Thursday, April 26, 2012

Letting Go and Moving On

Holding onto perceived hurts, grudges, and resentment is bad for us. It can ruin your sleep; make you anxious or depressed. It can cause physical health problems-- elevate your blood pressure and heart rate, cause you digestive problems, or give you headaches. It can keep you from being present for the loving relationships in your life, and the beauty of things around you. Holding onto the bad stuff keeps us from experiencing the goodness available to each of us.

Sometimes you don't have a choice in an emotional cut-off of a relationship, where a family member or friend abruptly stops all communication with you. Emotional cut-offs actually take a great deal of emotional energy to maintain. You may have to stay angry to feel justified in your position. Both loving and hating someone else take far more psychic energy than being in a neutral position towards another person.When someone does an emotional cut-off with you, it may be important to release them with love. Send them off with evisioning white, healing light around them. Try to forgive yourself, and forgive them as well.

Not all the relationships in your life can go the distance with you across the rest of your life. If a relationship has become toxic, where the other person is critical, judgmental of you and others, destructive to themselves and others, abusing alcohol and/or drugs, blaming, and attacking, you may NEED to let go. There is no way you can safely stand by. You may want to be emotioanlly brave and explain briefly and honestly why you are letting go.

One of my favorite writers/speakers is Gerald Jampolsky, MD, who wrote the classics Love Is Letting Go of Fear and Goodbye to Guilt: Releasing Fear Through Forgiveness. Jampolsky is a psychiatrist, and also a deeply spiritual man. He writes in a beautifully simple style. He teaches us that people come from one of only two places: love and fear. If you are not coming from love in your relationships with other people, then you are coming from a place of fear.

People who are coming from a loving place don't need to compete with others. They don't need to feel bad when something good happens for someone else they know. They don't need to sit in judgement of others, or criticize and speak poorly of others behind their backs. In contrast, when you are coming from love as your emotional point of reference, you can be supportive of others and not feel threatened or diminished by it. You can forgive others and yourself for NOT being perfect. You can see the best in others. You build others up through authentic encouragement of other people's strengths, progress, and good efforts. You see yourself as you are, imperfect, and in this journey of life to learn things, and to change and grow.

Letting go of things? It's not only good for our closets and homes, it's also good for our personal growth to let some things go and move along our path.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Money, Relationships, and Power

The March 26, 2012 issue of Time magazine had an interesting article with fresh statistics on changes that have been occuring for women, men, and the balance of power in close relationships.
For example, 40% of working women make more than their partner does. In our children's generation, more families may be supported by women than men. Many men have been displaced from the workplace or are under-employed through the last few years of downturn in our global economy. Some careers have been permanently dismantled as industries change.
Here are some of the other trends:
  • In dual-earner couples,women contributed an average of 44% of family income in 2008, up from 39% in 1997.
  • Women out-earn men in part-time work, but men still earn more on an hourly basis in full-time work.
  • Less than 1 in 5 married couples are supported by the husband alone.
  • The percentage of children born to unmarried mothers has increased from 5% in 1960 to 41% in 2010.
  • Women work more paid hours than ever, up from .6 hrs per week in 1965 to 22.2 hours per week in 2010.
  • Most men do more to help at home than they did in the past. Men have about tripled the weekly time contributions they make to housework (up from .5 hours in 1960 to 2 hours a week in 2010), child care (up from 2.6 hours a week to 6.4 hours), and food prep and cleanup (up from .9 hours per week to 2.7 hours a week).
Women's increased earning power gives them more economic influence, at home and in the marketplace. A study by Pew Research Center found that when the husband brings in more income, buying decisions are made equally most often.When the wife earns greater income, she typically makes twice as many buying decisions as the man.
More households are headed by successful single women.Women's increased earning power steps up their confidence in asking for what they want and negotiating factors in relationships along new non-traditional lines. There are more unmarried couples living together and negotiating tasks and roles.
Earning power seems to make women more desireable. A 2001 study by University of Texas at Austin psychology professor David Buss and his colleagues found that from 1950 to 2000, there was a huge shift in how much weight men gave to a partner's earning power, relative to domestic skills.
Economic trends often require changes in society and relationships. In our lives, and certainly in our children and grandchildren's lives to come, these changes will impact their lives and choices. Girls need to prepare to have the training for a career so they have their own base of power from which to negotiate. Both girls and boys need to learn to participate fully in caring for children, sharing household tasks, managing money, and making decisions. No damsels in distress needed, better to help our damsels aim for success, instead. Earning more shouldn't give either partner the ability to dominate decision making or hold all the power. Mutual respect is still the key, and valuing each partner's contributions, whether at home, or in the marketplace.

