Friday, December 21, 2012

Home for the Holidays? Take Your Grown-Up Self with You!

It's been said that it takes quite a bit of skill and internal strength to individuate— to be close to others but also hold onto to your uniqueness. Some people are given the emotional freedom in their families growing up to develop their unique self without threatening the family set-point. Other people never got that freedom growing up, and are in a quandary about how to walk this balance in adult relationships. If you didn't get support for developing your unique self growing up, you may feel defensive about protecting yourself and needing to be secretive.

Great intimacy requires separateness. In couples, part of keeping the magic and desire is realizing you never fully know or own the other person. We need to be able to flow between attachment and separateness. Both are essential.
In parenting, we aren't really forming the child's self; it's more like we need to watch for who we have been sent and how we can help each child develop their unique strengths and interests. Children come through us, not of us, as philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote.

Assuming other people want and need exactly what you do is a problem. More evolved people can tolerate spaces in togetherness, and embrace differences, within families, with friends, and in intimate relationships.

How do we differentiate? How can we become more individuated in a healthy way? How can we manage all the togetherness and stress at the holidays and stay connected and grounded?

Say what you want, like, and feel, without apology.

Watch your timing, being aware of when it is better to refrain from speaking.

Drop the defensiveness.

Have boundaries and a bottom line.

Listen to others.

Ask questions, and listen to the responses.

Stop criticizing others.

Give others respect and love.
Realize you can say "no."

Keep growing—challenge yourself all to learn new skills, meet new people, and try new things.

Give up judging others or seeking approval from them as much as possible.

Our sense of self is perpetually under construction. We should continue to develop ourselves throughout our lives.
Many people feel pretty individuated until the holidays come and they spend time with their extended family. Even Murray Bowen, one of the founders of family therapy, wrote a biographical essay about the challenges for his own sense of self in going home again for the holidays. Bowen, despite coining the term individuation, could feel the pull of his parents and family roles when he went home to visit. Going home made him feel like a child, but not in a good way.
As the holiday season is here, and we make plans to spend time with extended family, let's practice these healthy habits of accepting the differences between ourselves and others. You're probably not going to change any of your siblings, parents, or adult children during the holiday visit. Practice acceptance where you can, attach and join in when you are able, and move towards healthy self-care and individuation where and when possible.

It's easy to get overwhelmed with other people's agendas if you are surrounded by family for a big block of time. Take back some control by creating a little time alone to be by yourself. You can go for a walk or to the gym, journal, go outside, or take a drive. A bit of time to do self-care and get grounded may help put both your needs and the family needs in perspective.
Here's wishing my readers a happy, healthy holiday season and lots of differentiation of self and growth in the new year.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

No Greater Loss: Losing a Child

The events of last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School deeply affected me and every person I know. The heartbreak of losing 20 six and seven year old children, and 6 heroic educators, by a mass shooter at their school, is overwhelming. It has touched the universal consciousness and humanity of all of us, across the nation, and around the world. The randomness of the loss, that children could be dropped off for school in the morning and be murdered by lunchtime at the school, a place which should be safe, has made the world more anxious. It happened in Newtown, but it could have been our town.

If you get to middle age, you can't help but realize that life is full of losses, big and small ones. You can lose a love, a parent, a sibling, a friend, financial stability, a home, a job you enjoy, your health, a partner, or a marriage. Each of these losses can be very difficult. They each require a grieving process, and a rebuilding of an individual's life afterwards.

Of all the kinds of losses there are in life, I can think of no greater loss than the loss of a child. Even President Obama identified with the parents who lost their children so abruptly and needlessly on Friday, and was pausing to wipe his own tears at his press conference.

What makes losing a child so shattering?

Loss is almost always proportional to the degree that you were attached to that person that you lost. With babies and children, they are completely dependent upon their parents, so the identities of parent and young child are intertwined, not completely separate.

Losing your child at any age, but especially a young one, feels out of the natural order of things. This makes it harder to accept and process. While it is difficult to lose an older beloved family member, you are able to take some comfort at their having lived a full life. With the loss of a child, there is a surreal sense that this is wrong.

