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.