Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Why It's Uncool To Freeze People Out

Have you ever had somebody get upset or angry with you and stop speaking to you?  I notice that it happens frequently, with my patients reporting how painful it is to be on the receiving end of the Big Chill. It can happen with not only children, but with full grown and educated adults.

Putting loved ones in the chill box and shutting down and not responding to them is highly unskilled and emotionally primitive behavior. It doesn't look good on a small child, but this poor coping strategy looks even worse on adults.

If you recognize this pattern in yourself, it's time to do some self-reflection. Where and when did you learn this passive aggressive pattern of behavior? It can actually feel worse to your loved one than punching them. Your behavior is actively making the relationship less safe for the other person. It's a power grab of sorts, in an unfair and childlike delivery.

Is this how you watched the adults in your family solve differences or work through competing needs?

Who did you go to when you were upset as a young person growing up? Was there anyone safe who would listen compassionately, or did you learn to stuff your upset feelings inside and get your retaliation by refusing to speak to others?

Perhaps now is the time to update your skill level if you notice that you have this tendency to punish others by not speaking. Emotionally mature people use words to express if they feel angry, hurt, or mad and need a little time out to cool themselves down before talking things through.

It's perfectly okay to be upset, hurt, or angry. In relationships with another person, you won't always get your needs met. You are not always more important than the other person. You won't always get your own way. Dealing with disappointment and frustration are two things we all need to get good at. It's part of our human experience.

The next time you have the urge to pout, sulk, or freeze your loved one out by not speaking to them, think again. Choose a better, more grown up path. Your relationship can only be as close and secure as you and the other person cab build it. Don't dismantle what you are building because you are reverting back to childish tactics. You deserve better, and so does the other person in the relationship with you. Develop some new strategies. The deep freeze may be a good place for ice cream, but it's a bad place to put your most valuable relationships.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Taking the Risk of Opening Up

It's always a big risk emotionally to open up to someone else: to be real and vulnerable. Opening up means chancing rejection and hurt. It's also the only way to know and be known, and develop authentic and close relationships. Taking healthy risks is sometimes good for us.

Over the years, I've counseled lots of young adults, men and women, who have survived their parents' divorce. They witnessed the pain, betrayal, hurt, loss, and if they were fortunate enough to see it, perhaps they saw their parents accept the loss with grace and move along towards a future. Judith Wallerstein's research on children of divorce, in her ground-breaking study at the Center for Family in Transition, showed us that children of divorce are more scared about risking, opening up, and potentially being hurt than their peers.

Whether you've experienced your own losses and disappointments, or watched it happen to those close to you, building a protective barrier around your heart is not a good strategy. In order to avoid being vulnerable, sometimes people resort to sarcasm, numbing themselves with alcohol or substances, acting "chill" like nothing matters, or shutting down all possibilities for closeness.

In relationships, we have to take calculated risks to succeed. You have to try, even if you're afraid. You have to ask for the things you want and need emotionally. If you don't open up and invest and open up to close, intimate relationships, you don't get them. In relationships, it's no deposit, no return.

Risking enough to selectively open up to others is an essential part of the human journey. It means you can share your hopes and fears, your struggles and your triumphs. Vulnerability and openness is reciprocal as well, and a relationship is deepened as each person reveals more of him or herself over time.

We can take healthy risks with opening up in parenting by putting down the parenting role from time to time to share appropriately a bit of ourselves beyond the parent. It could comfort your child to know about a time when you messed up or learned from a mistake. Sharing beyond the mask of parent could make you more real.

In friendship, taking a risk to invite someone closer to you, to get to know you, or to take the time to really get to know them could be an important road in. Many adults are more afraid to open up and reach out to make new friends than children are. I think it's ideal when a person is open enough to be able to add friends throughout their life cycle, not just in youth.

Risking openness and being vulnerable gives our relationships the opportunity to go deeper and grow more meaningful. Healthy risks push us to grow and be known. Why would you settle for anything less?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Being Thankful

Being thankful is such a big part of being a contented person and living a meaningful life. There are always people who have more and less than we do, but there is joy in appreciating the people and blessings in our life. People who are grateful are less depressed and less anxious.

How do we stay in a grateful place?

Don't compare yourself to others. What they have or accomplish is really irrelevant to you.

Find ways to be of service to others, whether it's through opportunities at work, in your family, your neighborhood, the community, or the world. I know a wonderful elderly man I met at my grandmother's assisted living facility who, although he's nearly 90, widowed, and has serious health issues, makes the focus of his day helping other seniors more frail than he is. Wally picks up groceries or medications for them and helps the other residents order their meals in the dining room. He is a reminder to me that there is always someone in need of our love, kindness, and support.

Express your appreciation. Be in the positive flow by letting  people who make a difference in your life know that they do.

Let the losses and disappointments you have been through let you be sensitive to the losses of others, and allow you to offer support. It feels wonderful to transcend your own pain to be softened and reach out to others who need your kindness and understanding.

Develop your spiritual side. Having a spiritual life helps us reframe our life experiences, find meaning, peace, and stay focused on what's really important in our lifetime.

Wise people realize that life has, as Rick Warren, pastor and writer of The Purpose Driven Life notes, two sides of a railroad track that are always present. One side of the track has highs, and the other has lows. Everybody always has to experience both. No situation is ever perfect or without some hope. Having this perspective keeps you grounded.

Perhaps this Thanksgiving week, it's a good opportunity to verbally express or put in writing your appreciation of the people who are loving, giving, and supportive in your life.

On Thanksgiving, it's a good time to put other distractions away and focus on family and friends. Take a stand on not making Thanksgiving day or night just another day to shop, despite the fact that more stores are staying open for the holiday.

As spiritual writer Marianne Williamson notes,"Joy is what happens when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are." If you really want to feel rich this Thanksgiving, stop to count all of the gifts you have which you cannot buy.

Have a happy and grateful Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 18, 2013

When Adults Throw Tantrums

Have you ever seen a full-grown adult have a meltdown? If you are observant, you can see adult-sized tantrums occur wherever you go, including when driving, at home, at work, in stores, in parking lots, and in restaurants. These tantrums occur when some adults don't get what they want, are frustrated, have to wait, have people cut in front of them, or others don't do what they want.

Adult-sized tantrums, in either women or men, aren't pretty. They actually make you look a bit silly and like you just regressed to a younger age. I like the saying, "You can tell the size of a person by the size of the thing that upsets them."

Tantrums can make you red-faced, throw things, scream, yell, curse, and drive unsafely. Getting into a tantrum can make you feel justified to say extremely hurtful things to both strangers and those you love. Hurtful things that are said can never be erased. The other person could always remember them.

There is a long-lasting impact of tantrums and blowing up with your loved ones. It's hard to get over it. It's very difficult to feel safe enough to be physically or emotionally close to someone you don't feel safe with. You never know when a rupture is going to happen next. It keeps the other person on guard and wary of you.

Here's something else to consider: adult tantrums usually have an audience. What is your partner, your child or teen, your co-worker, employee, or other person thinking and feeling about you when they see you lose it? It makes the adult who is throwing the fit look ridiculous.

When it's your parent who tantrums, it's very confusing and hard for young people to deal with. I know children and teens who are frightened by their parent's rage when driving, as well as anxious when parents throw things, slam doors, stomp off, don't speak to other family members for days, or call them ugly names in anger. What's a child to do about it?

Your relationship with your child is like an empathic envelope you hold them in, with much of daily life occurring on the edge of the envelope, where children push the limits and we let them out a bit and pull them back in as needed. Losing it and throwing tantrums with your child is like blowing that relational envelope to bits.

Disagreements and differences of opinion are normal and can be expressed in healthy ways. This includes sitting down with the other person, listening actively to the other person, and also expressing your thoughts and feelings. Fighting fairly can actually help you understand each other's needs better, grow your confidence that you can work through differences respectfully together, and bring you closer.

