Monday, December 29, 2014

If Life Is a Game, These are the Rules

When I am working at life coaching with clients, I can always recommend Cherie Carter-Scott, Ph.D's excellent and simple book, If Life Is a Game, These Are the Rules: Ten Rules for Being Human. Scott's book originally began as a part of Jack Canfield's popular anthology Chicken Soup for the Soul, and was so well received it got expanded to a book of its own in 1998.

Scott's rules for being human include:

You will receive a body. You might love it or hate it, but it's yours for the duration of the game. Take care of it. Nurture it.

You will be presented with lessons. Try to learn from them.

There are no mistakes, only lessons.

Lessons are repeated until they are learned. If you don't learn the lesson, you get it again.

'There' is no better than 'here'. This reminds me of Jon Kabat-Zinn's concept of mindfulness: wherever you go, there you are.

Learning never ends. As long as you are alive, there are lessons to be learned. Even seniors have things to learn as they cope with aging, loss and change.

Other people in your life are mirrors of you. What you see in others is a reflection of yourself and how you see the world. Whether you see light or darkness in others, it all tends to be a reflection of you.

What you make of your life is up to you. The tools and resources you need are already with you.

Your answers lie inside of you. Learn to be quiet, take time for reflection, listen and trust yourself.

You will forget all these things at birth, and need to learn them in order to be fully human and live with wholeness.

All of these rules are great to take with you to launch into a beautiful, fresh new year. These mind-sets will help you create an attitude of openness and self-reflection, and  create personal and career growth. These core beliefs will assist you in becoming more proactive in your life, learning continually, and evolving. They will guard you against getting stuck in bitterness or negativity. Life is a game, and knowing the rules really helps.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Gift of Emotional Literacy

Several times recently, I've been in session with young adults who were trying their best to get launched in their own lives, but were at a distinct disadvantage because they grew up in a family where nobody ever talked about feelings. It got me thinking about how helping our children to become aware of what they are feeling and to express those feelings appropriately and directly with others is one of the best gifts parents can give.

Children and teens often feel a jumble of feelings, and having a loving parent who can listen and reflect those experiences back to them and understand is very significant. Our first relationships with parents helps us learn to love and attach. If parents are open and aware of their children's feelings it helps children to become emotionally literate.

In order to help your children with this emotional development, it helps if parents are emotionally available, not self-absorbed or in constant crisis themselves, not chemically dependent, and in touch with their own feelings. Parents need to be able to respect that your children are likely to have their own distinct feelings, separate from yours.

If you didn't have the gift of a parent who helped you learn to identify and sort out your feelings, it's not too late. You can decide that you are going to be the one who stops the family transmission pattern of "we don't do feelings". You can work with a supportive therapist to re-parent yourself and begin to understand and sort out your own internal experiences. You can learn to take emotional risks in being open, direct, and communicative. Journaling is another channel in for cultivating self-discovery and greater self-awareness.

Teens often long for a parent who will listen more, care about them, believe in them and lecture less. Parents of teens often focus on the negative and further shut their teen down in doing so. Taking your teen out of the house to share a meal or do an activity together while you listen and ask about their friends (not their grades) can do wonders to help them open up with you.

In adult love relationships, being emotionally honest about your needs and feelings gives the relationship and the other person the best chance. Too many times adults process internally or not at all, don't keep their partner aware of changing needs and emotional distance is created. When couples are disconnected, not enjoying date nights and shared couples time together,  not sharing feelings and sleeping the same hours in the same bedroom the signal is clear: danger ahead.

As it turns out we all need to explore our own interior life and feelings and communicate about it to those we want to be close to. This kind of emotional literacy and transparency are building blocks for building intimate, satisfying relationships. In the new year ahead, get into the emotionally healthy habit of exploring and articulating your feelings in your most important relationships, and be curious and available for the other important people in your life to share their internal experience with you. With great openness and the risk of vulnerability come great rewards.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Never Enough: Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers

I recently reread Dr. Karyl McBride's excellent book, Will I Ever Be Good Enough? (Free Press, 2008). Its a useful resource for adult women who are trying to heal old wounds from a narcissistic mother. McBride estimates that there are over 1.5 million American women that are narcissists, and if one of them is your mother, you have probably been damaged by her insecurity, overbearingness, insensitivity and domineering personality.

Daughters of narcissistic mothers grow up understanding that mom is only happy with them if they do what she wants. The maternal love is entirely conditional. Mom is unreasonable and unrealistic about what she expects. She withholds love if she's not pleased.

