Thursday, September 27, 2012

Your Own True North

At times, I see a theme in the life coaching and counseling work that I am doing, running across several individuals I am working with. In the past several weeks, I have been guiding different people in the similar theme of  not betraying themselves.

Often we consider not letting others down, but rarely do we consider not letting ourselves down. In relationships, at work, and in our lives in general, we need to be our best, most authentic self. You can feel the tension and resentment that builds up inside you if you are not being honest with yourself and the others who are important to you. Notice what your body feels when you are around different people. Are you at ease, or tense?

We need to say the truth about what we need and want. We need to be brave enough emotionally to stand up to people who want to belittle us, or for whom you need to act smaller than you are in order to fit into their perception of us. We need to not be codependent with those who would marginalize us, or beat us up emotionally with our past choices. We are allowed to change and grow, and expect that the people close to us give us the grace to do so.

Every person has a basic right to say how they want to be treated. Philosopher and writer Martin Buber wrote about the "I and Thou" relationship, where we treat the intimate other with respect, compassion, and tenderness. We also have a right to ask to have that respectful relationship reciprocated to us. That is how we should strive to treat not only our partner, but also our children, our parents, our co-workers and friends.

What happens if you betray yourself in a relationship, perhaps out of fear of losing that person? You are giving away some of your own personal power to them. You are letting your need for the relationship, or your insecurities from the past, or about this relationship, run the show. You shouldn't have to betray your true north, or your sense of being at peace with yourself, in order to maintain the homeostasis in any relationship. That's a bad deal, and over time, that bargain will eat away at your sense of self. Perhaps it will also eat away at your spirit like acid rain.

This is the only life we know for sure that you get. Treat it with reverence. Make sure that you are reflecting from time to time about whether you are being honest and appearing as yourself in each of the relationships in your life. Nobody needs to give you permission. You can give it to yourself.

It is never too late to reset your life course for your own true north. I admire people who decide in middle age or beyond to retrain for fulfilling work, or recognize they are tired of ignoring their own feelings, or getting stepped on by their family, partner, or friends. You must be your own best friend and advocate for your life being lived fully.

What direction do you need to steer in order to be more fully congruent and your authentic self in all the parts of your life? This week is a perfectly good week to take a step or two in the direction of your own true north. A baby step will work just fine, and will strengthen your ability and resolve to keep on going. Ask for the support of those closest to you.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Are You a Clean Communicator?

When I watch the Monty Python skit "The Argument Clinic," it always crystalizes for me why some people are much easier to communicate with than others. Like the person behind the desk at the argument clinic, sometimes it’s just too frustrating to be understood. What if each person took responsibility for being a clean communicator? Couldn't we make life easier, make communicating more satisfying, and end some drama that happens with dirty communication? I think so.

Think about who you want to speak with when you are frustrated, upset, sad or churned up inside. What qualities do you look for in someone you can open up to? Most people prefer people who listen well, ask questions to deepen their understanding, are non-judgmental, emotionally available, not distracted, direct, honest, not lecturing, and who care and listen from the heart.

Clean communication is clear and direct. If you have a concern or a grievance with someone, you have the courage to talk with them directly, not passive aggressively complain about them to a third party.

Being a clean communicator means you don't use sarcasm, or try to operate like you are "one up." You operate from a base of mutual respect and value the other person.

Clean communicators manage their own stress level. They exercise, meditate, pray, and do their own self-care. They don't make you the verbal punching bag for every speed bump in their daily life.

Clean communicators mean what they say, and say what they mean. Therapists call this congruency.
You keep your commitments, and are impeccable with your word.

Skilled communicators deliver whole communications, as in "when you did x (their behavior), I felt y (your feeling), and next time I would like z (their behavior)."

Good communicators can set boundaries with others. They can say "no." They try not to do things just out of obligation or guilt.

