they call it WORK. Don't be surprised by it. Take mini-stress breaks throughout the day. Even walking outside and noticing the weather and the cloud formations helps to restore calm.

Whatever crisis or complications you may face this week,stay calm and carry on! You will take pride in developing more mastery over your reactions,and not letting your negative or fear-based feelings run the show.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Beware Emotional Flooding

All couples fight or have to work through conflict at times.It's normal. I am always concerned if a couple tells me they never disagree. Either someone is brain dead or afraid to speak up. What matters most to me about couples and conflict as a structural family therapist is HOW the couple moves through the conflict. Can they disagree while staying respectful of each other and their relationship? It's been said that all couples have a few perpetual unresolveable issues. What marks a successful relationship is being able to discuss those differences without threats,nastiness,or a need to win every time. Afterall, do you want to win, or do you want to be happy? Being a couple is like being a part of a team, and you've got to have your partner's back,rather than go gunning for them.

One of the most important concepts I learned from doing some training with University of Washington psychologist and couples researcher John Gottman is that of emotional flooding.Gottman ran a "Love Lab" at the university,where couples' interactions were studied as they interact with each other and live there for a brief time.Each partners' heart rate and other physiological responses are monitored throughout their stay.

Gottman and his team identified a pattern that was dangerous to couples' relationship survival.If the male partner frequently experienced "emotional flooding" during the couples interactions it negatively skews the chances of the couple making it long-term. Emotional flooding is a state of overwhelm where the individual may get flushed,stressed,physiologically agitated,and have a desire to do fight or flight.Note to all partners: when you are working through a conflict with your beloved,pay attention to your partners' non-verbal cues.Don't overwhelm them.Offer to take a break so you can both calm down. Research on stress and anger tells us that the human body usually needs 20 to 30 minutes of cool down time to release a high level of tension. You and your partner could adjourn and meet up later when you are both calmer and can be more constructive.

Conflict is completely normal and healthy,because two individual people will have competing core needs at times.Losing control,screaming threats,or making below-the-belt comments is not healthy. Unbridled anger can emotionally flood your partner and put the relationship at risk. Be smart.Watch for flooding,and when you see it, know to stop and cool down.You don't wanted your beloved to associate you with high levels of emotional distress and negative biological sensation.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lessons From Living With Cancer

Life isn't fair. Some random difficult experiences happen to good people,and one of those is cancer.It can challenge both the person who gets diagnosed with it,and their close family and friends.Some people live through it,and have their life forever changed by it.Others are told that they are not likely to outlive the cancer, and have to decide how much and what kind of treatments to undergo.

I got introduced to cancer in the late 1980's,when I worked for an Orange County hospital.I worked with inpatient and outpatient cancer patients and their families.I also did hospice counseling in patients' homes and bedsides when they had accepted a terminal diagnosis and had days, weeks, or a few months left. I witnessed such grace and depth in my patients as I had the privilege to walk beside them and do life review,help them complete their relationships,and say goodbye. I will never forget the sacredness of those afternoons spent listening,supporting, and helping some wonderful people in finding closure and making their transition.Later,I felt grateful to help the families with bereavement counseling,having known their loved one during hospice care.

I took lots of lessons with me from those experiences with cancer patients and their families. Treasure every day. Tomorrow isn't promised to any of us. Let the people you love know how you feel about them. Don't get caught up wasting time focusing on the stupid stuff in life. Ask for support. Don't be afraid to talk with people about their illness,their fears,their life reflections,or their feelings about dying. Many times family members shy away from talking about such things,so the terminal cancer patient is more alone.Scared feelings are reduced by being shared.Cancer can actually bring people closer,although we would wish for noone to ever experience it.

Living with cancer can be scary. Many people who live through a scare with cancer reflect that the experience was a watershed moment in their life that reordered what came after.If you know that you escaped a premature death, it often changes a person for the better.Having a cancer diagnosis can cause lots of emotional repercussions as you deal with high tech treatments that make you feel weak,tired,nauseated,and otherwise sick.There can be a huge toll on ones' sense of self as you deal with hair loss,effects of chemotherapy and radiation, and treatment routines that take over your life for some period of time. Cancer can test your courage, your faith,and your strength of character.

For the past five years,my mom has been battling a rare type of terminal blood cancer most often found in black men. Go figure. She is neither.The treatment is horrible.The disease is painful.We are grateful,however,for this extra time we have had with such a wonderful lady.There are powerful lessons for all of us who are privileged to know her about grace, humor, spirituality ,and love that will stay with us always.Living with cancer?It's a profound and meaningful but uninvited experience that changes everyone it touches.It guides us to greater levels of wisdom about what is the important stuff,and what we can let go of.There is the potential for growth for people who are living with cancer,and the people who love them.

Monday, May 9, 2011

What's Next?

It seems like every time you hit a developmental milestone,you barely get there and people start to ask you,"What's next?" When you graduate from high school,finish college,get married,or have a baby,everyone is curious about what you are planning next.

