I don’t know about you, but there have been times I have wanted to pull a child aside and get right in their face and tell them to stop being mean to my kid, or else….(fist up knuckles forward.)
One time, when my oldest was about 6 or 7, I spent days begging her to try swim team to see if she would like it (and I was feeling a little isolated and needed some new mom friends.) FINALLY she agreed to do it, but it was an arms crossed and I’m going to hate every minute of it type of agreement. But I did as I instruct my clients to do and I just listened to the words, not the non verbal behavior. So, “fine” with an eye role meant, “yes.”
So, we get her all suited up, new goggles in hand and a look like she’s going to melt down faster than an ice cube in a hot frying pan. But I pretended not to see it and get her there, dragging her by the hand as she lagged behind with grumpus face. I pulled up a chair, phone out with camera app open all ready to enjoy my parenting accomplishment of having an involved child. I look over and this little (but appearing big) girl is standing between her and the one friend she knew (and who I had used as a tempting bribe to get her there) with her arms crossed and a horrifically mean look on her face. This is a girl that used to be her friend. I watch but I’m not smiling anymore. She then proceeds to turn her back toward my daughter and as my daughter tries to move to get around her the mean girl moves from side to side to block her. The crestfallen look on my daughters face almost moved me to tears except it didn’t because I was too mad and was considering allowing my fight or flight response to propel me toward the girl to yell at her (and maybe just a little grab of the arm?) Instead I looked at the girls mother to see if she was watching what was going on but she was busy chatting and laughing and being all popular. My teeth were gritting together and I felt hate toward that child (and honestly, her mother too) that one should not admit, much less write down for all eternity to know. But now you know, I wanted to bully that child right back. Mamma bear instincts full throttle. But I didn’t. My evolved brain over rode my ancient brain and I reminded my self that what doesn’t kill us….and deep breath.
Needless to say she did not go back to swim team, and I was fine with it. I saw how it was more self serving than a true act of paying attention to who my kid really is. Parenting fail number 307 out of 10,005.
But how do we help our kid when they are being ostracized or shunned by their once friend group? Especially when our Mamma or Papa bear instincts are flaring up which could potentially cause us to make a mistake we later come to regret (calling the parents before talking to your kid and then being hated by your kid for a week straight because you made the problem worse 🙋♀️ ,parenting fail number 650 out of 10,005.) I’m going to give a little spoiler here, yelling at or grabbing another child by the arm (even just a little grab) IS NOT the answer to the how.
There are a couple things I have learned about this from my fails and success as well as coaching countless parents through the same thing over the many years that I am happy I can share with you.
Step 1) (Wouldn’t that be so nice if parenting tips were always broken in to steps for us:)
We have to start with recognizing our own response. Recognize, pause, think. Recognize the emotion that comes welling up inside of you when you hear the news. Emotions are great, they are an indicator of where we are but they are not useful to lead with. The more we make decisions when we are in an emotional state, the more problems we seem to create. Often, a strong emotion we feel in regards to an experience our child is having comes from our own childhood experiences. We want to help our kid avoid the same uncomfortable feeling we went through and therefore we place more importance on the experience than perhaps is warranted.
For example, I was talking to a mom who was feeling very sad/mad about a recent experience her daughter went through on the first day of 8th grade. Her daughter had been shunned by her friend group (welcome to this fine age when the shifting and reorganizing of friend groups is in full effect) and she was crying, which of course will break every parents heart. I asked this mother if it reminded her of anything and she remembered not being invited to a birthday party and feeling very hurt about it.
These early childhood experiences are powerful and shape us in ways that aren’t always positive but contribute to defining who we are and the lens through which we look at life. Of course we want our kids to have perfect experiences where their egos are left in tact and their self esteem soars through the air with the greatest of ease. But this isn’t always reality. I have never in my life met one person who didn’t experience feeling left out or having someone be mean to them at some point in their lives. Have you? Even the mean ones are acting the way they are because of their fear of being left out and needing some control. Therefore, we must control our own emotions so that we may assist our children thoughtfully through the inevitable challenges of social discord. Handling it well will help them move through it, not get stuck in it. Being a non-anxious presence in your child’s life is one of the greatest gifts you can give and the key to what goes in to handling it well. So Recognize (I’m feeling very reactive right now), pause (take a deep breath and release the emotion with your out breath) and think (what would my best, most thoughtful parenting self look like right now) RPT. There you go, let’s turn that into the next LOL, BRB, ILY, ETC.