In an upcoming book by Liza Mundy, called The Richer Sex,will be published in 2012 by Simon and Schuster, and go more in depth about some of the trends featured here and in the Time article.
In the future, money, decision-making power, and task assignments won't be able to be made only on gender assignment. None of these topics can be taboo before partners plan a life together. Instead of role assignments, perhaps we can shift to roles that are shared, or are preferred by the individuals involved, or with consideration for maximizing family earning power. Parenting will be more of a shared hands-on task in two-parent families. More children will be raised in single parent families.
Our world is changing, and our task is to adjust to it, and welcome less rigid roles to play as we partner, live, raise children, and create balance between work and family life.You know what this means: less assumptions, and more discussion about who does what, and how we create a life together. These changes might have a bright side. I always like less assumptions, and more discussion! We can't use the template of earlier generations in gender roles, family responsiblities, handling money, decision-making, and the distribution of power. It's time to create our own way, and respect the unique, differing gifts that we each bring to relationships and our shared life together.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Losing Your Parents

It's been said that you are always a child at heart until you lose your parents. Losing one or both parents means taking a big step up the generational ladder, and redefining your role in the family. It means different things to different people, depending on what the relationship with your mom and dad meant to you. Were they supportive? Disinterested? In your corner? Critical? Available? Busy? Inspiring? Self-Absorbed? Strong? Needy? Missing? Based on your unique relationship with each parent, losing them may bring up a whole spectrum of feelings.
Your loss is also impacted by your age at the time of the loss of each parent.

In 1994, Hope Edelman wrote the excellent book Motherless Daughters about some of the feelings a woman can experience after the loss of her mother. Losing the connection with a mother you were close to can be a huge loss, which has to be processed. Over time, one can begin reinvesting the emotional energy from that strong relationship to others in your life. In doing so, you successfully work through grief, and get to the other side. If you were not close, or, worse, if your mother was destructive or toxic, losing her means the end to ever hoping you are going to have a better relationship.

I have often found in my counseling work that the loss of a parent or the last parent is a significant life event. It is a watershed moment that marks the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one. It makes one reflect on aging, mortality, and about life's meaning. The loss of a parent can spur spiritual growth, ego softening, and reflectiveness. It is a critical time when people need to be able to count on their support system: a partner, close friends, adult children, siblings. It seems people never forget kindnesses offered at these critical moments of loss. It seems that one of the few mistakes you can make is to do and say nothing, and fail to acknowledge the loss.

This week, I had the pleasure of reading a new memoir by writer/grief therapist Claire Bidwell Smith, called The Rules of Inheritance (Hudson Street Press, 2012). The book chronicles Smith's life, feelings, and experiences as she loses her mother during her first semester in college, when she is 18. Later, Smith loses her father at age 25. She feels totally alone. There are several poignant, but insightful things about Smith's book. She realizes over time that she was so busy individuating and resisting her mother at the end of adolescence that she couldn't fully grieve losing her until some years later. Sometimes our own developmental stage at the time of the loss makes it difficult to fully process. One especially misses a parent at key developmental moments in your life (graduations, wedding, birth of a child) when the parent is not present to share in the joy and be of support with new challenges.

I was also struck by Smith's self-reflection that by losing her mother first, she ended up knowing her dad better than she ever would have otherwise. They grew closer through sharing the tremendous loss of her mother, and learning more about her dad's story, including traveling back together with him to the village in the Czech Republic where her dad was shot down from a fighter jet in WWII. After growing close to her dad, his loss leaves her with words I found haunting, as she writes about becoming 'nobody's most important person.' Smith's chapters flip back and forth through time, much like our memories aren't always organized in chronological order. Instead, the chapters represent, and are book-ended by, quotes by Swiss grief expert and psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Chapters in Smith's book are themed around the stages of grief, such as anger, sadness, denial, bargaining, and acceptance.

