Monday, October 27, 2014

Preparing for the Emotional Shift of Retirement

Depending on how you feel about your work, moving towards retirement can feel like a loss. It's certainly a big transition for most people, and especially so if you liked your work and enjoyed the people you worked with. It's important to consider what you will be retiring to do in the years ahead. I've heard it suggested that we should REFIRE rather than retire.

I'm working in life coaching with people who are coming up on the retirement transition, and planning for their next chapter of life. Here are some factors you may want to consider when you begin planning yours:

1. Figure out how you are going to stay active and keep moving. We know people age better if they keep active, so figuring out how you can safely get your 10,000 steps a day is key. Can you walk where you live? Swim? Go to a gym or exercise class regularly?

2. How are you going to contribute to others? Can you continue some volunteer work you have done earlier in your life? Do you have some ideas about how you could help a cause you care about, like seniors, animals, the environment, people with disabilities, children and youth, church, politics, hospitals, or something else? If you are not sure and need ideas, google your local volunteer center. In Orange County, California, where I have my counseling practice, we have a great organization called One OC that has a job bank for both board positions and direct service volunteer positions from non-profits all across the county (

Think about whether you want to use the same skills you've used at work, or have a chance to do something different. Would you like to work on projects alone and independently, or work with people? Volunteer work is a source of meaning and contribution. It's also a great venue for making new friends with great people with whom you share some common values with.

3. Keep learning new things. Upgrade your computer skills, take a class at the community college, look for opportunities with your local city community services, work crossword puzzles and otherwise challenge your brain to stay engaged. I like to encourage being a lifelong learner, so look for activities that will keep you learning and thinking. Would you like to join a film society, book club, or check your local university for continuing learning opportunities for seniors? Many retirees find new groups to learn with or do activities with on In Orange County, Cal State University, Fullerton has the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) with wonderful classes for retired and almost retired adults. You can contact them by phone or email, (, or 657-278-24460).

4. Keep up your people contact daily. Don't get isolated. Figure out how you can set a goal of being in contact with four or more people each day for maximum wellness. In the 1980's, the California Department of Mental Health did a campaign called, "Friends Can Be Good Medicine" about the mental and physical health benefits to being in relationships with others. It's still true. Put it into practice in your retirement, when you will need to reach out more to others than you did before.

5. Consider working part-time or reducing your hours gradually to ease the transition.

6. Consciously add new friends to your group.

7. Make sure to do at least an outing every day. Don't become a recluse.

8. If you are married or partnered, you will need time together, but you will be happier if you maintain some separate activities. You may be retired, but you still need some autonomy and different interests to keep things fresh. You don't want to suffocate each other. I've heard this called "retired to have dinner together, but not always lunch". You will have more to share with each other if you each pursue some of your own things. Everyone needs a separate sense of self.

9. If you are already, or become a grandparent during your retirement, that's another incredible opportunity for reaching out, transcending self, and creating meaning. Wouldn't it be meaningful to make the grandparenting role an important one? You may have skills to teach or be more available or patient than the children's parents who are at a busy stage in their lives. Making positive memories with your grandchildren is an incredible legacy. I know my girls will never forget Gram teaching them to make homemade pasta and bake pies, or Gramps teaching them to drive and garden.

10. Cultivate flexibility. There are losses that occur as we age, with our own aging process and with our partners. Try to develop an ability to adjust gracefully when it's time, knowing that the changes will continue.

If you begin thinking creatively, your retirement years could be some of your very best ones. People are living longer, so recreating your life after the working years is a whole new chapter to choreograph and build health, connection, learning and contribution. Now that's a life well lived. Let's think not just about retiring from, but retiring to.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Your Family of Origin: It's Where Your Story Begins

You get more than your eye and hair color from your family. Understanding as much as you can about your family of origin is incredibly helpful as a starting place for working on yourself. Just as we inherit DNA, we also get patterns of behavior and ways of being in relationships scripted for us. If we have insight about what our parents' and grandparents' lives were like, how they related to others, and what their emotional lives were like, we can better understand ourselves.

As a structural family therapist, I often draw out maps of family experience known as genograms. In them, I work with individuals, couples and families to illuminate and bring the family history to life. We go as many generations back as we have information about. Here are some family patterns to consider:

1. Where were your family members raised? Did they immigrate from somewhere else? Why?

2. What do you know about their childhood experiences? Socio-economic status of each part of the family?

3. What educational level did people have? What kind of work did they do?

4. What do you know about how happy the marriages were in both sides of your family? Were family members expressive? Unexpressive? Affectionate? Aloof?

