Take a Deep Breath: Meditation & Mindfulness 101

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Take a Deep Breath: Meditation & Mindfulness 101

There are no more than 17 hot topics being spun around in the world and our news cycles nowadays: $200 dates, self-care, “being triggered”, social media, D***** T****, #MeToo, the perpetual loss of Black life, and the like. Since becoming a therapist, I choose to disconnect from almost all of it in order to show up mentally and emotionally for my clients and families day in and day out. So, I could imagine that I would seem somewhat of a hypocrite for saying that what keeps me afloat, what gives me breath, what keeps me in the present, and what has changed my life for the past five years is yet another buzzword of 2019: meditation. 

Now, for some of us, I know it seems like some far off distant land, whether you immediately bring to mind Tina Turner chanting a Buddhist mantra to deal with Ike’s brutality in the epic movie, What’s Love Got to Do With It, or you just imagine sitting Indian style with your hands in the air. But, meditation has not been a fad for me. When I say that slowing down, feeling my body in the space, and looking at my thoughts one by one has been a sanctuary for me, it’s because it has. Understanding the connections among my emotional, spiritual, and physical experiences and its impact on how I show up in the world, has been balm to my bruises and stillness in my storms.

Because of my own transformation, I will tell anyone within earshot that being mindful about your body and its connection within your universe is where healing begins. I have witnessed what happens for folks when they connect their bodies with their stories. I have watched them heal. So, think of the considerations below as steps into your own healing.

 

Connecting your body to your thoughts, feelings, and emotions

 Within your story, there are an infinite amount of emotions to be sensed, thoughts to be pondered, and feelings to be felt. By realizing that these three elements are three wholly separate experiences, both interconnected and mutually influential, you can step into the awareness that is the present moment.

  1.   For example, say you are overworked, under stimulated, and in need of some care (I know I’m talking about us, but I won’t be too loud). That’s how you’re feeling. That feeling could manifest as being agitated by your significant other or friend at work, or instead, maybe it’s a sadness that you can’t quite name but is turning getting out of bed into a marathon.

  2.     Agitation and sadness are the emotions.  

  3.     The thoughts associated with these experiences could be numerous: “I need to keep going”, “This is just too much”, “Who are you to take on so much work anyway?”, “But, what if ____?”, “You can’t do this” or the most defeating one, “If I don’t do ____, I’m not _____.”

By way of mediating, plugging into your senses, getting physically active through drumming, sports, yoga, running, just walking a few times a week, or even a combination of it all, you have the power to preventatively and presently understand how your different experiences are impacting you and your decisions moment-to-moment. Once you can tune into your body and slow things down enough, you truly do have the power to choose.

Getting curious, not judging, your feelings

We’ve all done it–“I’m so mad I’m even mad about…” or you’re 3 seconds from BIG crying at what should be one of the most joyous moments of your life (I’m looking at you, graduation brunch). There you are in all of your humanness and glory, having your feelings, and then there you go judging yourself for it. By allowing yourself to feel whatever comes up at whatever moment, you give yourself permission to essentially say that you are important. When you allow yourself to lean into the emotion and really feel it, you are saying, “I am valid. What I feel matters. What I think is okay. I am okay.” WHO DOES THAT? You do. You can. Try curiosity on for size the next time you feel an emotion you’d rather run away from in the other direction. Give these a try: “Oh, I see that I’m feeling ____. Hmm... I wonder why I’m feeling that right now. I wonder where that’s coming from. Where and when have I felt that before?” I’d like to see where you end up (and bring the tissues).

 

Regulating your body and its reactions

Most importantly, how you calm down and take care of yourself is key. If you have a storm going on within the inside of that beautiful clay vessel of yours, you’ll have a difficult time standing in the sunshine of the present moment. Breathing deeply really changes things.

  • What would it be like for you to breathe in from the soles of your feet, following your breath as it rises through your body and through the top of your crown, over and over again for five minutes?

  • What would it be like for you to set aside 10 minutes doing absolutely nothing with minimal engagement (no phone, no music, no sleep)?

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (Hey, YouTube!) is my go-to when inviting others to a life of mindful living. Knowing where you hold your tension, where your body remembers and is keeping score, further helps you connect to your body and really listen to what it needs.

 While eating kale chips and aligning your chakras may not be for you, meditation and mindfulness is for everyone, and it’s what you and your body and your loved ones and those in your sphere of influence, deserve. Give breathing in and remembering who you are a try, and watch how being your own breath of fresh air, be what you need.

Thanks for reading! If you found the tips above meaningful and helpful, this article and more can be found at TaylorPMFT.com. Come join us!    

Transforming Shame

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Transforming Shame

Shame is often so overwhelming that it can be hard to imagine breaking it down into components to change it. This article will take you through the formation and experience of shame and help you, the reader, work step-by-step to transform the pain of shame into the comfort of connection.

Origins of shame

Shame often arises when we believe that an aspect of who we are, how we appear, or what we do will lead to social rejection. Isolation runs contrary to our innate human need for connection. The self-conscious feeling of shame helps us keep an active radar of any potential risk of losing our socially contingent resources: belonging, intimacy, support, food, shelter, etc. It works as a regulating tool for anti-social behavior

Shame focuses on our worthiness of love and belonging, often brought by binary measures of being either a “good” or “bad” person. This is different from guilt, remorse, or regret: which are directed towards correcting behavior while maintaining healthy self-esteem. Psychotherapist and author Terrence Real describes that, “When you feel remorseful, your attention is on the people you hurt and their feelings. You’re moved to do whatever you can to make amends, to repair things.” (Real, 2017) Guilt, regret, and remorse tend to allow for more self-complexity by allowing us to be “good” people who are still, at times, capable of causing pain in others and towards ourselves. They allow us to take responsibility for our actions in a way that promotes self-growth and relational maintenance. Shame can also be distinguished from embarrassment and humiliation, which can feel like a passing moment of unwanted social attention towards something unfavorable about us or that happened to us, while also knowing that it does not define who we are. 

Accepting shame

Shame is neither inherently bad nor a feeling we can omit from our human experience. Instead, shame is a good indication that we are designed with our best interest for survival. Real (2017) describes that appropriate shame leads towards proactive remorse, which repairs our relationships. He adds that with “… a mature state of appropriate shame… we feel proportionately ashamed for our bad behavior and yet still manage to hold onto our essential worth as an imperfect human being.” 

As children, we are even more likely to interpret another’s actions as personal to who we are; children tend to see the world through an egocentric lens due to their location in cognitive development. Psychologist Erik Erikson’s identified that during the Guilt Versus Initiative Stage of social-emotional development, from three to six years of age, children are increasing their autonomy and independence while also receiving  more control and correction. Rule-based responses from adults “establishes basic moral or even moralistic orientation” (Erikson & Erikson, 1998), by helping children learn pro-social behaviors. Guilt helps deter them from behaving in isolating or harmful ways towards others. They might also experience shame by believing that adults’ correction and consequences are a result of the child being a “bad” person. Guidance through clarification on the intention of the rules and validation of the children's’ positive traits (including that it is healthy and acceptable to experience guilt) can help support them in this stage of identity and social development.

