Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Getting Unstuck From Fear

This week, fear seems to be the theme. Getting past fear has come up in several of my sessions with patients who are dealing with life changes. Overcoming fear was part of the conversation I had with a friend while walking together at the beach over the weekend. When it was the topic in a meditation group I participated in earlier this week, I knew I wanted to write some about facing and moving through fear. The intriguing question that kept reoccurring was, "What would you do or be, if you could get beyond your fears?"

What do writers and thinkers tell us about fear? Louise Hay, author of You Can Heal Your Life says it's important to remember that fear is a limitation we place on ourselves. She suggests we release the need for fear and replace it with reminders to ourselves that are positive and loving. We create safety within ourselves. Hay offers us this affirmation," I am a powerful human being! I love and honor myself. All is well and I am safe." (Repeat often!)

Zig Ziglar, the amazing motivational speaker and writer, offers about fear that we should let our faith be bigger than our fears.

Dr.Wayne Dyer, psychologist and writer, says on this topic, "You can transcend any fear and self-rejection that defines your life. Treasure your magnificence and live as beings of light and love."

My favorite book on the topic of letting go of fear is the very useable and readable, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, by Susan Jeffers, Ph.D. I have often recommended this book to people, because it really helps you understand how we can get immobilized in our fears, being so afraid of making a mistake. Jeffers helps us see that if you are gentler with yourself, you can often realize that any movement out of your own small box of life can be good. It can help you get into the next sized box of life. We each need growing edges in our life, or we get bored and stale.

Many successes are a series of choices and course corrections, so try to take the pressure off yourself to have a whole path to a big goal figured out in advance. If you take one small step, the next step may get clearer. Think of driving in a rainstorm, where you can only see so much of the road ahead of you at one time. Jeffers helps us to see that the bottom level fear that most of us have is not being able to handle "it," whatever "it" is that life throws at us.

Another classic I love on the topic of overcoming fear is Gerald Jampolsky, M.D.'s Love Is Letting Go of Fear. This book is elegant in its simplicity, with lovely drawings to illustrate its main points. Jampolsky, a psychiatrist and writer, believes there are only two places people operate from in relationships, and in life: love and fear. It's far better to choose love as your base of operations.

How can you get unstuck from your fears this week which are making your world too small, and your vision of yourself too limited? Try these tips:

1. Write down your own reflections about what you would do, be, or have, if it were not for your fears.
Share your thoughts with someone you trust. Set some baby steps. For example, if you have been thinking of going back to school, your baby step could be looking at the course offerings at the college nearest to your home or office. The baby step should be something that you can do with a small amount of effort within an hour or so.

2. Use the energy invested in the fear to break through it. Let it make you mad that we are all here for a limited time, and that you have not been taking on the task of leading a bigger, more meaningful life in the present.

3. Imagine how you feel when you accomplish one of your desired goals. Take in that proud, warm, alive feeling. Channel it into more baby steps forward. Do, evaluate, adjust, and repeat.

4. Be present in the now. Fear is past and future based. Take what constructive action you can take today towards one goal. Don't use your past guilt or hurt or your fear of the future keep you using those things as an excuse for making your life the best, most beneficial thing you can create.

5. Ask a therapist or someone else you trust for help in getting started. Often in working together collaboratively, we can nudge you ahead in a more efficient way, helping you build insight as to what is getting in your way. Smart people ask for help and don't try to do everything alone.

Fear? Just because it's normal, don't let it limit or harness to create, improve, grow, and be of service to others. Recognize it, and push past it. Your bigger, bolder, better life is waiting for you to step into it!

Monday, August 20, 2012

What Do Your Relationship and Your Car Have in Common?

How is caring for a car a little like caring for your love relationship? In their new book, Cars and Love: How to be Both Lover and Friend, two of my fellow marriage and family therapists (and my upstairs neighbors at my counseling office), Tessa Kershnar, MFT, and Steve Parker, Ph.D., MFT, have taken up this challenge of helping the reader see the connections.