Having a tantrum, including screaming, raging, throwing things and wounding the other person with hurtful and curse words, is incredibly unskilled behavior. Instead, own that you are upset and take 20 minutes to calm yourself down before talking things out calmly. Remember, everybody gets older, but maturity is entirely optional. Developing enough of a governor to recognize that you are upset and losing control of your anger is a basic requirement for being an emotionally mature person. If you want great, healthy and close relationships, you can't afford to tantrum. The cost is way too high.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

About Time: Appreciating the Little Things

This past weekend, I saw Richard Curtis' new film, "About Time." It's an interesting mix of a  heart-warming love story and a father-son tale, with a dash of science fiction thrown in. Curtis also directed "Love Actually" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral," and this film has the same witty, warm dialogue. The humor helps the dialogue feel more real.

Wouldn't it be great if you could rewind the action in your life at times and do a do-over? In this film, they can, as the charming Bill Nighy teaches his adult son, Domhnall Gleeson, about the unique ability men in their family inherit to time travel back across their own lifetime. Gleeson uses this ability to get a girlfriend, played by Rachel McAdams. Gleeson seems an unlikely leading man, which I found refreshing and endearing. Gleeson can make improvements all along the way in his courtship with McAdams, and the results are enjoyable to watch. Say something dumb as you first meet your beloved? Just take it from the top, and do it again with more confidence and style.

There is a beautiful storyline about the relationship between father and son, including reliving special moments together when they would take walks on the beach and skip stones into the water. Nighy is sprightly, funny, and insightful as he shares his views about the secrets of happiness in life. His combination of humor and authenticity is very effective. You are fortunate, he tells his son, if you find a partner to love for your life who is kind and has a good heart.

There are many sweet and poignant moments in the film, and several enduring themes. It is so important to appreciate the little sweet moments of ordinary days. Living each day as if it might be your last instructs us not to miss the loveliness of a kiss goodbye, a hug hello, or time shared with those we love. We are temporary travelers here, and this lovely little film reminds us of this fact.  It really is about time, because we have a limited number of days, and we want to make them count. Take some kleenex, and enjoy this sweet reminder about what's REALLY important.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Don't Be a Doormat

I am often struck by how many women are pleasers or doormats. Pleasers are afraid of conflict, so they try to avoid it at all costs. Pleasers don't stand up for themselves, what they need or want, in order to keep the harmony. It often comes at a high price. Doormats lay down and allow people to walk on them. I don't recommend either.

As women, we are raised and socialized to reflect the feminine archetype: nurturing, kind, comforting, and compassionate. While all of these qualities are very valuable, I see women get hurt all the time in business and in personal relationships by not speaking up enough. It's almost like some of our greatest strengths can cause us great harm if they aren't balanced with assertiveness, honesty, self-respect, and the ability to say our own truth when we need to.

A respectful relationship with a partner requires that you BOTH respect and listen deeply to the other person's feelings, viewpoint and expressed needs. Keeping the peace and withholding your own needs can make you sad, depressed, angry, hurt, lonely, overeat, overuse alcohol, and hold resentment. It can grow to feel like you are in the wrong relationship. The relationship may be peaceful, but you might feel dead inside. I rarely run into either men or women who are glad they picked this route to happiness.

In your relationship with your child or children, you also need to be an active parent and not use a doormat style of parenting. You are not your child's friend. You are the parent. You need to be loving, but also have reasonable and consistent limits. You must be brave enough to speak up and take action, whether your child has a learning disability, a bad attitude, is sinking academically, not making developmental passages, or is possibly drinking or using drugs. Peace at all costs is a poor plan for parenting your child successfully and into launching towards adulthood.

The workplace is another area of your life where you need limits and boundaries as well as a good work ethic. You are not volunteering at work. You need to have your time respected. You need to not be codependent with being yelled at, taken advantage of, or mistreated in the workplace as well. You need to think of yourself as a professional, act for the job you ultimately want, and command respect.

How can you avoid becoming a pleaser or doormat?

1. Don't automatically say yes to everything you are asked to do by others.

2. Realize there is power in being able to say no. It makes your yes more meaningful.

3.Consider your own needs as well as those of others.

4. Remember that you are responsible for teaching other people how you want to be treated.

5. Have limits. There are some behaviors that you NEVER have to accept from other people, including: screaming, yelling, physical threats or violence, verbal abuse, swearing, bullying, intimidation, etc.

6. Don't dish out or accept disrespectful behavior. Mutual respect is the keystone of all healthy relationships.

7. Speak up.

8. Be direct.

9. Don't hang out and stay in relationships that dishonor you or in which you are being treated badly. Get professional counseling.

10.  Set your boundaries and enforce them consistently and calmly.

There is value to being a nurturer and caring deeply about others. For people who learned growing up to be pleasers, such as people who grew up in an alcoholic home, it's critically important to grow strong enough to balance your compassion for others with your concern for yourself. You matter, too.
Just because you want to be loved or cared for by others, it's not fair to you to make everyone else's needs or keeping the peace a higher value than your own self-respect. Don't be a doormat; you deserve better, but you need to act as if you do.

While we're at it, let's update the feminine archetype as well, to a woman who is loving and kind but not a martyr or self-sacrificial. The feminine ideal needs to be both gentle and strong, loving but also having limits.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Are the Kids Too Busy?

In the Sunday, October 13, 2013, "This Life" column of the New York Times, there was a great article written by Bruce Feiler called, "Monitoring the Giggle Index," which brought up some interesting things for parents to consider. How busy is good for children, and when is it too busy? Several children and teens I see in counseling are feeling stressed about just how many after school activities are on their plates.

Feiler reviews the literature on this topic, including "The Over-Scheduled Child," "The Pressured Child," and "Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids." He points out that in recent years there have been responses that perhaps the concept of stressed out and over-scheduled kids is either overstated or a myth. While there are lots of good things about keeping children and teens busy and channeled, I always like parents to check in with the kids from time to time about how it's going.

It could be that playing 2 sports or taking 8 dance classes a week worked last year, but maybe it's not working so well this year. When school pressure accelerates, there have been changes at home like a divorce, an activity that was positive becomes a negative, or a child or teen is anxious or depressed, it's probably time to revisit and discuss with them what the right mix would be now.

Feiler points out that, at times, it can be hard to find that fine line with enough activities so your child can develop skills and outside interests that boost self-confidence, and when it's overkill. When parents are driven and successful, they can project onto their children. Parents might be anxious themselves, or  overly well-intentioned about helping the kids get into college or play a professional sport.

Most children and teens need a balance with both enrichment activities and down time. Many introverted kids and teens have told me they need some quiet time after extroverting all day with people at school. It's good to be able to dialogue with your child about what they are enjoying, and what the right mix is.

One Jungian psychologist interviewed for the column, Polly Young-Eisendrath, who wrote "The Self-Esteem Trap," feels that some parents in our generation are too wrapped up in every detail of their children's lives. Young-Eisendrath feels that parents can be obsessive, and that time to just hang out in the same room together is also important. Down time, both individually and together as a family, with cell phones and electronics off, is very important.

What can we do to avoid mistakes with making the kids too busy? Pay attention to make sure the activity is motivated from your child's interest, and not yours. Is your child or teen happy or giggly when you drop them off or pick them up from activities? Do them seem exhausted and burned out? We also need to be careful about the words we choose as parents, and the impact they have on our children. Encourage teamwork, or participating in the play, rather than getting the key role or
 maximum playing time. In the real adult life that we are preparing our children for, you don't always play quarterback or get the starring role.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Something to Look Forward To

We all need something to look forward to. Do you remember being a child, and the amazing feeling of anticipation and excitement you may have felt as summer got closer?

What are you currently looking forward to in your life? If you don't have something you are excited about coming up, maybe it's time to set a goal and make some plans.

Mental health and wellness depend upon having some hope, making plans, and working towards making your dreams happen. Whatever your budget, having a day trip, or a weekend away planned, or beginning to save for and research a trip a year or more in the future, helps you not to get stale or bored. There is something about the planning and anticipation that is good for our outlook. This forward action shows that you are taking responsibility for keeping yourself interesting and curious about life.

Everyday life can get repetitive and a bit boring unless we soul search and introspect on what some healthy goals might be for checking experiences off our bucket list, make plans to reconnect with people who matter, and find ways to challenge ourselves.

Perhaps you have always been curious about traveling to a foreign destination, or want to go back to school, change your career, try dating again, or set some other personal goals to develop yourself and keep your self growing and fully alive.

