Monday, May 28, 2012

Bittersweet: Youngest Child Graduates

It's a big week for our family as our youngest daughter graduates from high school, ending an era of family life for us. Childhood transitions to adulthood, and the daily part of parenting will change for my husband and I. Over the summer months,our youngest and last daughter will prepare to head off to live in the dorms at college. It seems I got used to the rhythm of family life, and keeping up with the kids was a huge part of my life for the last 22 years. When the first two children went to college, we missed them, but the daily job of parenting, mealtimes, and curfew monitoring continued here on the home front.

When I talk with our daughter, her friends, and my patients that are graduating from high school or college over the next few weeks, it seems that most are feeling some mixed feelings. They are relieved to be finished with papers, finals, and deadlines. They are also worried about finding jobs, how they will do in the next chapter in their lives, and whatever comes next. They worry about leaving friends, and starting over making new ones. They can feel a mix of fear, excitement, pride, happiness, anxiety, stress, exhaustion, and sadness. Theirs is a loss wrapped up inside every graduation: a death of one chapter as a new one is birthed.

The family life cycle helps us understand that entrances and exits are challenges for families.We do well with homeostasis, having a set point for what is normal. When there is a family member joining, through a birth, a marriage, an adoption, or otherwise adding a new person, it takes 3 to 6 months for the adjustment, sometimes longer. Similarly, when a family member exits, whether to go to college, live on their own, separate, divorce, or pass away, it can be hard on a family, and takes some time to find a new rhythm.

"What's next?" is a question we get all our lives. We can eagerly be pursuing a goal, and then when we achieve it, feel a pang of sadness. It's bittersweet to achieve a goal, sweet because you got to completion, but sad because a gap opens where you have to define a new goal, and begin again.

So hug your graduate. Support them. Be there for them as the end one phase of their life, and anticipate trying to find their way in the next one. Don't ask "What's next?,"as they are probably grappling with that question themselves. Transitioning from one phase of life to another is stressful. It can even be hard on Mom and Dad.

Fortunately for us, even though the youngest is heading to college, the golden retrievers aren't moving out anytime soon.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Go Direct In Relationships

Emotionally healthy people develop the good habit of going direct to the person they need to speak with. It may take courage, and it may be harder, but it's nearly always the best practice in your relationships. Taking the harder path, rather than the easier, faster one is often the braver and better choice. It helps you be fully known. It builds intimacy between you and the other person. They grow to trust you if they know you are direct, up front, and honest.

It can feel safer or easier to complain to a third person, but this triangulates you and the person you have something to say to, awkwardly sticking someone else in between. It may be helpful to think about what you would want if the situation were reversed. If someone you are close to has a problem with you, would you want them to show you the respect and give you the opportunity to resolve it directly, or would you want them to harbor resentment, and gossip about you to others? Most people prefer being respected enough to get a chance to resolve a problem between you both sooner, and without a middle man.

Why would anybody want to be the middle man in someone else's relationship? Some people enjoy drama. They like the "special" feeling of holding secrets. They may be bored and find it entertainment. Many people may want to be helpful, but not really think through the outcomes.

What kind of response should you have if someone is repeatedly complaining to you about a third party? Don't live out that script. Be healthy enough to redirect them. For example, "it sounds like you really feel unimportant to that person. I think you really should be telling them, not me. The two of you are the ones that can try to fix that." You can best help by pointing out the braver path. That's real support.

Your relationships can be hurt or put at risk by blurring the boundaries and sharing emotional stuff about your partner, your child, your parent, or your friend with another person. It builds an artificial closeness between the "secret holders," and makes the person you have a problem with an outsider in their own relationship.

If you are not sure how to go direct, or are afraid to do so, you may want to get some coaching from a good therapist who can teach you how to develop your own voice in your important relationships. I often role-play how to do this with my clients, because it makes it easier. This is especially helpful if you grew up in a family with alcoholic, rageaholic, passive-aggressive, or absent parents, and are learning this lesson now.

In order to have truly close and intimate relationships, you need to be able to reserve time to spend together, negotiate differences, demonstrate mutual respect, and honor the sacredness of the relationship between you and the other person. We are always either a part of the problem or a part of the solution. By going direct in your own relationships, and requiring that of others around you, you are contributing to better relationships, and setting a higher standard for yourself and others you care about.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Getting Outside Yourself

One of the qualities I like best in people is the ability to transcend yourself and shift perspective to see a situation, a relationship, or a problem from another person's perspective. This is a sign for me of a person's emotional maturity, and spiritual growth. None of us is the center point of the universe, and if we recognize that, we can make great strides in increasing our understanding of ourselves and other people.

When I am counseling couples, I find it a hopeful sign when both partners see that there are often several right ways to approach most things.There are also two perspectives on most relationship conflicts.When you realize you are not always right, and the other person is not always wrong, you can begin to solve problems. Often, we think the way things were handled in our family growing up (like the distribution of chores for example) is the only way to do it. Guess what? Your partner was raised in a DIFFERENT family, and they probably think that the way things were handled in their family of origin is the best way. The real answer is that you will need to compromise, negotiate, and find a new way to deal with daily life decisions that works for the two of you as a unique couple.

I am reminded of a terrific line from the spiritual teachings of the Course in Miracles, which says, "Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?"  Holding on firmly to the false belief that you are always right creates disharmony and doesn't allow you to truly be in intimate relationships, which require humility and vulnerability, and less ego and self-righteousness. We have much to gain from being curious about how things look from other people's perspectives.

My counseling practice is in Newport Beach, California.While Orange County is not really much like the Bravo show 'The Real Housewives of Orange County,' there are many children and teens I have worked with over the past 20 years who are fortunate to have grown up with many advantages. As a parent myself, and as a family therapist, I find it incredibly important to help our sons and daughters grow up with some perspective on the people all around us living in hardship. My own daughters, and many of my teenage patients, learned to see the world differently through volunteering with at risk families and youth. When we think about learning to shift perspectives, time well spent at a food pantry, homeless shelter, or as a direct service volunteer with children or seniors in tough situations is more impactful than any words a parent can say.

I am also overwhelmed at times by some of my wonderful adult patients who are grieving a loss; a death, a break-up, a job loss, recovering from childhood abuse, etc., but decide at some point in their grief process to reach out to help others in some way. I am struck by how it helps them grow stronger and heal. Maybe it has something to do with realizing you still have something to give. It also means that you see that there are always people in better and worse circumstances than you. Talk about transcending self! It makes me think of Mother Teresa's insight that we don't need to do great things, but, rather, small things with great love.

This week, I challenge you to ask yourself if there is another way to see it when you have a conflict with someone who matters to you. Just like in viewing an optical illusion, your perspective really matters. Don't make assumptions. Be curious about how things look from the other person's perspective. Stay aware that sometimes there are several right ways to do things. Ask and listen to how a situation looks to the other person. You can do this. Learning to shift your perspective will help you grow and mature along your own life journey.