Claire Bidwell Smith's book, The Rules of Inheritance, bares her own grief process with us as the reader. There are very personal and heart-wrenching moments, such as when, during grad school, Smith is forcing herself to feel and work through the grief with a deep, long cry in the bathtub each night that is years overdue. Smith comes all the way back, finding her way through and past the pain all the way to the other side of it. She realizes, and now helps others realize some profound but simple things. It's okay to feel sad. There isn't one right way to grieve. Grief is an individual experience, as unique as a snowflake, or a fingerprint. Grief takes time to fully process. There are stages, but they are not neat, orderly, or predictable. You have to walk through grief and experience it to get to the other side. Grief changes you. It makes you, hopefully, more present, more tender, and more able to discern what's really important, and what's the stupid stuff. There can be joy and lightness again later, when you work your way through the journey of grief.

Sorting out our grief, understanding the meaning of that person in our life, and what we take forward with us, has to be the point of growing through life's inevitable losses. Smith writes with great pain about her emptiness after the loss of both parents at such a young age. Later, there is a fullness and joy that Smith feels as she partners and becomes a mother herself, recreating a sense of connection and being somebody's 'most important person,' and it seems all the sweeter for the journey she has traveled. Loss, if understood, makes us more tender, more human, and more able to value loving those who are living. Grief opens us up in a beautiful way, if we can get all the way to the other side of the journey.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Help Your Teen Make It a Successful Summer

The weather has been warming up here in Southern California, and spring break is upon us. Soon, the school year will be wrapping up. Now is the time for all good active parents to begin the discussion and joint planning with your teens and college students about what they will do over the coming summer. I am beginning these efforts with my own 17 year old, as well as with each of the teens and college students I counsel here in my office in Newport Beach.

I find teens are happier and feel better about themselves if they do something active or productive with their time over the summer months. By working a part-time job over the summer, your teen or young adult can learn valuable skills, get lessons on the importance of a good attitude and being of service to others while working with the public. One of our teens told me she REALLY understood the value of money after working a few months at a local sandwich shop. There are also lessons available from part-time jobs about taking initiative, teamwork, punctuality, and being pleasant to others despite your own moods.

The job market is competitive for part-time jobs, so now is the time to encourage your teen to get out there early and put their name in or apply. Sometimes, I have the parent assist by driving a younger teen to various job locations near your home, and have the parent wait in the car while they go in and ask about openings. Many teens are shy, or just have never done this before, so they may need you to teach them how to apply, practice interviewing, communicating an enthusiasm for the job, and learning to follow up and be positively persistent with job leads about going back and checking in a few days later, or when the hiring manager is expected in. Remember, they are new at this and may need some skills and encouragement.

When a teen or college student gets and keeps a job, it can boost their self-esteem and confidence. The world of work can be a whole different area of mastery in which they can be successful, develop people skills, and meet friends. Colleges love to see part-time jobs on students’ applications. It shows responsibility, maturity, and the ability to make and keep commitments to others (as opposed to mostly playing World of Warcraft or sleeping all summer). Many teens I see won't think of doing a job search at all, or early enough to really have a good chance of getting one, so parents need to usually be involved and teach these skills.

Internships and volunteer experiences over the summer would also be a valuable use of summer time for college students or teens. In most areas, there is a non-profit agency that coordinates volunteer positions throughout the area, including hospitals, animal shelters, and programs for disadvantaged youth like the Boys and Girls Club, etc. In Orange County, California, where I live and am in private practice, it is called One OC (714-953-5757). You can Google the one in your area. You can also brainstorm with your teen or college student over spring break about what kind of volunteering or internship might interest them, get started together identifying who could use their help this summer, and following up. Have the young person make the calls as well, maybe with you nearby if needed.

