Sunday, October 16, 2016

Letting Go of Self-Limiting Beliefs

Is your past interrupting your present? Most people carry some wounds and beliefs from childhood, where you may have had negative things said to you by parents,siblings,friends or extended family. By becoming aware of beliefs we carry that no longer serve us, we can create new options.

There may be a nagging little voice in your head that you first heard in childhood. Perhaps this negative soundtrack keeps following you around in your adult life. Pretty much everyone has some self-limiting beliefs. Becoming aware of yours will help you be able to question them when they come up. Instead of taking them as fact, you can consider that they may or may not be accurate.

Self-limiting beliefs can hold you back from developing and advancing in your career. They can also cause you to limit yourself and restrict your choices, as well as making unsatisfying relationship decisions and fear-based patterns of behavior.

Each of us have these four emotional needs ( the four A's):





When we don't get these needs met sufficiently in childhood, we develop self-limiting beliefs that help us explain why. The most common self-limiting beliefs are:

I'm not lovable just the way I am.

I'm not worthy.

I'm not deserving of happiness.

I'm not good enough.

I'm a bad person because of something I've done in the past.

Limiting beliefs cause us to limit our opportunities for growth. They shrink our happiness and joy. They keep us stuck repeating the same old unhealthy patterns in our lives and in our closest relationships.Our limiting beliefs create negative feelings, and cause us to do less self-care, be more passive and to challenge ourselves less.

One effective way to move past limiting beliefs is to recall what you were praised for and what you were criticized for in childhood. Write the down and reflect on the messages you internalized that no longer suit you.Consider creating a release ritual such as burning your list of the limiting beliefs you want to let go of, or throwing a few stones that represent the limiting beliefs into a lake or the ocean or off a mountain. Thisceremony can mark you let the limiting beliefs go.

Daily meditation is another useful technique to help you connect with your true nature and let the limiting beliefs go. Before you meditate, ask yourself these 4 universal questions:

1. Who am I?

2.What do I want?

3.What is my purpose?

4.What am I grateful for?

Letting go of outdated beliefs that limit you allows you to think  about your authentic self, what you want to experience and give to others and how you can become a better and braver version of yourself. Being aware of limiting beliefs that we accepted can help us see situations more objectively, and allow us more freedom.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Healing the Heart Through Art and Music

Art and music can both be excellent mediums to help you access and process memories, feelings and experiences. I was reminded of this while working with one of my counseling clients recently who is learning to cope with a family member's life threatening illness.

Music can be a universal resource. It can help an individual who is grieving to process the loss, perhaps by evoking memories of music that reminds you of the beloved. A chill playlist on your phone or tablet can be the perfect way to calm down for 20 minutes when you are stressed, flooded emotionally and need to cool down so you don't lash out at someone you love. Then, when your cooler head prevails, you can productively discuss the issue with the other person involved.

Music is also a creative parenting strategy. Trying to help engage preschoolers with assisting you in cleaning up? Dealing with a grumpy, tired preteen or teenager in your car after school? Looking for subtle ways to lift your mood in the morning? Wanting to create a warm, loving atmosphere at home? Creative use of music can fit beautifully in each of these scenarios. Teens love to school parents while in the car commuting about what kind of music they like, and this is a great way to build a bridge to them emotionally. If little ones are squabbling, drown them out with the score to Hamilton. Music is also a beautiful part of a bedtime routine for parents and younger children.Think outside the box on your selections.

Music reaches us in amazing and deep ways. I can remember as I began my counseling career working with hospice patients, their families and a wonderful music therapist in a hospital and on home visits. Some patients were unresponsive until the music therapist brought out her auto-harp and played hymns or songs they loved as children. Patients who were unresponsive began to move a little or respond in ways that hadn't been seen in days.

I often use art---drawing, painting, collages and art projects--- while working with children and some teens who like creative activity as a way to help them relax and be able to access feelings in counseling sessions.It can make children and  teens less self-conscious while they are sharing.

We know that art, like music, can take you into a deeply relaxed state of mind where you can free up your ability to feel and express emotion. There are places that art and music can take you that words cannot touch. Here's a little art experiment to try on your own for using art to heal.

Find a quiet place where you can work uninterrupted with some paper or canvas art board and some acrylic paint in multiple colors.

Pick two colors to work with to express your feelings.

Paint one area of the canvas to represent something that is negative or difficult in your life now, and that you hold some upset or angry feelings about.

With the second color, paint a place that represents who else is involved in the situation that is upsetting you.