When to take caution

Shame becomes toxic when it begins to perpetuate the isolation we fear, by responding to the shameful experience with a “self-preoccupation” (Real, 2017). When we begin to linger in shame and identify with the thoughts and feelings it produces, we are adding to a narrative about ourselves that promotes a story of being alone and unwanted. If we believe that “we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” (Brown, 2012), it may result in creating barriers to identifying and receiving care and inclusion- even if others are directly providing it to us. This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy: we are choosing to collect and respond to specific evidence, proving a belief that we fear to be true, thus manifesting it into reality.  

Shame can often be a feeling we omit from communicating to others, since we would rather hide from them the possibility of us being unworthy of belonging. When shame is hidden it can often fester. The experience of trauma and its subsequent symptom of shame can also produce paralysis (van der Kolk, 2000) which diminishes our sense of agency and motivation to talk about the pain we have experienced. Instead, we might behave towards others with aggression, defensiveness, or we withdraw, in order to avoid or beat them in our own game of deciding if we are a “bad” person, unworthy of connection. We can also displace our shame, particularly when it feels too painful to carry, by projecting a sense of unworthiness onto another. This behavior can also produce self-fulling beliefs about shame, since it can result in others distancing themselves from us and can create narcissism, which diminishes compassion: an essential ingredient for fostering human connection. 

Reducing toxic shame 

Famed humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers proposed that, “When I accept myself as I am, then I can change.” (Rogers, 1961) Shame cannot be erased and is best accepted as a reality of being human. The destructive effects of toxic shame can be reduced by talking through the thoughts and feelings that accompany it. Real (2017) sees this process as “working on letting go of contempt, letting go of control, experience empathy and true remorse.” We can do this by recognizing the vulnerabilities we carry that increase relational sensitivity and slowing down the application of our protective strategies to allow ourselves time to identify why they feel needed. We can also mitigate potential shame by identifying and assessing the validity of assumptions about social and self-created expectations. This can also include the expectations we place on ourselves due to family and cultural loyalties. An example of reducing and redirecting shame is shown through the following questions:

What is the belief I am telling myself about who I am?

I am a failure because my marriage ended.”

What evidence do I have to support that belief?

“Some friends stopped speaking to me, others have turned down dates because of my “relationship baggage”*, and my grandparents said that they are disappointed in me.”

*here lies a relational vulnerability which could lead to reactivity, particular in the face of potential rejection while dating

What evidence do I have to challenge that belief?

Some friends do still speak to me, that date last night went pretty well, and I was still able to enjoy dinner with family despite my grandparents’ feelings.”

 What rules am I using to measure that belief?

People my age should be married, in my culture marriages are supposed to last ‘till death do us part’, I base some of my personal success off of being married.”

How is the belief affecting me?

Telling myself that I have failed makes it difficult to experience self-compassion.” 

How can changing the belief serve me?

“It will be important for me to practice liking myself in order to believe that others can like me, too. It is possible for my marriage to have ended and that I am still someone worthy of receiving love from myself and others. There are a multitude of ways to live a meaningful life and foster belonging in this world.”

Redirecting shame
Along with having our own radars for rejection, we can also build awareness for others’ relational fears, as well. Shame can be contagious when we internalize others’ projection of believed low self-worth or fear of isolation. Noticing others’ relational reactivity and supporting them in exploring it further can help build a sense of connection that soothes and redirects the shame cycle. Often times, protective strategies are used to mask and shield the most human parts of who we are. Relating to others from our shared search for belonging and intimacy can help diminish the perpetuating patterns of shame while validating the need for connection. Some examples of redirecting shame are:

“I feel offended when you call me harsh names and can also tell that you are upset when say them. Can you tell me, using other words, what is bothering you so I can better support you?” 

“I feel frustrated when you become defensive because it makes it difficult for me to hear what you really need. How I can better understand what your concerns are right now?”

“I feel sad when I sense you pulling away, because I really value you in my life. I want you to continue being a part of it. Let’s talk about ways to feel more connected.”

A belief within therapy is that when we name our emotions we can tame them. Shame and the isolation it fears are often brought by immense physical and psychological pain. Recognizing in ourselves and others the thoughts and sensations that indicate we are experiencing shame can help transform shame into the connection we ultimately long for. 

References 

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. London, UK: Penguin.\

Erikson, E. H. and Erikson, J. M. (1998) The Life Cycle Completed (Extended Version). New York City, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., pp. 93. 

Real, T. (2017) The Awful Truth: Most men are just not raised to be intimate. www.terrencereal.com

Roger, C. R. (1961) On Becoming a Person: Therapist's View of Psychotherapy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, pp. 17. 

van der Kolk, B. (2000) Posttraumatic stress disorder and the nature of trauma. Dialogues Clinical Neuroscience. 2000 Mar; 2(1): 7–22.

Hey, You – Stop calling your partner "Too Needy!" (...and here's why)

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Stop calling your partner "Too Needy!" (...and here's why)

     Are you feeling like your partner is asking for too much?  Are there too many demands being placed on your time and energy?  Are you feeling the urge to tell your partner he or she is Too Needy?  If so, slow down and think for a moment, please.

     Calling someone Too Needy can be a very judgmental and harmful thing to say to someone. 

     Everyone has a right to feel what they feel, and to pursue and ask for the things they want and believe will make them happy.    Sure, there is a difference between asking someone to do something and making a demand – But, everyone is entitled to advocate for what they want and need in a relationship. 

     What we are often trying to say when we label someone Too Needy is that we either can’t or don’t want to comply with a request from that person.  When we don’t want to accommodate, it’s our responsibility to be honest and direct with how we feel.  We have as much right to advocate for ourselves as any other person.  But it is OUR issue, not the fault of our partner.  It’s best to take responsibility for our own choices and our own needs.  If your partner is asking for more than you can give, maybe it isn’t the right relationship for you.  In that case, be mature and responsible, and call things off instead of blaming.  If you stand your ground and let your partner know your limits, then your partner gets to decide whether he or she is able to stay.  If your partner doesn’t change or leave, then it’s up to you – still your decision.

     I’m not saying our partners have no responsibility to try and make a change.  They do.  Better communication, making requests over demands, and allowing for some imperfections or learning curves in behavior change can surely be helpful and can temper the urgency of compliance.  Couples counseling may help before deciding on giving up.

     One of the problems with the term Too Needy, is that it is subjective.  Not everyone is going to agree with what is too much or too demanding.  We may not easily accommodate our partner, but someone else may not have any problems.  We don’t know, and shouldn’t predict.  What we do know is whether or not those demands or requests are too much for us.  So, again, our issue.  Maybe OUR expectations are too high!

     Another problem with calling someone Too Needy is that they may believe us!  Most people are only trying to advocate and find what feels right and good for them.  They are not wrong for doing so.  When that self-advocacy gets labeled and judged, some people develop shame over their preferences and needs, and shut them down.  They then feel wrong for asking for what they need and less confident in what will make them happy.  Not so cool.