5. Are there family members who struggled with alcohol or substance abuse? Was it treated or untreated? How did family cope with challenges in healthy or unhealthy ways?

6. Who struggled with anxiety or depression? Was it treated or untreated?

7. For deceased family members, at what age did they die, and from what cause? How did losses impact the family? Are there suicides in the family? Are there chronic or life threatening illnesses? Deaths from war?

8. Who stays married no matter what ? Do people divorce and/or remarry? Are there patterns of infidelity?

9. What role does faith play in any of the family?

10. What is each generations' style of parenting? How small or large are the families? How did parents discipline? Do families stay close, or splinter apart?

11. Where are the alliances? Who is close to who? Who fights with who?

12.What are the family traditions and values on each side of the family?

13. Who moves away? Who stays close to home?

14. Who cares for aging relatives? What is home like?

15.What is the family most proud of in terms of accomplishments?

There are many subtle impacts of your family of origin role models. For example, if your parents fought a great deal and were not openly kind or affectionate with each other, that's the script you get by growing up with them. If you understand that, you can choose to love your parents but decide to rewrite how couples interact with each other. You can decide to be caring and loving, and model something completely different to your own children. That's powerful change.

Knowing your family genogram isn't about blame. It's about understanding where and how your story begins and what feels "normal" to you. When you marry, your partner comes with their own family story. Neither one is all good or all bad. It's just where you start. The more honest, open and non-defensive you can be about the patterns in your family, the better. It allows you the emotional freedom to make choices about which parts of the family transmission pattern you want to continue, and where you chose to edit and rewrite your own life story.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Choosing a Therapist and Making Therapy Effective

In a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal (9/25/14), they ran a helpful article by reporter Elizabeth Bernstein in the Health and Wellness section about how to choose the right therapist. It got me thinking about how important it is for patients to be active in the process of choosing a therapist, and then to actively participate in therapy in order to get the highest benefit from it.

Choosing a therapist is a very personal choice. You need to select someone who you can feel comfortable with, and open up with. You may not know where to start the search. Here are some things to consider:

1. No therapist is an expert at everything. Most therapists have a scope of practice. Ask potential therapists about their areas of practice. Do they see adults? Teens? Children? Couples? Families? In general, MFT's (marriage and family therapists) have special emphasis in helping with relationships. Psychologists do testing as well as individual counseling. Psychiatrists assess for medication. Social workers have special training with linking to community resources, and LCSW's have experience doing counseling as well. Find out how many years they have been in practice. Make sure they hold a state license in their field.

2.Ask people you trust for referrals. You can get names from friends, family members, co-workers, your child's school counselor, your family physician, the pediatrician, your Ob/Gyn. Think about whether your preferences (gender, age, language). Even if you are bi-lingual, most people feel more comfortable speaking about feelings in their first language.

3. Check the therapist's website. It should give you some ideas about their background, experience, training, specialties and office location.

4. Call several therapists. Start by screening them by phone. You should get a call the same day you call if it's a weekday, unless their message says they are out of the office. Responsiveness is important. Ask about their office location, availability, how far out you have to book an appointment, how long their appointments last (this can range from 45-60 minutes). Ask about hourly fees. Find out if you can pay by cash, check, debit, or credit card. Ask if they can bill insurance or provide receipts so you can submit them to insurance for reimbursement. You may want to ask if they are in full-time private practice, or part-time. Ask if they offer a brief complimentary meeting, so that you can meet with  a couple therapists in person, and determine the best fit. The therapist should ask you some questions too, to determine that it's an appropriate fit.

5. Meet in person. They should be on time, and have an office that makes you feel at ease. The office setting should be private and quiet.

6. Good therapists are good listeners. Make sure you feel comfortable with their style. Do you feel like this individual would be someone you could let in more deeply over time?

7. The best therapists are curious about you. They don't box you in or act like they know it all. They want to understand you in all your complexity. They don't jump to conclusions.

Once you select a therapist and begin treatment, stay involved. You will maximize the effectiveness of therapy if you:

1. Ask questions. Ask them to clarify if you're not following them.

2. If you have had previous therapy, the clinician should ask (or you can volunteer) what has been helpful and not helpful in the past. In the first few sessions, the counselor should take a thorough history.

3. Together with the therapist, define what you want to accomplish. Set goals. Within a few meetings, the therapist should be able to give you the diagnosis they have made, and what the treatment plan is. They need to explain how they can help.