This little book is an easy read, and is beautifully illustrated by Analise Hannah. It has some healthy reminders for couples wanting to create an even better relationship with each other. It would be a good refresher for couples who have graduated from couples therapy, but want to have some handy tips available to recap some common principles we cover in couples therapy, such as:

*The importance of spending time together

*How intimacy begins in many little ways throughout the day, like your tone of voice in the morning, or doing something kind for your partner

*Asking for what you need

*How to keep your partner's love tank full

*Love and commitment = action

*Set boundaries with outside forces, what/who you let in your car

*Healthy ways to communicate

*Being a better listener

*Learning ways to talk things through conflicts

*The importance of having your own life

*Warning signs your car is headed for a crash

*Maintenance issues

*Getting into alignment and cooperating with each other

This sweet little gem might be especially useful to men, as the car and relationship analogy is developed. We all realize you can't keep driving your car without putting more gas in, checking the tires, and getting car washes and service. The connection to our closest love relationship is clever: if you meet each other, fall in love, and expect it to stay wonderful without any care or attention, that is a big mistake.

You can order Steve and Tessa's book directly from Tessa at her email address:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hope Springs: Don't Ignore Your Partner

I had the pleasure of seeing the new film Hope Springs recently. I saw it with the perfect audience for this film, lots of bright seniors at a late afternoon matinee in Santa Barbara, California. They laughed continuously at all the truths packed in that movie about long-time committed relationships, and what happens if nobody's paying attention to the relationship. Basically, continental drift has occurred between the movie's lead characters, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.  Meryl is desperately unhappy and enrolls them in week-long intensive couples’ counseling a few states away with therapist Steve Carrell. What follows is funny, true, and touching.

I won't spoil the ending for you, but I thought I'd highlight a few of the universal relationship principles the movie explores. Here are some:

1.      Don't ignore your partner. They are not a potted plant. They are a living, breathing person that needs to have your attention, love, and listening ear.

2.      When couples drift apart, there is often (although not always) a part of that distance that each partner contributed to.

3.      In relationships, you sometimes need to decide if you want to be right, or you want to be happy. Choose peace if and when you can.

4.      Physical intimacy is like glue that contributes to a couple being closer. We all need to touch and be touched. We need to be open-minded and expressive about what we want, and how we like to be touched and courted, even by a long-term partner. Don't assume you know what your partner wants. Ask them! People usually change and evolve over time. Try to keep the intimacy thread going.

5.      Couples need some of their own activities, identity, and time apart. It's refreshing, and when you get back together you have more to bring to each other. Couples who are always together can emotionally suffocate each other.

6.      Take warning if your partner is very unhappy. The worst kind of loneliness can occur when you are in a relationship and yet feel the other person doesn't truly try to understand you or meet your needs. A number of my patients have told me over the years that they find this worse than being alone. Don't ignore this red flag and then act surprised when your beloved departs.

7.      Express appreciation that you feel for your partner. Nobody I know likes to be taken for granted.

8.      We're not getting any younger. Don't miss opportunities to join your partner in some fun activity or snuggle together. You really don't want to regret later that you didn't lean fully into your relationship.

9.      Fight for the best relationship you can have with each other. Be open to reading something new, or seeing a couples’ therapist together to have them help you break the impasse and get things going in the right direction. Tommy Lee Jones is not a happy camper about Meryl dragging him into doing couples’ counseling, but he is a better, more open man from the work they do with therapist Steve Carrell. I compare opening up in counseling being like the bear that gets a thorn stuck in his paw, and it is sore, but the bear's afraid to go to the thorn removing expert. The bear has to go through the hurt of the thorn coming out in order to heal. So do people.

10.  Don't give up easily. It's amazing the transformations I've seen in couples in relatively a short time as I have worked with them these last 20 years. Couples can go through tremendous disconnection and come back through it to a new renaissance in their relationship. Even when couples can't find their way back to each other, as sometimes happens, I think there is some peace of mind in knowing you did everything in your power to try to grow through the pain.