Many life changes, like overcoming a loss like divorce or a death of a parent, can become opportunities to reinvent yourself and grow some more. Some people dread the children leaving home, or impending retirement, when these can be chances to explore new aspects of yourself that you have not had a chance to develop. Even as we age, we need to keep setting goals and growing.

There is something exceedingly healthy about setting some plans and working to make them happen.
Setting your intention can be very powerful, and help you manifest some of your fondest wishes into happening. What are you excited about in your life? What are you looking forward to in the next few weeks and months? If you can't think of anything, that's the perfect time to begin planning an adventure or a goal you can get excited about. You'll be glad you did.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Enough Said

A new movie is being released this week called "Enough Said," starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini, the actor from The Sopranos who passed away earlier this year. It's a film that explores dating and re-partnering in mid-life, and how complicated it can be.

When they meet, both Dreyfus (Eva) and Gandolfini (Albert) are about to have their only daughters leave for college. They are both single following their divorces. Their first date is a very humorous experience, as is the scene where Eva first meets Albert's daughter.

Their new relationship is tested by Eva's friendship with Albert's ex-wife, played by Catherine Keener, who is extremely expressive about all her pet peeves about him. Ultimately, the film makes us consider how rare love is, how we need to set boundaries to protect and honor it, and about the value of truly accepting some of your partner's imperfections, just as they accept yours. Loving someone isn't as much about finding the perfect person to love as it is being the most loving partner you can be.

There is also an interesting theme about adolescent daughters and their mothers, and the process of learning to separate, letting them individuate and letting go some. There are several mother-daughter pairs in the movie, all resolving that conflict differently. The daughters are also trying to figure out the right way to navigate through the changes that need to occur in the mother-daughter relationship as they prepare for launching.

There are several bittersweet elements in the movie, such as when Eva and her daughter's father, long divorced, say goodbye to their daughter, Ellen, as she leaves for her flight to start school at Sarah Lawrence. As Eva is tearful and visibly upset, her daughter's father shares the tender moment and tells her, "We made a good person." Long after the divorce, there are often moments that are bittersweet in this way for divorced parents as their children go through developmental milestones (often, not always).

Director Nicole Holofcener did a good job of directing, injecting some humor and some really reflective, deeper themes about love and relationships. Sadly, this was one of Gandolfini's best projects as he went against character and beautifully underplays his part so that it feels effortless and natural. Good relationships are rare and deserve protecting.

Friday, October 11, 2013

What Do the Children Know?

Children may be the smallest people in the family, but they sure notice a great deal about what is going on in their families.  I am often amazed about the observations that children and teens can make in counseling with me about what's happening with the adults. So, what are some of the things they notice?

They notice if there is substance abuse going on. Children as young as 6 have told me that they worry about mom or dad's drinking. Teens are smart and are savvy enough to know if parents are using pot, prescription pain meds, or something more. They get scared when parents are driving them while intoxicated or high on substances. The worrying about parents' alcohol and drug use can make them depressed, anxious, have difficulty studying or enjoying their time with friends. What kids know about substance abuse in their families can make them feel scared, different, or isolated. These worries about substance-abusing parents can take a child or teen off track developmentally from what they should be focusing on.

Children and teens know many things about how the relationship is between their parents. They notice how you treat each other, and if you are affectionate, kind and relational with each other or not. They notice if you spend the evening together or ignore each other. They notice if you like each other, and have date nights.  Children notice whether you treat each other with respect, or you badmouth each other.You actually give your children a template or script for their future relationship or marriage, whether positive or negative.

Children notice all the little nuances of your parenting style. They know if you have an anger problem, or you don't follow through, or if you can be manipulated. They crave fairness and  reasonable limits and rules that are consistently enforced. Be careful not to play favorites if you have more than one child, because children can tell if you favor the child that looks like you, or has your same birth order, or your gender. It's best to make each child your favorite. Be honest about what you are feeling----if you are mad, sad, hurt, tired, or overwhelmed. Your kids can read your non-verbal cues anyway, so don't bother. You can role model being honest about your emotions, and coping with negative emotions in a healthy way.

Children also take notice on how you deal with money. I've seen a number of children who worry about their parent's finances. If your spending is out of control, or you buy things when you are feeling down, be aware that the children are watching.

The kids are also watching how we eat, manage our weight, and our fitness. Our example is more powerful than anything you can say.

Are you a faithful spouse or are you looking for affairs? Are you able to resolve conflict in a mature way, or do you scream and tantrum? Are you responsible with your choices, or selfish? Do you hold on to resentment and grudges, or are you able to forgive others and apologize when you are wrong? In these areas, and in many others, your life is your lesson for your children, and school is always in session.

As I continue to learn from my patients who are children, teens, and families, being someone's parent is a huge job that should remind all of us to keep working on our own growth and maturing. The children are definitely watching. All children and teens deserve parents who are stable, can be counted on, kind, loving, and interested in what the children are doing. Being an adult who your children can respect is a wonderful goal that can keep us in touch with becoming our best self.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Beautiful, Useful, or Sentimental: The Spiritual Practice of Letting Stuff Go

Minimalists proclaim the motto that we shouldn't keep any possessions in our home that aren't either beautiful, useful, or sentimental. Letting things go physically is a good metaphor for letting other things go that should also be released, like resentment, anger, grudges, jealousy, and conflict you can't remember who started. It turns out that letting some things go that we no longer need is really good for our emotional and mental well-being.

I got started thinking about this letting go of stuff process as my husband and I prepare for the big annual garage sale that's held in our community each October. We both had households before we met, so now we have my set of stuff, his set of stuff, the stuff we've accumulated together, and all the memorabilia it took to launch three great children up to college age. Now that's a lot of stuff! Seriously, with the kids all at college or beyond, the blow-up pumpkin on the front lawn for Halloween is a bit over the top. Time to release that to some nice family with little ones.

I've heard organizers say before that we should each go through our closets once a year and donate anything you haven't worn. Chances are that Goodwill, or the charity you like best, needs it more than you or I do. It feels wonderful to easily be able to find what you are looking for in the closet. Some fashion writers recommend taking two items out of our closet to donate for every one we purchase or add. The same thing could be done with household purchases.

From a parenting perspective, what a great lesson to teach our children about the joy of releasing things you no longer need and giving them away or selling them. That's a lesson that can help them learn to be organized, keep track of things, take good care of their possessions, and release things they no longer need. That's a hard lesson to learn if Mom and/or Dad don't role model it for them.

Letting things go----emotionally and physically---is a healthy way to travel lighter through life. Being focused on people, relationships, and the present is a much healthier mindset that holding on to stuff. Travel light, let love and unneeded items flow from you to others, and focus on collecting beautiful moments.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Luxury of Disconnecting

Last week, I met up with a friend who had lost her cell phone by leaving it in a cab while out of town recently. While it was frustrating, she found the few days without a phone actually also very relaxing. It's a little luxury we can each afford, to make private time either with loved ones or friends, or by yourself, truly uninterrupted.

It turns out that setting up sanctuary time zones that are free of cellphones, email access, and social media  is trending. In today's edition of the New York Times, Caroline Tell has an interesting article titled "Step Away From the Phone" that describes how many people are setting some technology limits. AOL reported this past week on the concept of "Serenity Saturdays" with suggestions for limiting technology use that day and a suggested playlist of relaxing music to download and destress yourself.

In Tell's New York Times article, she shares that many families are using a special place in the kitchen, like a fishbowl or bowl, to deposit all cell phones during dinner time. Anybody who checks their phone can be given an extra task as a consequence, such as doing the dishes. This activity teaches everyone---adults and children---- to protect family time by becoming fully present and undistracted.

When friends or families are out for dinner or drinks, they can play "stack 'em up," where each person in the group adds their cell phone to the stack of them on the table. Anyone who peeks at theirs has to pay the check!

It's great role-modeling for parents to turn off or put away their phones when there are opportunities to play with the children, engage in family activities, or be present with each other.

You might consider a time at which you turn your phone off or put it away for the evening, as well as the computer and iPad. Add the television to the early turn off program, and you just might sleep better, interact more with those you live with, and feel more relaxed. Just because you can be available 24/7 doesn't mean you should be.

Tell also notes an increase in social invitations that are being issued with the directive NOT to bring your cell phone, or Instagram photos from the event, with signs reinforcing the policy at the door when you arrive.

