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