When clean communicators are unhappy with the way an important relationship is going, they don't start an emotional or sexual affair with someone else. They set up a time to honestly talk with their partner directly about their concerns, and see whether they can each take some responsibility for getting things back on track.

Clean communicators avoid saying "always" and "never." They choose "I-statements," rather than blaming "you-statements."

It's dirty communication to label other people, judge them, and blame them. (This is not your job!)

Dirty communication drags out the past in every disagreement and can't let go of it and move on.

Threats are the favorite ammunition of dirty communicators. They threaten to leave, to divorce, to break up with you. This dirty communication style is called being an emotional bully.

Dirty communicators attack and denigrate the other person in any disagreement. They refuse to accept that the other person may have their own perspective, and that that's often okay and healthy. We therapists call this differentiation, and it means you accept the differences between your view of the world and someone else's. Dirty communicators can't do it.

Clean communicators keep their non-verbal cues warm. This includes facial expression, tone of voice, and body language. Dirty communicators do non-verbal leakage that is cold, judgmental, and tight. Warm non-verbal cues make you want to open up. Cold ones make you want to shut down.

My theory is that everyone can look emotionally pretty healthy alone, but it is in close relationships that our insecurities and fears pop out. It gets harder to assert yourself about personal things, and with those that you care most about. The stakes are so much higher than when you assert yourself with a stranger.

For a nice review on these concepts of healthy and clean communication skills, check out the classic book Couple Skills by McKay, Fanning, and Paleg (New Harbinger Publications, 2006).

The good news on communicating cleanly and effectively is that it's entirely learnable. It's our choice every day to choose dirty communication that hurts our relationships and makes people feel they have paid a visit to the argument clinic, or healthy, clean, and open communication.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Woman in the Mirror

There are aspects of growing up a woman in our society or of raising healthy daughters that are extremely difficult. A particular challenge is helping yourself, or your daughter, to have high self-esteem and feel comfortable and at ease with your/her own body. There are so many expectations for women to be thin, beautiful, and eternally youthful; meet the needs of children, partner, and parents; work, maintain the home front, and be fun while doing it. Most women are at war with their physical self for most of their lives, with a constant negative soundtrack playing in their heads that they are not enough. We compare ourselves to other women, to women who are air-brushed, and to runway models with eating disorder behaviors.

This week, I really enjoyed reading psychologist Cynthia Bulik's new book, The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are (Walker and Company, 2012). Bulik is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, a Professor of Nutrition at the UNC's School of Public Health, and the Director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program.

This is a book I would recommend to all women, and to parents of girls. If we are going to help the next generation of women navigate these destructive forces, we need to be educated about what we role-model, and what we say to our daughters. It's powerful. Men count here, too.

What I especially liked about this book was the easy, approachable style of writing. I also appreciated that the author took a life span view of women, from infancy to grade school, middle school, high school, college, marriage, working, menopause, and the issues of aging. At each stage, Bulik illuminates the unique body image pressures and self-esteem hits common to women. Middle school is a particular time of great challenge for most girls in both the body image and self-esteem areas. The transition years beginning and ending college can be vulnerable times for women, as can the period in which they are engaged and planning a wedding, and adjusting to their new body after each pregnancy. Adjusting to menopause can be a time of vulnerability for women, too.

It's also really tough in our society to age. Older men get defined as charming or distinguished, while older women can feel invisible, ignored, and unappreciated. There is increasing media and marketing pressure on women not to show age, and to use cosmetic surgery to help retain a youthful appearance long after they are not youthful. Remember when grandma could just be grandma? She didn't have to do yoga and Pilates and own a business. Mine had wrinkles, baked cinnamon rolls, and was beloved by all. I can't remember her begrudging the aging process.

Throughout the book, Bulik offers worksheets that you can download from her website to help you identify the negative thoughts that may be running overtime in your head about your body. She has a worksheet on tracking how often you hear other people comment about people's weight, etc. It's so common that we can be oblivious to the negative messages that besiege us as women, from others and the internalized ones we beat ourselves up with.