Apparently, as cell phone use has reached an all-time high, it's now becoming more cool to be unavailable at times. Multi-tasking all day and evening takes a subtle toll on us. It's time to give ourselves a delicious luxury that is ours for the taking: being off-duty, and having private time to restore and recharge.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Go For The Brass Ring (Don't Settle)

I like to see people go for it. I hate to see people settle. It doesn't tend to make people happy in either their professional or personal life to do so. I encourage my counseling and coaching clients of all ages not to. There are key moments in each of  our lives where we need a gentle nudge to step up to becoming a better version of ourselves. Less complacent and comfy perhaps, but reaching and stretching out of our comfort zone. Don't give upon what you REALLY, REALLY want.

In our work life, I like people to go to work happy. I often ask my coaching clients how they feel each day when they are driving to work. Are you excited to get started, or do you dread getting there? Do you wish you could drive someplace else? Since most of us are going to be living longer, and working longer than our parents did, we really need to begin to think differently about work. More of us will have portfolio careers, with different chapters of our work life. It's almost never too late to retrain, rethink and regroup for another chapter.

If you aren't that crazy about your work, you are part of the majority. It's normal to not like your work, but why be normal? Many people kind of passively "fall" into something work-wise, rather than choose a goal and go for it. You my start by remembering what you liked to play when you were a child. You may want to get some career testing done to identify your strengths, career preferences, and help you consider what kind of work environment would be the best match for you.

Even Sigmund Freud felt that we all need two things in life: work and love. It's wonderful if you can invest in yourself enough to find work that uses your gifts and strengths. Now, how about going for it in your personal life?

I see too many people settling for mediocre marriages and love relationships. Life is too short. Step it up. Have an honest conversation with your partner about what you could do to be a better partner for them, and vice versa. Marriage is a lot like an empty box you need to fill with good things and experiences, not just unpack it, and be mad the box is empty. Don't settle for a mediocre relationship: instead, be a leader making things better.

When you are considering a life partner, make sure it is someone you find interesting enough to have as a forever dinner date. I think people know on a deep level if they are settling, or if they are with a partner who makes them come fully alive. It's helpful if you have chemistry, because I find it hard to help a couple create later if they never had it.

It's also important to choose a partner who shares your values, that you share some fun, companionate activities, and have similar life goals.Are they somebody who you can trust? Be yourself with? Do they inspire you to be your best? What is your positive influence on encouraging them?

How are you doing as a parent? If your children are school-age or older you can actually check with your child directly and ask them. Find out if you are giving them the support, time, and kinds of attention they need now. You can ask them the best ways to connect with them, and what you may be doing that annoys them. When do they feel closest to you? Never settle for being a mediocre parent when you are capable of doing better.

People settle for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it's because it's easier and doesn't require leaving the comfort zone.We can be fearful of being alone, risking failure, or looking defeated to others. We may feel pressure directly or indirectly to please others. We may need more information.  Change can be hard or anxiety producing, but change is sometimes a necessary condition for growing. Ignoring boredom or the feeling of settling either at work or in your personal life can actually make you anxious or depressed.

Go for the brass ring in your life. Why would you settle for anything less? You'd be shortchanging yourself and others, and missing out on your own growth from REALLY going for it. Go with courage towards your dreams.

"We are the ones we have been waiting for."
---Hopi Indian Elders' Prophecy

"Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great."
----Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.
Life is beauty, admire it.
Life is a dream, realize it.
Life is a challenge, meet it.
Life is a duty, complete it.
Life is a game, play it.
Life is a promise, fulfill it."
 -----Mother Teresa

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Short Term 12

I saw a great psychologically-minded movie recently that really made you think about teens and some of the struggles they have and the support they so badly need from the adults around them. Short Term 12  is about a  fictional short-term foster care facility, and the young residents and the staff who care about them.

The writer-director, Destin Daniel Cretton worked at such a facility, which really shows in the film's honesty. The characters feel complex enough to be real. Cretton effectively captures the improvisational feel and emotional intelligence that is necessary to be effective in good treatment.

Each teen has their own story. Behind their quietness or their acting out, they are trying to cope with unstable, abusive and neglectful parents, loss, self-esteem, and change. It's hard enough to be a teen in a stable home with all the pressure from peers, self-consciousness, body image concerns, hormonal changes, mood swings, and  the search for an identity. Just imagine having to do that when your parents are damaged themselves, chemically dependent, abusive, or absent entirely.

The teens in the film have a hard time trusting, and understandably so. Sometimes the teens just runaway from the facility, and the staff go running to encourage them to return. It reminded me about that old saying about the impact of teachers: It doesn't matter how much they know until you know how much they care. There are some beautiful sequences in the film where a young staff person chases and follows one of the residents and demonstrates how much they care about them.

There is also a storyline about a romance between two of the young staffers that is interesting. Grace (Brie Larson) is superb as the senior staff person, who understands the kind of pain many of the teens are going through in a deeply personal way. Larson gives a strong and vulnerable performance as she tries to open up and risk letting people close, not too differently from the teen residents she watches over. Several of the staff give great performances, demonstrating how parallel play, like drawing with a teen who draws or performing music with a teen whose language is music, can be a powerful unspoken language of connection and joining.

The movie Short Term 12 is well worth seeing. There is pain, but also profound hope. It makes you see how much all teens need love, consistent limits, the ability to test those limits, and adults around them (related or not) who truly care about them. I always think we could change the world if every child and teen had at least one adult who really listened from the heart, and tried to join and connect with them. Bruising happens, but healing is always a possibility as long as we are alive.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Words We Choose

I started college as an English major, so I am always very interested in word choice, either in the written word or in conversation. As a therapist these last 25 years, I'm curious about what people's word choice means about their relationships and their world view.

What does it imply when one partner describes their home as "my house," their financial resources as "my money," or their shared child as "my child?" There are underlying power dynamics in most human relationships. I often stop couples when they do this, and ask them to reframe their statement.

Words can heal and also have the power to hurt. Children think that as parents, we know everything. (Then as teens, they often find out we don't.) The words a parent says get imprinted on a child's developing core self. I often ask people in individual therapy how their parents viewed them in the family. Were you told you were the smart one or the pretty one? Could you never measure up in your parents eyes to a sibling? Were you told you weren't an athlete, weren't a good student, or couldn't be something you wanted to be?

Clearing up some of those old messages that were imprinted on you by your parents is liberating. Maybe your parents were human, and not clairvoyant or all-knowing. Perhaps it is time to update your own view of yourself, and watch what you say to yourself. Self-talk is powerful. Why can't you feel, think, and be who you'd like to be already?

In your relationships, watch what words you use. Create joining and union with your partner. Focus on we, not I. Share the power, share the ownership, and lean into your closest relationship. You won't believe the difference.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Why Hooking Up Is Messed Up

In July, The New York Times ran a follow-up article to its earlier one about the death of courtship, explaining how dating practices have changed in the college-age/young adult demographic. This article focused on young women in their 20s, and how they can be so focused on their academic career, internships, volunteer work, etc. that they don't have time for a relationship and may prefer just to "hook up" or randomly have meaningless, brief sexual encounters with men they care nothing about. The New York Times interviewed successful female students at the University of Pennsylvania who make hooking up a part of their social life.

While there are young adults that make this their ritual, many teens and twenty-somethings are smart enough to know that hooking up is a really messed up thing to do that can cause long-term harm. In addition to the physical health risks of pregnancy and STDs, there are emotional consequences to becoming physically intimate with someone who is a stranger and with whom you have no relationship. It trivializes being physically close to someone else, as if it is a sport. It is not.

Many of these hook ups occur after one or both people are drinking heavily, and are not thinking clearly. All the more reason to limit or not drink alcohol. (During college it's termed partying, while after college we call it alcoholism).

I do a great deal of counseling with teens and young adults. I find that while courtship has changed some for their age group from how it was for their parents and grandparents, at the core most people need to be encouraged to stay focused on what they REALLY want, and not succumb to the pressure to handle relationships the way other people do. Separating physical intimacy from emotional intimacy in a committed relationship is a recipe for a great deal of potential hurt and damage to your developing self.