11.  Don't be an old grump. Remember Dr. Phil's classic line, "How much fun are YOU to live with?"

12.  Separate bedrooms are usually not a good idea. If you snore so that it disturbs your partner, be a responsible partner and see you doctor to determine if you need a sleep study to check for sleep apnea.

13.  Don't be like a memory foam pillow, and hold on to every dent. Try your best to work through things and then let them go.

14.  Don't give lousy, practical gifts to your partner, like appliances. Not romantic. At all. Ever. Am I clear on this one? Nothing says I've given up like lousy gifts, or forgetting anniversaries.

15.  Change things up a little from time to time. It will help keep things fresh.

Hope Springs? It's a good one to see. Meryl Streep was terrific, as usual. Tommy Lee Jones' character strikes a balance between angry and hurt. Steve Carrell made a pretty good therapist- sincere and direct. (Except, with Steve, I kept waiting for his sense of humor to pop out, but he plays this one straight.) It's interesting to watch the way the device of showing the couples’ therapy sessions, and the homework assignments they struggle with, move the development of the characters and their relationship forward.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Ruby Sparks: Why Perfect Wouldn't Work

I  saw a really interesting independent film this week called "Ruby Sparks." It's an engaging film,with several important messages to convey about the intricacy of relationships.

Calvin is a writer of a great American novel,as well as several important short stories when he is only 19. The story begins ten years later, as he is 29, and hasn't written anything recently. There is pressure to live up to his early success. He has broken up some time ago with his girlfriend of five years, who left him right after his father died. He seems very alone and isolated.

In a therapy session, Calvin's long-time psychotherapist, played by Elliot Gould, is trying to help free Calvin from writer's block. He suggests a writing assignment where Calvin begins to create a character of a perfect girlfriend. Calvin begins to write her, and she startles his reality by actually coming to life and showing up at his house as if they are really dating.

Amusing things unfold when Calvin tries to determine if others can see her, if she's real, or it's his overactive imagination. It's particularly funny as Calvin's brother arrives to help figure out if she's real and test her, and as Calvin takes Ruby on a weekend trip to Big Sur to meet his eccentric mother (Annette Bening) and warm but odd artist stepfather (Antonio Banderas).

Calvin begins to realize that as he continues to write his book about Ruby that he is truly the author of her character, moods, and traits. He can switch them out by writing about it. He can make her more clingy and less independent. He can make her more joyful. He can make her speak fluent French. He can even write it into her character that she loves him forever, and never leaves him.

What results from this folly is a lovely little meditation on human relationships, true intimacy, control, autonomy, and risk. Perhaps we really wouldn't want to edit out a loved one's eccentricities. Maybe it makes them the unique, separate person that we love. If we controlled the script, it would never let us see the natural storyline that is supposed to evolve between us and the other person.

Finally, it may because there is uncertainty and fragility in close relationships that they mean even more to us. You could lose that other person at any time, and that makes the time together that much more precious. There is no forever guarantee. In the end, maybe it's the differences that keep things interesting, and the fact that no human being is ever completely known to another.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Stop Expecting Mind-Reading

When we are young and idealize falling in love, many of us imagined a perfect partner who reads our mind and intuits our needs and wants. Later, the mature person of any age begins to realize that if you are going to have any success in relationships with other people, that's really NOT a healthy or realistic expectation to have. We need to grow up emotionally and make an internal shift on this point.

In emotionally healthy adult relationships, each person needs to be able to reflect and sort out what they are feeling, and what they want to request of the other people in their life. Nobody is ever going to read your mind telepathically and deliver your unstated needs to you by UPS. It doesn't work like that. The sooner you can learn to reduce your expectations of others in this area, the happier you can become. You need to voice your own needs, as well as listen to those of the people who matter to you.

Even the right sensitive, caring partner is not feeling exactly what you are feeling, or understanding the nuances of what you need unless you express it. Sometimes in couples counseling, I find one partner with distorted or "magical" thinking about this, and holding onto childhood fantasies that their perfect partner will know them without any effort on their part. Sorry, but I can pretty much guarantee you that isn't going to happen.

