Life Happens

No major post today, because I find myself feeling rather ill.  But the knot in my stomach does remind me that not all aspects of life are really under our control.  There are things that are going to happen whether we want them to or not, and there’s no point in focusing on how much they inconvenience us.  We can, however, work on what we can do about it.  We aren’t always responsible for the things that happen to us, but we are on the hook for what we do about it.  (I’m struggling to remember who said this.  If you know the source, post it in the comments!)

So there’s something to chew on.  When have you experienced life happening beyond your control?  And what did you do about it?

3 Selfish Things to Do For Your Partner

There is a lot of talk in the world about how true love is ultimately selfless; and it is.  In fact the title of this post was meant to be a bit shocking to get you to read it (The video could be considered offensive, but I find it hilarious), so I’m sorry for that.  It may be a somewhat cynical view, but at the end of the day none of us goes into a relationship solely because someone else needs us; we enter relationships to meet our own needs for love, companionship, and intimacy.  Healthy relationships work because both partners strive to find the balance between making their own needs known while meeting their partners needs.

So if we only go into relationships to meet our own needs, what is the point of doing all of that flowery “submission” and “serving one another” stuff?  Well, it tells our partners that we are worth their investment because we are going to help them meet their needs; which in turn encourages them to help us meet ours.  To that end, here are 3 “selfish” things you can do today to improve your relationship.

1. Ask Them About Their Day (So You Can Tell Them About Yours)

There’s something very cathartic about telling someone about the day.  Even if nothing particularly notable happened, it’s still nice to tell someone that you woke up in a bad mood, but when you got to work there were donuts in the break room.  Sometimes we tell people our stuff without them even asking for it.  As anyone who has been approached by a stranger with no concept of personal space will tell you, this isn’t always welcome.  But it’s different when you’re in a relationship, right?  “Of course my partner wants to know how my day was!  That’s why we’re together!” I hear you saying.

You’re right, they do want to hear about your day (one would hope), but they might also want to tell you about theirs.  They may even be so eager to tell you about their day that they forget to ask about yours.  In order to avoid this, ask about their day.  Doing this does several things for you.  First, it tells your partner that you are genuinely interested in the ins and outs of their day; which is very relationship affirming.  Second, it opens up the conversation to more depth, because they know that you want to know.  (Bonus points for asking questions to learn more about their world!)  And lastly (and this is where the selfish gains come in), it cues them to ask you about your day.  People tend to mirror each other, so by asking about your partner’s day you are subtly telling them that you want to share your experience with them as well.

2. Listen To Their Feelings (So They Will Listen To Yours)

One of fundamental emotional needs we as humans experience is the need to feel heard and understood.  It can be intensely frustrating when we feel unheard or misunderstood by the person we most trust.  This frustration plants seeds of resentment that can grow to the point that it breaks your relationship.  Generally speaking, this is something that most of us want to avoid.

So what’s the answer?  Simple: the Golden Rule.  Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  If we want our partners to listen and hear us, the best way is to listen and hear them.  This is where having a good emotional vocabulary is really useful.  If your partner is complaining, do your best to pull out what they are feeling and connect with it.

It can be really tempting to fall into the trap of just saying something, or even trying to “fix” the issue, but statements like “I would be really frustrated if that happened to me” and “I can see how that hurt you” will go much farther than “Well that sucks.”  This is because what we all really need is empathy, which is so much more than just acknowledging that something was unpleasant.  It takes effort to really connect with the emotions of another person, and by showing our partners that we can empathize with them we show them that we are worth the effort of their empathy.

3. Say Something Nice (So They Will Be Nice)

There are some truths that could be considered “universal” in this world.  Dads make dad jokes.  Kids think farts are funny.  And moms everywhere tell their children “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.”  Wise words, to be sure.  As a general rule, people don’t like to be feel torn down.  This is especially true when it comes to the person with whom they are in a committed relationship.  Harsh words, criticism, and defensiveness are much easier than softness, caring, and vulnerability; but they are also destructive.