Parents of pre-teens, teens, and college-age students should be aware of this hooking up activity, and involve your son or daughter in some discussion about it. Ask them what they think. Share your concerns. Keep in mind that your son or daughter needs to feel safe talking with you, so a tone of curiosity about their opinion as a younger person, and of mutual respect will help. Chances are, even if your son or daughter isn't a part of this "hook up culture," they probably have friends who are participating in it.

Hooking up? It's a really messed up idea that puts younger people at risk, both physically and emotionally. Some cultural and societal changes advance and improve us. Hooking up isn't any kind of improvement over traditional courtship, waiting until you have time to date, and creating meaningful relationships. Everybody deserves better, including relationships that honor your highest self.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Owning Your Own Power

I see people give away too much of their own personal power. While I'm not interested in power over other people, I see it as highly desirable to exercise your own power over yourself and your own life choices.

Mastery of our own power seems difficult for most people, but especially challenging for women. As women, we are socialized with the feminine archetype of the all-sacrificing, demure, other-centered mother who puts herself last. Most young women have trouble developing their own voice within relationships, advocating for what they need and want in an assertive way.

It always shocks me to be treating a bright, educated, talented young woman who allows herself to be verbally abused or otherwise mistreated in a love relationship. Many other young women are in relationships where they are so grateful to be loved and accepted that they pack away and sublimate their own desires, goals, and interests. It's as if young women believe we have to make a bargain, and give away part of ourselves to be in intimate relationships. You shouldn't have to do that, but first you need someone to remind you that you need to be yourself in close relationships, or it's not the right relationship for you.

How do you empower yourself?

1. You ask yourself what would you REALLY be doing or wanting if you were not afraid. Don't operate out of fear.

2. You keep working on your own personal goals, even when you are in a relationship. This might include career goals, more education, volunteer service, making and maintaining friendships, financial health, physical fitness, learning new things, developing your interests and passions, cultivating your spirituality, traveling, or learning a new skill. Remember, whatever happens in your relationship, you are with you, either way! Keep making you interesting, and keep growing.

3. Give up blame.

4. Take responsibility for yourself, your attitude, your mistakes, and your part in things.

5. Get some support. Most people feel more courageous when they are encouraged. Build your own supportive community. Find a therapist who can help you identify how to build yours. Consider deepening your existing support system by joining a support group, a meetup group, a women's or men's group, a book club, or a religious or spiritual group.

6. Give up playing 'victim'. Don't use victim language. Don't hope for a rescue, make some plans and set some goals. Act like you believe in yourself.

7. Learn to negotiate, and do it at work as well as in your close relationships. You may not be able to get what you want, but how do you know unless you try? Many partners and supervisors respect you more if you advocate respectfully on your own behalf.

8. Say hello to 'NO'. Boundaries have to be set and maintained with other people. Having limits gets you respected. Your yes means nothing if you aren't free to say no. Don't be a doormat. They get walked on.

9. Show some confidence. This isn't the same thing as arrogance. It isn't boastful or prideful. Humble confidence means you respect yourself.

10. Focus less on what other people think of you. People pleasing is overrated and exhausting.

11. Appreciate your unique qualities.

12. Work on accepting yourself, and speaking kindly to yourself on the inside. The power of our internal dialogue is huge. Become aware of what your inner voice is saying to you all day, and upgrade that criticism to encouraging, supportive self-talk.

13. Speak up. Say what you think, want, and feel. If you don't, you are going to be underrepresented in the relationship, and over time you may grow to resent the other person.

14. Don't sign up for any long-term relationship with a person who devalues you, demeans you, doesn't care what you want, or doesn't feel you are just as important as they are.

Recently, when I was participating in a large women's collective discussion, I noticed the dramatic difference between those we were fearful, and those who, in the words of writer and vulnerability researcher Brene Brown, were "daring greatly". Only you can decide to be you, undiluted by life's events and disappointments, and striving for a bigger life. Only you can play you at full strength. Don't settle for anything less.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Giving Up Complaining: A Challenge

I ran across a fun exercise this week that challenges you to own your own behavior and be a constructive problem solver, not a whiner. Here's how it goes: for a 24 hour period this week, challenge yourself to not verbalize any complaints. Give it up entirely!

The observations you make about yourself may be very useful to you. Do you find yourself judging others? It's almost always best to stay away from judging others if you can. Are you complaining about something that can be changed or you have the power to make different? If so, make a shift that will stop the need for complaining.

I have tried this little homework assignment with several families, and we have really learned some valuable lessons together from it. Sometimes complaining becomes a bad habit. One family member whining can create an atmosphere where others join in, in a bad way.

In our families and in our relationships, we all get deaf to whining and complaining that is relentless. It's important to change what you need to, accept what you can't change, and move forward. Whining and complaining is emotionally exhausting--both for the person doing it, and everyone else who has to put up with it.

After that 24 hour complaint detox, then the next step is to make a list of everything you are grateful for. Keep the list where you can see it daily, perhaps where you get dressed in the morning. Next, hand write a letter to your partner (or the closest relationship you have) and tell them why you are grateful to have them in your life. I like the idea of mailing the letter to them with a stamp through the old-fashioned USPS, even if you live with them, for maximum impact.

Try this little exercise this week to shift your attitude. After all, attitude is everything in life, so pick a good one. The more you can become a powerful positive presence for yourself and others, the more you will enjoy your day to day life and savor the petite happinesses in life. The simple things of everyday life are where much of the joy is; don't let complaining kill the joy that is possible.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Examining Your Life Script

When we are born, we are given lots of messages, or scripts, from our family about what we should be like. They aren't formally handed out, but they are rules, expectations, and limitations that are forecasting our future. Our choice is whether we live out our script, or if we decide to understand and illuminate the script and rewrite the parts that don't work for us. Some scripts are better than others.

We get scripts about what we should be career-wise, what is possible for us as a man or woman, whether we are expected to become a parent, what marriage is like, how we are to express ourselves and communicate with others, and much more. Life scripts are powerful. If we don't examine them, they can control our life in ways we are unaware of.

Eric Berne was the therapist who defined script analysis as a key part of Transactional Analysis (TA).
Berne identified life scripts as a life plan, reinforced by parents. He felt we choose a script in childhood as a way to make sense of the world. The script helps us navigate, is what we look for, and helps us define our reality.

Here are some questions you can reflect on to understand more about your life script:

1. What is your earliest memory?

2. What did your mother and father each praise in you? What did they each criticize you for?

3. How did you parents relate to each other? Were they affectionate with you? Distant?

4. How did you play as a child? What did you want to be when you grew up?

5. If you wore a shirt which had words written on it that reflects the you that is projected to others, what would it say on the front? What would it say on the back (the part of you that isn't shared with others)?

6. What role did you play in your family growing up? Were you the hero? The scapegoat? The joker?
The fragile one?

7. Did you experience loss growing up? Did it cause you to be more fear based?

8. What was possible for women in your family? For men?

9. What alliances were there in your family? Who was close to whom? How did family members connect?

10. What lessons did you learn from your mother? Father? Grandmother? Grandfather?

11. If you could make life changes, what would you like to be doing/experiencing  in 5 years?

12. How would you like to rewrite your script? What part of your family's script would you like to  reject?

Understanding your life script can help you get unstuck, and own more of your own power to create the life you really want to be living. It can help you be aware of the myriad of choices that are available to you.

Your life is precious. Understanding how the messages you digested while growing up have impacted and are impacting your life, career, and relationships is essential. Just like actors read their lines in a play, we hold fixed beliefs about our potential and our essential self. Many times these fixed beliefs are not helpful. Challenging your fixed beliefs about yourself is healthy and important in order to live your best life, and not live a life that is too small.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Bring the Family: How Family Therapy Helps

I love doing family therapy. Some pretty amazing things can get unstuck and moved forward when we have more family members to work with.

About 20 years ago, I remember watching family therapy pioneer and psychiatrist Carl Whitaker do a demonstration of how he worked with the whole family in mind. He began the session on stage with one adult client. As they began talking about the issues that were upsetting for the client, Whitaker invited other family members to join them to help solve the problem. One by one the other family members appeared on stage to join in the session: mother, father, spouse, child, grandmother, grandfather, etc.