She also suggests we track the number of times we say "I'm sorry" as women. Stop being the emotional shock absorber at home and at work. Be careful about all that apologizing for things you had nothing to do with. Men really do not do this. We need to do a better job of speaking up, advocating for ourselves in relationships and at work, and being direct about what we like and want. We need to stop the war on our own confidence and self-esteem.

While we want to be healthy, active, and vital, it's a problem to confuse our body image with the broader construct of who we are, our self-image. They are different and distinct. I highly recommend this book to women, the men who love them, and parents of girls. It's time for us to all do better at not devaluing ourselves, other women, or our daughters by confusing the woman in the mirror for the real woman of substance inside each of us.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Creating A Vision Board

If you are up for a challenge or feeling a little bored or stuck in your life, you may want to try making a vision board for your life. It only requires a piece of poster board or art paper and some markers. This is a fun tool for getting you thinking creatively again about your life, your activities, and keeping yourself challenged and growing.

I had heard of this idea years ago, but only in the past few months as a friend shared that pretty much everything she had put on her vision board a year ago has actually manifested, did I get in gear and make one up for myself. It's a fun project that can be added to over several weeks, and may cause you to think more in daily life about what you really want to create in your life now. It's powerful, and motivating.

If it's an inside job for each person to develop themselves, become multi-dimensional, and keep yourself thriving and interesting, then we need ways to visualize the life we want. Too often, people drift through daily life, and don't set personal goals for how they wish to develop themselves over the next year.

Having a blank piece of art board and hanging it somewhere prominent in your bedroom, bathroom, or front of your closet where you will see it each day is a great way to keep yourself on track and motivated. How will your actions today help you step further toward your goals?

You don't have to draw well to do this project. There are no grades! It's just for your own use. Several of my patients have also added pictures from magazines.

Think about the fact that we all live in a box. We can grow personally by taking steps out of our comfort zone in many different directions. It will make you feel more alive, inspired and energized!

Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

Where would you most like to travel to this next year? Why don't you start to research, budget, and plan it? If not now, when?

Would you like to learn a new sport or skill? Take a class to learn something you haven't ever had time to study? Find out where you can start. Learning something new makes you really feel that you are pushing your edges.

What positive change would you like to see in your body or physical health? (Put it on the vision board like it as already happened. seeing your goal daily in this area may help encourage you to take positive steps today towards your goal for your physical health.)

Do you have a relationship goal? Would you like to make your marriage more fun or closer? Add a few more friends? Start dating? Become a better parent? Develop your patience or ability to communicate well about difficult things? Become more assertive? A good therapist can get you headed in the right direction in any of these relational areas in a couple of sessions, and give you suggestions of ways to move ahead in your personal life.

What is your work goal? Would you like to develop your work skills further, or get additional skills? If you are not excited about work, consider meeting with a career counselor about getting vocational testing. Finding a new option for your work might help you find your passion again. Recent studies show that as we live longer, most of us will have several different careers in our lifetime.
Here are some other ideas for your vision board:

Would you like to set a goal for monthly savings? Pay off your car early? Get rid of debt so you feel lighter?

Develop yourself more by volunteering for a cause you care about?

Identify ways to be more connected to your faith or spirituality?

Perhaps you'd like to improve your living environment? Get rid of the old couch you hate, and find something you love? Redo the backyard? Create a serene office space for yourself at home?

Have you always wanted to get over your fear of public speaking?

Have you always wanted to drive a race car, join a book group, or learn to surf?

Have you always wanted to go back and finish your degree? Why not now?

Would you like to add more color to your wardrobe?