     So - since people are not wrong for advocating for their needs, every person and relationship is different, and it’s our responsibility to be honest with what we are able to and willing to do, then it’s not really fair when we label our partners Too Needy.

Hope From a Black Hole

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Hope From a Black Hole

Scientists around the world recently collaborated to capture the first images of a black hole. This is monumental. Until this point there has been no visual evidence of black holes; there has only been atmospheric, or electromagnetic evidence. It was easy for some to push the evidence aside and say that black holes are just theoretical, that Einstein just came up with the idea a long time ago but has never been proven correct.

But now we have proof. The swirling void exists.

I’ve often used the metaphor of the black hole for myself. The imagery of the Black Hole is poetic and profound. It stands well for our mortality, or the strength of depression, or oppression, or any intense emotional experience. These experiences are real and should not be avoided in our emotional lives, and now we know it’s real in the universe as well.

The planet came together to get the images; the worldwide collaboration known as the Event Horizon Telescope brought together astronomers and physicists from around the world. There is hope in this. Even as we all struggle with our day-to-day views here in America, even as we are lead by a president who doesn’t want us to collaborate with other countries, or wants us to actively keep out immigrants, this global community of scientists was able to achieve something monumental. They were able to look past their views of one another and focus their attention on the universe surrounding us all. Collectively, we can achieve so much, and this is proof of that. People can work together in peace to great ends, and therein lies Hope.

If these scientists can do it, can’t we all strive to understand each other and see the value in the differences we all bring to the world?

How to Know Whether Therapy Will Help, From the Very First Session

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How do you know whether therapy will help?

By: Shira Galston, AMFT

 Obstacles abound for people considering starting therapy: lingering societal stigma surrounding mental health, high costs due to lack of insurance coverage or insane deductibles, the inherent difficulty of reaching out to a stranger for help when you’re in the midst of a crisis or just plain feeling too lousy to go outside, to name just a few. We, your therapists, are well aware of all this red tape, and as care-taking types we truly wish we could just make it all go away.  If only we had that superpower.

 Yes, there are still many constraints to accessing therapy. But there is some good news: fear of whether therapy will actually work doesn’t have to be one of them.

 Just as scientists use randomized controlled trials to study the natural world, the psychotherapy community has applied similar standards to the study of what we call “therapeutic efficacy”; in other words, whether therapy is successful. By this point in time, we’ve actually got a pretty good idea of what works best in therapy, based on scientific evidence.

 Of course, defining therapeutic success is a slippery concept to begin with. Is therapy more successful if you end up happier than when you started? Maybe. Or perhaps acceptance and meaning are higher goals? Clarity? A diagnosis? Motivation? Serenity? Medication? More sleep? And what about for a couple: is therapy only successful if the couple stays together? Or might a break-up be the most successful outcome at times? (The answer is yes, btw.)

 Due to the multiple possible goals a client might have in therapy, success cannot be defined by any one metric. But generally, a pre and post assessment of a client’s general well-being and belief that their goals have been achieved are a pretty good clue as to whether therapy was helpful to them.

 So, what leads to the most successful outcomes in therapy? What matters most? Is it the type of therapy? The style or personality of the therapist? The motivation of the client? The number or frequency of sessions?

Turns out, while each of these plays a small part in determining outcomes, none of them is the single most important factor in determining therapeutic efficacy.

The most important factor is actually something you can easily assess from day one of therapy: it’s the relationship between you and your therapist. We call this the “therapeutic alliance”, or “client-therapist fit” and it, too, is difficult to define, but you know it when you have it. A good alliance is a bond that feels safe, comfortable, and connected. It feels like a match of personalities, or conversation styles. It’s that feeling of whether you “click” with someone, or not. Therapists know that our relationship with the client is the most important factor in determining whether therapy will be effective, so most of us are quite focused on ensuring that you feel heard, seen, understood, respected, and all the rest that comes with any type of trusting and strong relationship. But even with all that in place, sometimes two people are just not in sync with one another, for indefinable reasons. We also can sense whether it’s not a good fit pretty early on, as can most clients, and we’re not offended if you choose to go with someone else based on not feeling that perfect fit with us. In fact, we applaud your self-awareness and self-caring willingness to advocate for finding the best possible chance at success.

So, on your very first day of therapy, pay attention to these questions most of all: do I feel a good fit with this therapist? Do I feel comfortable and safe enough to continue? Do I feel like we are in sync with one another, even though we just met? If the answer to any of these is no, then it’s important to bring this up with your therapist right away so they can either adjust or help you find a better fit.

But if the answer is yes, you can be pretty darn sure that therapy will help you. Which is pretty darn nice to know.

6 Ways to Validate Your Partner & Why This Skill is Essential to Your Relationship

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“I get you”: Why Validation Matters

Picture this scenario: it’s been a long day and everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. You missed the train in the morning. Then, the train that you did get on kept stopping. So, you were late for work. Then, you got yelled at by your manager because he/she was stressed and in a bad mood. You didn’t have a chance to eat lunch, and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. So, you got no work done and you have to do catch-up tonight. You have a headache and to top it off, someone was rude to you on the packed train ride home. When you get home, your partner is already there, relaxing on the couch. You tell him/her about your terrible day and how defeated you feel. Which response would you rather have from him/her?

 

A: (half-glancing at you and the TV) “Why do you let things get to you like this? Just chill out, tomorrow is a new day!”

 

Or

 

B: (Pausing the TV and turning toward you) “That sounds awful. I can’t believe your manager took his/her stress out on you. You’ve been working so hard! Let me know what you need tonight, you’ve had a really trying day.”

 

My guess is that option A doesn’t feel so good. In fact, it’s pretty invalidating. There is no recognition of your emotions, or what you have gone through during the day. And there is a judgmental “why do you let things get to you?”, which could leave you feeling like there’s something wrong with you that you’ve reacted this way!

 

Number two is validating, and makes us feel heard, understood and even cared for. Who doesn’t want some of that?! Validation is a powerful relational tool that can foster great connection. So, what is it?

 

Linehan (2015) notes that validation is 1) “finding the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective or situation” (p. 295) and 2) “communicat[ing] that we understand the other person’s perspective” (p. 295). Validation helps our interactions with other people, improves our effectiveness in interpersonal situations, and makes support and closeness possible (Linehan, 2015). We feel accepted when our partner validates our experience. This, in turn, creates safety. It turns out, being invalidated is a very painful thing for us humans; our brains are always scanning for threat and danger (Boeder, 2017). Steven Porges, a leading neuroscientist, presents” Polyvagal Theory” and how our autonomic nervous system searches for safety through our “social engagement system” (Porges in Boeder, 2017). When the brain senses safety (for example, when our partner validates us), our social engagement system can act; this fosters connection (Boeder, 2017). When there is a threat (like invalidation), this can not happen.  