In another place on your canvas, paint about the consequence of this situation that is upsetting to you or that you are holding on to anger about.

Next, consider something in your life that brings you happiness, joy or light in your life right now. Think of something or someone you are grateful for. Paint a section to represent this positive element, person or situation.

If you wish, you can either reflect on what shows up in your painting, or share it with someone you trust.

Both art and music allow us a path into our interior life and access to emotions that might not be reached just with words. In the words of Victor Hugo,"music expresses that which can not be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." Painter Georgia O'Keefe wrote of making art that, "whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing." Think of creative endeavors with art and music as a tool and a resource to explore what you are feeling, process emotions and help you shift a mood when necessary, in a healthy way.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership With Your Child

Don't we all want to raise children who become problem solvers, empathetic, collaborative and insightful? Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." In the busyness of daily life, it can be challenging not to just handle things yourself as a parent, and remember to involve your children or teens in problem solving with you whenever possible.

Ross W. Green, PhD, has a great new book that can give you examples of how to parent to build these traits in your children. Raising Human Beings: Creating A Collaborative Partnership With Your Child (Scribner, 2016) is the most recent book by Dr. Greene, who taught at Harvard Medical School for twenty years, and now is a founding director of the nonprofit group Lives in the Balance.

Ross Greene suggests we develop collaborative relationships with our children, where we have more influence than control. We need our children's input and feedback to effectively help them solve problems. We need to watch for when our children need help, but not offer it too soon, or preempt the child's ability to learn to solve problems themselves and grow stronger.

We want to be aware of helping our children develop their own identity, separate from ours. We want them to find healthy individuation. When that doesn't happen, Ross coins it "identity foreclosure", which is when a young person doesn't explore their own self-identity, but just blindly accepts the identity defined for them by parents. Instead, we want to support our children in creating identity achievement, where they have a well-defined self-concept and identity. We want them to know who they are as an individual, and what they believe, what they value and where they are going in life.

In parenting, we play a critical role by communicating with our child in a style that can make our influence useful and constructive in their life. We also need to be open to learning about parenting, life and the world through our children's input and unique contributions. If we can be balanced, calm and centered, we are more likely to be able to influence our children positively.

It's normal to have expectations for our children. If they aren't meeting our expectations, Ross suggests we involve the child in defining the problem and brain-storming some solutions. He suggests we remember that children want to do well and generally do well if they can. We have to deal with what we are dealt as parents. Instead of the parent deciding what the problem is alone and solving it alone, we do better if we involve the child whenever possible. As I work in counseling parents do implement Active Parenting, we find this collaborative style works better and gets buy-in from your child. In this book, Ross goes through a number of situations and plays out the parent giving a punishment versus the parent and child solving the problem together which is useful.

Our long-term goal is to build a collaborative, lifelong relationship with our children, and helping them prepare to be problem-solvers themselves. It's interesting to think about your own relationship with your parents when you were growing up. Did you open up to your mom or dad when you had difficulty with something as a child or a teen? If you didn't, it may have been that they were critical, angry, judgmental or anxious. If you did, it's probably because you could count on your mom or dad listening, collaborating, asking you for your thoughts or solutions and being encouraging. Let's be those parents who can be calm and collaborative. I appreciated that the author includes the college years of parenting in a collaborative style as well.

Perhaps no other role in your life will challenge you and polish you up as much as being a parent. No other job you do is ever more important. Playing our part well as parents is key, no matter what child you get. Being open to learning and becoming a positive influence is a pattern of parenting that could become your best legacy to your family. Ross Greene's book may help you get there.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Do Your Friends Actually Like You?

A new research study suggests that only about half of perceived friendships are considered mutual. The misunderstanding could be due to our own optimism or to the limited amount of time most people have for best friends. Either way, it's worth your time to identify your own true friends! Read the New York Times article here for more information on this research.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Being Aware of Your Own Blind Spots

Here is a great tool for understanding more about your blind spots in how you perceive yourself and how you relate to others: it's called Johari's Window. It was developed by two psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham. They combined their first names (ala Brangelina or Kimye) to come up with this name for their concept. It's a useful construct to help each of us become more aware of ourselves and others.

Writer Anais Nin wrote that, "we don't see things as we are, we see things as we are." Luft and Ingham designed Johari's window to help us begin to see ourselves and the people close to us in a more complete way. They constructed four quadrants of perception that are organized to look like a four-paned window. Each of the four sections represents one area of perception. Those areas are:

1. Free/Open- These are bits of information we know about ourselves and everyone else knows about us, too. This would be things that someone walking by could tell: our gender, our age range, eye and hair color. These are facts that are commonly accessible to all.

