Conflict-Resolution and Resilience: “Can we try that again?”

When couples embark on therapy it is often to change patters of conflict that are wound so tightly responses can feel like ‘autopilot’. Yet, courageously they commit to the idea that there is another way to go about conflict: one that is more healthy and productive for everyone involved. Often times this process can become stuck, even when couples have created or acquired excellent new ways to engaged in difficult conversations. Such new options may linger during pivotal moments, but familiar ways sink in and the same pattern unfolds.

       There is a powerful tool that fits well during this time, when new options are emerging but difficult to apply. Sometimes it can feel like unlikeable patters occur quickly and the conflict reaches a point of no return. It may be the case that break is needed. A pause can help shift from patterns of reactivity, and assist with de-escalation of conflict and re-regulation of one’s body and emotions. Moving into a state of positive cognitive regulation can also help expand and integrate one’s awareness to their internal cues and external environment, which supports the brain in finding a empathetic and creative stance towards approaching challenges. Once ready, couples may find it useful to re-approach the difficult conversation and give it another try.

       As a matter of fact, the suggestion can be phrased exactly like that, “Can we try that again?” It emphasizes personal responsibility, honors a shared goal, and suggests an idea to re-direct the interaction in order to stay on course to achieving it. Here is the thing, in order for the suggestion to maintain its useful intent and have an overall positive effect, two steps need to be taken with it:

 

1.     The receiver must be ready to join-in and see the question as an attempt to improve the quality of the relationship and resolution of the conflict. Intentions must be clear by both parties that it does not ‘erase’ what happened before. Rather, they are acknowledging that what happened before was ineffective, and that another way of communicating might work better.

 

2.     Both members must be willing to take a creative stance on what happens next. By this, they must be willing to approach the new attempt as ‘explorers’. They can look out for how it feels to engage or be engaged with in this new way, and the result is has on the process and outcome of the conversation. They may even be willing to provide some immediate feedback on how it went.

 

3.     Then, the suggestion can be introduced. Again, focusing on how it might support the work the couple has committed to. Some options for phrasing it can be (but are certainly not limited to):

 

“I feel like we fell off course from what we are working on, can we try that again?”

 

“I really liked that way of responding to each other that we have been talking about doing, and I would like to apply it here, can we try that again?”

 

“This is an important conversation, and I want to make sure we are able to talk through it, can we try that again?”

 

         Trying to shift ways of engaging with challenging topics can be a long-term process. It can take patience to see a difference in how conflict is handled and the outcome it produces. Creativity and a willingness to keep trying and applying new skills, even when the ‘usual’ way persists, can be the resilience that makes a difference in creating relationships worth wanting.

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Therapist Spotlight: Anikó Blake, AMFT

NCRC is proud to periodically spotlight one of our staff therapists so as to give you a chance to get to know their unique qualities and interests.  Today's spotlight is on Anikó Blake.

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1. Why did you decide to become a therapist?

The therapist’s role, and the therapeutic environment, appealed to me at a very early age. Witnessing by proxy the shifts that can occur through the power of a human-to-human relationship had me in awe. Relationships continue to be a fascination of mine, and the basis from which I center my readings, research, and curiosities. I am a life-long learner of the endless facets of human connection. Being a therapist has been a rewarding medium to help others help themselves in making the most of the relationships in their lives- including the one they have with themselves.

2. How do you think change happens?

Change happens when we perceive opportunity in our lives. Sometimes change is a matter of shifting from one ‘place’ or ‘state’ to another that we predict, plan for, or are required to face. From partnered to single, from adolescence to adulthood, from healthy to chronically sick. Yet, often it occurs by bravely stepping into a state of unknowingness, and leaving the safety and security of our previous reality behind. It is less about knowing where we are going, but having a plan for moving. What I find beautiful about embracing uncertainty is it makes room for ‘arrivals’ along the way that we may be unaware are possible. Uncertainty thrives on creativity, internal strength, relational endurance, and hope. This practice allows for change to happen in the now, and also provides a practice for how to create it in the future. True change cannot be taught or gifted, it must be created and owned by the person seeking it.

3. Do you have a certain therapeutic style, method, or model of therapy that you generally use?

My work is guided by the belief that how we interact with ourselves and our surroundings at one point served a useful purpose- or perhaps still does. Sometimes these purposes are made useful by our families or communities, and may be learned intuitively. Therapy can be the process of relieving ourselves from continuing thoughts and behaviors that no longer suit our goals or fit our values. It is a rewarding experience in therapy when my clients can find new ways of being with themselves and others that reflects their complete, authentic self.

4. What is your educational and professional background? 

I was born and raised in Chicago, and attended both private and public schools throughout my education. My undergraduate studies were completed at DePaul University in psychology, with a focus on human development and interpersonal communication. An interest in the role of words and dialogue in intimate relationships lead me to complete an honors research project and paper, which focused on the use of swear words in couples’ conflict. Main finding: it depends! My continued interest in the intersection of culture, family-of-origin, gender, race, and other forms of identity in relationships brought me to The Family Institute at Northwestern University. In their Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy Program I completed two years of rigorous coursework, over five-hundred hours of hands-on therapy experience, and contributed to the development of a pre-marital workshop. 