 

So, validation is important on a neurological level. But how to do it? Linehan (2015, p. 298) presents six levels of validation:

1)    “Pay attention.” Actually be present. When we are distracted, we communicate through our body language that the other person’s experience is not that important to us.

2)    “Reflect back without judgment.” Communicate to the person that you have heard them.

3)    “Read Minds.” Try to read what is happening for the other person on a non-verbal level. What does their body language say? But, be gentle and open to correction by the other person.

4)    “Communicate understanding of causes.” How does this person’s response make sense given their background, experiences, history? If I was attacked by a dog as a child, it makes sense that I am currently afraid of dogs, even if you are not.

5)    “Acknowledge the valid.” This is communicating that someone’s experience makes sense because they fit with the facts of the situation. You wouldn’t validate feelings about an email that was made up!

6)    “Show equality.“ The other person deserves the same level of respect as you; being condescending or preachy doesn’t show equality.

 

Here is my validation to you: if you haven’t done this much before, or if you haven’t experienced much validation from people in your past, it makes sense that you may need some practice! But, if you try it, it can bring many rewards to your relationship. If you already validate regularly, keep on doing it! You can also practice self-validation to self-soothe.

 

References:

 

Boeder, E. (2017). Emotional safety is necessary for emotional connection. Retrieved from:

https://www.gottman.com/blog/emotional-safety-is-necessary-for-emotional-connection/

 

Linehan, M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Manual. New York: Guilford Press.

How to Know If You're Too Dependent on Your Partner...And What to Do About It

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How to Know If You're Too Dependent on Your Partner...And What to Do About It

Relational Dependency; How Much is Too Much?

The picture of a ‘healthy’ ideal relationship has changed significantly over time. As women gained more rights and freedoms, the typical submissive homemaker wife and dominant provider husband no longer fit (if they ever did). Much more often now, couples are opting for an equitable partnership and with that comes a new, relatively unexplored dynamic. Independence within relationships is highly prized, and the perceived codependency of past relationship dynamics get labeled unhealthy and old fashioned. The phrase “I don’t need you but I want you” has become a rallying cry for healthy independent relationships.

But why is it unhealthy to need your partner? Can there be healthy dependence within relationships? Are we really confined to one of the following extremes?

You’re independent and fulfilled on your own and definitely not dependent on anyone else for your own happiness (including your partner). Your well-being is fully your responsibility. You must have boundaries to make sure you don’t depend too much on your partner as that would show a flaw in you, in your ability to self-regulate.

You’re codependent and you and your partner depend on each other solely to be happy or fulfilled. You can’t be alone, you can only be soothed by your partner. Your ability to self-regulate is nonexistent as are your boundaries.

Many current models of therapy argue that dependency is normal and can be a healthy asset to individuals in a relationship. Attached (Levine & Heller, 2011) cites studies showing that when we attach to someone we become a physiological unit and our partner has an affect on our blood pressure, heart rate, levels of hormones and our breathing. Dependency does exist, and forms unconsciously when we enter into an intimate relationship. “Partners co-regulate each other emotionally and physiologically, for better or worse” (Fishbane, 2013, p. 37). In fact loneliness has been found to be detrimental to our health and evolutionarily acts as a signal to seek out attachments. We are wired to connect, and when we are disconnected we feel that pain on a deep level including in our bodies (Fishbane, 2013). Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy heavily values connection as a healing factor. Undoing unwanted aloneness in the face of overwhelming emotion is a consistent therapeutic goal. Core emotions are developed in the space between the self and the other. AEDP posits that sharing affect with another person and seeing it mirrored will deepen resonance and help to make healing associations. Sharing our intense emotions with another creates a holding space that helps us not feel overwhelmed or alone (Fosha, 2000). It helps us regulate and feel more connected to others and to our own internal emotional experiences.

So how does all of this affect how we exist in relationships?

“Attachment principles teach us that most people are only as needy as their unmet needs. When their emotional needs are met, and the earlier the better, they usually turn their attention outward. This is sometimes referred to in attachment literature as the “dependency paradox”: The more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and daring they become.” (Levine & Heller, 2011, p. 21). The keyword here is effective dependency, so what does that look like? We are dependent on and do co-regulate with our partners and have no conscious choice in that process. So where does our power lie in making relationships as healthy as possible?

We have to find a balance between self-regulation and looking for regulation from our partner. We need our partners to be attuned to us and support us, and we also need to be able to tolerate it when our partner isn’t capable of doing that for whatever reason. You have to fill in the occasional gaps that your partner leaves. That is your power, as the co-regulation is the relationships power. Easier said than done, right? There’s a discovery process individually. What are my specific triggers? How and when do I need soothing? How and when can I soothe myself and how and when can I get that support from my partner? People are complex and ever-changing and thus so are their relationships. Self and relational awareness are important skills in finding the right balance for yourself and your partner. The fact that you’ll be dependent on your partner in some way is a given, but your relationship to that fact and how you respond it is not. Therein lies our power.


References:

Fishbane, M. D. (2013). Loving with the brain in mind: Neurobiology and couple therapy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Fosha, D. (2000). The transforming power of affect: A model for accelerated change. New York, NY: BasicBooks.

Levine, A., & Heller, R. (2011). Attached: The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find--and keep--love. New York: TarcherPerigee.


Learn What “Ignites” Your Fiery Arguments With Your Partner...& How to End Them

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Learn What “Ignites” Your Fiery Arguments With Your Partner...& How to End Them

Consider a fire; it requires an ignitor, fuel, and oxygen to keep it going. Smoke fills a room and causes irritation, anxiety, coughing, partial blindness and lightheadedness. Remove the oxygen, and the fire dies.

A repeated argument in a long-term relationship requires similar ingredients.  Fuel: The triggers from childhood. Ignition: a statement or action that activates the fuel. Oxygen: a partner’s defensiveness, or willingness to engage in escalation. Smoke: emotional reactivity.

Once the “smoke” of emotional reactivity is activated it fills the room, making it hard to see clearly and causing an increase in panic and pain. Events and emotions are happening at the same time, and both are real. The person who is experiencing more emotional reactivity sees the events through more smoke, so the events are not as crystal clear as they are for the person experiencing less reactivity. They may be trying to yell “fire!” based on something from their past rather than what is happening right now.  Or, what is happening right now may feel like it could lead to serious burns, maybe even death, because of past experiences.

How can we manage the smoke and fire? Remove the oxygen: slow it all down.

Take a break when you start to feel the smoke coming into the room. Get a drink of water. Take a minute. Let your partner know that you’re going to slow down because you’re feeling the temperature rise inside yourself. You’ll be able to see much more clearly once the smoke of emotional reactivity clears.

Here’s a good video from Ze Frank. He sums up the best of relationship fighting advice in around 5 minutes. He’s funny too!

