Friday, June 29, 2012

Being Your Authentic Self

This week, I got contacted by a writer/reporter for an online magazine for college students. She's working on an article based on her observations (and her college-age friends) about young women feeling pressure to "dumb themselves down" to attract a boyfriend. She asked for my comments on why young women do this, and how it might work out long-term. It really got me thinking.

As a mother to three smart college-age daughters, and a therapist and life coach to smart women of all ages, I find this trend deeply upsetting. As parents and mentors of young women, we need to encourage them to become their authentic selves. What is the point of trying to act differently than you actually are? It may lead you to attract and marry the wrong partner.

Developmentally, it's perfectly normal for both teens and 20-somethings to be exploring their identity. We need to try on different personas in order to figure out who we really are. Both men and women do this. The core, authentic self isn't finished forming until closer to age 30 for most people. This is why if you partner too early, it's anybody's guess whether you'll like who they become by 30 or 35, and the same is true for them. We are still maturing and changing dramatically in our 20s.

It's a difficult task all our lives to try to be our authentic self: honest, direct, healthy, and uniquely you.

There are special challenges that young women face in becoming themselves. In general, young women are harder on themselves than young men are. Young women feel a tremendous amount of pressure to look perfect, make peace with their body image, and not take things personally.

Studies in attribution theory show that throughout their lives, men often take credit for successes and blame situations or other people for failures. Women, in contrast, tend as a group to highlight the contributions of others for any successes, and tend to blame themselves more than men do for any failures.

I wish there was some way we could immunize the upcoming generation of young women with more confidence in themselves. As writer Gail Sheehy points out in her Passages books, most women don't grow fully into their confidence until their 40s or 50s. Wouldn't it be great if we could all empower the young women in our lives to be themselves? I'd like to see younger women focus less on who they think they need to be to attract a boyfriend, and more on the things that really matter: being your authentic self- happy, passionate about your life, and involved in things you care about. Women often try too hard, text too often, etc.

I love the combination of the qualities of confidence and humility. Arrogance and swagger gets boring and wears on you. Nobody likes know-it-alls. Genuineness is refreshing!

What about the dumbing yourself down thing? It's a bad idea. Being a bimbo isn't going to attract men that are keepers, who you can respect. Really good men aren't going to need you to dilute your intelligence or anything else. Be you, with confidence.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Happiness Is An Inside Job

It seems to me that there are some misguided ideas floating around about happiness. It’s time to clear up some myths about creating a happy life, and clarify what is in our power to do to build more joy and contentment. I'd like to see most people enjoy their lives more, and part of getting there is an inside job—making a choice to be mature and wise about your expectations.

Here are some of the myths about happiness:

1. My partner is supposed to make me happy. Sorry, but happiness is actually an inside job and when you build some you can share it with your partner. You don't extract it from your partner. People that don't get this concept need to keep replacing their partner and getting a new one on a frequent basis, because they don't understand that your life partner doesn't supply your happiness stream. You do.

2. Happiness is about having the most stuff, or the most money. While it's good to be comfortable and have what you need, the relentless pursuit of stuff doesn't generally make people happy. When it comes to the accumulation of stuff, being organized and traveling light often makes people feel less stressed.

3. I'm supposed to be blissfully happy all the time. No, actually it's the challenges and dark moments in your life that help highlight and underscore what real happiness is. I don't think I've ever met an open, reflective person who doesn't experiences some mood variation day to day. That's called NORMAL.

4. I don't need to be grateful to be happy. It's actually quite the opposite. The people who are happiest and most content often have a profound sense of gratefulness for the people in their life and the opportunities they've been given.

5. Happiness has nothing to do with work. Not true. Even Freud knew that we need two things in life to be happy: we need love and we need work. People need a purpose larger than themselves. It gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Life isn't supposed to be like a perpetual vacation. You need to contribute something back to our planet to truly be happy. It could be your profession, your art, or your selfless service to others. Realizing that you are not the center of the universe helps put things in perspective, and makes you feel purposeful and significant. Even my patients that are retiring—I want them to retire TO something.

6. Alcohol makes you happy. Alcohol is actually a depressant. When it wears off, you will feel worse. Authentic happiness isn't achieved through the use of alcohol or chemical substances. It's more real.

7. Happiness is the goal. In reality, happiness and joy often find you when you are giving your gift to the universe, in the creative flow, and engaged with people and causes you care about. Happiness is often a by-product, not the only target.

8. Happiness will be delivered by UPS and I can sit here and wait for it. That’s probably not the best plan. You need to be actively involved in life, relationships, projects, and plans to really get the happiness flow going.