The grief continues in a sort of spiral over time as family members grieve again at every developmental milestone their deceased child will miss out on. There is grief at the time of the loss, but also when they should have graduated, driven a car, gone to college, married, and had children of their own. There is the grief for the life ahead of them they were robbed of, and your loss as parents and grandparents to share those later joys with that child.

Grieving parents need to go through the grief process--- the shock, anger, bargaining, sadness, and eventually acceptance. They need to find a way to go on, for themselves, for those who remain in their family, and to honor the child who was taken from them. Peer support is incredibly helpful for parents who have lost a child, offering a place to connect with others who truly understand the nature of this profound loss. Compassionate Friends is one such non-profit support group for parents who have lost a child.

Men and women grieve the loss of a child differently, and understanding this is essential to husbands and wives supporting each other non-judgmentally after the loss, even when what they need to heal may be different. Our grief is as individual as our thumbprints. It is helpful to know what is normal.

While both are challenging, sudden loss can be more difficult to accept and process than an expected loss. One can understand intellectually that the child is gone, but wake up the next day feeling that the loss is not real. There was no chance to prepare.

One of the last challenges with grief, after we have felt the pain of the loss, and adjusted to our world without that beloved child, is to put some of the energy that went into that relationship into other places. To effectively resolve grief, we may want to become involved in honoring the child's memory, perhaps by becoming involved in advocacy for change in the world.

In the Newtown case, using this horrific loss for creating more reasonable gun control laws makes perfect sense. I have had other parents I have worked with who helped themselves heal from their child's premature death through fundraising for research on the prevention and treatment of a disease that took their child. We can't bring our child back, but we may be able to save others. When we give action to our feelings of "enough," we help both preserve the memory of those innocents, and restore our own sense of agency, rather than powerlessness.

The death of innocent children is a profound assault to our sense of safety in the world, our sense of fairness, and a test of our faith. When bad things happen to good people, we struggle as human beings to understand the meaning. From across the US and around the world, we identify with the parents of those sweet young children who lost their lives last week at Sandy Hook. There is truly no greater loss, and it touches us all and calls us to action.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Getting Our Daughters to Speak Up

I just got back from a wonderful psychotherapy conference in San Francisco. One of the keynote speakers was Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of a number of very useful books, including The Dance of Anger, The Dance of Connection, and her newest book, Marriage Rules. Dr. Lerner is soft-spoken, very wise, and also extremely witty.

In her speech to a ballroom of therapists, Dr. Lerner retold a story that she had heard columnist Ellen Goodman share some years back. It had to do with a friend of Ellen's who had several daughters. The advice she always gave to her daughters was, "Speak up, speak up, speak up! The only person you are going to scare off is your future ex-husband!" The ballroom lit up with laughter after this story.

As a mother of daughters myself, and a relationship coach and therapist for many years, I couldn't help but think how wise and on-point that motherly advise was. It's difficult for women, and young women in particular, to demonstrate the courage that it takes to be themselves in close relationships. Women need encouragement to say what they truly think, want, and feel. This is especially true in intimate relationships, or on hot-button issues that you think may trigger your partner's anger.

In intimate relationships, the power balance will be off if we are underrepresented by ourselves. Girls and women often feel pressure to avoid conflict and please others. We need to help young women, and women of all ages understand that it is possible to integrate femininity and strength. You may be able to be calm and flexible about many things, but you cannot betray your core self or the values, beliefs, and interests that are authentically you.

It's easy to disagree when the stakes are low---like you prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate. The stakes are considerably higher when you perceive a parent, a partner, a co-worker or boss to have a strongly opposing opinion about something big. It has to be okay for women to get angry, impassioned, or feel strongly about some core issues. It has to be okay to feel or think differently than the other person, and require a respectful dialogue about it.

Sometimes young women will try to be the perfect girlfriend or partner, and lose themselves in the exchange. It's a bad bargain, and will ultimately end in resentment and feeling misunderstood.

No matter how healthy and good a relationship is, no one will ever read your mind. It's our job to let others know what we like and don't like on the big things. And if it scares away your future ex-husband? Think about all the trouble you have saved yourself!

Monday, December 10, 2012

What is Life Coaching?

In the past few years, therapeutic life coaching by therapists is on the rise. How is it different from traditional therapy? Not everyone is a candidate for life coaching, but for a number of people, coaching offers some interesting and different ways to move your life forward.

