Friday, December 18, 2015

The Gift Of Listening

I laughed so much about this little video clip when I first saw it. It's Not About the Nail beautifully illustrates the concept that most women want to be heard by their partner, but really don't need them to take over and solve the problem for them. Women often feel more heard and understood to have a partner do reflective or active listening and repeat back, in different words, what they are saying.

This is the concept behind John Gray's books about the differences between genders and communication style. He wrote the very popular book Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus in 1992. If men can be aware of this difference, they can check in and clarify with their partner whether they want to vent and get empathy, or whether they want solutions. In general, I recommend not offering solutions to people unless they ask you for them.

I've done some training for couples counselors that provides a listener's continuum, a spectrum of options that help people identify where they are in their own progress as a listener. Many people would rather have you keep it to yourself, others start to argue and defend their own point of view, or try to alleviate the tension they feel by trying to fix things. (In this video clip, it's when he wants to pull out the nail).

Better listeners give feedback about the feelings the other person is conveying, ask questions to deepen their understanding of you, remain calm, don't take things personally, and stay curious about the other person. When you respond with empathy and compassion, the other person naturally wants to open up more to you. When you start arguing and defending, or solving the other person's problem, you will notice that the other person shuts down.

Most people don't listen very well. Children notice that their parents don't listen, or multitask, or only notice if they act up. Many people stop talking but are busily preparing their rebuttal, making a grocery list or thinking of what else they have to do later that day. If every child and teen could have someone in their lives who really listened, deeply from the heart, we could create powerful positive change in our turbulent world.

To be truly listened to, and understood, feels wonderful. Truly slowing down to listen from the heart is one of the best presents you can give or receive. If we are sensitive to our role as a listener, we can give our partner, and our children, one of the best gifts we can offer in this busy, distracted world of ours. You could be that listener for one young person.

As the poet and author Mark Nepo writes in his book, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, "Listening is the closest we come to living forever. Close your eyes and inhale, slowly. Exhale slowly. Inhale slowly and realize that your life will unfold between the appointments you know of and the appointments you will discover along the way. Open your eyes and exhale slowly, saying yes as you begin."

Friday, December 4, 2015

When The Holidays Are Hard

The holidays are here, and it's a difficult time for some people. There are lots of ideas about what the holidays should be like: a loving, supportive family all gathering together to celebrate, sharing family time, all getting along well. Just add snow and something wonderful cooking in the kitchen. We want the Norman Rockwell view of the holidays.

As it turns out, even Norman Rockwell didn't have that happy family. I recently read American Mirror, a new Rockwell biography by Deborah Solomon with a psychological look at the artist's life and work. His childhood years weren't that happy. His mother was a hypochondriac, self-involved, and they lived in a boarding house for many years because she was too overwhelmed to cook or care for the family. As adults, he and his brother stopped any contact, with his brother writing to lament the fact that he didn't know anything about Norman or his family. In his own adult life, happiness and close family relationships were elusive. Norman was married 3 times, worked 7 days a week until he got dementia, and wasn't that involved as a husband or father. Appearances aren't always what they seem: even the families portrayed in his paintings were usually assembled groups of strangers.

There is pressure during the holidays to have a close family, decorate your home, buy meaningful and expensive gifts, cook excellent meals, and feel happy inside.

What if you don't feel happy?

Not all families are close. For some people, the holidays underscore the gap where meaningful extended family relationships don't exist. You may have had an emotional cut-off in your family, with some family members not speaking to you.

This might be your first holiday season after the death of a family member or person close to you.

This could be your first year coping with the changes and loss of a divorce. Maybe you share custody of your children and will be without them for some or all of the holidays.

You might be coping with depression. For people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, these short winter days can be extremely challenging, even before you add in holiday tasks.

How can you rethink the holidays if it seems overwhelming or difficult?

1. Give yourself options. You can keep the usual traditions, or give yourself permission to change things up.

2. Do extreme self care. During the holidays, keep up your exercise, your healthy eating plan, and schedule some alone time.

3. Do something different. If you have never volunteered before, starting now might really give your mood a boost and put things in perspective. No matter what your loss or difficulty, there is always someone who needs your help.

4. Give yourself permission to say no. Several of my clients that have become sober this
year are opting out of party situations that might put their sobriety at risk. Great choice! You can also take your own car to visit family, and shorten up the time frames on visits with family members who stress you out.

5. Carry your own holiday boundaries. In family gatherings and work events, seek out the people you enjoy and resonate with. Focus on the people you enjoy. Minimize the contact with the Debbie Downers, and other toxic people in your family. Be pleasant but brief.

6. Take your inner adult with you to visit the family. Even the famous family therapist Murray Bowen wrote in an article called "Going Home" that when he went home to see his parents for the holidays he struggled to keep channeling his inner adult and stay differentiated in a healthy way. There is something about that primordial soup of undifferentiated ego mass that tries to suck you into feeling powerless and 8 years old. Don't go there!

7. Consider making plans to invite people you know who might be alone at the holidays to join you.

8. Show flexibility. If the children aren't with you on Christmas, have some fun making another day Christmas. It's your mood and spirit they will remember, not the date.

9. Take the focus off of buying stuff. Focus instead on experiences and relationships. It's not about stuff, or creating debt for January.

10. Use this holiday season to listen to music that inspires you, develop your spiritual side, and begin envisioning what you would like to create in the new year as we wrap up 2015.

11. Reach out for more healthy support: people who care and are a good influence on you.

12. Avoid alcohol if you are feeling down. Alcohol is a depressant. It will make you feel worse.

Create a holiday season that suits you. Don't give in to the pressure, hype and expectations to do things that no longer work for you. It's time for your own kind of holiday, and you're just the person who can make that happen. The first holiday season following a loss can be difficult. You can choose your response to the loss, and find ways to be kind and gentle to yourself through a challenging holiday season.