I sometimes find it helpful to think about it being our individual job to identify what we are feeling, and teach others how we want to be loved. We are each different, and you may have a very different love language from your partners'. Neither of you is wrong, but as you accept and learn about the differences between you and your partner----in terms of childhood experiences, unmet needs, unique feelings, and expressed desires---you can actually grow much closer.

As it turns out, assumptions are dangerous in relationships are quite dangerous. For example, here are a few bad ones:

1.      I don't have to tell my partner what I need. They should know. ( A set-up for much disappointment.)

2.      I know everything about my partner. (Watch out! This one could come back to bite you. An attitude of openness and curiosity is actually much more helpful. People change all their lives, hopefully, as we keep living, learning, and evolving.)

3.      My happiness is totally dependent on somebody else making me happy. (Wait! Where's your responsibility for bringing some happiness and sharing it with your partner?)

4.      My partner should always be the one to court me, or reach out to me. (Actually, everyone likes to feel that your partner initiates time and positive contact with you. This shouldn't be one directional.)

Let's put that myth to rest that an ideal, mythical partner will read your mind, understand your feelings without any effort on your part, and meet all your needs. The good news is that you will be a better person and a better role model for your children if you are a grown-up who takes grown-up sized responsibility for sorting out your own upset feelings and asserting yourself in a healthy, appropriate way. That's the grown-up adaptation of that childhood wish, well resolved.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

How Living Longer Will Change Most Everything

How would it change your life if you knew you were going to live to be over 100 years old? Futurist Sonia Aronson, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute and a columnist for Tech News Now, has written a new book that previews some of the changes that are predicted in coming years as people around the globe live longer. In 100+: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith (Basic Books, 2011), Aronson presents trends to watch for that will reshape our lives significantly.

In 2010, Monaco was the top country for life expectancy, with the average citizen living 89.78 years. Rounding out the top 10 were  Macau, San Marino, Andorra, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, and France. Genetic makeup can help us to avoid cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, and high blood pressure. Lifestyle and behavioral choices also contribute to the mix. In the future, Aronson predicts, most people will live beyond 100.

As more people live past 100 years of age, more changes will occur in families. Increases in fertility technology is expected to continue to extend the fertility window for women and couples. The trend of later marriage, which has been on the rise for decades, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, will continue. In the U.S., the age at first marriage is currently 28 for men and 26 for women. This age is expected to get even later as people live longer, with  both men and women seeking to establish a career and independence before marriage. More delays on both marriage and parenting are predicted in the future.

Research by the MacArthur Foundation and the University of Pennsylvania's Transitions to Adulthood Study predict later marriages will be qualitatively different, with more existance of the individuals involved, and relationships that appear more like the choreographed routines of pairs ice skating, incorporating both individual and couples' moves. More people are expected to make better and later marital choices.

Authors Linda Perlman and Susan Morris Shaffer, in their book, Mom,Can I Move Back In With You?, suggest a new term they coined called "adultescence," covering what was formerly a clearer transition from adolescence to adulthood between ages 18 and 20, to the new prolonged transition to adulthood which can take considerably longer. This transition can involve cycles of education, moving out, working, and moving back in with family. This trend is expected to continue and lengthen.

Dr. Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University anthropology professor and author of The Anatomy of Love (and also expert advisor to, the dating website), is quoted in Aronson's book as noting an interesting statistic about the family change of divorce. Divorce, she notes, is primarily for the young, with 81% of all divorces for women finished by age 45. For men, 75% are done with divorce by age 45. Divorce is still most common in our 20's. If we don't marry until later, one can wonder if it will reduce the frequency of divorce.

As people marry later, people may choose more suitable partners. Alternatively, increased years may create the possibility of more break-ups and remarriages. Experts agree that in the future there will be more diversity in family living arrangements, with more non-biologically related individuals building family units.

