Sunday, January 30, 2011

Weeding Your Thoughts and Your Life

I love to plant flowers and grow a garden. As every gardener will tell you,having a beautiful and healthy garden takes tending. You need to water it, feed it, and once a week or so, you must come through and pull out the weeds.

Your life also need tending. Everything goes better if you add positive input, inspiring experiences and people to your life. It is also important to minimize your contact as much as possible with people who are negative,critical,chronically whiny and otherwise emotionally toxic for you to be around.Pursue people and experiences which make you feel upbeat,hopeful,and positive.Seek out people who you resonate with in this way.

Your thoughts also need weeding regularly.Self-defeating thoughts lead to self-defeating behavior, which cycle into a lethargic state and feelings of defeat.For example,we could think "there is no point. I don't have the energy to workout/write that paper/clean house. I'm not in the mood.Things are too difficult. I will probably fail." There is very little chance of a successful outcome with those powerful negative thoughts.

We need to learn to endorse and cheer yourself on instead.Replace self-downing thoughts with more objective and self-endorsing ones.For example, "I'm going to see what I can accomplish if I work on this paper for an hour".Breaking down tasks into chunks can make it easier to start, and you can feel less overwhelmed.Take little steps toward a goal you feel blocked on, and use modest time limits for your efforts.(How do we eat an elephant? One bite at a time.)

Watch your internal dialogue.Try to think in wants, rather than musts or shoulds. Reformulating your self-talk to own your choices will lift your mood.Reward yourself with play or a healthy treat for taking steps towards your desired goal.Watch out for labeling yourself in negative ways, or using ALWAYS or NEVER.Very few things in life are that absolute.

Instead of conjuring up self-defeating emotions, like tiredness, boredom, and discouragement, focus on visualizing success at the task you have been avoiding. Try that on and see how it feels.

David Burns,M.D., in his classic book "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy", tells us that there are mind-sets that keep one stuck and prevent us from moving forward towards our goals. They are:
*overwhelming yourself
*jumping to conclusions
*undervaluing the rewards
*fear of failure
*fear of success
*fear of criticism
*low-frustration tolerance

This week, try to eliminate negative statements to yourself and to others.Use positive words to affirm your goals.Use positive, energized I-statements to get yourself going(I am becoming a more patient/active/positive person.)Put up positive post-it notes to give you a quick affirmation throughout the day.

Sprinkle in some self-care this week. Brew a cup of your favorite tea. Watch a favorite movie.Go for a walk with your dog.Take a bubble bath. Be around someone who encourages you and makes you feel good. Listen to something upbeat or inspiring---for those of you in the greater LA area, I recently found a new radio program on weekdays on KFWB 980am from 2 to 4pm with motivational speaker Les Brown if you find yourself driving at that time.

Don't forget to pull a few weeds from your life and your thoughts this week so that there is room for the good stuff to grow.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Tiger Mothers: Why It's Not a Good Idea

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have both featured articles this month about Amy Chua's recent book,"Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". The book has stirred lively debate among parents and parenting experts. The Wall Street Journal is said to have had over 5,000 comments about it on their Web site so far! Now Amy Chua is going out on a national book tour to promote the book, which promotes her own extreme parentong strategies and philosophies.Feedback has been so intense that Chua has received death threats.As a Marriage and Family Therapist practicing for 20 years, and having taught Active Parenting classes for more than 10 years,I have some thoughts about what is off about the approach Amy Chua promotes.

Basically, Chua is a hard-driving, ambitious parent who is also a law professor at Yale. She demands straight A's from her two daughters,refuses to let them socialize much,outlaws sleepovers, and provides liberal amounts of criticism. She threw out handmade birthday cards they made at ages 4 and 7 and told them they didn't show enough effort.She can refuse to let them get up to go to the bathroom until a piano concerto is good enough.Chua has tip top standards and never lets the girls forget it.

What are the potential problems from parenting in this highly authoritarian style?You may be setting the children up for problems with increased anxiety and/or depression. They may struggle all their adult lives with not feeling good enough, and need counseling to overcome this belief. They may hate you, may rebel against you as soon as they are out of your watch, and are not likely to turn to you when they struggle with problems because they see you as harsh and judgemental.Think about who you seek out to talk about your personal problems with. Would you voluntarily open up with someone with those qualities when you are hurting or in a dilemma? I wouldn't.

Chua says her tone was meant to be self-mocking, and even she has grown to see areas where she is over the top.Apparently,with some extreme pushback from her girls, even she and her husband are softening a little and are allowing a birthday sleepover. The debate the book has stirred is good, and does make us look at our own parenting positions.