2. Hidden- This is the information about ourselves that is hidden from others, and only known to ourselves. These are our "secrets."

3. Blind- This is the area of our perception where we each have blind spots, and other people we are in relationship with know some things about us that we don't know ourselves. This is the area where tremendous growth is possible if we are open to learning more about how we are seen and experienced by our partner, our children, our parents, and others we are close to. It is also an area where feedback, if delivered well, can spur us on to be more self-aware.

4. Unknown- This is the area of understanding about things that neither we or those closest to us know about us.

If you wish, you can use the Johari's Window concept to grow yourself and your ability to integrate what those closest to you can tell you about your blind spots. When we become more fully known in a relationship over time, we ideally self-disclose, share more, and hide less of ourself with "secrets." This causes what therapists consider "deepening"of a relationship.
We can also become open to giving and asking for feedback from the intimate other. Feedback should never be given in anger or to relieve tension. The best relationship feedback is specific, descriptive, and non-judgmental. It is focused on the here and now, not the past. Don't give advice to the other person, simply share your perception of their behavior, and how it makes you feel in the relationship with them. Only give feedback if asked.

What a wonderful tool we have to use if we are willing to ask those closest to us from time to time questions like:

When do you feel closest to me emotionally?
When do you feel most disconnected from me?
What behaviors do I do that contribute to you feeling closer? More distant?
How am I doing in my relationship with you?

If we can be undefended about feedback, we can develop to be more loving, available, and connected with those who really matter. It's almost like those we love hold the information about our relational blind spots, and can guide us to become better people if we are open to it.

Perception really is our reality. Johari's Window helps us to see that there are often several realities from a relationship perspective. If we think we are always right, we are probably not taking seriously enough the growth we can make by learning about how we look and how the relationship looks from the other person's view. You might ask for a little feedback this week, and learn a little about yourself. It's a shift that will make you better, more grounded, and real.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Middle School Years Hardest for Moms

The middle school years from grades 6 through 8 are a time of big transition for families as children become teens, deal with the hormonal changes of puberty, and move from an often supportive elementary school setting to the world of middle school where parents aren't as involved at school. A 2016 study of 2,200 mostly well-educated mothers found that mothers of middle school students also struggle. Mothers report more distress and less well-being when their children hit grades 6 to 8. Mothers of infants and grown children are happiest, according to the study, lead by Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor and researcher at Arizona State University at Tempe.

Researchers expected to find that mothers of infants are similarly stressed as the levels experienced by mothers of middle-schoolers, but they are not. The University of Arizona's research team believes this might be because infants are exhausting, but are also intensely rewarding to hold and cuddle. Middle-schoolers are usually not as rewarding or cuddly. Their developmental task is beginning to make them seek individuation from parents and push parents away.

Other factors probably also impact parents' levels of satisfaction. Many parents know their children's friends, classmates and a community of other parents and teachers. When the middle school transition begins, students often interact at school with minimal parent involvement, and moms may feel more disconnected as students share less about their world, their school experiences and their friends. A number of the middle school students I see in counseling long for the independence of being dropped off to see a movie or spend time with friends without a parent accompanying them. Parents can suffer a big fall from grace, as the big need that our children had for us in younger years begins to change.

Parents' confidence in their abilities to discipline, influence and communicate with their child all decline in the middle school years. It's important not to buy in to stereotypes about teens which lump them all together as negative. Friendships with other parents of middle school age children and parenting classes can really help mitigate the sense of distress and isolation, as well as normalize the developmental parenting shifts that are happening.

Parents of middle school students need to get support from each other as less emotional rewards come in from their children. It's also important to shift and continue to connect with children, but in different ways. For example, providing space for your teen or preteen to have friends over at your home and provide snacks but remain on the periphery. Continue to reach out to connect with middle- schoolers at dinnertime and in the car, and having them teach you some things when you can.