Counseling traditionally focuses on pain and suffering that the patient is experiencing internally or in their relationships, and supporting the patient through those darker emotions back to more internal peace and hope. In coaching, we can also focus on accomplishments, goal setting, motivation, pleasure, peak performance, and happiness. In coaching, we can broaden our view to look at building your best life. You don't have to have a problem, or symptoms, to get coaching. You might just feel stuck, or a desire to make your life even better than it is.

Therapists who do therapeutic coaching can incorporate the two backgrounds to work with clients collaboratively to develop goals. Coaching implies a more active role for the coach than the stereotyped view of a therapist who listens and nods, but doesn't give you much feedback. Therapeutic coaches may take a more active role, disclose more at times if they feel it will help their point, give you an exercise to do, or set goals with you.

A therapeutic coach is joining with you, and on your side promoting your growth and development as a person, parent, partner, and businessperson. A coach may contact you between sessions to check in with you, where traditional therapy stays in a more restricted frame inside the therapist's office.

Traditional therapy often meets once a week for an extended period of time, where coaching may be more flexible or time-limited. Coaching can even occur by telephone consultation, which can be convenient.

Coaching skills, like being able to help motivate people, set goals, recommend next steps, and taking an active leadership role when needed are helpful in the practice of regular therapy. Being a licensed therapist with coaching skills allows you to pull from both skill sets as needed. Since the field of coaching comes with its own vocabulary, like your "growing edge," it can expand the way I think about counseling clients, shifting from a focus on symptom-reduction to focusing on higher level goals for their future as they are ready, which might include physical health, career, money, spirituality, more satisfying relationships, and personal growth.

It's always nice to have choices. Sometimes a softer, holding place in therapy is what's needed, and at other times, an individual might need more challenge, encouragement, and some advice. Therapists who can also do therapeutic coaching can offer both.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Trust is an important component in close relationships. We learn how to trust initially as infants and small children who learn to have confidence that mom, dad, or the primary caregiver will respond to our needs and be there as we need them. If we aren't fortunate enough to get this platform as we grow up, then we have to try to create it as we go with others.

When we become parents ourselves, we are giving our children a platform for trusting others. Are we calm, reasonable, warm, available, and supportive? It means a great deal to have a parent who can be counted on. Children need parents who are predictable, present, involved, and providing meals, love, and attention. When parents are unpredictable, absent, hostile and volatile, it blows apart the empathic envelope of trust that parents should have around their growing children. For our children to trust us, we must be trustworthy as parents.

As a teen or an adult, it takes courage to let your guard down and be vulnerable with significant others ---to trust a few people to be there for you, to support you, and not to betray that trust. Some people have difficulty trusting others because they know that they can't be trustworthy themselves.

Trust is built over time, like depositing coins in a bank, or marbles in a jar. Every repeated experience where your trust is maintained, and the loved one is a person of their word, helps to keep that bank account balance up or that jar filled. If trust is broken, it is a much harder thing to rebuild later. Sometimes trust can't be rebuilt at all.

How is trust built or maintained at a high level?

1.      Being honest with others.

2.      Having difficult conversations when they need to happen. For example, you might begin resenting the other person, or needing to do something different, or wanting to change or upgrade the communication and quality of relationship between you. Sharing what you are thinking may be difficult, but keeps the other person in the loop and honors the relationship between the two of you. It gives the other person the opportunity to grow. I often see people in counseling who wish their former partner gave them a heads up right away about problems, rather than storing them up until there was nothing beautiful left.

3.      Be aware of the danger of side conversations. Talking with an objective person, like a trained therapist, can very helpful in getting clarity about what you are wanting, and how to best approach the other person. You can trust that the therapist has no hidden agenda. You can get insight as to how to change your own dance steps in any relationship so that you are operating from your best self. Side conversations with friends, extended family, etc. about an important relationship are potentially problematic, build outside alliances, and dishonor the other person.

Teens, in particular, tell me they shut down when they share something personal with a parent, and the parent shares that sacred trust with others.

4.      Be impeccable with your word. Keep your promises. Doing this also develops your own character and integrity.

5.      Ask for what you want. Be direct. Be brave. There are no bonus points for passivity or silent suffering.

6.      Don't keep destructive secrets. These are secrets that you know would hurt or damage the trust between you if the other person knew.