In the future, more of us will have the gift of a "third age," a set of bonus years that previous generations didn't have, in which to cultivate wisdom and self-awareness. People will work longer, with periodic time off for job re-training and more education. Retirement will be redefined and delayed. There will be more of an emphasis on saving for unanticipated illness or economic instability. There will be increasing questions about the massive costs for end-of life healthcare. Staying up to date and competitive in the marketplace will continue to be critically important. The work force will incorporate more older workers, who tend to be more patient than their younger co-workers.

The extension of fertility and increased longevity will create bigger age gaps between siblings. This will create different  family bonds and dynamics, with less shared memories and history as siblings move more than 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years in age difference. Due to increased contraception and wealth, the number of children per woman of childbearing age is expeted to continue to decrease.

Aronson even tackles predicting what will happen to faith in a shift to longer lives. She forsees more religious shifts at different seasons of our lives as people live longer and evolve with their experiences over time. She feels fewer people will reliably stick with one faith their whole hundred-plus year life cycle.

100 Plus is a fascinating read, and fun to consider how our lives, careers, and family experiences will continue to change in response to longer time here on Earth. It sounds like it's time to take better care of ourselves, because we may have more time ahead of us than we realize. I guess I knew this already, as my  99 year old grandmother lives close to us, still reading the newspapers and staying on top of the trends. Take good care of your body, mind, and spirit. It looks like we may need all of this original equipment later.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Do You Need A Happiness Project?

At the airport this past weekend, I found a terrific little paperback that had lots of wisdom tucked inside it. It was Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun (Harper Collins, 2009). It's written by Rubin, a former attorney, and former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She realized she'd rather be a writer. I'm glad she did.

Rubin does a thorough and intelligent review of the psychological research on happiness as well as the thoughts of philosophers and writers on this topic. Her engaging style is fun and easy to follow. She takes us inside her life, relationships with her husband, children, parents and friends as she sets a course to make herself an even happier person in a year. She shares with the reader her path to create happiness resolutions, and keep herself accountable for doing so with a chart--gold stars and all.

Each month, Rubin takes on a part of building a bigger, bolder, healthier, more organized, aware, and connected life. A month at a time she tackles life tasks like:

Boosting Energy

Simplifying/Decluttering (cute insights on varieties of clutter here)

Exercising Differently

Making Your Relationship a Priority

Showing Proof of Love

Giving Up Nagging

Launching a New Career Venture

Asking for Help

Working Smarter

Lightening Up as a Parent

Acknowledging Other People's Feelings

More Leisure

More Silliness

Connecting More with Friends

Giving Up Gossip

Increasing Generosity to Others

Cutting People (And Your Partner) Some Slack

Making 3 New Friends

Splurging a Little

Mastering a New Technology

Not Expecting Praise or Appreciation

Giving Something Up

Cultivating Gratefulness

Reading Memoirs of Catastrophes

Studying a Spiritual Master

Making Others Happy

Pursuing a Passion

Being Present

Being Mindful

Trying Something New

Finding a Personal Refuge

Laughing and Singing More

Using Good Manners

Giving Good Reviews about Others

What were her results? It wasn't quantifiable, but Rubin's sense was that the happiness project worked nicely. She shares her progress and also weaves in the insights of her blog readers, who also detailed shifts in their own perceptions and feelings as they created their own personal happiness projects. They speak to striving for happiness despite different circumstances than Rubin's.

I liked that Rubin completely understands the individual nature of happiness, and invites readers to tailor their happiness project accordingly. She's honest about things that don't work for her (gratefulness journal), things that seem to border on annoying or offending others (offers to declutter friends' homes), and her concerns that focusing on happiness could be too self-focused if you aren't careful to share it.

We each have happiness set points. The active pursuit of happiness and growing our happiness frontiers appears to move us further along our range of happiness. It takes energy to build a happy life, rather than passively complain. Happiness is also fairly contagious, and Rubin describes how her pursuit of happiness trickles out increases in the happiness quotient of her husband and children.

The Happiness Project is a fun read, soulful and real, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm tempted to hunt down one of her happiness communities online to join in the discussion. Building communities of people who are firmly committed to building happiness and sharing it with others is a magnetic concept. Perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson was right, (as quoted by Rubin) that there is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.