It's been said that preteens and teens are building a house of self, and that they need to be able to set some boundaries and separation from us in order to feel they are opening and closing the doors in their house.They let us in close at times and close us out at others. It's our job as parents to be there, be loving and interested and not too needy. Keep that in mind when your sweet child asks you to drop them off down the block from their middle school or high school so no one sees you. It's a bittersweet passage that is necessary so they can begin preparing to separate from us and begin those first steps towards becoming their own person.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Honoring Our Dads, Stepdads and Granddads

With Father's Day approaching this Sunday, I think it's time we all pause and reflect to honor good dads everywhere. Many times, Father's Day gets trampled on by Mother's Day, graduations, and spring birthdays. It's just not fair. Fathers and the other important good men in our lives who nurture, develop, inspire and support children, teens, and young adults deserve the spotlight all on their own.

Together, let's reach out to the men in our lives who make a difference, both to us and to our children, because they suit up, show up, and do the right thing. These are the good men who show us that women do not corner the market on nurturing and supporting others. They might be our fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers, uncles, or family friends. What they have in common is taking a loving concern for the young people in their lives, and doing all they can to be a positive male influence. We salute you. You make a huge difference.

Men and women are different, and we provide children and young adults with different things. I often think of it as women bringing children INTO the world and men taking children OUT into the world, helping them launch into the adult world, separate from their mother, and become a successful adult. All our lives, we benefit from having a positive, kind male role model we respect and can turn to for advice. It's not that you can't succeed without that support; it just makes it so much easier. It gives you a firm foundation. You have someone to ask about the exclusively male perspective on life, and ask for their input or guidance.

Good dads stay connected to their children, whether or not they are still married to that child's mother. They stay involved and actively engaged with their child or children all their lives. We hope that our marriages endure, but the parent-child relationship must endure all your life. In research by the Center for the Family in Transition in Mill Valley, California, Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., and her team has done the longest study to date on outcomes for children of divorce. One of the worst things that can possibly happen to children in their parents' divorce is that their father disengages, in terms of emotional support, time, and financial support. I often caution parents I counsel not to do this. Parents who love their children stay involved, no matter what.

Grandfathers, stepfathers, and uncles can all be critically important roles, defined by who plays the role and how you play it. It's messy to get involved. You have to give---time, attention, listening, support. You can receive incredible rewards by becoming a positive male influence. You might be the only chance a particular child in your life has to know a honest, kind, nurturing, grounded man. Both girls and boys need the positive male adult energy to have successful careers and relationships later on.

This week, give some affirmation and applause to the good men in your life who nurtured and supported you, or who give that love and positive male role modeling to your children. Stand-up guys are sometimes taken for granted, but they really shouldn't be. Strong, kind, loyal and devoted men are an incredible blessing, both to good women and to building a wonderful next generation. We honor you for defining what a good man is really like.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

New York Times Article: Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person

An essay by writer/philosopher Alain De Botton from last Sunday's New York Times has great relationship advice with a healthy amount of skepticism about finding one right partner, and a realistic view about learning how to become mature, flexible and negotiate differences gracefully. Read the article here!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Between Mothers and Daughters

What is it about the mother/daughter relationship that makes it often so intense, whether intensely positive or negative? Why are women rarely neutral about their bond with their mothers?

One recent study of family relationship based on cell phone bills showed that for most older women, their most frequent daily calls were with their daughter, if they had one.

When I ask women in individual or couples counseling about the "life script" they got from their mother, useful information emerges. As an adult woman, the more you can understand about your mother, the more you can grow to understand about yourself. It is important to look behind the "mask" of the mother role. Understanding the woman she is---her background, her growing up years, her beliefs, and her relationships, may shed a great deal of light on how she mothered you.

Your own life may build from a foundation of her values, fears, and beliefs; or your life may be, in part, a reaction to your mother's. For example, a woman may react strongly to her mother playing a voiceless/childlike role with her husband, and in the daughter's own marriage she may be quite focused on not being taken advantage of.

In examining the life script you received about being a woman, consider the family your mother came from. Was she born into an advantaged or disadvantaged family? How many siblings were there to compete with for parental attention? Was the family stable, or did she deal with a great deal of change and instability? Were the children nurtured by anyone? What hopes and dreams did she have for her own life? Did she benefit from a good education, or is she a self-made woman? What are her beliefs about men, marriage, raising children, faith, and a woman's role in the family? How did she appear to you as a child? Was she joyful or joyless? Was she a strong woman, or a martyr?

The fit between your temperament and your mother's is an important factor in determining how close you are to her. Stella Chess, MD, has done extensive research to determine the factor of "goodness of fit" between a child's temperament and a parent's temperament. If it is not a very natural fit (for example if a daughter is very unstructured and spontaneous, while the mother is extremely structured and planned), then the mother's ability to accept the child's natural temperament, rather than "declare war" on it, is a critical factor in creating a loving, positive mother/daughter bond.