The question might feel fine, because you've got firm plans for the next steps. Conversely,it might feel like pressure if you don't have it figured out yet.The reality is that most major life passages take us about 3-6 months to adjust to.

It's perfectly ok to take life changes one step at a time.It makes you NORMAL if you graduate from college in this economy and you need to sort out getting a career started,separating from parents,beginning to stand on your own with finances,and shifting from student to adult. When people ask you about your plans,it's ok to say you don't have all the answers yet.(Truth is we never do!)

When you get married, well-meaning friends and family can begin to ask about when you plan to start a family.It's really better to give yourselves time as a couple to adjust to life together before you add the role changes of becoming a parent on top of it.Be sure to prepare your broken record responses for those queries.(Thanks for asking,we'll keep you posted.) While babies are wonderful,they present challenges for couples in terms of staying close,and add a whole new set of stressors.This is another life transition that is better managed without adding in another change concurrently.

It's healthy and adaptive to give yourself a few months to make life transitions.Gather up your support.Identify your strengths. Do extreme self-care. Keep up your exercise and other things that keep your energy level up.Stay in contact with your friends.Give yourself praise for your efforts that lead you forward.Be patient with yourself,as it may take a little to have your next stage of life feel normal.When you get asked what's next,it's quite alright to say,"I'm working on that".Free yourself from unrealistic expectations that you are supposed to make major life transitions instantly,or have all the answers for the next life phase before you live through it.Be sure to pause,breathe, and savor what you are just completing as well.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Are You a Giver or a Taker?

"There is within each of us a potential for goodness beyond our imaginings."

Elizabeth Kubler Ross

It occured to me this week that you can divide the world into two kinds of people, the givers and the takers. Which are you? If you are a parent or grandparent,which kind are you raising?

We need to ask ourselves in every relationship we are in,our family,our marriage,our work setting,and our community,do we contribute more than we take? A family is like a canoe in a race,and it helps tremendously if everyone paddles. This might equate to having a positive,fun attitude,being kind and appreciative,thinking of others,and giving what help you can offer to family members. Family vacation season is almost upon us,and I find it much more pleasureable to hangout together as a family when everyone contributes their best self.This includes policing your own moods,and working at being a positive presence for others. These are the traits of givers.

Takers see the world as a pie, and they would like the huge middle section,thank you very much.Takers feel their needs are more important than everyone else. They demand attention and that things go their way.Takers are either unaware of other people's needs,or they just don't care enough to do anything to help others.

In parenting,we need to stop and ask ourselves from time to time which type of child or teen we are raising.It is our job to teach young people in our lives that they are part of a family,and of a community,and help shape them into givers.Children are naturally and developmentally self-focused and need to be invited by caring adults to remember family birthdays,send thank you notes,spend time with aging grandparents,help younger siblings, and volunteer alongside you in the community. Help me in trying to send a generation of givers out into adulthood to make our world a better,gentler place.

If you are a giver,you also want to run someting like a Norton-antivirus scan on your life occasionally to scan for too many takers.Natural givers need to protect their generous giving from threats from thirsty,energy-sucking takers.Watch the balance and keep an eye on your energy level.If givers feel overtaxed,you can pull back and do extreme self-care to replenish yourself and take a break from the energy vampires.

In the end, I agree with Elizabeth Kubler Ross, who was a Swiss pioneer in helping people with death,dying, and life-threatening illness;there is an unlimied amount of good in all of to access if we choose.Give some this week,and see if you can run a little intervention with a taker in your life.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Success, Defined By You

Today's Sunday New York Times has a fun article by Jan Hoffman about modern culture titled "The Good Wife and It's Women".It ponders the cultural relevance of the female characters on the CBS show, and how they cope with their careers,husbands,and families.Ultimately, the show's co-creator,Michelle King, says she likes to consider "at the end of these women's lives,what will success mean to each of them?" The shows lead female characters have all been through loss,disappointment,set-backs and betrayals,personally and/or professionally in their law careers. Sometimes we get to witness the characters lives changing,and the character having to redefine success in new terms.

Real life can cause us to reshuffle the deck,and redefine our personal version of success.Many of us change our ideas about success as we grow older.I always encourage the people I counsel and coach to redefine success for themselves.Clearly, money doen't buy happiness. As we age,we realize that time with the people we care about means a great deal.Having the opportunity to pursue things we are passionate about keeps us young and full of life. Even Freud knew that we need two things in life that we pursue with vigor: love and work.

Success may mean living life with honesty,character,a sense of humor,and faith. Many people decide that being the top person in your office has its' limitations. If you spend too much time chasing career success, your children grow up and depart without really knowing you. Knowing how to have work being a meaningful part of your life,but knowing when to set limits with it, is a great skill. Time and sacred space for your partner,your parents,your children,and yourself is essential.

What is your personal definition of success? Take a moment this week to reflect on how your personal definition of success may have evolved over time.Having your own authorship over how you define success gives you clarity to make decisions about how you spend your life,and acceptance that it is ok for you to have your own, independent view of the world on the topic of success.You can do it your way. Now,wouldn't Frank Sinatra be proud?