Daughters of narcissistic mothers can feel empty, sad, disappointed, and like they are somehow not enough. I liked this poignant quote from Jan Waldron in McBride's book: "An adult woman can hunt for and find her own value. She can graduate herself into importance. But during the shaky span from childhood to womanhood, a girl needs help in determining her worth---and no one can anoint her like her mother."

Girls are vulnerable to whatever is happening with their mothers. Daughters can feel that they are valued for what they do rather than who they are. They may feel unlovable. It might be difficult to trust their own feelings. They may fear becoming like mother emotionally.

Here are some questions to help you determine if you are being affected by your mother's narcissism:

1. Do you find yourself constantly trying to get her approval, love, and attention but without success?

2. Did your mother emphasize how it looks to her rather than how it feels to you?

3. Is your mother jealous of you?

4. Does your mother not support your healthy expressions of self, especially when they conflict with her needs?

5. In your family, is it always about Mom?

6. Is it difficult for mom to empathize with others?

7. Does Mom have difficulty dealing with her own her own feelings? Is she limited to expressing anger,coldness and neutral? Does she have trouble letting others have or express their own(different) feelings?

8. Is Mom critical and judgmental of you?

9. Does your mother treat you like a friend, rather than as her daughter? Is she needy and trying to always get your attention and support?

10. Is it hard to have any privacy or boundaries from your mother?

Daughters of narcissistic mothers need to examine the negative messages they have absorbed from their mothers, and begin their own healing process. You can learn to replace the unhealthy maternal voice inside you for a healthier one that allows you to set your own boundaries, feel your own feelings and take good care of yourself. With counseling and self-reflection, you can begin to become a different kind of woman and mother than the one you grew up with. Good mothers don't engulf their daughters and tell them what to think, feel, do and wear.

Becoming your authentic self means overcoming the neediness and expectations of a narcissistic mother, and learning to love differently with your own partner and children. Breaking the patterns of narcissism in your family will help the next generation be mothered differently. McBride's book is a valuable read to get you started thinking about how you might have been impacted by a narcissistic mother, and begin the healing.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Wild: Creating Your Own Renewal Rituals

A new movie was released this week called Wild, featuring an excellent lead actress performance by Reese Witherspoon. Witherspoon plays writer Cheryl Strayed, who published the bestseller memoir Wild in 2012. Strayed has commented this week that she hadn't planned for her book to be a self-help book, but has noticed that it has hit an inspirational chord with many women.

Strayed's book portrays her as a flawed protagonist. She is at a transition point in her life: her marriage is ending, she's trying to give up her drug use, and she's never grieved the loss of her mother. She decides to hike the 1,000 mile Pacific Coast Trail, by herself. The journey gives her time to think and to process what has happened in her life, as well as challenge herself in very difficult conditions. The hike turns out to be transformational in her life. After she returns, she goes on to become an author, teach writing, remarry and raise a family of her own.

Wild lets the reader or movie fan watch the unfolding of Cheryl Strayed' s testing her own limits, learning about herself, and the emotional process of letting go of her marriage and her mother. The movie features Laura Dern in a standout performance as Cheryl's mother.

Wild has similar themes to Joan Anderson's 1999 book A Year by the Sea, where she tells of her year in a cottage at Cape Cod as she lives alone and takes a break from her long-term marriage to learn about herself. Anderson steps away from the busyness of her regular life and roles to do some important self-discovery. She realizes that in fulfilling her roles as a wife and mother, (and once her boys were raised) that her own hopes and dreams had been overtaken by those of others. In rediscovering herself, Anderson finds her true nature and new possibilities for her life. Anderson is just a more traditional woman, with a discovery journey that comes later in life, after raising her family.

Both books explore the value of women taking their own journey of self-discovery, outside of their relationships to other people. Women can be so focused on pleasing and caring for others that they don't have an opportunity to consider the dictates of their own heart. Learning to be alone with yourself and enjoy your own company is important, even if you don't want to hike the Pacific Coast Trail by yourself.

Men as well as women can benefit from the idea of taking on a challenge after going through a life transition or ending. After the end of a close relationship, or the end of a chapter of your life, setting  a new goal for yourself to work towards could allow you a positive focus and a chance to reflect, integrate and grow. We all need to develop our own personal rituals for self-renewal, and cultivate the ability to be alone without being lonely. Your own self-renewal can be different than Cheryl's or Joan's, but you can use their journeys for inspiration.