The effect of Whitaker's demonstration made the audience full of mental health professionals laugh as the session got bigger and bigger, but the point was made effectively. There are some concerns that can be very effectively treated by bringing in other family members to help.

Whitaker felt that the therapist needs to always consider the family as the client, not just the individual. While I do individual therapy as well, I agree with Carl Whitaker that the family you live with now, and the family you grew up with, may hold a great deal of information about why individuals struggle. Most people carry some wounds from childhood. Until you're a parent yourself it's hard to fully understand how hard it is to be a "good enough" parent while also staying married, supporting a family financially, and dealing with other life challenges.

Traditionally, family therapists believe most families have an IP or identified patient, who may be seen as the one who has a problem. Part of family therapy is shifting a family out of negative or blaming patterns, and not having an IP. In treating children and teens, I often see that they are the symptom bearers for other things that are going on in the family. Children can really struggle when a parent has cancer, an eating disorder, a chronic illness, or alcohol or drug issues. Children and teens are often painfully aware of marital conflict between their parents.

Family therapy has evolved over the years. I don't always have all the family members in the consulting room with me at the same time. I like the freedom to call in different dyads from the family as I can tell that it is needed . For example, I am currently seeing several teens who are depressed and including some work with their parents to improve their parenting skills, and some work with the siblings and my patient to increase their mutual support. Involving the family strategically can really speed up the course of treatment and improve results.

Got some things to work on in your life? You can work on it alone. You might also want to consider involving your family. Your family is the source of part of your own story, your past, and how you learned to be in relationships. Some of those scripts get reenacted until they get rewritten.

"When you look at your life, the greatest happiness is family happiness."
-Dr. Joyce Brothers

"The family: we were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another's desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all".
-Erma Bombeck, humorist

Monday, July 15, 2013

Emotional Maturity: Growing Up on the Inside

Aging happens to all of us who happen to live into adulthood, but emotional maturity is optional. What are the signs of emotional maturity? Here's a checklist of some of the things emotionally mature people need to master:

1.You don't pout.

2.You are direct with others.

3.You recognize that other people are allowed to have different wants, needs, and feelings than you do.

4.You handle conflict like a grown up, calmly, and respectfully.

5. You are responsible with your money.

6.You don't throw tirades or temper tantrums. You are not a bully.

7.You don't blame other people.

8.You take responsibility for making your own life meaningful and developing a purpose.

9.You listen to others from your heart, not just expect others to listen to you.

10.You take responsibility for your own health, both mental and physical. You have an exercise and food plan.

11. You can set limits and boundaries with others.

12.You take responsibility for your own emotions- sadness, anger, frustration, boredom, irritability.

13.You don't threaten or manipulate others to get your own way.

14.You don't use alcohol or drugs in order to cope or numb your feelings.

15.You set meaningful goals and work towards them.

16. You see your own part in things, and have a willingness to change what you are doing if it's needed.

17.You demonstrate values and flexibility.

18.You keep your expectations reasonable. You don't expect others to read your mind.

19.You are willing to negotiate so that both you and others get what you want and need.

20.You realize you are not more important than other people. You have compassion for others.

21.You experience and express gratefulness frequently.

22. You don't take things too personally. Often, it's not personal.

23.You operate from a place of integrity.

24.You understand there is usually another side of the story.

25.You can express affection, and open up and be vulnerable when it's safe and appropriate to do so.

26.You can forgive.

27.You can and do encourage others.

28.You don't complain and gossip to a third party.

29.You are impeccable with your word. You follow through as promised.

30.You don't spend time worrying about what other people think about you.

These are some of the signs I look for in people to demonstrate emotional maturity. We don't have to be perfect, but striving continually to operate from a mature position is a wonderful place to come from. Emotional maturity is a beautiful thing at any age, and it grows only more valuable over time.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Most Important Ingredient

There is one essential ingredient to all relationships. This includes love relationships and marriages, as well as relationships between parent and child, between siblings, in friendships, as well as in the workplace. It serves as a starting place and foundation upon which all other actions and behaviors follow. Can you guess what it is?

It's mutual respect.

Seeing the humanity and dignity in each other is a key part of having successful relationships. It means that you don't feel you are a better person than the other person. It recognizes that they are allowed to have separate and different feelings or opinions than you do. In fact, it's the differences which keep things interesting in relationships.

Mutual respect means you talk to the other person using a kind, polite, and respectful tone. You abandon sarcasm. You are honest and direct. You don't play games. You are skilled enough to let the other person know directly if you are upset with something that they have done. You don't yell, scream, belittle, or ignore the other person.

Withholding and shutting out a loved one or friend is actually one of the most destructive and hostile actions you can take. That behavior pattern, of ignoring and freezing someone out, is passive-aggressive, and extremely hurtful and unskilled.

Mutual respect in families means children are respectful of parents but also that parents role-model this mutual respect in the way they speak to their children. Teaching our children by example about how to create and maintain mutually supportive and respectful relationships is about the best training for life we can give them. They will needs these relational skills all of their lives. We hand them the blueprints for their future relationships.

Couples need to examine the blueprints they got from their parents. Were your parents mutually supportive and respectful? Or did Dad criticize Mom to the kids? Did Mom belittle Dad to her friends? How did their patterns unconsciously infiltrate your own behaviors and attitudes towards your partner? You can choose to rewrite the script in your generation, and not continue the multigenerational transmission of disrespectful behaviors flow through you to your own children.

Mutual respect in friendships means your friends don't have to be exactly like you. Neither one of you is always right. Your true friend can be different from you in many ways, but there is that sacred trust, understanding, and acceptance.

If a child you are in a relationship with is disrespectful, you can be an influence for good by teaching them how to do better. Make sure you are not role modeling or enabling the same primitive behavior.
Emotionally mature adults don't participate in disrespectful behavior as payback.

With an adult child who is being disrespectful towards you, it's important to discuss how and why you feel disrespected, and communicate effectively and calmly what you need them to do in the future to make you feel more respected. You also need to make sure your own expectations of a self-supporting adult child are reasonable, and that you also treat them with the respect they are due. (Hint: you don't get to pick who they date, for example.) Respect should operate both directions.

If you are in a relationship with an adult who is disrespectful towards you, it will not magically get better. You must shift internally and renegotiate the relationship terms, knowing that disrespect is unacceptable to you. Perhaps the other person respond to the truth of your observations, and be willing to change, and give up their disrespectful behaviors and tone with you. If not, you may need to require them to go with you to remedy the situation by going to counseling to break the old relational patterns and get support and skills for doing better.

If the other person is not willing or interested in changing their disrespect, you may need to alter or sever the relationship for your own well-being. It is not healthy to stay in relationship with someone who disrespects, belittles, and dishonors you. Every human being has a right to expect better.

In Gestalt terms, relationships  between adults that have this disrespect have to be shifted from relating from a critical parent stance towards a partner as an errant child, to a more adult to adult way of relating.

Mutual respect means you don't just expect to be listened to, you also stop to listen from your heart to understand the other person. You don't play "victim" as if you are without any part in misunderstandings or upsets. You own your own part. You apologize when you are wrong and try to do better.

When you are cooking and leave out a key ingredient, like eggs in a cake, everything falls apart. It won't rise the way it should. The same is true in your close relationships. Don't forget the mutual respect, or you won't be creating anything of value. Anyone who isn't able or willing to learn how to respect you, just as you respect them, might be worth unloading or restricting their access to you. Mutually respectful relationships are your birthright.                                

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What If Your Partner Doesn't Meet All Your Needs?

Contrary to  the movies, popular culture and the Bachelor/Bachelorette TV franchise, having a happy life requires more than a loving relationship with a partner. Putting all your relationship eggs in one basket may put too many expectations and too much pressure on your love relationship.

I like the Buddhist saying, "before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." The same is true about life before and after finding a life partner. Both before and after, we need friends, hobbies and passions, interests of our own, work that is meaningful, an exercise and self-care plan, a spiritual life, and the ability to spend some time alone.

When people are dating, they often are looking for someone who will make them happy and fulfilled. When people fall in love, their world often revolves around the beloved for some time. At some point, a few months or a year or two into the relationship, most people realize that they will suffocate each other if they don't also balance the couples time with time with other friends and activities. The truth is that even happy couples don't stay perpetually "in love." Over the course of a long-term relationship, couples often go through phases of feeling "in love" and not. That's normal.