Listen. Listen with out interrupting. Be quiet except when you say, “Tell me more.” Stay calm and feel the desire to yell at the other child, call the parents, email the principal and… release. Listen to their story. Allowing them to process the story through language is very important. Don’t offer solutions right away, don’t problem solve but listen and insert words that indicate their feelings are normal and tough and being heard. I’ve said, “Wow, really?” “Ugh that is SO tough” “Then what happened?” “What did you think at that point?” I’m engaged in the story but not taking it over. At this point, after the story is over and the tears are causing the nose to run into their mouths, ask, “What can I do for you right now? Is there anything in this moment that would make you feel better?” See what they say and if they can’t think of anything you might say, “When I’m feeling like that all I want is a hug.” There is nothing else you can do at this moment. Even if you say the most brilliant problem solving ideas from your parental perspective, they won’t remember much of it because memories are stored in a different place during high times of emotion. It isn’t retained in a meaningful way. Not having to do anything but listen at this point also gives you the time to think about how you can be your most thoughtful self as you decrease emotion around it.
When the time is right, (later that evening or whenever you have asked if you can share some thoughts) teach your child they have control over how they perceive things. With children, I use the analogy of different colored glasses. I say, imagine there is a box in front of you that has loads of glasses that have lenses that are different colors. Each pair you put on allows you to see the world in a totally different way. Yellow makes everything bright and sunny, blue makes the same things look mysterious, and red makes those things look exciting. If you are looking through the grey lens of feeling left out and hurt, make a choice to take those glasses off and put the yellow ones on. Through these you might see the same situation as an opportunity to make new friends who are kinder, or you might be motivated to have a small gathering at your house with friends who you’ve been wanting to invite over. Or as you wear the yellow lensed ones you might even be able to see this situation and say, “Eh, their loss.” Empower your kid with the knowledge they have control over their response to the situation. Give an example of a time when you made a conscious choice to change the way you saw something. I use the example of when I’m driving and I notice my shoulders are up and I’m getting super pissy at the incompetent drivers around me, I choose to say, “Stop it. I can’t do anything about this traffic so I may as well just be calm and happy.” Let them know they can take control over how they see things or be a victim. Being a victim is NO fun. Giving kids the knowledge that they have a choice empowers them in many areas of their lives. Ask them to try an experiment and see how it works for them.
Other various ideas of what you can talk about and do while being your child’s consultant is:
- Encourage outside activities like sports, art classes, after school activities, church/synagogue groups, and yearbook or newspaper involvement at their school. This allows them to have friends that go to other schools and make connections beyond their own small communities. It also decreases phone and social media activity which, needless to say, does not help with FOMO.
- Encouraging kids to write in journals, draw it out or any other right brain activity is very helpful in processing. Every once in a while I’ll just buy my kids a nice new journal or sketch book and encourage them to write or draw. We process the same issue very differently when we think, talk and write. Cycle an issue through those 3 channels and see what emerges.
- Social skills work. Most of the time a kid being ostracized is the result of other kids being mean, but sometimes your child may need some help putting your suggestions you’ve taught over the years to practice. A colleague of mine, Kate Kelly runs some great groups for teens in the DC area. Things that we might assume children know, like making eye contact and smiling and asking questions or complimenting someone isn’t easy for all kids.
- Reach out to other parents in the friend group for support if you are friends with them. I DO NOT mean calling them in a reactive state, but rather a calm moment where you can share your child’s struggle in a non-accusatory way. I had one mom do exactly that. She shared that her daughter was struggling socially in general, and the mother she shared this with was so grateful. She could then encourage and remind her own daughter to be kind and inclusive to people.
I think the most important advice I can give around watching your kid struggle in any situation is not to get too anxious about it. When kids have the added burden of worrying about your worry, it robs them of being able to process and live their lives in a meaningful and data collecting way. That may sound a little strange but every single day your child’s brain is making meaningful connections and even the struggles are important for growth and autonomy. Please don’t take over your kids problems. It never has a good result long-term (or short term, please be reminded of my parenting fail 650 out of 10,005.)
We’re all just trying to do the best we can do and watching your child suffer is hard. Be their safe place, their net, their biggest and best supportive consultants, walk along side of them but know that even the toughest of times are part of life and in the end, what doesn’t kill us… (keeps us in our seats at the pool so we don’t bully children back.)
Off you go to be your best-self parent ❤️
It’s the start of a new school year and we want fresh starts, fresh motivation and
excitement from our kids! Rooms clean, clothes laid out, lunch stuff on the counter the night before and a beaming smile that says, “I’m going to conquer the $h*t out of this school year!” 💥💥💥
Some parents might get this from their kids and kudos to you! You have a courageous and positive kid who manages to stay in the moment and not let anticipatory anxiety and negative thinking get in the way of their visions for themselves. That’s right, I said visions for themselves because these kids actually have one. Your kids, parents, are in the minority, and the only thing you have to be aware of is when they are working TOO hard and may burn out.
Others may have kids who feel anxious, nervous, and stressed. That anxiety may come out in hideous behavior that you have to work hard to translate and respond accordingly with love and connection even tho you want to strangle them. They are acting out what they are having a hard time putting in to words, so along with moving toward someone you want to run away from, help them find the language by asking questions that may help them identify and verbalize their stress.