It has been said that it is primarily in the mother-child relationship that we learn how to love and be loved. What an incredible responsibility it is to be what psychologist Bruno Bettelheim termed a "good enough mother." A mother doesn't have to be perfect. Admitting your own mistakes, apologizing as needed, recognizing and honoring your daughter's own unique strengths and gifts, listening, and spending time together in enjoyable activities, are sure ways to strengthen a mother/daughter relationship.

What if you don't like the script you got from your mother? Then, as you become consciously aware of what her script was for you, you may choose to selectively rewrite it, just like a playwright rewrites a script. Writer Pam Finger says,"You do not have to be your mother unless she is who you want to be. You do not have to be your mother's mother, or even your grandmother's mother on your father's side. You may inherit their chins or their hips or their eyes, but you are not destined to become the women who came before you. You are not destined to live their lives.So if you inherit something, inherit their resilience. The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be."

There can be difficult aspects of the mother/daughter relationship. Because we share our gender, mothers can impose strong messages about roles and relationships, even our relationship with our own body. Sometimes as mothers age, they have unresolved feelings stirred up by their daughters emerging into adulthood and asserting themselves. Developmentally, it is healthy for daughters in their teens and twenties to push back and reject some of who their mother is. Mothers need to stay grounded, patient, and give up control, as it is appropriate. (She may be back closer to you later in life). Some daughters sense a feeling of competitiveness between themselves and their mother.  A mother may have unrealized hopes and dreams for her younger self that she may project on her daughter.

As an emotionally mature woman of any age, it is possible to come to peace with your relationship with your mother. You can decide how you are like her, and in what ways you are different. You can determine what the boundary can safely be between the two of you. You can choose what you wish to ask of her and what you would like to give her.

Through our relationship with our mother, we can look behind us into our past. With our mother, we see our emotional roots and her roots with the woman who raised her. Through our relationship with our daughters, we can look into the future and see our dreams for them. We can anticipate the ways in which they will need to do this same sifting process of positive and negative scripts with us in time.

A key to coming to peace with your relationship with your mother is to begin to view her not just in her role as your mother, but as a woman in her own context. This shift helps to equalize the power between adult daughter and mother. When you make this shift, you can be free to construct a different relationship with your mother, being aware of your history with her, accepting what love and stability she can provide, and begin the lifelong task of "mothering" yourself.

Recently, I have been organizing closets at home, and ran across some heartfelt notes and drawings that my daughters made for me when there were little, and it touched me deeply. Children grow up and launch, but the enduring closeness between mothers and daughters, when it works, is among life's sweetest blessings. This week as we approach Mother's Day, I honor all those who seek to nurture, encourage, and mother to the best of their ability. It's a big job, but with the potential for great meaning. Mothering can be one of life's most transformational and complex experiences.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Family Therapy: Still Effective After All These Years

Times change, but family therapy has stayed relevant for families over time. Family therapy is empirically supported and clinically effective. Clients report marked improvements in relationships, functioning and emotional health. In the April 18, 2016 issue of Time Magazine, one reporter shares her own recent experience in family therapy. Read the Time article here.

Monday, March 21, 2016

When You Don't Get What You Want

Character is shaped and defined in the times in our lives when we don't get what we want. Part of being human is dealing with loss and disappointment. Whether you don't get in to the college of your choice, or your spouse dies prematurely, or your plans don't work out for a job, grad school, a relationship, loss is a part of our lives. There is usually no way to avoid it. All risks- including good ones, involve the potential of it not working out.

Learning how to feel and express the pain of the loss, including the sadness, anger, hurt, confusion and disappointment is healthy. Later, learning how to process the loss and grow through what happens is key to growing emotionally.

Have you ever noticed the differences in people you know who have survived and thrived despite difficulty and loss?

There are some qualities I really like that people are more likely to develop if they run into some setbacks and loss in their lives. These include being grateful rather than entitled, compassion for others, resiliency and developing perspective about what's really important. These are the unexpected gifts of working through not getting what you want.

When we can learn to stop blaming others, we grow.

When we learn to accept disappointment, work through the feelings and redirect our course and go on, we become resilient and inspire others.

When we understand loss, we develop a reverence for how fragile our lives are and appreciative for the people who truly matter.

When we realize that it is things not working out that can shapes our character, we can be made gentler and more tenderized by our experiences. We can become more sensitive to the struggles of others.