Happy people realize that being in love or happily partnered doesn't mean to demand or extract your happiness from that other person. You are still responsible for your own happiness, sense of purpose,  developing yourself, and keeping connected to healthy friends. As it turns out, some separate activities and interests can keep things interesting. (Think Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who were happily married despite his passion for car racing, and her love for ballet. They were happily married over 50 years before Newman's death.)

Maybe happily ever after looks more multi-faceted than we were led to believe. Readjusting expectations of marriage and couples' relationships is healthy. Developing a healthy, sustainable love relationship is just a part of the bigger picture of building a happier life.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How Rituals Increase Satisfaction

Would birthday cake taste as good without the lit candles and the song? Probably not.

We use rituals every day: morning rituals, evening rituals, holiday and birthday rituals, anniversary rituals, as well as religious rituals. They increase meaning, significance, and evoke a sense of tradition and family. New research also suggests ritual behaviors increase the satisfaction in behaviors like eating.

A recent story on NPR (June 20, 2013) by their social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, covered a soon to be published article by Harvard University Behavioral Scientist Francesca Gino and colleagues, Kathleen Vohs, Yajin Wang and Michael Norton, giving evidence to the idea that creating rituals before eating increases the satisfaction of the experience.

Gino's study had volunteers divided into two groups, with each person being given a chocolate bar to eat. Half were instructed to follow a procedure where they carefully unwrapped half the bar, savored it, and ate the second half later. The second group just went ahead and ate their bar all at once. 

Guess which group enjoyed their chocolate bar more? It was the first group who ate their chocolate more mindfully. This process was retested with carrots, and the same effect occurred. Those who ate more mindfully experienced better taste and indicated they would pay more for the experience.

What did the researchers conclude? Performing rituals before eating increases the satisfaction and enjoyment of eating. The ritual must be done each time in the same way, like communion at a church service. 

So, singing happy birthday and blowing out the candles after making wishes before eating the birthday cake will likely increase the enjoyment of the cake. A shared toast or prayer before dinner will add to the meaning and satisfaction of dinner.

The researchers determined that it is not enough to observe a ritual, it is essentially different to participate in it. It's the active participation that seems key.

There are rituals which have existed for thousands of years, traditions we either inherit from our families or create for ourselves, and habits which we develop. Ritualistic behavior can get out of hand and become a problem if it makes us obsessive, but the right amount of ritual in your life can make your life more satisfying, enjoyable, and meaningful. (Not to mention tastier!)

You might reflect on how traditions and rituals in your day and your week make your life better. Perhaps you enjoy a first cup of coffee or tea each morning, bond with your dog through play, water your flowers after work, tuck in your children in bed with stories and cuddling, enjoy a walk in your neighborhood and notice little changes as the seasons pass. Mindfulness in living does create more meaning in the small things of everyday life, including the chocolate.

Monday, June 17, 2013

What Maisie Knew

What does a child go through when their parents break up? What Maisie Knew is a newly released independent film directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel that captures the child's eye view perfectly. The film shows us poignantly that good parents put themselves second, and their child or children first, and what happens when parents aren't capable of doing so.

The film is a retelling of the 1897 Henry James novel. It tells the story from the point of view of 7 year old Maisie. Her parents love her, but are almost completely self-absorbed with their work, and their bitter break-up and legal fight for custody. Maisie's mother, Susana, is a aging rock singer,  who is mostly unlikable and broken. She is played by Julianne Moore. Maisie's father is Beale, an aging art dealer who is having trouble getting work. He is played by Steve Coogan.

Many of the shots in the film artfully show things from Maisie's eye level. Just like childhood, Maisie's life is shown in brief fragments: playing with turtles in Central Park in New York where she lives, participating in class with her classmates, waiting for a parent who doesn't show up for drop off or pick up, playing with a toy, hearing her parents berate each other. Onita Aprile is the very special young actress who plays Maisie, simply and without sentimentality. Her big, beautiful brown eyes say it all. No dialogue is needed at times as you can see Maisie trying to make sense of what is happening.

One of the standout scenes involves Maisie hearing a florist delivery person bring flowers for her, and finding that her dad put them in the kitchen trash without telling her they ever arrived. Later she tiptoes into the kitchen, and finds the bouquet and card from her mom. She hides the flowers in her closet. When the nanny finds them there, Maisie explains that her dad must have been allergic to them. She's caught in the pull of loyalty to each of her parents, and they so clearly hate each other. It makes your heart break.

Both of Maisie's parents remarry. Alexander Skarsgard gives a remarkable performance as Lincoln, the young bartender who marries her mother. Lincoln is present and gives his whole attention to Maisie in the time he spends with her that is deeply moving and instructive. Lincoln reminds us how much children need play, and how joining with them in their world to draw, notice turtles, or play Monopoly helps children to cope and heal.

Maisie's dad marries her young Scottish nanny, Margo, played well by Joanna Vanderham. Margo is tender, kind, and reliably present. Both of the stepparents are, ironically, more reliable, caring, and emotionally supportive of Maisie than either of her natural parents, who are caught up with their own careers and their hatred of each other.

What Maisie Knew is a touching film that reminds us that childhood is fleeting, children need our protection, attention, and stability no matter what is happening in our lives. Loving a child is not enough. We must care, ultimately, more about what happens to the children than we do about expressing our anger or sadness over our own adult relationship failure. Transcending self is probably one of the most important aspects of being a good enough parent, no matter what circumstances you find yourself in.

As it turns out, Maisie knew way too much. I hope this film will inspire and educate other parents about not losing the focus in any divorce, which should be getting the children safely through it with protecting as much of their childhood as can possibly be done.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Take Out Your Own Trash

You wouldn't throw all your trash in your living room. It would make your home look messy and smell awful. You would walk it outside to the trash can or recycling bin.

As I counsel individuals, couples, and families through making their lives and relationships more meaningful and more satisfying, I want each person to take out their own trash in their life and relationships, too.

This means everyone needs to be able to identify when they are stressed, and find a way to release that stress safely and productively. Children are included here, and I like their parents to help them find some possible alternative ways to reduce their own stress. As grown-ups, we need to be good role models in the stress management of our daily life. Do we salsa dance, run, meditate, pray, go to the gym, read, clean, garden, push the baby for a walk in the stroller, go for a bike ride, or see a friend? We each need to do something that helps us cope with our own stress.

It is NOT okay to take out your frustrations or stress on the people closest to you. This is what I mean about taking out your own trash. In relationships, we are each responsible for making ourselves happy, fulfilled, and managing our own stress well, and sharing our happiness with those closest to us. It's not a fair expectation of others who are close to you that they manage your stress, provide your life with meaning and purpose, or supply you with happiness. Some of these things are an inside job.

Stress is a regular part of our daily life; both good and bad stress. It's a part of our human experience. Learning some good coping strategies that work for you and are healthy and fun is a smart idea. Stress can be transmitted from one person to another, in a family, a relationship, and a workplace. Doing your part to stop the flow of stress means being aware of what situations and people stress you, setting healthy boundaries when you can, knowing how your body reacts to stress, and actively releasing that stress yourself so that you aren't a part of the stress dance.

So, the bad news is: you can expect stress as long as you are alive here on Earth. The good news: you can get really good at identifying signs that you are stressed, actively releasing it, and being a beneficial presence to others, rather than a part of transferring stress on to others. Load up that trash, and let's take it outside where it belongs.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Tribute to Good Dads

Father's Day is approaching this next week. Sometimes Father's Day doesn't get the same play that Mother's Day does a month earlier, but good dads are very important, and they deserve a tribute all their own.

Good dads aren't afraid to get involved when children are small: they diaper, bathe, feed, soothe, and play with babies. Later, they teach us to play sports, help with school projects, teach us how to drive, give us some rules for dating, and lead us to thinking about the future: college, career, and money. They teach us about men, and the masculine perspective on things. Good dads are solid, supportive, productive, trustworthy, and honorable. Dads help us move out and launch successfully. They listen.

Good dads stay involved even after divorces happen. They understand that parenting is for the rest of your life, no matter what. The very worst thing that can happen to children of divorce is that a parent can go away and not stay involved, emotionally, financially, or in terms of time.