9. Getting married will make me happy. Maybe, maybe not. Your own happiness set-point may have more to do with your happiness level. All couples have 4 or 5 perpetual, unsolvable issues they have to learn to dialogue respectfully about. Your partner will be a unique individual with their own wants, needs, and back story. You will need to learn to love, honor, and negotiate. A strong marriage will help you grow to become a better person, but it won't all be cake.

10. Having children will make me happy. There are lots of joys in parenthood, but be aware that sweet little ones who want to please you often grow into teenagers who have their own ideas and need to push back and reject you. The outcome takes longer than you ever think it will. Parenting is a rich life experience, but buyer beware that it's not always fun and full of laughs.

11. Moving will make me happy. It might, but be mindful, as Jon Kabat-Zinn titled his useful book, Wherever You Go, There You Are. A new house or a new area may be fun, but you are required to take you with you! A grumpy, moody person in a beautiful new home or locale is still a grump.

12. I will be happy later (when I am retired, when the children are older, when we have more money, etc). It's a better idea to count your blessings and joys all along the way, and not defer the joy until later. There is nothing certain about later.

Now that's we've debunked a few of those myths, it's time to choose to be happy today. Taking the first few minutes of your morning to meditate and reflect on the people and experiences in your life that you are grateful for is a terrific way to frame the day. Affirm that you choose to feel good, love life, and keep your emotional energy level high by being open to people and experiences that are positive and life-affirming. You can choose to be happy, even in challenging situations. Developing your sense of humor can help. Attitude may not be everything, but leaning in fully to your life and living in an enthusiastic way is sure to increase your happiness quotient.

Happiness is one of those paradoxical things. You have a biological set-point for it, but what you do with your thoughts and your life contributes also. If your thinking is stuck in a negative gear, the irony is that you won't be able to savor and enjoy any blessings or goodness in your life. Happiness is often hidden in appreciating petite joys in everyday life. Sometimes happiness comes in wanting and appreciating who and what you already have in your life. As Kent Keith wrote beautifully in his book Do It Anyway, the things that bring people the deepest happiness and personal meaning are deciding to love people, do good, succeed, be honest and frank, think big, fight for the underdog, help people, and give the world our best. And if people let you down, life disappoints you, others don't deserve it or are self-centered? Do good anyway, because the way to a fulfilled, satisfying, happy, and meaningful life that has integrity is yours, regardless of what anyone else does.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Stand Up To Grown-Up Size Bullies

Did you know that not all bullies are on the playground? Some bullies grow up and steamroll other people in their close relationships. You need to be able to identify if you are being bullied so that you can set limits, back away from the bullying behavior, and take back your own power over your own life and self-confidence. Nobody deserves to be bullied. It also doesn't bring people closer or make them love the bully. These controlling and dominating behaviors make you feel distant, unheard, and build resentment.

How do you know if you are in a relationship with a bully? Here are some warning signs you are in a relationship with one:

They deliver monologues.

They lecture.

They don't listen well.

They believe they are always right.

They are rigid and inflexible with others.

They use the words "me" and "mine" often, rather than "we" and "our".

They have difficulty shifting to see anyone else's perspective.

They yell, rant, and otherwise steamroll you.

They pout if they don't get their way.

They make verbal threats, for example threatening divorce to their partner anytime they don't get their way, or threatening their son or daughter to stop paying for college expenses.

They won't respond honestly or in an upfront way to your questions.

They manage the information they share, often withholding basic information in order to retain control.

They resist teamwork and can't share, negotiate, or compromise.

They are jealous of your friendships and healthy relationships with others. They can find something critical to say about everyone else you are close to. They want to isolate you.

They belittle, criticize, and otherwise marginalize you.

They are passive-aggressive with you, doing sneaky, mean, and deceptive actions to "get you back" for some perceived slight.

Why do people become bullies? It's often based on insecurity and emotional immaturity. People who really feel good about themselves don't need to cut others down to size or manipulate and bully to get their own way. The relational bully may have felt "less than" growing up and now is diminishing and controlling others to try to fill the gaps in their self-esteem.

What if you recognize yourself in these bullying relational patterns? Stop. Breathe. Listen more to others. Lecture less. Admit your mistakes. Practice restating what another person has told you about THEIR feelings so that you can really take it in, rather than simply pausing your lecture and resuming it. Honor other people's opinions, even if they are different from your own. Practice tolerance. Stop trying to withhold information. Be direct. Allow others to be themselves, and not be your clone. After all, that's what creates true intimacy and the closeness you desire; not mind-control. Deal with your own insecurities and fears. Relationships mean nothing if they are not based on mutual respect, and you have to give it to get it. It never works to demand respect or intimacy; you have to earn it.