Solace Emptying

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Solace Emptying

The piercing light awakening the body evokes a sense of solace. Rolling over to view the time, however, brings a sense of panic and leaves you in a perplexed state. Questions of whether sleep took place last night are ceased by reminders of present day demands. The body fights to be pulled, stretched, and called to action, putting one foot in front of the other. As the body blindly moves along a memorized path, the pelvis gently bumps into the sink to signal arrival. Wiping yesterday’s face from existence reveals today’s reflection. The figure peering back in the mirror appears disjointed and preoccupied. 

 

So now what? You ask.

 

There have been constant discussions of glasses half-empty, half-full, or even in transition. There have been dialogues that led to existential crises and questions of why such glasses and their contents exist at all.

 

But here you are. Here we are.

 

You have poured all of yourself into helping others and the glass is left empty. Leaning on others as support has not been your consolation, nor is it an option in reserve. You turn here and I have no more support to offer.

 

Emotions and thoughts begin to spiral into a dizzying, blinding, disorienting presentation. You’re somewhere between well-rested and exhausted. Cravings and appetite have ceased. The body, however, doesn’t visually reflect this state of flux.

 

You reach for descriptive words, but come up blank. The question, how are you today?, becomes a tempting place to insert soliloquies built up over months leading to this interrogation. Questions that don’t pertain to self remain incomprehensible. The emptiness reflects an absence of comfort and support.

 

It is not a feeling that can easily be escaped, but energy is not in abundance. Fleeing is not attempted. Sulking in the present builds feeling and the mind begins to worry. The heart begins to quiver and yearn for sensation—for warmth.

 

As you continue to ride the wave of self-doubt, inspiration and perseverance come into question. Looking in the mirror, you ask yourself: So what now?

 

-       Matthew Bell

Silent Night: Grieving During the Holidays

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Silent Night: Grieving During the Holidays

There is so much of life’s experience wrapped up in the acts of living, loving, and losing the ones you love. This is no more poignant than during the holiday season. For many of us, it is a time of community, a time of reflecting on the gifts we have been given, and a time of remembering and making memories whether you are learning grandma’s poundcake recipe for the third time or organizing the “Friendsgiving” for some old classmates in the city. For those of us who have lost loved ones, what are often the usual feelings surrounding the holidays – joy, gratitude, hopefulness –are replaced by even bigger feelings of dread, depression, and longing.

It is an understatement to say that the loss of a loved one is experienced over a lifetime. The little things that you didn’t know you quite remembered can come cascading towards your senses at any time; the scent of peppermints and lemons in a scarf, that old song you two used to sing together comes on Pandora, their favorite cooking show as you click past the Food Channel, or a commercial for their beloved football team’s rivalry game. Those memories can take your breath away and evoke all the responses in your body that make your mind think that you’re losing them right then all over again. This is what grief is like – a constant remembering and a thin line between a warm smile and screaming about the meta/maybe physical hole you feel in your chest at the thought of their absence. Add the rituals and traditions ushered in by the holiday season, and the shadows of times past can feel immense and almost unbearable.

Unfortunately, there are not many ways past it but to go through it, to feel it, and to honor it. I read somewhere that grief is the price we pay for loving, so it makes sense that it would feel like a mountain to brave the seasons when we loved the most. While nothing will be able to stop time or take away the pain of missing our mothers, fathers, grandmas, loved ones, and friends, you’ll find some extra love below to spread to yourself or to someone around you who has found themselves at this particular stop on their journey through grief.

Step into Your Feelings

Give yourself the permission to feel all of your biggest feelings. Acknowledge all the sadness, anger, regret, or even ambivalence you may have. Lean into the feelings, the memories that arise. Allow yourself to think about your last times together and even the end, too. Grief is also about mourning the loss of the life you lived with that person and the life that will never be lived. Your whole narrative around the loss is yours and no one else’s, and it is important. Give it some room during the holidays. If you start crying as you are kneading the dough or frying the turkey, it is okay (just make sure you step away from all ovens and fryers and get your cry on). Contrary to popular belief, you cannot cry yourself to death, so take what you need. You may not be as expressive and would rather perform you and your lost loved ones’ favorite holiday ritual: watch the 24-hour marathon of It’s a Wonderful Life. Do that, too. Exhale, and carve out some time to really feel your longing because they deserve it, and so do you.

 

 

Find a Way(s) to Honor your Loved One

The last Thanksgiving I spent with my mother, she, my siblings, and I rode around for two and half hours looking for fresh seafood to put in the last pot of gumbo my mommy would ever make me. So, rest assured, mastering her gumbo and having it for the holidays was one of the most important missions that I had. You will find your own missions. It is true that the holidays will be different. It is true that things may be off. The table may look and sound and smell differently, but you have the opportunity to create new traditions and new rituals that celebrate your loved one and your memories together. Sit the youngest grandchild in their chair as a way to ease the space and celebrate the newness of life in the family line by way of the legacy of your loved one. Maybe cooking the dinner this year is too taxing for you because of everything that has happened. Help your family plan a brunch, and tell everyone to bring an item. Try being flexible at letting some new experiences in so that you can actively mourn for the life lost and welcome in the life yet lived.

Make Sure There’s Extra Love Around

Because of the nature of the holidays, there are typically an influx of people bubbling about and making plans. Your inclination may be to withdraw and try to sleep from November 1st to January 2nd. However, consider that your loved one had other folks who loved them and that maybe you all could need each other most right now. Be open to leaning on and vocalizing your thoughts and feelings to your other friends or family members that were also in relationship with your loved one. Using your tribe allows others to share in the new life of remembering and finding creative ways to ease the pain. Few people will understand what you are going through unless they have been through it, but it does not stop them from wanting to love on you share this time together in whatever way you may need.

The holidays can be a special time for us all and for so many different reasons. If you are missing the ones you have lost this holiday season, keep remembering them. Let your memories light your laughter, and their love, wipe your tears.  It is okay if your grief is coming home for the holidays, too.

Therapist Spotlight: Matthew Bell

CCRC 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 Matthew Bell, MFT.


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

I primarily utilize a mixture of Solution-Focused and Narrative therapy. My style, however, has continued to grow and develop over time as I have continued to be curious and open to unique individuals and stories I have had the pleasure to experience.

2. Why did you decide to become a therapist?

As the youngest of a twelve-child family, I have always been an observant person. I have always wondered how my impact could be perceived or furthered through my work and commitment to societal growth. I believe that individuals willing to value change on a small scale can lead to systemic empowerment.

3. If you were not a therapist, what would be your occupation? 

If I was not a therapist, I would be furthering my commitment to and involvement with sports. I played college football and have continued to either coach or train individuals with the goal in mind of furthering their abilities in the sport.

Matthew currently sees clients at our Northside & South Loop locations.  He can be reached by phone at  312-523-9567, and by email at mwarrenbell@gmail.com.

Here’s What You Need to Know About Fortnite

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Here’s What You Need to Know About Fortnite

Do you live with a 7-18 year old? If so, I’m guessing you’re aware of a videogame called Fortnite. It’s gained a lot of popularity over the last couple of years and is probably the most popular game of all time at this point. It’s whimsical and violent at the same time. There are a variety of dances that the characters can do and this is likely what you’ve noticed your kid, or kids, doing at the playground.