Monday, December 1, 2014

'Tis The Season : 10 Holiday Tips to Keep You Merry

December brings up a lot of different things for people. It can bring stress if you get overwhelmed by all the tasks you have to get through. December can bring up memories of past holidays, whether sad or joyful. It can bring up grief if you are dealing with a loss this past year or two. For children, the holiday season often brings anticipation. Some adults feel the gravitational pull of their family of origin sucking them back in to unhealthy patterns.

Even one of the founders of family therapy, Murray Bowen, wrote an essay called "Going Home" in which he explained how he could be a happily individuated adult most of the year, but could regress when back visiting his parents, like at holiday times. It is so easy to get pulled in to old patterns if you're not conscious and intentional.

Here are some ideas for staying emotionally healthy during December and into the New Year:

1. If you have experienced a loss this year --- the death of a close family member or close friend, a divorce, separation or break-up, or a move far from your support system, be patient with yourself during the holidays. You will need to rethink of all your usual December traditions so you can decide whether you want to keep or change them this year. Be flexible with your plans, and don't take on too much. Focus on what will be comforting and supportive.

2. Stay an adult this holiday season. Reconsider demands and expectations made by your family of origin, or your partner's family. Part of individuating is making choices about what is meaningful and enjoyable for you, rather than just doing things by autopilot.

3. Give yourself permission to mix up old patterns. At family gatherings, exercise your power to move closer and visit with the family members you really enjoy and admire. Move away from the negative and toxic people.

4. Keep up your healthy self-care patterns throughout this busy month: keep exercising, eating healthy (even if it's before a holiday party so you're not tempted to eat the wrong things), and get enough sleep and alone time.

5. Share the tasks. Women often feel more burden for holiday tasks. I always encourage families I see in family counseling to hold a family meeting to get everyone signed up to share holiday tasks. Sort through the regular tasks to check and make sure that you focus on holiday traditions that bring joy, as opposed to those that are just an energy drain. People enjoy the holidays more when they help create them, so don't do it all yourself. Share the cooking, the shopping, the decorating and wrapping. Even small children can have fun wrapping gifts if you loosen your standards and provide lots of tape.

6. Get outside yourself. Reach out to an elderly neighbor or volunteer with a local food bank or charity which needs extra help during December in your local community. I promise it will lift your spirits, no matter what you have going on in your own life. Develop your spiritual side.

7. Say 'no' to invitations which sound emotionally taxing. Carry your own boundaries throughout the season. Preserve some down time.

8. Go for the joy. Be sure to sprinkle in some holiday joy. What are the sensory experiences that will activate your creativity, senses and holiday memories? Do you like to smell cookies baking or walk through a Christmas tree lot? Would you enjoy looking at happy photos of holidays past? Could you enjoy a holiday Christmas movie fest? Do you delight in hanging some festive lights? Spending time with children also helps you rekindle the joy of the season.

9. Break up the visit. If you are visiting family during the holiday season or you will be hosting family staying at your house, think through ways to streamline and make the visit less intense. Have some breakfast foods out that guests can do self-serve. Get out for a walk by yourself, and get those endorphins pumping. Don't expect yourself to be "on" for days at a time. Taking a break from hosting or being hosted can help everyone stay less frayed. Help guests to do some things independently if possible.

10. As New Year's Day approaches, think about creating a vision board for 2015. You can use a piece of poster board to pull out pictures and ideas that inspire you in how you want to grow and what you want to experience in the beautiful new year ahead of us. It will serve to remind you that the holidays, while stressful, are fleeting. The last month of the year is a great time to begin setting your intensions for an emotionally healthy 2015, with new goals and new plans.

Move as lightly as you can through the next 4 weeks. A few last inspiring pre-holiday thoughts:

If you are facing a judgmental or critical family, or tend towards perfectionism: "The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself." -Anna Quindlen

If you're worn out by holiday crowds and shopping: "Sharing the holiday with other people, and feeling that you're giving of yourself, gets you past all the commercialism." -Caroline Kennedy

If you need inspiration: "The holiday season is a time for storytelling, and whether you are hearing the story of a candelabra staying lit for more than a week, or a baby born in a barn without proper medical supervision, these stories are about miracles." -Lemony Snicket

Take good care of yourself as you navigate a healthy holiday season. Be sensitive to what you are needing, rather than do things just out of obligation. Give yourself permission to do December your own way.