If volunteering, part-time work, or an internship won't work, then have your student consider registering for a summer college class at your local community college. Now is the time to scope out what is available, and find out about registration dates. If you wait until school is out, it may be too late to register. Many college students are so busy with their current course load that they really give no thought to summer until the day they drive home after finals. This is why they need you to help them think ahead. Maybe your student can knock out a particularly difficult math class over the summer, and make the next academic year lighter and less overwhelming. Maybe they can graduate a little sooner and take out one less student loan!

Good, involved parents unite! Consider this your friendly public service announcement to strike while the iron is hot. Now is the time to help your teen or college student make at a great summer, build their self-confidence, and take another big stride toward launching into adulthood.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Couples Therapy: It's Not For Sissies

In the March 4th issue of the New York Times, writer Elizabeth Weil penned a terrific article about couples therapy, and why it is that most therapists will acknowledge that it's much tougher to do than supportive individual counseling. In individual counseling, you build a therapeutic alliance with one person; you can be warm, empathetic, and client-centered. In couples therapy, you must be stronger and more active as a therapist. Your patient is really the relationship between the two of them, and you have to have your wits about you and jump into the conflict. You have to be brave, and "pilot your helicopter in a hurricane," as master couples therapists Peter Pearson and Ellyn Bader from the Couples Institute in Palo Alto, California describe working with high-conflict couples.

Weil's article was inspired by a November/December 2011 issue cover story in a professional magazine written for therapists, Psychotherapy Networker, which was titled, "Who's Afraid of Couples Therapy?" In it, couples therapy experts confirm that seeing couples is qualitatively a different experience for therapists. It is higher in conflict, includes more anger and arguing, and both people are watching your every move to ensure that you don't let their partner "win." The truth is, couples counseling is a team sport, and we win or lose together.

Elizabeth Weil is also the author of an interesting new book I just finished, called No Cheating, No Dying: I Had a Good Marriage. Then I Tried to Make It Better" (Scribner, 2012). In the book, Weil bravely opens up the details of her marriage, including what they argue about, and where there are strengths as well as weaknesses. She reflects beautifully, and at times with humor and vulnerability as she and her husband embark on a year-long project of trying different types of couples therapy and marriage education classes and workshops. They learn about how their issues from their respective families of origin contribute to their current relationship challenges. They discover better ways to communicate. They identify ways to not hide behind their work, or their two small children. They learn to embrace the differences between them, including how her husband pushes the limits of creative gourmet cooking and liberally decorates their small San Francisco home with his dropping of his brown socks. She has her own eccentricities. We all do.

Many aspects of therapy are different with couples. You have to be on your toes with couples. Timing is essential. You can't sit and regroup, collecting your thoughts as a clinician if you need to step in. You can't be passive. They could argue like that at home without you. You can't let the couple interrupt, demean, or talk over each other. You can't be afraid to speak up, strongly and with conviction, when one or both of them are doing something destructive to the relationship. You can't just sit there and nod.

Doing strong couples therapy requires a therapist move out of a classic, nurturing role and shift to a bigger frame with more moving parts and things to consider. There often isn't a good person and a bad person. Timing and feedback is important as a couples therapist. You can't hold secrets for the couple. You have to care about each partner individually, but also believe in their ability to do better as they know more about how their own individual behavior contributes to their dance of intimacy. Couples are dynamic. They don't stay in a steady state-- they are always moving closer together or further apart.

The average couple waits 6 years being unhappy before seeking guidance, according to University of Miami researcher and psychology professor Brian Goss. Most couples I see tell me they wish they had come sooner. Why suffer? It feels wonderful to help couples learn to communicate with respect and kindness, re-energize their physical/intimate relationship, have more fun together, learn to fight fairly, and celebrate and understand their differences.

Last week, I got an e-mail from a husband a few hours after a particularly tough, but important couples therapy session, letting me know he felt they had really made key progress that day. I really care about and believe in both of them. Seeing couples is deeply satisfying work to do, even if it's not for sissies. Being a part of making a couples' relationship closer and more alive is extremely satisfying, even though there are sometimes firestorms to get through on the way.