Authoritarian parents have some strengths. They have clear rules and family structure about homework, music practice, meals and bed time. There is no chaos in the autoritarian style of parenting.Basic family structure and rules are good, but as children mature they need to have a bit more say in their own lives.The parents are still the executives in healthier families, but children and teens feel they can ask questions, and get more freedom when they are demonstrating responsible behavior.

What is missing in this style of parenting is the ability to communicate openly in the family, and a more democratic process for letting children and teens make some choices about their lives in age-appropriate ways.Children and teens need to learn through making some mistakes. I would also like to prepare teens for making good choices when we launch them. We impair their ability to think for themselves when they are used to us contolling their every move.If you think back and you had a parent with this high-contol/high-negative approach, reflect on whether this caused you to be more secretive or shut them out.I don't want my daughters to marry highly controlling partners either, and there may be a familiar attraction for a girl raised in this style.Teens raised by authoritarian rule will either end up following others blindly, or rebeling stongly and acting out. I don't like either option.

Tiger mothers love their children, but may need some rethinking about whether the achievements they get from their children are worth the cost emotionally to the child and to the parent-child relationship.Maybe Ms. Chua has learned a little from the heated debate her book has stirred.Perhaps all of us benefit from the discussion.If we are raising our children to be independent thinkers, self-motivated, well-adjusted,responsible,and confident, we need to parent with that long-term outcome in mind.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The 3,000 Mile Relationship Check-Up

Your car and your closest relationships have something in common. They each take maintenance. If you drove your car for years without changing the oil, getting it washed or taking it for factory recommended sevice,you could get stranded somewhere. Your investment in your car would be lost. While you probably don't treat your car that way(I hope!),you might be ignoring important service lights on your most important relationships. If you marry your beloved and assume things are fine because they still show up for dinner, you are making a big mistake.

It always makes me sad when couples arrive at my office too late for me to help.The resentment and hurt have built up sky high and they have no common interests. They may be ignoring each other or hiding behind the overfocus on the children.Both feel taken for granted.Nobodys' needs are being met, and the relationship can feel like co-task sharers, completely without passion and spark.How does this happen? These two people picked each other and fell in love at one time.

There is an elegantly simple and effective tool you can use to check-in on how you are doing in your relationship. You can ASK! Invite your partner on a 20-minute walk with you once a month. Ask how you are doing in the relationship with them, and if there is anything more,or different,that you can do to make them feel special to you. Then LISTEN. I suggest leaving the house and going on a walk so you can give each other your full attention,without interruption.

Arrange for the interaction to be as positive and future-oriented as possible.Try to give each other constructive feedback that gives your partner specific ideas of how to better meet your needs. For example, instead of telling your partner that they never give you attention(black/white thinking), ask them if they could send give you a hug when you get home from work, or call you once a day to say something sweet and personal. Positive and specific motivates people best. Otherwise,your partner gets discouraged, hopeless that it will ever be enough,and they suspect you are the black whole of Calcutta.

Hopefully when you offer this check-in for your partner, they will want to respond and get feedback on how they are doing with you as well. That is the desired outcome! The best relationships are when we have two caring people both striving to be undefended and open to the differences between you. Warning:it is very likely that differnt things make you feel loved(read "The 5 Love Languages").Those differences are normal.Don't belittle or judge your partners' requests.

This check-in, or callibration meeting,could have the potential power to keep your most important investment,your love relationship, on track, dynamic and alive. I believe all relationships are always changing. Why not take charge, be brave anough to be vulnerable, and challenge yourself to grow into an even more loving person and partner?Whether you try this strategy with your partner, or your child, ther is much to be gained by being open to feedback fom people who matter.When are you taking your walk?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book Review:The Blessings of a B Minus

It's hard raising teenagers! As parents,we need all the perspective and support we can get,which is why I was interested in psychologist Wendy Mogel's new book,"The Blessings of a B Minus:Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers"(Simon and Schuster,2010).Having teens means losing some of the sweet little daily routines you counted on when your child was younger. They are replaced by power struggles about every little thing,attitudes that make you feel stupid and useless,and bedrooms that are a mess. Will we survive this and learn to laugh about it?

I know from a developmental perspective that teens are supposed to be working on separating from us, in preparation for launching to adult life after high school. The pushing that teens do on parents often causes parents to grow, too, and refocus on their own values,marriage,self,and spirituality. As your last teen heads for adulthood, parents have to reconfigure their lives again as well.It helps to remember that without the parent-teen struggles that teens would have trouble negotiating this phase of life and their desire to launch.