It’s cute. It’s charming. It’s violent. It’s rated “T for Teen” with reference to violence as the main reason. When I first saw a trailer for it, I was alarmed by the way the characters fell to the ground when they’re killed. It’s fairly real. It’s not very cartoon-like. There isn’t an explosion of blood, but they do flop lifelessly to the ground after being shot.

How do you feel about that level of violence for your kid? It’s worth talking about.

Fortnite is a popular game to watch on Twitch. Twitch.TV is a site for watching a variety of content, mostly game related. It’s amazing in many ways. You can watch gamers like Ninja play Fortnite in real-time and chat with him while he does it. You can also pay some money and get him to say something for you while he’s playing. Guess what, he’s made $500,000.00 a month doing this.

There is an interesting On The Media Podcast about this growing phenomenon. One story follows a guy who has placed the fate of his life in the hands of the chatroom participants who are paying for his survival. He does what people say for money, including asking women to go out with him.

The bigger point is, essentially, all of this is here to stay.

We’re in a new period of history where technology has moved us to experience reality differently. We have to be discussing this with each other. We have to be discussing this with our kids. I don’t think it’s as simple as monitoring your kid’s screen time and setting limits on it. I think it’s more than that. This is a new form of entertainment that is interactive and loaded with ups and downs. I’m new to it myself, but I think the way to go is to look at it with our kids and help them navigate it in a healthy manner rather than shut it down and presume that those rigid limits will secure their safety. It reminds me of what it was like when we first brought Atari into our homes. It reminds me of the darkness of the local arcade and the slight twinge of danger that wafted through the air in that dingy space. It was scary and exciting. It also brings to mind the days when television was first coming into the home, moving the radio aside – another major shift in our consumption of media. We need to be aware of this new change and address it head-on rather than avoid it or dismiss it. Take a look and talk it over with the adults and kids in your life, and – much like a Fortnite gamer would do – make sure to keep those lines of communication open.

Therapist Spotlight: Taylor Pettway, AMFT

CCRC 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 Taylor Pettway, AMFT.


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1. Tell us a bit about yourself!

My name is Taylor Pettway, born and raised in the South, specifically in Alabama and Georgia. I hold my Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Creative Writing from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia and my Masters of Science in Marriage and Family Therapy from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Additionally, I am a fellow with the New Writers’ Fellowship with Family Process, a creative writer, and provide case management and therapeutic services to foster and adoptive families as an IPS/MAC Clinician with Jewish Child and Family Services here in Chicago,

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

Specifically, my areas of clinical focus include relational conflict, parenting and family sculpting with blended and single-parent families, men and women’s issues, intergenerational trauma, attachment, self-development, development, systemic racism and oppression, and mindfulness body practices. My current research is focused on the impact of intergenerational trauma in African American communities and culturally-nuanced healing through Integrative Systemic Therapy (IST). I am working towards my licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist here in Illinois and am certified by the Alabama Department of Education in Secondary English Language Arts Education, grades six through 12.

3. Where do you see yourself professionally over time? Do you have any particular goals as a therapist?

Professionally, it is my goal to place a mental health clinician in every existing community center in the Southeast region of the United States. I would like to provide holistic healing, such as mental and nutritional health, to disadvantaged communities and specifically communities of color. Currently, I am developing my skills as a community consultant and exploring communal healing within the Chicagoland area and Chicago Park Districts.

4. How do you think change happens?

The change that we all seek lies within our stories being validated and understood. Once we feel witnessed to and connected, it is easier to accept collaboration with others to improve our individual conditions and realities.

5. Do you have any favorite books or movies or music? Why those in particular?

I strive to be a lifelong learner and reader, two of my favorite books are Songs of Solomon by Toni Morrison and If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson. Because Toni Morrison is a Black woman literary titan, Songs of Solomon continues her legacy of elegantly displaying the immense complexity of the Black woman and man experience. Also, though If You Come Softly is a young teen novel, Woodson intricately explores the intersections of race and love that provide necessary pieces of the blueprint for existing with our differences in today’s world.

Taylor currently sees clients at our South Loop and Northside locations.  

She can be reached by phone at 312-375-9664, and by email at TaylorPMFT@gmail.com.

 

 

Can't Agree? Try This.

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Can't Agree? Try This.

Over a short period of time couples can discover whether they share similar values, experiences, and overall hopes for the future.  Issues such as religion, fiscal and political leanings, and social preferences become known factors to both partners through dating and spending time with each other.  Couples will have a sense of general compatibility and an awareness of many of the larger issues and differences they will need to navigate through in their relationship early on. 

But even when couples agree on the major issues, conflicts and disagreements will still arise about smaller details.  These smaller details are not always obvious until a couple is confronted with joint decisions and life circumstances.  Both partners may identify as liberal activists yet have significant arguments over the best methods for enacting change.   A gregarious couple may hold resentments over which set of friends gets the most face time.  Which mosque to attend, what diet to choose, how to prioritize money, and what consequences and discipline to set for children - all of these decisions depend on detailed beliefs and require discussing individual priorities within larger categories. 

Using a Value Card Sort, such as the one created by W.R. Miller, J. C’de Baca, and D.B. Matthews, P.L., (https://casaa.unm.edu/inst/Personal%20Values%20Card%20Sort.pdf)  can help clarify individual preferences and priorities of these types of issues.  Here’s how it works: each partner sorts and ranks a number of values - some already printed and others can be added - then compares the most essential points.  Partners may have very similar essential values, but in a different order of priority.  Understanding these similarities and differences can help couples plan activities and provides a context for arguments that seem trivial or circular.  When partners want to have a “good” vacation, for example, it can be confusing when it gets so tough to make that happen.  Having a better understanding of goals and expectations for the trip, based on individual values at the time, can help illuminate differences in perspective and help with compromise. 

Try this exercise out with your partner!

Is Independence Ruining Your Relationship? Perhaps.

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Is Independence Ruining Your Relationship? Perhaps. 

We tend to celebrate independence; countries are proud of it, teenagers crave it, adults believe it implies maturity and success. Within relationships, many now assume the general independence of both partners to be a prerequisite for happiness and stability as a couple. Independence in today’s world means strength, bravery, grit, ability, ambition, modernity, liberalism, and happiness. And as for its darker twin, dependence? What does that bring to mind in society today? Shameful. Weak. Childish. Immature. Antiquated. Worthless.

Yikes. Heaven forbid anyone should actually desire dependence. Good luck with that.

So, we’ve established one thing for sure: Independence = Good; Dependence = Bad.

But what if that’s not necessarily the case? And what does all of this have to do with your relationship?

As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I have worked with many couples, families, and individuals on exploring and questioning these very issues and assumptions. Is there such a thing as too much independence? How much dependency might actually be OK? Where is the line between healthy and unhealthy independence? What ratios of in- vs. de- pendence are the most successful within families and romantic relationships? The answers – or at least the evidence I’ve gathered from my clients thus far - may surprise you.