Let yourself have some fun with your vision board. It's an enjoyable and creative way to bring your hidden or repressed dreams and desires into your conscious awareness and help them be realized. You're worth it! This is the only life we know for certain that you get, so get the most out of it and live boldly. It will make you a more developed, vital, and interesting person and partner. A vision board may be a secret weapon for taking back your passion from the repetitiveness of daily life.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Stepping Off The Stress Train

You know those scary movies that come out this time of year, where there are frightening phone calls coming in, and the character discovers the chilling fact that the threatening phone calls are coming from INSIDE their own house? What if your stress set point works the same way, and you have to look at your own role in whipping yourself up into being "stressed out"? In reality, you are the main person who can decide to actively change your own thoughts that are keeping you stressed, and making active lifestyle changes to deal with stress more effectively.

The good news is that you have more power than you have realized in the past to effectively manage stress. You might start by keeping some notes in a stress journal. Note what is happening when you are stressed, what you are thinking, how you are feeling both physically in your body, as well as emotionally. Write down what you did in response to the stress. Record what made you feel better or get past the stress and let it go. There are valuable clues in a stress journal, by watching for patterns that may illuminate other healthier choices you can make.

Watch out for excuses. Some people blame other people or events for their own stressed out state, not taking responsibility for their own negative internal dialogue which makes them overreact to normal events. Try not to blame stress as an integral part of your personality, your work, or your family, which negates your own power to create healthier patterns.

It's better to build your awareness of what stresses you, and make an active plan to manage the stress.

In relationships, I try to get my patients to take responsibility for their own part, rather than blaming others. Make sure you are doing good self-care, including getting regular cardiovascular exercise (enough to make you sweat), eating to keep moods stable, and weeding out those negative  thoughts which make you believe you are powerless and helpless. You're not, unless you resign!

Take a look at your schedule as well. I am always concerned that my patients schedule with regard for balance, including regular breaks and time to connect with those you love, play, exercise, and have down time. If you don't take care to preserve time for these important activities, you are by default choosing to victimize yourself, and stay on the stress train.

Try to avoid unnecessary stressors. This may mean you need to be more careful about your boundaries, and learn to say "no" both at work and in your personal life if you are already fully committed. For example, make a commitment to yourself NEVER to work through lunch. Seek out people who don't stress you out, and in fact help you relax and feel good.

Try doing less. Some people just chronically overschedule, and need to create more realistic expectations for themselves. Practice under-scheduling if this is you, and experiment with how that feels. Scheduling yourself too tightly just makes your blood pressure boil.

Be in charge of not inviting stress in to your life. Turn off news before bed. Listen to soothing music in your car. Allow more time for things than you think it will take.

Be more communicative about expressing your feelings. Keeping them all tucked inside can amp your stress up further.

Be careful not to deal with stress by medicating it with alcohol, food, drugs, caffeine, oversleeping, over-shopping, or other unhealthy behaviors that end up creating more problems and their own stress. Passive stress reducers, like watching TV, are not as good as doing something active like taking a walk outside for 30 minutes and noticing nature.

You may also want to lower your standards. Perfectionism leads to more anxiety and stress. Take a more protective stance with your own emotional and physically. Give tasks only the energy they really deserve, and don't be a spendthrift with your own energy.

Reframing stresses can also be helpful. For those stressors that you can't escape, try to keep the big picture in mind. Some stressors are temporary and will pass. Reminding yourself to keep that big perspective in mind and try to laugh about it can make a big difference in how stressed you get. Try to see the positive in what you are learning from such stressors, and how it may be making you stronger as an individual.

Do something fun or enjoyable every day, even for fifteen minutes! Squeeze in some time to self-soothe with a bubble bath with scented candles, talk with a good friend, curl up with a great book, get outside to see what's blooming this week in your neighborhood, or play with a pet. You'll be surprised how you can lower your own stress set-point through self-care.

When it comes to stress, you are the conductor on your own stress train, and only you can decide to get off it. Life is so short, and we have so much medical evidence about how our own internal stress level leads to health issues like high blood pressure, hypertension, heart problems, and many others. Don't stay on the stress train any longer than you must! You will be happier, and so will those who care about you.