In Mogel's book, she does a beautiful job of observing the changes teens and families undergo.She suggests that the calmer and less reactive we can be as parents, the more likely we are to walk beside our teen until they get through their struggles and reach adulthood. Letting teens deal with natural consequences of their choices is also a recommended tool in many situations with teens.Mogel looks at a variety of parenting challenges we face with useful insights and practical examples.
Some of these parenting dilemmas with teens she addresses are:

1)Rudeness-a mixed blessing.If your teen is rude to you it means they are working hard to separate from you and you are safe as a target for their frustrations of being not all grown up yet.Set reasonable, basic limits and role model polite and kind behavior.

2)Self-centeredness-Certain stages in life are prone to being self-absorbed, and this is one of them. Mogel urges parents to practice tolerance while we spot opportunities to expose our teens to those who are less fortunate. The teen years can be a great time to take up some volunteer work together. It has been one of the best ways to connect with my 16-year old. Especially since I am a co-worker and not in charge!

3)Needing to test the limits-Teens seem to need to test out rules for themselves. What happens when you get 5 tardies? What happens if you break curfew? What happens when you stay up too late and you are exhausted the next day? What happens if you don't pass Math? What about if you get dress-coded? What if I call in sick a lot to my part-time job when I'm not actually ill? What if I ignore my homework assignment? As parents, sometimes we just need to stay out of it when the consequences are not serious, and let our teens bump their way through some of these life lessons.

4) Need for downtime-We need to recognize teens have stress to deal with about growing up, learning to handle independence and responsibility,academic pressure, plans for the future, body image,and relationships with friends and the opposite sex. As parents we need to understand they need time to rest and relax.

5) Finding their own dreams(NOT OURS)-Throughout the teen years we need to take back our hopes and dreams for our children when they were little, and support them in finding their own dreams and goals for adult life: work,college,relationships,etc. Help them identify what they are good at.

Loving detachment can be a parents' best friend. That way we can be somewhat empathetic, but not rescue, so our teen gets stronger and learns the lessons they need to from personal experience. Some things they CAN'T get from us. You can be concerned but detached at the same time, which gives your teen the message that you care,but you know they are strong enough to learn from a situation and move on.We need to lead from a position of calm authority, as we try to have some influence and realize we will not have control of some things our teen does.

We also need to not push. A B minus can be fine.Don't compare your child to yourself or siblings at the same age.Try to encourage by affirming what is progress or effort shown by your teen. Don't criticize or manipulate by making sugestions for how they could do it better. Your teen is watching for that "never enough" message.

I especially enjoyed Mogel's chapter on "Dealing with the Chronically Rude" which has useful insights for living sucessfully through your teens' bouts with a bad attitude.A sense of humor helps. Draw up your own family's list of boundaries for rude behavior and calmly enforce and role model it. Ignore sulking, eye rolling,mild teasing,grousing before chores and required tasks. You can not die on every molehill, so identify what you cannot accept, and let the rest go. Take comfort in the fact that if your teen is normal, they are probably nice to friends and their parents, coaches, teachers and everyone but you.Remind yourself that your teens' hormones will eventually stabilize and the bad attitude will pass.Try to concentrate on the basic behaviors you want your teen to do, because concerns about attitude are unlikely to be something your teen can easily shift out of.

We need to keep investing in our teens. Take an interest in their activities and friends. Show goodwill as often as possible. Give them credit for anything they are doing right.Find times when you can say YES entusiastically.Honor their food preferences.(I have found this to be a hidden hug for busy teens to find all their personal favorites on hand in the kitchen. Another way to say "you matter" and "I pay attention to you".)

Feeling your teen pull away from you is tough. This well-written gem can help you put things in a developmental perspective, and give you hope and comfort for this challenging part of the spiritual journey of parenting.We are learning lessons along this part of the journey as well that are sure to teach us more wisdom, grace,and patience.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Resilency: Bouncing Back When Bad Things Happen

The creator of Rational Emotive Therapy(RET),Albert Ellis, Ph.D., taught us that life is unfair,everybody doesn't have to like you, and other rational ways to look at human relationships and life situations.It seems into every life a certain amount of bad stuff happens: loss,betrayal,financial distress,illness,disappointment and rejection.What is fascinating to me is the resilency of the human spirit, and how people can grow through these unwanted and unwished-for challenges.

As quickly as possible, I work with patients to move out of a victim role. It is healthy to grieve unexpected loss with its stages of grief. Most people experience shock,anger,sadness,and a period of wondering "what if"?(called bargaining) Actively working out these feelings is very important and can be done through talking it through,listening to music, and active exercise.Dealing with grief as soon as possible is always easier and less complicated than shutting it inside where it can remain unresolved. The goal is, over time, to withdraw the emotional energy in the lost dream or relationship, accept the reality of the loss, and gradually reapply that emotional energy in new places in your life.