Guess what? Completely independent partners generally don’t make the happiest couples. Sure, it’s good to have your own interests and friends. It’s good to feel stable on your own two feet. It’s healthy to know you can rely on yourself when you need to. But exalting total independence from your significant other also brings a set of troubles, such as emotional distance, lack of vulnerability, miscommunication, conflict, and more. It’s actually a good thing to develop a bit of interdependence; to exist as a “we” rather than as a “me and you”. To pursue shared interests, to build shared social networks and friends, to rely on one another for support and comfort. “Rely.” There’s a fairly neutral-to-positive word that could just as easily be replaced with depend, but without any of the baggage. It’s OK to rely on your partner. It’s good to rely on your partner. It’s not weak, childish, or antiquated to desire a partner to rely on – to depend on. It’s a sign of strength when you are willing to get vulnerable and authentic with someone, when you are able to depend on them for emotional connection and love.  In a sense, dependence on others is part of what makes us human, and part of what allows us to survive collectively and individually. Not so bad, after all.  

Sometimes it feels as if the pressure to be independent is overwhelming. As if our dependence on others signifies failure. As if independence were the ultimate emblem of success and achievement. This assumption goes hand in hand with our general hyper-focus on the individual as opposed to the community in Western society today, along with the hyper-focus on individual rights, as opposed to communal obligations. Think about it. If my individual rights are priority number one, as opposed to my communal responsibilities, then of course I need to be fully independent of everyone else around me. I need to be ME, free from influence and suggestion, free from expectations and rules, free from it all. I need to fight for my rights first, and then, only then, can I focus on those around me. But we all know this sounds ethically...off. There’s so much more to say on this topic. Maybe in another post. But for now, I digress. Back to interdependence.

Family therapists have long dealt with the importance of interdependence, which I’ll define as the comfortable state between dependence and independence, in which partners and family members are able to depend on one another and connect with one another, while still maintaining their own sense of selfhood and individuality. The fancy therapist term for this is “differentiation”. Psychpage.com gives a great definition:

Differentiation is the process of freeing yourself from your family's processes to define yourself. This means being able to have different opinions and values than your family members but being able to stay emotionally connected to them. It means being able to calmly reflect on a conflicted interaction afterward, realizing your own role in it, and then choosing a different response for the future.”

The main hallmark of Differentiation is actually more focused on connectedness than on independence. The more one is able to stay connected to family without becoming emotionally reactive or irrational, the more differentiated one is. And that’s a good thing. Not separation, not independence, certainly not cut-off. But rather, healthy connection. Interdependence. And even the willingness – the vulnerability - to depend on others, when necessary. That's maturity. 

The Cliff’s Notes version of this post is that independence is not necessarily good for relationships. Interdependence, or Differentiation, is what healthy couples and families need to strive for. Know thyself, but be open to connecting with others. Rely on those closest to you for comfort and love, but have the ability to self-soothe and calm down during conflict. 

This Independence Day, aim to be a more balanced human being; not an independent one.  

Pre-Hotline Suicide Prevention

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Pre-Hotline Suicide Prevention

With the recent tragic deaths by suicide of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, the topic of suicide has been trending on social media. This is both good and bad, because talking about suicide in a direct, open way can open doors for people contemplating it to seek help, but it is also true that a suicide can trigger clusters of other suicide attempts. I have seen many posts on social media recently in which brave, compassionate people are sharing their own struggles with mental illness and thoughts of taking their own lives. This is refreshing to see, and forges connections between people in a way that the commonly portrayed “highlight reel” of people’s lives does not. This is a start to the many things we can do to address one of the leading causes of death in the US, which is suicide.

I started my career in psychology conducting research for renowned suicide researcher and psychology professor Dr. Thomas Joiner at Florida State University. I completed an Honors thesis about suicide in people with anorexia because I was struck by the fact that this population has the highest rate of completed suicides of any mental illness and I wanted to know why. Dr. Joiner has written several books, including Why People Die By Suicide, about the components of this cause of death, which are 1) perceived burdensomeness- thinking others are better off without you, 2) thwarted belonging- feeling like you don’t fit in or have support from others, and 3) acquired capability- having experienced physically or psychologically taxing experiences that make you more likely to be able to go through with a suicide attempt.

During this time, I also worked for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and learned techniques such as exploring the side of a person that wanted to die and the side of them that wanted to live. I also learned the basis of the counseling skills that I use today- reflective listening, empathy, and validation; skills which show that you can truly hear and understand a person’s pain, express that they are not crazy for having those feelings, and that they are not alone. I also learned that those who call a hotline are usually not those that are truly in danger of dying by suicide- it’s the people who never reach out. Suicide is often an impulsive act that is carried out when a person is at the depths of their negative feelings about themselves and about life, and they have the means to kill themselves readily available.

I believe that suicide prevention starts before the Lifeline phone conversation, the 911 call, or a stay at the psychiatric hospital. It starts with seeing someone alone and reaching out to them, telling people how much they matter to you, listening to people without thinking about yourself or what you’re about to say, and asking someone you’re concerned about in a direct way if they have ever thought about taking their life. It also starts with recognizing that depression is a presence that isn’t who you are, but rather a state of being that distorts reality by telling you that you have no one, you are worthless, and life is too much trouble. Prevention starts with confronting the depression by seeking support from family, friends, a support group or a therapist.

I have been listening to Kevin Hart’s book, I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons, about his difficult childhood and path to success, and came across this quote that feels relevant to anyone who feels hopeless, worthless, and bogged down by life’s tragedies. “Life is a story. It’s full of chapters. And the beauty of life is that not only do you get to choose how you interpret each chapter, but your interpretation writes the next chapter. It determines whether it’s comedy or tragedy, fairy tale or horror story, rags-to-riches or riches-to-rags. You can’t control the events that happen to you, but you can control your interpretation of them. So why not choose the story that serves your life the best?” It sounds delusional in a way, but that is the power of the human mind to create its own reality.

It also helps to have a purpose, a reason for living this life. Even people who have been through the worst hardships can turn that suffering into purpose, like Garrett Greer, who broke his neck in an accident and became paralyzed, then used his injury as motivation to become a professional poker player and create a platform to inspire other quadriplegics. The creator of a life-changing therapeutic technique called DBT, Marsha Linehan, used her own suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder to help others with similar problems. Singer Demi Lovato had a severe eating disorder and now uses her music and social media to spread body positive messages. Your purpose doesn’t have to be grand or overly ambitious; it can be as simple as helping just one person, finding what you’re good at and giving that talent away, or seeking happiness in your daily life.

Free Falling: Working with survivors of trauma

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Free Falling: Working with survivors of trauma

I've had the privilege of working with several of my clients and their families for nearly a year, and we have recently been on the cusp of starting a new phase together. These clients that come to mind have had to endure and survive years of traumatic experiences and losses in a multitude of ways. Working with both clients and their families, the healing process is both for the client and for their parents and siblings who have endured the same traumatic events, or who are deeply impacted by seeing their child or sibling suffer.