Most of us have, at some point in our lives, felt hurt because of something that someone we love has said to us.  If feeling misunderstood breaks our relationship from the inside like a root, criticism, contempt, and defensiveness (3 of Gottman’s Four Horsemen that I mentioned last week) take a jackhammer to it.  So naturally we want to avoid this.  The best way to prevent our partners from cutting us down is creating an environment of support.

In other words: How we talk to our partners is going to influence how they talk to us.  If we want to be loved and supported, the best way to get there is to be loving and supportive.

Selfish Selflessness (And Selfless Selfishness)

We live in an age where love is so over-romanticized that when the illusion that “married life is perfect” gets broken, the whole relationship tends to go with it.  With that in mind, it’s important to remember that the best relationships can bring joy, happiness, and fulfillment; but only if we put in the work to bring those things into our partners lives.

What are some “selfish” things that you do in your relationship?  Leave a comment with a story about some of the things you do for your partner that come back to reward you!  And as always: Like and share this post if you enjoyed reading it, and follow my blog if you want to get updated when I post new stuff!

Being Good Enough

I have a Master’s degree in Counseling, and have been working in the mental health field for 6 years.  Before that, I got my Bachelor’s in Psychology; so really, I’ve been a student of the mind for 10!  Yet, I have a great talent for acknowledging my lack of expertise.  I, like so many others suffer from one of the great plagues of the high achieving: Impostor Syndrome.

First described back in the 70’s by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD; Impostor Syndrome (or Impostor Phenomenon as they also call it) is a reflexive self-talk pattern that undermines a persons belief in themselves, especially related to something for which they have been trained.

What Gives Me the Right?

In the above linked article, the author identifies a PhD student who, after years of study, began leading therapy groups at a psychiatric hospital.  The student expressed a sentiment that I am very familiar with: Feeling not only like “being thrown into the deep end,” but also “forgetting how to swim.”  With Impostor Syndrome, it is very easy to discount what we know, and focus instead on what we don’t.

I’m not really sure if Impostor Syndrome can really “go away,” but awareness of it can be a great asset.  If I know that I struggle with being seen as an expert, then I can find a shortcut to reminding myself that anyone who has studied something for 10 years is an expert.

Stopping at Good Enough

Impostor Syndrome creates a vacuum of perfectionism that can ultimately leave us paralyzed.  For example, I recently started teaching myself how to draw.  I am by no means perfect, and as I look back at my older work I can see how much I have improved.  That improvement came because I allowed myself to stop working on a drawing when it was “good enough,” because I knew it wasn’t perfect.  In counseling, however, I pour over books and videos; I soak up as much information as I can so that I can be the “best” counselor, rather than one that is “good enough.”

The kicker is this: if I settle for nothing less than “perfection,” I will never be “good enough.”  There is no such thing as perfection, so I am going to have to settle for “good enough.”

Has there been a time in your life that you have struggle with feeling like a fraud or an impostor?  What helps you navigate the feeling?  Leave a comment and we can discuss this further!  If you enjoyed this post, give it a like and a share!

The Subtle Song of Conflict

Conflict: every relationship experiences it.  It’s what happens when two people can’t come to an agreement about an issue.  It’s not something that many couples look forward to, but it provides the most potent opportunity to grow our relationships.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am a big fan of John Gottman, marriage expert extraordinaire.  In his research, Dr. Gottman developed the capability to predict divorce with a nearly 94% accuracy based on observing the ways that couples communicate; and he then broke it down into several powerful statistics which then paved the way for a full-fledged methodology for approaching couple counseling that focuses on identifying and adjusting the behaviors that are most likely to lead to divorce.

This post is not just a plug for how awesome the Gottman institute is.  They are, of course; but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.  I brought up the statistics and behaviors that are used as cues to predict divorce because I want to talk about the main arena for them to show up: conflict.

The Behaviors

In the research summary linked above it is indicated that the main predictor of satisfaction is the ratio of positive to negative statements.  In a happy, healthy, and ultimately successful relationship this ratio is around 5:1.  While in unhealthy relationships, it hovers around 0.8:1.  So take a look at how you and bae talk to one another.  If you’re really into numbers, keep track of the ratio (it’s okay if you don’t want to…I wouldn’t blame you).  If you can say 5 nice things for every one not-so-nice thing, you’re doing pretty good.

