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!