What if this is your partner or your parent? Remind yourself that you have your own right to disagree or see a situation differently. Speak up. Step away.  Fill your life up with other positive people and projects. Don't allow the bully to destroy your confidence and self-esteem. Recognize this sad, poorly skilled behavior for what it is. State your own view respectfully. Don't be intimidated. See the bullying behavior accurately: a pathetic attempt of an unskilled person to always win. It won't work on you.

It's been said that everybody gets older, but maturity is optional. Some bullies graduate from school and go on attempting to control others all their lives. Let's not let them win. All important relationships have a foundation of mutual respect, honoring unique differences, and genuinely seeking to understand the intimate other, not coerce them into submission. If the bully in your life can't shift with your new dance steps, you may need to set big, healthy new boundaries for yourself. Life is too short to not stand up to relationship bullies.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Gift of Time

This week, someone said to me that time is the most precious gift, because you can never get it back, or earn any more of it. It made me think. there probably is no greater gift, for that very reason.

We can learn what we care about by looking at our calendars. Do you have regular date nights with your partner? Do you build in connecting points with your children, whether they are still at home or launched already? Do you make time to catch up with dear friends? With elderly parents or grandparents? For exercise and other self-care? For relaxing and having some time just to recharge?
To meditate, pray, or connect with nature?

A balanced person needs to be able to say "no" to taking on too many commitments, or slow down the part of you (translate: ego) that is flattered to be on that committee for work, or a charity, or your child's school. Ask yourself what else you might lose out on if you add that new responsibility in. The noisy and demanding people sometimes won't let up, and may get an overage of your time and attention. Don't let yourself down, or the quiet, deserving people who are important to you.

Even a little bit of time, singularly focused and not distracted, makes a big difference. When I worked for a large hospital in Orange County over 20 years ago, I was a part of a group of managers who learned how to train the rest of the staff to make contact, sit down, and make a warm, personal impression and give the caring touch. It made an important difference to patient care.

You can turn off the TV and spend the last 20 minutes of your evening talking and holding your partner. Or, you can listen to the news, and all kinds of depressing things. What a choice!  You can turn off the radio in your car and ask your son to update you about his day, and REALLY listen. No lecture, just a caring, listening presence. Every day, we make choices about how we use our time: who gets us and who doesn't. If we don't actively choose, then we may fill it passively with things, people, and television or internet stuff that really doesn't matter.

I challenge you to take a look at the calendar you keep to look at how you are dedicating your time, and who gets your attention. Taking charge of your schedule assertively, and being able to set limits with your time means you can say yes to the people and things that really matter the most to you. In the end, time is all we have. Knowing that it is a finite amount should make us that much more aware of the treasure it is. Spend your week well.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Stepfamilies: Only Grown-Ups Need Apply

Creating a loving stepfamily out of two other families comes with big challenges and big potential rewards. It's not quite like other families, because it's a family forged after loss. There has either been the death of a parent, a divorce, or a single parent going it alone, or maybe a combination of these losses. You are starting out trying to build a family out of people---adults and children--- who may be sad, grieving, adjusting, hurt, bitter, frightened, angry, or possibly just used to doing things their own way. It helps to know what is normal for a blended or stepfamily.

Dating as a single parent is like dating with an audience. Correction: make that a critical audience who may write bad reviews. While I want parents to keep their children out of and protected from your dating experiences, at some point a partner you are serious about having a life with needs to meet your child or children, and you need to meet theirs. If you have children, you need to think about being a package deal. (As in, love me, love my child.) It's a make it or break it issue for responsible, loving single parents. Only mature grown-ups need apply for the role of stepparent. Starting with anything less than that is heading for trouble. You need a partner who really supports you being an excellent parent, not resenting it. Not acting loving for a time to secure a marriage, and then resorting to immaturity. That's why premarital counseling for couples contemplating blending families is so important.

If your child feels criticized, marginalized, or otherwise uncomfortable around your intended new partner, you may want to break it off now and save yourself, your child, and the other person a great deal of pain. You want to make sure you both fully understand the complicated feelings involved in stepfamilies.

To be a good stepparent you need to be kind-hearted, sensitive to the developmental needs of children, secure, loving, and grounded. A good stepparent cannot be petty, jealous, controlling, negative, selfish, or judgmental. It takes a mature person to carve out a role as a stepparent, and play it well. In most situations, the child won't need you to "be" their parent. If they have two solid biological parents, you are another adult to love, support, and help them.