Loss, disappointment and not getting what we want are all teachers if we receive the lessons. Poet and philosopher Mark Nepo writes in his book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen (Simon and Schuster, 2012) that, "Sooner or later, everyone will face not getting what they want. How we respond to this unavoidable moment determines how much peace or agitation we will have in our lives. This is the moment that opens all others, for our acceptance of things as they are and not as would have them allows us to find our place in the stream of life. Free of our entitlements, we can discover that we are small fish in the stream and go about finding the current."

Not getting what you want? That makes you normal, and possibly better, if you let it.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Connections With Grandparents Stabilize Teens

It's rough being a teenager, but having a loving, involved grandparent really helps teens smoothly transition through these turbulent years. While teens are busy individuating and separating from parents as they need to do developmentally, grandparents can be a safe place to attach emotionally. Teens with close, loving relationships with a grandparent are likely to have fewer emotional and behavioral problems than teens without that attachment.

A recent study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel surveyed 1,405 teens ages 12 to 18, involved in a larger study. Teens who enjoyed a close relationship with both their parents and grandparents experienced the lowest amount of adjustment difficulties on questionnaires measuring hyperactivity, and emotional distress like excessive worrying, social skills problems, fighting and bullying. The study was published this past year in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry online.

While grandparents have long been considered by family therapists as a help to teens who are having conflict with one or both parents, this study suggests that there are benefits to teens of being close to grandparents even when the teen is well connected with parents. Teens who were securely attached to both parents and grandparents had the least problems. Being close to grandparents didn't seem to help as much if the teens weren't close to their own parents. For teens who indicated a moderate or a strong bond with their parent, the close relationship with a grandparent played an increasingly strong role in decreasing adjustment difficulties.

In my counseling practice, I always encourage people to make the most of the relationship they can have with their grandchildren and other young people. Being a grandparent is one of those interesting roles in life that is highly variable. You can make much of your emotional contribution to the role or none, it's up to your willingness and your adult children's openness to having you involved. If you don't have children or grandchildren, consider reaching out to other teens who may need your stabilizing influence and loving concern.

I can remember my parents' house being a wonderful haven for our children when they were teens; a great place to learn to cook, do art, try gardening, watch classic movies or go for a swim with Gram and Gramps. As it works out, research backs up my observations that grandparents and teenaged grandchildren can provide meaningful connections to each other and memories that can last a lifetime. It's good to be needed.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Are You A Highly Sensitive Person?

Do you respond more intensely to experiences than the average person might? Do you cry easily? About 20% of the population fits into the category of being a highly sensitive person (HSP). This trait is distributed pretty equally among men and women. HSP is different from introversion, although both can get overstimulated and need to retreat at times. It's believed that sensitivity may run along a spectrum, like some other traits, from low to high. This is not a disorder, but a trait which tends to be permanent over one's lifespan.

HSP was first identified in the 1990's by research psychologists Elaine and Arthur Aron. HSP is also known as Sensory Processing Sensitivity. The Arons developed a 27-item scale to assess for being highly sensitive, which you can take online at  Here are a few sample items:

Other people's moods affect me.

I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics or sirens close by.

I have a rich, complex inner life.

I am deeply moved by the arts or music.

I am conscientious.

I get rattled when I have a lot to do in a short amount of time.

Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.

Changes in my life shake me up.

When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.

Highly sensitive people show brain scan differences in their neural activity, as compared to non-HSPs. Those with this feature are more empathetic, pay close attention to the environment and non-verbal cues from other people. A study at University of California, Santa Barbara published in the Journal of Brain and Behavior in April 2014, demonstrated that people identified as HSP have more neural activity in parts of the brain when looking at the face of a loved one than people with an average level of sensitivity.

People with HSP are believed to have a deeper depth of cognitive processing. They can get overwhelmed, be more aware of emotional subtleties and have stronger emotional responses than others do. HSPs are well-suited professionally to work as counselors, teachers, artists, pastors and writers.

There are liabilities that come with being an HSP, too. They can be easily hurt. They can get exhausted from people and too much stimuli. HSPs can be vulnerable to stress. Dr. Arthur Aron, research professor at Stony Brook University in New York and visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley acknowledges that HSPs can get easily overwhelmed and that they tend to process information more deeply than others.