Good grandfathers are worth their weight in gold. They show up and suit up to be involved with their grandchildren, and support their children through difficult and overwhelming phases of parenting. Good grandfathers take time to teach their grandchildren life skills, like how to work on a car, or save or invest money, or plant a garden. A strong relationship with your grandfather gives children roots.

Loving and kind stepfathers can be incredibly important. Just because you're not biologically related doesn't mean you can't be a caring mentor and presence in your partner's children's lives. It can be what you are willing to put into it. If you are a stepfather, then you are choosing to step in where a child has already experienced some loss. It will be important to be patient and understand it may be difficult for this child to trust. Your ability to show love, concern, interest and support of a child that is not your own can be one of the best things that ever happened to both of you. The choice is yours.

Here's a toast to dads, granddads, stepdads, and all the other good men who get outside themselves to reach out and help raise the next generation. We see you, we appreciate you, and we are grateful for you. Happy Father's Day!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Home for the Summer

It's the season for those of us with college students who've been away at school to welcome them home. Our almost 19 year old daughter arrived home last week. At my counseling practice in Newport Beach, California, I've been getting calls and meeting with parents and families about managing the transition well of having an adult son or daughter home for a few months.

About the time school is out in late May or June, students had adjusted nicely to their greater independence, living in dorms or apartments, managing their own schedules, and enjoying the fun of having their friends around all the time. Similarly, by late spring, parents have also let go and adjusted to less regular parenting tasks.

Parents have questions. Here are some I'm fielding:

Should I set a curfew?

What if they want to sleep until 2:00p.m. everyday?

What's fair to ask them to do with their room or household chores?

Can I expect them to earn some of their own spending money, or to save some towards their own fall college expenses?

Entrances and exits from the family system are both situations that take adjustments. Give your son or daughter a few days to get caught up on sleep after their finals and moving home. Then it may be a very good idea to have lunch or dinner with them and talk together about the adjustments that you each need to make while they're home to make it a successful summer for all of you.

I don't recommend giving curfews to college students who have already been living on their own. That would be like going backwards and they'd resent it, and you'd be fighting all summer. However, I do feel it's okay to ask them to be reasonable, not have overnight guests without your permission, and to ask for your son or daughter to be very quiet after the older generation goes to sleep, and about what time that is. It's also okay to ask for no midnight laundry, or showering, blow-drying or loud music after a certain hour. While all those things are probably common at school, you just need to ask for respect for quiet times you need at the house.

It's also perfectly okay to ask your son or daughter about their summer plans. They may already be working on it, but, if not, you can tell them you want them to be productive over the summer and look for work or enroll at your local community college for some summer credits, or both. Don't give them so much money that they don't need to work, or you are a part of the problem of their stagnation.

Make a list of household and outside tasks that you normally do, and ask them if they could please help this summer by picking up a few of them. Set a date each week where those things will be done, without you nagging. It's also reasonable that they do their own laundry, pick up after themselves, make their bed, hang up wet towels, and not leave dishes out for you to do. Perhaps they could care for the dog? Do some gardening? These chores are fair, and make them a better roommate when they return to college. They are not home to be your maid, but you're not there to wait on them either. Think teamwork.

With meals and groceries, communication helps. I have a small whiteboard on an easel on a kitchen counter that updates everyone on which nights I'm serving dinner and at what time, and each person can let me know if they will be gone so I don't waste food. I grocery shop several times a week, and I let our college student know she can write down requests on the list in the kitchen.

If other things bother you, talk it over so you can work it out. Be realistic. Your adult son or daughter is only home for a few months. If they are a night owl, you are unlikely to reform their sleep schedule. It may be a job or early morning class in the future that shifts their schedule.

Make it a wonderful summer. Talking about your expectations and asking for your college student's involvement will help!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Next Generation: Teens and Twenty-Somethings

Young people born between 1980 and 2000 are being called "The Millennials" and "Generation Y." They are the children of baby boomers, and are in their teens and twenties now. They're different from previous generations in a number of important ways. The week of May 20, Time ran a cover story by Joel Stein, called "The Me, Me, Me Generation: Millennials are Lazy, Entitled Narcissists Who Still Live With Their Parents, And Why They'll Save Us All." There are some essential qualities and values worth understanding about this next generation.

Baby boomers were born from about 1943 through 1960. Boomers grew up in the suburbs, affected by hippies and the summer of love in the 60s, became yuppies, lost money in the stock market and during the Great Recession. Boomers are working longer and postponing retirement due to their financial setbacks.

In contrast, Generation X, born from 1961 through 1980, grew up as latchkey kids, often with divorced parents. This group grew up with a sense of boredom, and studies show them often earning less in real dollars than their parents, which didn't use to happen, historically speaking.

So what's unique about millennials?

1. Their parents tried to pump up their self-esteem while they were growing up. Many of them are very disappointed in their careers. They have a high likelihood of unmet career expectations and low levels of career satisfaction. They were used to getting trophies, and having parents who praised them. They expect to succeed, and quickly.

2. High levels of entitlement. Many millennials have to learn that they can't start at the top, email the CEO, or skip work projects they find boring.

3. They're networked. They interact all day long, mostly through screens. Cell phones help them socialize 24/7. They use Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter. Most teens send 88 texts each day. The influence of friends is omnipresent. In his book, Idisorder, psychology professor Larry Rosen notes this generation can get a dopamine hit from people liking their status updates,and can get anxious if they can't check their phones. These changes in communication technology have changed dating, friendships, work, family relationships, free time, and even job searches.

4. Studies show this generation is less empathetic, probably due to less face-to-face time, more social media and self-promotion. They love their cell phones, but are often uncomfortable in conversations. They have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out On Things), because other people appear so busy and happy on social media.

4. They take longer to grow up. Obamacare recently provided insurance coverage  in the US for dependent children up to age 26. Many young adults are living with their parents longer, and spending longer trying to find a career that is fulfilling and meaningful, not one that just pays the bills. They marry later. They have children later. They do most things later in life than previous generations.

5. Narcissism is at higher levels in this age group. Millennials grew up on reality television, which is a sort of training ground for narcissism. Studies show higher levels of narcissism among this age group than in previous generations. They like positive feedback and approval from others.

6. They have different expectations of work than previous generations. Money isn't enough. They want self-actualization. I found it interesting that in his Time article, Stein notes that at DreamWorks, 25% of the employees are under age 30. The studio has a very high retention rate (96%) and offers classes in photography, sculpting, painting, cinematography, and karate that employees can take during work hours. All of these benefits are highly attractive to millennials, who care deeply about work/life balance, and negotiating work schedules and time off.

7. They rebel less than previous generations. They are accepting of differences between people. Millennials are tolerant. They have their own microgroups, with unique music, media, and cultural interests. They are not as homogenous as previous generations of young people who may have shared one genre of popular music, the same television culture, etc.

8. They are less religious. They believe in God, but at least 30% of people under age 30 don't go to church and are religiously unaffiliated. This is less than any previous generation.

9. They are careful with money, having less debt than their parents. They have taken on student loans, but take on less credit card debt and household debt. (Maybe living longer at home is helping them get further ahead before launching?)

10. This next generation is realistic, pragmatic, and optimistic. You could call it pragmatic idealism.

These are, of course, broad generalizations about generational trends. There are individual differences that may account for some teens and twenty-somethings not fitting in these broader brush strokes. Whether we choose to see the positive or negative contributions this next generation will make to our society is up to each of us. Just like the similarities we see in our parents and grandparents who weathered the Great Depression, the next generation is having a different life experience, partially defined by the times they are coming of age in. The Time cover story from May 20 is well worth reading and discussing.

For those of us who have children or grandchildren in their teenage years and 20s, this article about the unique challenges our next generation faces reminds us to reach out to do what we can to guide and encourage their development. I believe in the wonderful young people I know in this age group. I feel hopeful about their future, and their ability to improve the world. As adults who care about them, we can take up our role to encourage them to work hard, be industrious and self-motivated, volunteer as early and often as possible to develop empathy, practice engaging in face-to-face communication starting in our families, and develop their character and faith. Their generation has its unique benefits as well as hardships, and it is our role to help encourage, develop and influence them for good, rather than stand by and lament.