7.      Avoid passive aggressive behavior. If you are upset, hurt, or angry, own up to it with your loved one.

I like to think of it this way: in order to establish the feeling of safety with another person, you must be able to trust them. To build feelings of intimacy, you have to feel safe. These are the building blocks of close and caring relationships, whether between partners, between parent and child, or close friends. Safety, trust, openness, intimacy, and vulnerability are best when they travel as a team. A relationship can only be as strong and as deep as your commitment to these hallmarks of conscious relationships, and the similar commitment of the other person you are in relationship with.

So there are two parts to trust: being a trustworthy person yourself, and choosing intimate others who are deserving of your trust, and can give you that gift in return.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Tiny Beautiful Things

On a recent cross-country flight, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Cheryl Strayed's new book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (Vintage Books, 2012). Strayed is the author of the current New York Times list bestseller, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Rim Trail. This book is a collection of her heartfelt responses to letters she has received as the advice columnist for The Rumpus, an online literature community.

Strayed deeply absorbs, wrestles with, and responds to the life and relationship dilemmas her readers write in with. She bravely opens up and shares some of her own personal tragedies and triumphs as well. People write to Sugar, and open up about dealing with the death of a loved one, betrayal by their partner, their career dreams and aspirations, settling for things and relationships for security, family troubles, sexuality, and a myriad of other topics. It's an anonymous forum for deeply personal dialogue and soul-searching.

While the responses are at times peppered with blue language, the answers are real, deep, and show her warmth and hard-won wisdom from being informed by her own life experiences. Strayed lost her mother to illness as a young adult. She married young and was divorced by 26. She remarries later, and survives her husband’s affair. She struggled to become a writer, with waitressing jobs, mentoring at-risk teens, teaching anger management to low-income families, teaching memoir writing, and lots of other adventures along the way. She is the mother of two children.

Strayed strikes just the right tone of radical compassion, acceptance, vulnerability, and challenge. She understands, but she encourages the writer (and us as readers) to stretch to become our biggest self.

Take this advice Strayed gives to a man after the end of his 20 year marriage, when he is struggling with whether or not to love the woman he is involved with a few years later, “Do it. Doing so will free your relationship from the tense tangle that withholding weaves. Do you realize that your refusal to utter the word ‘love’ to your partner has created a force field all its own? Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel...Don't be strategic or coy...Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word 'love' to all the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will...We're all going to die. Hit the iron dinner bell like it's dinner time.”

Strayed's admonitions to her memoir writing class are profoundly true on multiple levels. “You get no points for living, I tell my students. It isn't enough to have had an interesting or hilarious or tragic life. Art isn't anecdote. It’s the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives. For what happened in the story to transcend the limits of the personal, it must be driven by what the story means.” I feel the same way as a therapist and life coach, as I help clients try to integrate their experiences into their current life, and cull the meaning from their own life's chapters.

There are a number of bittersweet sections in the book, like when Strayed reflects on her sense of wonder about life. You never know who will be in your life forever, and who will just be there for a while. As she points out, sometimes the people we start out thinking are going to be there with us forever don't end up being there. It’s also very surprising the people that show up in our lives and play a meaningful role when we didn’t expect them.

The final letter in the book, written by a 22-year old, is worth buying the book for. The writer asks for wisdom from Strayed about what she would write to her younger self, if she got the chance. It's funny, but it's also very honest. Stop worrying about being fat. Don't lament about your career so much; you have a life, not just a career. You can't convince people to love you. Either they love you or they don't. Resolve what childhood wounds you can in your 20s, knowing you'll have to go back and resolve more of them later as your life evolves. Watch your assumptions about other people, as they are often wrong. Do the work you’re supposed to be doing. My favorite, the very last piece of advice in the book, is to take the winter coat your mother bought you. Don't critique the coat. It may be very precious if it’s the last gift she gives you, because, in an autobiographical note, she may be dead by spring. Say thank you.

I fell in love with Sugar. I think you might, too. Cheryl Strayed's perspective is funny, honest, and speaks to the best self in each of us. The idea of writing a letter to your younger self is a particularly valuable one that just could help us offer ourselves guidance from our own earlier life lessons.