The American Stepfamily Association estimates that it takes a full seven years for a stepfamily to fully hit critical mass and blend in most cases. It doesn't happen overnight. Each person has to adjust. It helps to start with realistic expectations. Stepfamilies start with divided loyalties, and loyalty conflicts are normal. How the adults handle the first few years really makes a difference.

Here are some guidelines that will help:

Be patient.

Never criticize the child's other biological parent.

Hold weekly family meetings, at least for a few years so everyone gets a chance to work out rough spots.

Date nights are extremely important for couples blending families, as you are most often surrounded by a crowd. Don't discuss the kids on date night.

Schedule 1:1 time with your own child/children.

Spend positive activity time with your stepchild/stepchildren.

Create some new family traditions, with input from the children.

Try not to do important family events/celebrations/vacations unless all of the children are with you.

Be mature at each child's important school and life events, so the child isn't stressed (it's not about you).

Greet the child's other biological parent graciously at the child's events. Don't make it more difficult.

Let the natural parent be the disciplinary one when needed.

Recognize developmental stages that are difficult for children and teens/don't take it personally.

Look for a common interest or activity with a stepchild.

Support your partner spending some time with their child/children without you.

Find a way to make each child feel important and special to you. Don't compare them.

Try to find a common faith or religious practice. It will help.

Plan some family day outings and trips that include all the children and help build cohesiveness.

I never planned to make a subspecialty out of treating step and blended families. Sometimes life experiences change us. Because I spent some of my own childhood years in a stepfamily, and have lived through building a stepfamily of my own, I feel a special sensitivity to the needs children have in stepfamilies, the importance of assembling the right cast, and using best strategies to help everyone in the family feel welcome, loved, secure, and an important part of the new family that is created over time. Nothing positive happens instantly in stepfamilies, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

Stepfamilies? Big challenges, but even bigger potential rewards if you do it well. If you are considering becoming a stepparent or blending families, remember that only mature grown-ups need apply. Starting with anything less is a bad idea, and a set-up for disaster. Two mature adults can weather the challenges and make something beautiful happen for all involved.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Overcoming Negative Thinking

Remember the Debbie Downer character from Saturday Night Live skits? Sometimes people make the bad habit of looking at the worst case scenario in every situation. It's no fun to live that way, and it's miserable for other people to live with it, too.

Negative thinking might be a habit you picked up in your family. You may want to edit that inheritance right out of your life script. Keep the good things you got from your family, but surrender this unfortunate pattern. Thinking negatively tends to make you feel worse, and make you more likely to suffer with depression or anxiety. Using cognitive therapy techniques, developed by Aaron Beck, MD and David Burns, MD, you can free yourself from it. A good therapist can help you learn to weed out your negative thoughts in a few sessions. You are likely to feel much better.

Cognitive therapy is based on some simple concepts. Everyday, we get up and we experience events: negative, positive, and neutral. We have feelings about the events that trigger our actions in response. Cognitive therapy helps illuminate an often hidden step between the events in our lives and the feelings we experience: that important filter in between is our thoughts.

There are about 12 types of cognitive distortions that Burns identified in his classic book, Feeling Good. These include emotional reasoning (because I feel it it must be true), black and white thinking, fortune telling error (I see the future and it's terrible), mind-reading error (I know what other people are thinking and it's bad), and personalization error (I am the cause of everything bad). There are other distortions as well. Unless you train yourself to identify your distorted thoughts, you live as if that negative twist is reality. It's usually not.

There are several quick re-frames I use with my patients to help them shift out of negative thinking. One is considering an alternative view----any alternative view. Another is to consider the worst that can happen in a situation, the best that can happen, and what is most likely to happen. The third option is probably somewhere in the middle. So cognitive thinking isn't just looking on the bright side. It simply removes the negative predictions and opens you up to real experiences, not movies in your head.

You can also refocus by considering what action can you take to positively impact a difficult situation. Positive, constructive action is almost always better than obsessing or dwelling on the negative. It also puts you in a more active, healthy role, instead of the passive victim. This is likely to reduce your sense of powerlessness and  reduce symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.

People who develop the power to shift out of negative thinking are happier. Abraham Lincoln had a point when he said that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. Developing your self-discipline to not let your mind hop on a negative train takes practice and willpower, just like working out at the gym takes more effort than stopping by the doughnut shop.

One of my favorite Dr. Phil lines is,"How much fun are you to live with?" When you take responsibility for being a positive person, partner, and parent, you will really improve the lives of everyone around you. Using cognitive techniques can effectively help you weed out the gloom and doom, and you will enjoy your life and everyone around you so much more. You deserve it, and so does everyone else whose life touches yours.