4. Don't edit yourself in therapy. You need to be able to talk freely about anything that's on your mind. You need to speak up in counseling, because your therapist can't do therapy without your involvement. Anything is okay to talk about in therapy. There are no limits.

5. Good therapy is collaborative. It's a journey to understand yourself and to grow emotionally, and you and your therapist are on it together.

6. Try to do some of the constructive action your therapist asks you to. They should have your best interest at heart, but if you don't incorporate some of their suggestions you may be missing some of your potential growth.

7. Therapists need feedback. I try to always encourage my patients to give me some. Share positive and negative reactions. It may be critical for moving your therapy forward, as the therapeutic relationship between therapist and patient needs to be a safe place to learn about yourself in relationships, and how to express yourself and develop your voice. Therapist make interpretations, and we can be wrong. It's okay to feel angry with your therapist. Let them know and work it through.

8. Discuss with your therapist if you want to change the frequency of sessions, or need a change. Sometimes you can only do part of your journey with one therapist, and your therapist should be open to helping you work through making a change if you need it. They shouldn't be defensive. Therapy doesn't go on forever, so it's important to talk about when therapy will end, and how you can continue to grow after it terminates. It is a great joy for me when my patients complete therapy and then call later in their lives to come in and check-in and perhaps work on a different life stage.

9. A good therapist should challenge you to grow. They should care about you, but they aren't your friend. You should be continuing to learn new things about yourself. They shouldn't JUST be listening, you also want feedback.

10. No therapist is an island. They should be networked with other helping professionals, so that they can make referrals for you as needed, for educational testing, career testing, medication evaluation, dieticians, support groups, parenting classes, divorce recovery programs and more.

Choosing the right therapist and actively collaborating with the therapist you choose can be the beginning of greater self-understanding, insight, healing and  healthier relationships. It might be one of your most important decisions.

Monday, October 6, 2014

What Do Our Children Want Us to Know? (15 Tips)

Over the years, as I meet for counseling with children and teens, I often wish parents could listen in and be moved by their children's reflections about what they really need and want. It isn't stuff. If we can think about the great honor it is to become a parent, it puts our hearts in the right place. Instead of mold children into shapes, I like to think of parents being curious about who we've been sent, and doing your best to help them develop their skills, abilities and unique interests.

So, what do children want from parents?

1. Not to be compared to others: siblings, classmates, or you at their age. Don't play favorites.

2. Listen, really listen from the heart.

3. Put down our phones and tablets and be present.

4.  Give our attention. Our children and teens want it, and if they can't get it in a positive attention, they will often try for negative attention.

5.  Offer constancy and predictability. Children like the structure of family dinners, activities, movie nights, and bedtimes. Teens need all these things, too, even though they give pushback. (It's their job to push away from us.)

6. Give encouragement. Notice their strengths. Comment on hard work, effort and improvement.

7.  Provide acceptance. Our children need us to accept their innate temperament, their body type, their interests. If your child is an introvert, don't try to 'remake' them into an extrovert.

8.Don't lecture. It makes your kids tune out.

9. Don't embarrass them. If you have to discipline, do it in private. Watch pictures you post about them on social media, that they don't embarrass.

10. Be a good role model. Work on yourself. They learn more from what you do than what you say. By being kind, treating other people well, picking up after yourself, working hard, etc. you teach these things best.

11. Remember it's not YOUR childhood, and they're not YOU. Don't try to get them to ice skate, play lacrosse, be on debate team, major in accounting or become a doctor because you did or you wish you did. We call that projection, and it's not fair.

12. Have some fun together. All of life shouldn't be a drag. Kids often tell me they wish they could engage and play more with parents. Think board games, outings, hiking, biking, baking, crafting, art, and more.

13. Teach them skills. Self-esteem comes from feeling capable. Have them tell you things they want to learn. Keep teaching independent living skills all the way along, as it's age appropriate. Even four year-olds can set the table, and enjoy helping.

14. Help them understand their emotions. Don't tell them not to feel what they are feeling.  Let them know that all feelings are okay, it's your internal experience and it's understanding it that's key. Help them to sort out what they are feeling, and how to express it to others.

15. Don't yell.  It makes you scary. It doesn't motivate your children to do better. Speak calmly and carry reasonable consequences you can follow through with.

Think of your child as you would a beautiful sunset at the beach, or a rose that's opening. You wouldn't critique them as not quite the right color. You wouldn't judge them as not as good as others,  not smart enough or pretty enough. You accept them for the unique gifts they bring to life. We need to value each child or teen for their uniqueness, what they bring to teach us and give to the planet.