I have used the analogy of standing at the edge of a cliff, and gazing down at this seemingly insurmountable abyss of suffering,  memories, and emotions that have been stifled. The tension in the room is always felt as we approached these cliffs, and I've been told by clients that they've never taken anyone else this close to the edge of this cliff before. I feel a great amount of privilege as a therapist to be able to witness this, and I understand the profound task ahead for all of us in the room. As a close friend would say, "that is sacred ground," and that is the point from which healing can really start to begin.

While trauma does not define individuals, it does influence their outlook on life and their identities. The healing process is never simple or easy, and the journey through that abyss inevitably brings up distorted emotions and memories. My clients and I have referred to this process as “taking a dive off the cliff”; and yet, we've also realized that it doesn’t have to be a terrifying plunge, but rather a gentle free fall.

As the individual and family experience this process, they have many moments of doubt, and often feel a desire to turn back and continue locking these parts of themselves away. I recognize that this process can be excruciating, and emotions will arise that no one in the room - including the therapist - has encountered before. Still, the potential for the dual outcome that one can transcend this pain, and also learn to accept and show care for every part of themselves, seems to be what makes the dive off that cliff worthwhile.

Relationship Poker: The benefits of probabilistic thinking

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Relationship Poker: The benefits of probabilistic thinking

Are you working on understanding your partner’s needs? Are you trying to be more attuned and connected with your partner? It may be helpful to think more about what will probably help rather than the exact right or wrong step to take.

Let me give an example. Your partner has asked you to be more emotionally present and connected when she’s expressing anger and sadness about her family. She wants you to connect to her and support her when she’s in this vulnerable state. But, she also doesn’t want to feel like she’s spoon-feeding you. She wants to feel like you are close enough to her to be able to anticipate what she needs “naturally”.

You’ve tried some different strategies in these moments. You want to meet her needs. You want her to feel connected to you and feel your closeness when she’s upset. But, you’ve also made mistakes in the past. You’ve offered problem solving advice, rather than just validating. You’ve tried to hug her when she wasn’t available for that, and been rejected.  You’ve been preoccupied with your own problems and not been available at all. You’ve tried to tell her it will be ok, and invalidated her feelings. You’ve made a joke, and flopped. You’ve tried to use reflective listening, and come off as robotic or too intellectual.

Now, based on all your trial and error, you’re feeling like there is a right choice and a wrong choice. You can succeed or fail. And the result will determine if the strategy you used was right or wrong.

In her new book, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, Annie Duke, psychologist, author, and poker champion, would call this “resulting,” and it’s a problem. “Resulting” is a natural tendency to use outcome success as our only measure of effective decision making. For our example it would go something like this: “I hugged her quietly and she felt soothed so hugging was the right decision.”   

Duke proposes a more open model for decision making based on her years as a poker player. Poker is a game of skill and chance, or luck. It requires an understanding of probability and an acceptance of luck. And, it is a game that is played swiftly. Each hand takes about two minutes to conclude. There is a norm around this, and in competitive play players can “call the clock” if a player is deliberating too long. This allows the slow player 70 seconds to make up her mind.

 We want to have control in our lives. We want a sense of sureness about the choices we make in any area of our life. We want to deliver on our partner’s needs, so we often seek the right answer when faced with a decision about how to respond. Duke explains that this gives us only two options- success or failure. And it may lead you to do nothing, which probably will equal a bad outcome.

She suggests thinking in a more probabilistic way. What are the odds that a hug will help right now? What are the odds that problem-solving will help right now? Or a joke? You don’t have all the information from your partner. You don’t know if she’s not in the mood for a hug, or if she wants reassurance rather than validation. (You can probably eliminate ignoring her or harshly judging her feelings as inappropriate.) She may not want you to ask her what she needs in a direct way, or maybe she does want that.

Sometimes luck may play a huge part in what feels supportive. Maybe a joke pops into your head that you can deliver with some amazing timing that will really shift the mood and feel supportive. But that kind of joke may only come around once every six months. Or maybe, by chance, you’ve just had a conversation with her brother and you can offer some insights he’s shared with you that will feel caring. We can’t control everything. Chance and luck are an undeniable part of life.

I think you should try to look at your options, knowing this won’t be your last opportunity to be a good partner, and quickly consider the probability of each path. Transparency during this process may be helpful: “Part of me wants to give you a hug and part of me wants to go get you a cup of tea. Would you like a hug?” This shows that you’ve got ideas. You’re not a robot.  You are trying to anticipate her needs and make respectful space for her to own her needs. It opens up space for a discussion rather than a situation where failure is likely.

If you agree that this is a worthwhile way to support each other then you may start to feel more options open up and maybe some become stronger preferences. There can be space for shifting from one strategy to another if the first doesn’t feel right, or even a proposal for a third strategy that would really hit the mark. Your partner may respond, “ I don’t want a hug, I want you to just tell me I’m going to be ok.”  And the effort and transparency may provide the emotional cushion that allows this negotiation to feel supportive.

When it comes to support, we rarely want or need the same response for every situation. And, good supportive responses may be ineffective depending on other factors. If you are sick with the flu you may not want a hug. Consider your options and weigh the probability of their success (quickly!) and make your choice. There are many ways to provide support. Don’t let your fear of failure keep you from trying. Place your bet, hopefully luck will be on your side!

 

Photo by Piotr Łohunko, https://www.pexels.com/photo/cards-poker-cards-poker-back-21827/

Infidelity in Couples Therapy: Will We Get Over This?

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Infidelity in Couples Therapy: Will We Get Over This?

Partners can be unfaithful for many reasons. In the recovery process, those reasons will be uncovered and processed to make sure the past will not repeat itself. But that comes later. The first and most important decision is whether both partners want to move forward and are willing to work on the relationship. Infidelity work is tough for both partners, hurt and unfaithful. It’s intense and evocative of potentially overwhelming emotions. As a therapist, my goal is always to guide couples through this process using a structure and framework to provide safety.

So you’ve been unfaithful or your partner has been unfaithful. You’ve decided to try and move forward with your relationship. Couples often come in to therapy asking; is it even possible to get over this? Will this always be hanging over us?

The couples I’ve seen who have done this work successfully view it as an opportunity to overhaul their relationship. When you’ve been through something as traumatic as infidelity and decided that you still want to continue your relationship, a huge space opens for transformation. One that you and your partner co-create and one that is fulfilling for both of you. I’ve had couples who describe feeling a sense of relief in the aftermath; after all, the worst had happened and there was nowhere to go but up.

Couples do get through this, but not over it. Not in a negative sense; they work very hard and are very honest with themselves and their partners. They recommit to their relationship and to making it the best it can be. They lower their defenses and learn to communicate in a way that ensures they’ll be heard. They remember where they’ve been and what they’ve learned so they don’t make the same mistakes again. They do it all so they can have the relationship they need moving forward. It’s about moving through and embracing the lessons to be learned.