5. Do you have a specific focus or interest in your clinical work?

During graduate school, I received my Prepare/Enrich Facilitator certification. I am passionate about helping couples, particularly in the early stages of their relationship, in creating a foundation for long-lasting relational well-being. Often this is work is conducted in a relational context, but truly the work starts from within each person. It brings me great fulfillment to see couples collaborate on creating a relationship worth wanting, while developing more self-awareness and compassion in the process.

Beginning this month, I will also c0-lead a women’s group with Meredith Cohn Srivastava, a neighbor psychotherapist at our Northside clinic. This is a weekly group, focusing on identity and self-awareness, that has been running for five years. In the future, I plan to create additional groups centered around challenges I frequently see clients facing, not limited to: healing after an abortion, transition into parenthood, and expanding relational self-awareness. 

Starting next year, I will also be obtaining extra clinical experience in systemic-based Play Therapy. This method of therapy is a wonderful medium for children to best communicate and grow through using the developmentally appropriate language of play. In the future, I plan on integrating these tools in adult and family psychotherapy, as well, as they can be a wonderful way to boost the creative thinking that is often set aside in adulthood. A favorite quote of mine, by George Bernard Shaw, is “We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” I am excited to see the ways I may assist my clients through using play to express thoughts, emotions, and experiences to help them reach their therapeutic goals and improve their overall well-being.

 

Anikó currently sees clients at our Ravenswood location. 

She can be reached by phone at (773) 242-7276.

Boundaries and self-esteem: how caregivers can encourage life-long empowerment for their children

Boundaries and self-esteem: how caregivers can encourage life-long empowerment for their children

By: Anikó Blake, AMFT

There's a magical moment when we are infants and discover where another’s body ends and ours begins. More literally the separateness starts when our umbilical cord is cut and we truly become our own bodily mechanism. Our own entity. Early on, we begin to determine what is our touch versus another’s, something that experts call self-world differentiation. In fact, by the time we are four months old we begin selecting what we do and do not want to touch. In an interview with Scientific America, researcher Anne Bigelow describes that, “…early understanding of self and early understanding of other is developed through interaction. It teaches babies basic lessons that they have some agency in the world… as opposed to just being helpless to whatever happens to them.” A crucial form of this interaction is skin to skin contact. Touch is an essential component to overall development, and the mechanism from which we begin to develop our earliest sense of self

Self-esteem is how we define our worth, and developed through knowing that we have a choice in how we treat ourselves and how others treat us. What we need in order to acquire healthy self-esteem is experience making choices about our own bodies and confidence that the choices will make us feel good about ourselves. Even at a very young age, these choices are a matter of both safety and enjoyment in life. If we need that sense of control over our environment early on, in order to feel safe and confident, why is that adults seem to avoid talking about boundaries and consent until children are well into adolescence? And why only in the context of romantic or sexual relationships? Let us back it up a bit, shall we?

The data is clear that encouraging infants and children to create their own boundaries for touch facilitates healthy development and relational success throughout life. And as a bonus, it comes with the relief that talks about consent by parents and caregivers do not have to wait until it has to do with sexual intimacy.  Caregivers can and should facilitate everyday, age-appropriate, and applicable conversations that encourage safety and self-esteem throughout life. These conversations prepare children for making some more challenging decision about touch later in life. Below is a template you can use to give these early conversations a try:

Create a context: Children need to understand the nature of context. For example, here are the situations in which it is acceptable to do X, and here are the situations in which it is unacceptable to do X. Talking about context is preferable to saying that something is always bad. Framing behaviors in terms of contexts also helps kids adhere to social guidelines without experiencing shame. By talking about contexts, children learn that certain types of touch are not allowed in certain locations or with certain people, rather than it is bad to touch or that they are a bad person for touching. 

Provide options: Knowing that there are choices for the types touch that children can give and receive helps children:

1) foster a sense of autonomy and confidence.

2) trust their internal cues for safety and enjoyment of touch.

This also means teaching them how to advocate for options, though developing the language of “can I have a _____ instead” or “I do not like ____ but I do like ____”. Consider talking with children about what types of touch they do and do not like, before they have to decide.

Model your own boundaries: Providing children with insight about how you read your internal cues and preferences can help children learn useful language for describing their own. It can also help them learn empathy through tuning in to another person’s experiences and facial and body cues. For example, offer some commentary when other people touch you or when you touch yourself, such as, “I do like how it feels when my body is held here but not here.”

Stay consistent: Keeping the same messages allows children to know that the rules of personal choice matter regardless of the context or person. For example, children have a right to choose how the say to goodbye to someone (hug, high-five, no touch, etc.) regardless if it is a grandparent or classmate.

A great aspect of encouraging boundaries and self-esteem across a child’s development, and into adulthood, is it follows what they are already doing! From infancy, children are looking to become “embodied bodies”: to be seen, felt, and understood by others. The synergy of helping children experience wanted and enjoyable touch while helping them seek it, as well, is that it promotes self-awareness and a positive relationship with touch. This foundation of empowerment paves the way for children to become better advocates for their needs and their safety throughout life. That way, when the topic of touch becomes about sexual intimacy, children are already well equipped to know how to advocate for their own safety and enjoyment while reading the cues of others, as well.

 

Above is a great place to start, but if you are looking for more check out the articles below:

 

“It’s never too early to teach children about consent and boundaries” by Anne Theriault for the Washington Post

 

“Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21” by Alyssa Royse, Joanna Schroeder, Julie Gillis and Jamie Utt for everdayfeminism.com

 

5 everyday ways to teach your kids about consent” by Lisa McCrohan for upworthy.com