In relationships, both HSPs and their partners need to be aware of the sensitivity. The highly sensitive person can learn to identify when they are a needing a time out during disagreements with their partner or when overwhelmed. HSPs need to do extreme self-care, being certain to eat healthily, sleep well, and get downtime to relax. HSPs must appreciate that their partner probably processes events and experiences differently, and appreciate the differences.

People who are partnered with an HSP are best to never say "calm down." It's best if you are not critical, and validate your partner's feelings. Telling an HSP partner that they are making a big deal out of something won't help. Be supportive, and express that you understand what they are feeling.

Being a highly sensitive person can be both a gift and a burden. Understanding yourself as an HSP or your HSP partner is of critical importance for a well-balanced, happy life and relationship.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Being Known: The Seven Levels of Intimacy

Matthew Kelly wrote the classic relationship book The Seven Levels of Intimacy: The Art of Loving and the Joy of Being Loved. The book is simply written, easy to read, and has some really interesting ways to begin thinking differently about some of your closest relationships.

Kelly believes that the purpose of the healthiest close relationships is to help you become your best self, and encouraging people that you love to evolve, develop, and become their best selves as well. If you are in the right primary relationship, it should be challenging you some. We want to spur each other's development along to become the best version of ourselves.

Intimacy isn't needed in all relationships. We all do better, though, if we have real intimacy in some of our relationships. Intimacy takes mutual disclosure and self-revelation. Lower levels of intimacy are fine with people you don't know well or want to get close to, but with people you want to go deeper with the lower levels of intimacy are just a warm-up.

Here are Kelly's seven levels of intimacy:

1. Cliches: at this level, we are having flat, brief conversations with others, with very little disclosure or significance. Think of how most people interact with the grocery clerk. It's boring, monotonous, and repetitive. An example would be asking how work was and getting the reply "fine." These are fine conversation starters and may be appropriate with strangers, but are unsatisfying if this is the level your closest relationships stay at. If you hang out in clichés, it's a sure fire way to avoid intimacy.

2. Just the Facts: We discuss sports, current events, the stock market, weather, celebrity gossip,and what we did today. It's safe to discuss facts. It pretty much guarantees that there won't be conflict. Facts are usually impersonal.

3. Opinion: You don't have to make yourself vulnerable at all to announce your opinions. It can lead to conflict. Arguments can occur here which reveal a lack of maturity, inability to transcend self and empathize with another's view, and a shortage of self-awareness. Getting stuck on this level can cause disagreements, demonstrate a lack of a common goal, and cause people to downshift back into clichés and facts. As we mature, we should be able to agree to disagree and to accept differences.

4. Hopes and Dreams: Sharing our vision for our life, what we are hoping to accomplish and experience is far more personal, and takes us deeper with the other person. We need to feel fairly safe to do this. I can't imagine sharing my hopes and dreams with anyone who I experience as critical and judgmental. Revealing your dreams and learning about those of the other person charges the relationship with energy. Building a dream together with an intimate other is a powerful connection between you. Dreams give our lives focus and purpose.

5. Feelings: Going beyond facts and events to share the more personal elements of how you feel about your life, your day, your work, your relationships, will take you still deeper into knowing and being known. One catch is that you have to be able to identify your own feelings before you can share them. You can deepen a close relationship by asking about how the other person feels. Listen intently from the heart. It takes being willing to be vulnerable to share feelings, but that's where all the good stuff is in relationships. It's a risk, but what is life without a little risk?

6. Faults, Fears and Failures: You don't have to be perfect to be loved or loving. It is in sharing our misadventures, mistakes and mess-ups that people often feel closer to us. These flaws make us real.  Kelly describes this level of intimacy as emotional nakedness. if we can take down our guard at this level with those we are closest to, we help them also feel safe to reveal more. It's a mutual thing. Asking for help also comes in here. Being able to put down your pride and admit mistakes also allows the other person to be imperfect. We all have fears and a shadow self. It's normal.

7. Legitimate Needs/Dynamic Collaboration:  We all have legitimate needs in the four aspects of life: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. Expressing your legitimate needs and asking to understand those of the other person leads you into a thriving relationship. The highest level of relationships require that you also have the heart to try to help meet the other person's needs. There should  be both people giving and receiving. The needs must be legitimate, not superficial, manipulative or unrealistic.

Kelly also has a lot of valuable tools to suggest to making relationships intentionally closer. He suggests creating unstructured time together, which he calls carefree timelessness. It might just be spending a day with someone you love and doing whatever you both feel like. He encourages giving up criticizing others, and avoiding gossip. He suggests we be mindful of the words we choose and that we practice self-discipline and forgiveness.