Of course, if it were simply a question of ratios it would be a really easy fix; but humans are not swallows, and relationships are not coconuts.  You can’t just adjust the ratio and expect it to be an easy carry.  Some things are more damaging than others, and there are four coconuts that will throw the ratio off balance to an even more extreme degree.  I’ve mentioned them before, but they are Gottman’s Four Horsemen: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling.

Basically, the Four Horsemen are the four behaviors that are most caustic to a relationship.  Criticism, or using a complaint as a vehicle to attack your partner’s character, is usually the opening salvo.  It is usually followed by defensiveness, which is a response in kind that is meant to protect the ego of the one doing it.  These two dance together until contempt, an attitude of disgust or hatred, comes into the equation and ramps up the intensity until one or both partners becomes overwhelmed and begins to shut down the conversation; which is the final horseman of stonewalling.

Corralling the Horsemen

These behaviors have healthy alternatives.  To avoid criticism, start the conversation softly.  One thing that has been shown consistently is that harsh start ups lead discussion astray.  One of Gottman’s findings during his research was that conversations have a tendency to end on the same note that they start on.  I find it helpful to look at conversation like a piece of music.  The tone is written in the way it starts, and it is very rare for a piece of music to change it’s tone permanently.  Mellow songs tend to stay mellow, and heavy songs tend to stay heavy.  There is an occasional section within a song that changes the tone, but it usually goes back.  The same is true for conversations.  So think about how you want the conversation to go before you have it, and approach it gently.

To avoid defensiveness, focus on the complaint being given, and take ownership.  Defensiveness does not resolve a conflict, it simply tells our partners that we are unwilling to move in their direction.  By taking ownership of our part in the complaint, we open the door to resolution rather than slamming it shut.

To correct contempt, it is vital to focus on what we appreciate about our partners.  This is a more long-term adjustment, rather than an in-the-moment fix, but contempt is more long-term issue.  Focusing on what we love and appreciate about our partners inoculates us from hating them.  So nurture your relationship!

And lastly, stonewalling is a consequence of being overwhelmed.  When our stress levels reach a certain point, we lose the ability to process what is going on, and we focus on self-preservation.  So it is important to keep an eye on ourselves and be willing to set boundaries in conflict so that we can do what we need to do in order to maintain a calm approach.

Being aware of the things that are most likely to cause damage to our relationships, as well as tools for correcting them, is vital to the lives of our relationships.  I stress to my couples that everyone does these things, which is why the ratios of 5:1 and 0.8:1 are so important.  I also want to stress to my readers that knowing what they are is no substitute for therapy.  If you need some guidance, call a counselor today!

What are you’re thoughts about the four horsemen?  Have you noticed that you engage in these conflict patterns?  How about the ratio of positive to negative in your relationships?  Share your thoughts in the comments and please like and share if you enjoyed this post!

(This article contains no affiliate links; it’s not sponsored or anything like that.  I just really appreciate the work of the Gottman Institute, and want to do my part to share it!)

Depression is a Dang Liar

Depression is one of those things that is, shall we say “mismanaged” in modern society.  For the uninitiated, depression (and more specifically disordered depression) is a condition characterized by depressed mood, fluctuations in sleep and appetite, and reduced motivation to name the more common symptoms.  There are others, of course.  The most common course of treatment for depression is a daily regimen of antidepressants; medications that can act on either serotonine, norepinephrine, or dopamine receptors in the brain to counteract the symptoms.

But there’s a funny thing about depression, and by funny I mean not funny at all: It lies.