Grief is not the same as depression. Grief is a normal reaction to a loss.Grief does not normally impact self-esteem as depression so often does. Grief hits in waves of intensity,and then passes. Getting support around you--- friends, family and a good therapist, can strengthen you and help you on your journey through the grief process and successfully moving forward with your life as you resolve the grief.

It is essential to look for your part in any situation, and learn any lessons possible, so that you do not need to repeat the lesson.Bones,when broken,can heal and be even stronger at that place. In a similar fashion, human beings can weather the storms of life, but actively seek to become stronger, wiser and more gentle in the process of coping with unexpected challenge and loss. Be like the willow, and bend and adapt,and not like the oak which breaks instead.In the end, all we can really control is our responses to some life events. We can choose to grow and move on in our lives with as much heart,grace,and resilence as we can.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Why Did I Pick You?

One book I especially enjoyed reading this past year is Helen Fisher,Ph.D.'s called "Why Him? Why Her?". Fisher is a research professor of Anthropology ar Rutgers University. She is well-known for her writing on brain differences and gender, and the nature of romantic love and attachment. She is also the scientific advisor to In this work, Fisher studies why we fall in love with one person, and not another.She reports on her study of 40,000 men and women, and examines their personality type and what draws people to their partner.

Fisher asserts that love is not blind. In fact, if we know as much as possible about our personality style and attachment,it helps to expain why we make the choices we make in relationships.Some temperament types match up beautifully, while others can be problematic.With her anthroplogy and biology background, Fisher looks at the biological and brain differences which contribute to personality style differences.

Fisher draws a design of four primary personality types:

EXPLORERS-they are curious,creative,adventurous,sexual, impulsive and self-reliant.They are naturally attracted to other Explorers.

BUILDERS- are calm, persistent, loyal,traditional,cooperative,social and managerial. Builders are drawn to other Builders.

DIRECTORS-are analytical,decisive,focused,inventive,competitive,independent and strategic in orientation.Directors are attracted to Negotiators.

NEGOTIATORS-are imaginative,verbal,intuitive,idealistic,agreeable and introspective.Negotiators often feel srongly drawn to Directors.

The theory is that each individual has a primary, or dominant style, as natural as being right-handed or left-handed. In addition, each of us also has a secondary style.Each personality style is prone to certain natural strengths and weaknesses.

Builders approach problems in a step-wise approach, like traditions and rules, and prefer plans and schedules. Fisher discusses her findings that the builder style brain has more seratonin activity, and this,in turn,impacts the behavior of Builders.The increased seratonin levels in Builders can supress testosterone levels and increase oxytocin levels, making this style calm and confident,but not aggressive.Builders are highly social, and like to belong.

Directors are a different tribe. They create systems, which is a trait linked to certain testosterone levels. Directors admire emotional control,like to approach problems analytically, are direct and focused. They can be emotonally blind to the needs of others, so need to watch this aspect of relationships. Directors aim high and take charge in most situations. They are natural leaders.They are competitive and autonomous.Directors can be very altruistic.

Fisher calls Negotiators the Philosopher King. They are web-thinking, collecting bits of information and finding patterns which illustrate larger concepts. Estrogen is a primary influence in the Negotiator brain, assisting web-thinking with ease of bi-lateral brain thinking, with good connections between distant areas in the brain developed in utero.Negotiators are abstract thinkers, imaginative,intuitive,mentally flexible,people-oriented and able to connect easily on a deeply personal level. They are empathetic,like to please others,and consider the needs of others. The estrogen and oxytocin levels in Negotiator brains help them have finely tuned social skills, and be emationally expressive and aware. Negotiators can be vulnerable to depression. They are wise, peaceful, and authentic.

Explorers are highly creative and intensely curious.Dopamine dominance in the brains of Explorers makes them predisposed to seek sensation. They get bored easily.They are energetic, impulsive and motivated.Highly autonomous, Explorers can be optimistic and generous.Their sense of curiosity can override responsibility. They are the original out-of-the-box thinkers.

Fishers' book,"why Him? Why Her?" gives us another interesting tool through which we can understand our own personality style, our partners' and the goodness of fit between us. Accepting our nature and our partners' can make a substantial difference in finding and keeping loving relationships. How key it is to not try to remake the partner we were attracted to into our own type. Understanding personality style differences in couples makes it possible to be closer and more connected, as well as being your best self.