The Seven Levels of Intimacy is a wonderful gem of a book. It will inspire you to be better, love more, go deeper, and be more aware of what you are co-creating with others. Not only will it help you learn how to develop more meaningful relationships, but it will also inspire those of you who are parents about how to help teach your children to creating intimate relationships in a healthy way.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Dean Koontz: From a Difficult Childhood to a Meaningful Life

Dean Koontz has written over one hundred novels and is one of America's top suspense thriller writers. Fourteen of his hardcovers and fourteen of his paperbacks have reached the number one position on the New York Times Bestseller list. While I've enjoyed several of his books and knew that he was living here in Orange County, California, I didn't know anything about his own personal story until I heard him do a live interview last Thursday evening at the Orange County Register. His life is quite a story itself.

Koontz was remarkably open and vulnerable at his OC Register interview. He shared about being born in 1945 to become the only child of his parents. He grew up incredibly poor in a small town in Pennsylvania. He was close to his mother, who died when he was just 21.

Koontz' father was alcoholic, mentally ill and unstable. He lost over 30 jobs, and the family went through great hardship. He remembers his father being the town drunk. He was unfaithful with multiple women. Raymond Koontz was abusive to both he and his mother. Dean recalls his mother standing up to his father courageously despite her diminutive height.

Senior year in college, Koontz won a fiction competition sponsored by Atlantic Monthly. After college, he taught school in Pennsylvania and worked and became frustrated with the Appalachian Poverty Program, designed to help poor children. Koontz saw flaws in the program and ways in which the money didn't reach the population it was intended to help.

Koontz married his high school girlfriend Gerda, to whom he is still married and who he deeply admires. He spoke about modeling strong heroines in his books after Gerda and his mother. It reminded me how writers often write what they know. He and Gerda negotiated him leaving teaching for five years while she would support him as he wrote full-time. It worked out very well, and he has been writing more than 60 hours a week ever since.

Dean and Gerda Koontz didn't have children. A biography about him poses that they feared his father's mental illness might be inherited. They do have a great love for golden retrievers. While Koontz researched a guide dogs for the disabled for his novel "Midnight" he became acquainted with Canine Companions for Independence (CCI). The non-profit let him observe how they extensively train service dogs, as he was writing a character that had one into the book. Through their involvement with CCI, the couple adopted Trixie, a golden retriever who had been through most of their training, but didn't quite make it. Dean wrote a book as a tribute to Trixie after she died of cancer in 2007. The book was called A Big Little Life: The Memoir of A Joyful Dog. When I spoke with him afterwards at the book signing, he said he still misses Trixie every day.

The Koontz family has donated millions of dollars to CCI to continue their work. Several of his books donate all profits to the group. At his live interview, Koontz shared how some years back he was the president of a writer's group where he got lots of phone calls daily with complaints from writers about publishers and agents. After a long weekend away at CCI, observing people with no use of their arms or legs happily being trained to use guide dog assistance, he came home and resigned from his role with the writer's group. He couldn't believe the contrast.

Since Trixie's death, the Koontz family have adopted Anna, a grand-niece of Trixie, who almost completed the CCI training, but had a fascination for chasing birds that made her a better pet than service dog.

Koontz also shared something intriguing he found out about his parentage. He found an article saved by his parents that explained about an artificial insemination medical research project done using poor families from his area in Pennsylvania about the time he was born. He decided not to do DNA testing with his father before his death, as he decided it didn't matter to him. It remains a personal mystery for the mystery writer.

As a family therapist, I am always interested in family of origin stories. The personal story behind Dean Koontz is one of perseverance, gentleness and transcendence. Despite coming from an unstable father with alcoholism and abuse, he has created a strong marriage and a meaningful, thriving career in writing that he continues to work at full-time at age 70. Koontz and his wife are creating a lasting legacy through their support of CCI to help disabled people live a more full life, one dog at a time.

The script that you are given in childhood doesn't have to be what you live out as an adult. We can choose to take the best part of our childhood backgrounds and revise the rest. You can have an unstable or abusive parent and choose to develop loving relationships and attach securely to others despite what you experienced in your family. It's been meaningful to me to work with many individuals over the past twenty-five years as a therapist to better understand the themes and patterns in their family of origin and rewrite the way they live their lives and the kind of relationships they create. If we understand our family history, we can learn to lead a more conscious life going forward.

Childhood is just where your story begins. It's doesn't need to predict your future.