The Liar in Your Mind

What do I mean when I say depression lies?  Well basically, I mean that it poisons your self-talk against you.  Some of the most common non-medical treatments for depression are as follows:

  • Healthy eating
  • Exercise
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol
  • Socializing
  • Consistent sleep hygiene
  • Engaging in mentally stimulating activities

Depression tells you that these things aren’t worth doing.  It tells you that you need to stay in bed and sleep, and that cooking is too much work.  It tells you that the only thing that can help you escape is to get drunk or high.  It tells you that no one wants to hear what’s going on in your mind.  It tells you that antidepressants don’t work.  All of these are lies.  Depression wants to survive unimpeded in a sufficiently depressed mind.

Calling it Out

When I am working with clients for depression, I encourage them to call their depression out when it lies to them.  When it says to stay in bed all day, say back “No, I need to stick to my schedule.”  When it says you need to escape, say back “No, the only way out is through.  I need to face this.”  When it tell you that your meds don’t work, tell it that you will need to talk to your doctor before you take it’s advice.

Obviously this is a gross oversimplification.  Just saying to yourself that you aren’t going to let your depression control you isn’t going to get rid of it.  It can help to make it more manageable, however.  I find that having these simple little tricks can be helpful in the thick of a depressive episode.

Of course, getting the benefits of this trick requires us to actually do it.  And depression likes to tell us that it isn’t worth doing.  Do it anyway.  Remember that depression wants to preserve itself, and that its needs run counter to a healthy mind.

What are some of your tricks for managing depression?  Leave a comment!  And as always, like and share!

I have a feeling that I could write several articles about depression.  I may just do it.  Stay tuned and feel free to give me some feedback!

Blog Post! Right!

So Friday was 3 days ago, and I didn’t post anything…

So today, we’re going to steer into the skid a bit and talk about apologizing!  It is a very necessary and powerful skill in relationships.  Unfortunately, it’s also a very easy thing to mess up.  So let’s first look at a sample apology: I missed my deadline.  If you were looking forward to my post, I can imagine you might feel disappointed.  I am sorry, and I will try to stick to my schedule more rigidly moving forward..

What’s in an Apology?

The purpose of an apology is to make amends for something.  The original meaning was “to speak in one’s own defense,” (which is why there is a thing called Apologetics which is a very different thing).  In order to make amends, there are three things that need to happen.

The First Step: Understanding

First, the one apologizing needs to be able to identify the thing that was done.  In my apology above, I clearly stated exactly what I did (or in my case, what I didn’t do): I neglected to post a blog on my scheduled blog post day.  That is a thing that happened, and there is no emotional weight to it.  One can look at my scheduled posting days, see that there was no post last Friday, and say “Oh, Joey didn’t post a blog.”  In another instance, one might say “I didn’t do the dishes last night,” and that can be confirmed; or “I kissed your brother at a party last weekend.” The first part of a good apology is clearly stating only the facts of what happened.

The Second Step: Empathizing

Once the facts have been stated, it is time to connect to the emotional weight.  While in my instance, there may not be a huge emotional impact on everyone reading, but in a more intense instance; say “I kissed your brother at a party,” there is emotion to connect with.  The important thing in this part is empathizing with the impact the aforementioned fact has had.  In my apology, I acknowledged that someone may feel disappointed if they were really excited about reading my posts twice a week.  I connect that to my own experience, because I often feel disappointment when my favorite content creators don’t update regularly.

The Final Step: Correcting

Finally, the last part of an apology is to establish a plan for moving forward.  For me, that means updating on my already established schedule (starting tomorrow), but it may also be shutting down an inappropriate relationship or consenting to an appropriate consequence.  Of course, once the consequence has been accepted it is vital to follow through.  This is how trust is rebuilt.

The Defensiveness Trap

I have spoken about Gottman’s Four Horsemen before, and one that really needs to be corralled in an apology is Defensiveness.  Apologizing is a very vulnerable act; and when we feel vulnerable, we have a reflex to try and protect ourselves.  It is very tempting to justify, rationalize, or even blame our behavior on some external factor (I was busy, I was too tired, I was drunk, it was just locker room talk, whatever the case may be).  But in order to make an appropriate apology, defensiveness needs to be countered by taking ownership and apologizing with this three step model.

So there it is: Joey’s Guide to Apologies.  Made possible by me neglecting my blog.  So again, I apologize for missing my posting window, and I will do my best to stay on top of my schedule from this point forward.  If I am unable to make a post, I will at least let you know.

What do you think about this model of apologizing?  Has there been a time in your life when you tried to apologize and became defensive?  I know I have!  Leave a comment sharing your thoughts.  Also, please like and share this blog if you enjoy reading it!

Fighting and Flighting

A cursory look at social media and the news gives the impression that a lot of people in the United States today are experiencing something that everyone experiences from time to time: anxiety.  Don’t worry, this post isn’t about the election, but it is about that feeling.

What is Anxiety

Anxiety is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, and it’s helpful to have a good working definition.  Basically, it is a feeling of unease, nervousness, or worry about something with an uncertain outcome.  Hence, people are anxious about the election because they don’t like the candidates and are uncertain about the potential outcomes, and are very worried about that uncertainty.

What Does Anxiety Do?

Anxiety has a reputation for being something that needs to be avoided, but to do so limits the spectrum of human emotion.  The fact is, anxiety is a very useful tool of the brain and body that is often misunderstood.  When we really dig down into the function of anxiety, it is our brain trying to keep us safe.  It activates the Fight or Flight response, which directs the flow of attention and energy in order to maximize our survivability.  Key word there being survivability.

An Ancient Solution

I often explain anxiety to my clients like this: Imagine it’s 10000 years ago, and you are out hunting.  You’re tracking your prey when suddenly you hear something walking behind you.  Your heart rate goes up, blood moves from your core to your limbs, and your brain starts going a mile a minute coming up with possibilities of what the thing behind you might be, as well as what you can do about it.  That is the function of anxiety.

Alas, we do not live in a world where this is something we need to worry about.  Hunting accidents have more to do with irresponsible use of firearms than being mauled by a tiger, but the brain structure is there.  It is designed to keep us safe from threats, both real and perceived; and it doesn’t work so well in a world where we are, in general, safe.

What to Do With Anxiety

Anxiety is a tricky thing, because ultimately, the best thing to do about it is lean into it.  We feel anxious because our brains tell us that there is something to be concerned about.  So let yourself feel it, and acknowledge what it is that it is telling you to be wary of.  Then, perform some grounding activities to get you back into the real world where you can do something about the issue.

A Note on Anxiety Disorders

In general, this article focuses on normal anxiety; and while understanding the source and function, as well as some coping skills for anxiety is useful even with anxiety disorders, don’t hesitate to talk to a doctor about your anxiety if it is overwhelming and causing you distress or impairment.  If I can make one thing very clear, it is that there is nothing wrong with needing some help managing our stuff.  So get some help.

If you like this article, please like, comment, or share!  And if you want to keep up with my content, you can subscribe to my blog and get updates every Tuesday and Friday!

Listening to Understand

I have tangentially referred to empathy several times in this blog, but I haven’t really established what it is exactly.  It is one of the foundations of the whole counseling profession, so having a working definition for it is, well, foundational.  So what exactly is empathy?  It is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.  Personally though, I prefer a different definition: the ability to connect your experience to the experience of another.  In other words; when someone tells you something that they are going through, the empathetic response is to consider a time that you went through something similar, identify how you felt, and connect it to what you are hearing in order to understand the other person’s experience.  If that wasn’t super clear because it was a run-on sentence, here is an info-graphic!

empathy

Let’s unpack this step by step.

Listen to Understand

The first step toward empathy is simple: Forget about responding to what the other person is saying.  When we think more about what we are going to say that what the other person is saying, we lose out on truly understanding and depend on making assumptions about what they are saying.  Stepping outside of this is what we in the business call Active Listening, which is listening with the intention of gathering information.  Active listening is an engaged process, and there is enough to be said about it to fill it’s own book, let alone a blog post.  But in a nutshell, focusing on what our conversation partner is saying will do more to make them feel heard than any solution you can come up with halfway through their sentence.

Build Your Understanding

This is a continuation of the active listening process.  Basically, no amount of just listening will tell us everything about what is going on.  It’s important to ask questions, but not just any question.  Open-ended questions tell our conversation partners that we are interested in their thoughts and feelings.  For the uninitiated, an open-ended question is a question that does not have a simple answer.  “What do you think about the color of the sky?” has a more complex answer than “What color is the sky?”

Asking open-ended questions also tells our conversation partner that we are paying enough attention to know what questions to ask.  If you ask “What color is the sky?” when they are talking about how their boss really hurt them, then it is obvious that you aren’t listening.  So ask questions, and build your understanding.

Connect Your Understanding

After you have listened and asked some questions, you may find yourself being reminded of a time in your life when something similar happened to you.  It doesn’t have to be on the same scale, but similar events cause similar feelings.  For example, if your beloved pet was killed by a car, and you are talking to someone whose brother was killed in a car accident than you can relate those two experiences; even though they are very different.  You might avoid mentioning that the reason you can relate to unexpected and traumatic loss is because your dog ran into traffic, but you can still sit in the pain with your conversation partner.

Express Your Understanding

This is a continuation of the connection.  Once you have made a connection inside of yourself, share that understanding.  Being able to both identify and express our understanding is what makes empathy happen.

Correct Your Understanding

Lastly, sometimes your understanding doesn’t connect.  Maybe the emotion you felt when your dog died was the loss of a companion, while your conversation partner is facing a mortality crisis.  This is okay.  If your understanding doesn’t connect with their experience, try again!  So long as you continue to listen with the intent to understand, you can rebuild, reconnect, and re-express your understanding until they know that you get it!

So this is empathy in a nutshell.  Let me know what you think!  I may try to do more info-graphics like this one in the future if enough people like it.  Also, what are your experiences with empathy?  Has there been a time when someone was able to really connect with you by listening and understanding?  How about you connecting with someone else by listening?  Let’s talk about it!

And as always, like and share this if you enjoyed the read!

 

Love’s Evil Twin

Relationships are great.  When you find a person who is willing to stick things out with you for any extended period of time, it can be very validating.  As with anything though, there is a point past which even the most validating relationship can become toxic.  This is called Codependency, and it is a dangerous game.

What is Codependency?

Codependency is relationship pattern that is built on one or both partners enabling the other to engage in unhealthy patterns.  For a good example, look at just about any TV relationship.  The wife works, cleans the house, does the laundry, works out, and makes sure there’s beer in the fridge so that her husband can come home from work, watch the game, make jokes about how fat he is, and complain that the beer in the fridge is warm.  This is codependency in action.  The wife picks up her husbands slack, and the husband takes this as permission to continue slacking.

How is it dangerous?

There are many ways that codependency is dangerous.  The most overt reason is that it prevents the enabled partner from experiencing growth in their own lives.  As long as there is someone around to clean up the mess, there is no reason to learn how to clean it up themselves.

Another way that it can be damaging is that it creates a dependent relationship between the partners (hence codependent).  The enabled partner needs the enabling partner because they are unable to cope on their own, and the enabling partner needs the enabled partner so that they can feel needed.  This creates a cycle of needing that can eventually cut off other supportive social relationships until there is no social support except for the partner.

And lastly, in the above example, the relationship is exceptionally one-sided.  Over time, this arrangement causes resentment to build, which then develops into behaviors of contempt, one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen.  Contempt is a killer of relationships.  Left unchecked, it can easy continue growing until it becomes abusive.

What Can I Do?

If you are in a codependent relationship, either as the enabler or the enabled, get help.  There are many resources for individuals and couples in codependent relationships.  Codependency is much like anything: it grows out of a healthy need.  To feel responsible and needed on the enabling side, or to feel trusting and supported on the enabled side.  There is nothing wrong with these needs, it is simply the expression of those needs.

Learning to express our needs is of great importance, not only in the healing of codependency, but in any area of our lives.  If you feel like you are in, or at risk of getting into a codependent relationship, I would highly encourage you to look into what is drawing you into it.  Talk with a counselor or attend a support group.

What do you all think about codependency?  If you have any questions or thoughts, please leave in the comments.  Please share this article if you found it helpful in any way!