Or the stress may actually be voiced and communicated and you will do your best to listen and not dismiss or problem solve. If you have a thought to share about what you’re hearing, ask permission to share it. These kids just want to talk and process, so shhh.
Others may be feeling it in their heads or stomachs, they may be quiet and distant and have an overall lack of energy. You will let these kids know that you are there whenever and however they need you, and you may test the waters with a few gentle question or a story of your own about being nervous about something in your past. Kids are never too young to learn about the mind body connection and how their anxiety may be contributing to their physical pain. But be sure not to dismiss their aches and pains as not real. They are. Here is an article written by a teacher for students to work on the mind body connection. There are some very useful tools in there.
Still others may be acting “cool guy/gal” and pretending not to give two hoots about going back to school. These kids remind me of Danny (John Travolta) in Grease when he acts all cool around his friends instead of the lovely guy who was able to show his softer side to Sandy during the summer. Parents of these kids will let them know that they notice their confidence and they too have confidence they will do the best they can do, but also remind them that a lot of learning comes from making mistakes and messing up. How we learn from mistakes is what really defines us. Collect that data about what works and doesn’t work and apply, now that’s cool 😎
No matter how your kid is approaching this new school year, your job is to let them know you are there for them, and whatever emotion they are experiencing is normal and A-OK. As a reminder to you parents, there is no right or wrong emotion or way of being when starting something new, and in fact, anxiety does serve a positive purpose to some degree. Here is a great Ted Talk which teaches you to reframe anxiety to have it actually work for you. There are some fabulous ideas in here that you might even be able to share with your kid.
As we all know at this point, kids frontal cortex is not fully developed. Executive functioning for your kid can be like slogging through mud on a really hazy day. But you are here to help! Not do for, but help (This is the basis for my upcoming class on September 18th, you should come!) Help by asking questions that will help them engage their frontal cortex. We ARE their frontal cortex! We can tell them things until we are blue in the face but a very, very small percentage of what we tell them will actually imprint in their memories. Thinking for themselves, coming to their own conclusions, learning from their own mistakes, THESE are the things that will make our kids great. And don’t forget of course, leading by example. If you yell at your kid to get off their phone while you’re on yours, well…you know who you are.
Here are some questions you can ask your kid to help them continue on their journey of the developing frontal cortex. You can ask kids as young as 5 and as old as 25 these questions.
- What was one thing that happened last year that was good and you’d like to repeat? And what was one thing last year that actually didn’t work out for you that you DON’T want to repeat?
- What have you noticed about your best time of day to concentrate, morning? Afternoon? Evening? Before exercise? After?
- Where do you think you are the most productive in getting your homework done? Dining room table? Room desk? Library? (If they say bed, challenge them to an experiment. One week of homework in their bed, versus one at a desk or table. Then they can collect the data and decide.)
- How do you handle your stress when you are at school? What do you do or think?
- If you could close your eyes and imagine your school year going exactly as you had wanted, what would it look like?
- Which friend of yours is a good source of support for you? Who tends to be less available?
- Are you a good friend to people? How?
- Who has been your most important teacher so far?
- What’s your plan for getting your work done?
- What’s the likelihood you would reach out to a teacher during their office hours if you needed help?
The questions could go on and on. The best time to have conversations is in the car when they are trapped and can’t get out 🙂 You also don’t need (and shouldn’t) ask your kids these questions all at once…ease in.
Get to know your kid. Put your fear for them, their future, all the worries you have had over the years away and get to know who they are. We live such fast paced lives, I think we forget to pause and really look at them and learn who they are as individuals. They are not just extensions of ourselves, they are SO much more than that.
If you ever wonder if a therapists kid has issues or wondered what a therapist may text their kid, here you go. My own daughter expressed some concern and worry with me over text about the upcoming school year at her new high school. She was feeling unmotivated, stuck and in a rut. after she texted me a bunch of negative thoughts she was having, I asked her if I could share a few ideas that she could take or leave and when she gave me the green light I texted this:
“I’m very glad you voiced that and wrote it out. Now you need to do the reverse. Get your journal out and write out what you do want. I want to feel focused, I want to feel motivated, I want to do my best in school. You could work on switching your mindset now. Admitting that you’re stressed is the first step, but it’s too uncomfortable to just sit in that. Instead of negative, “what if’s” like what if I get lost, what if school is too hard, change it to what if I do great, what if the school is actually easier to move around than I thought! You have to work at life and your perception of it!
Her response was, “thanks mom.”
Teaching your kids that they are in charge of and able to shift their perceptions of what’s in front of them is a very valuable gift.
Good luck to you parents, I hope you have a VERY successful school year. Listen more and do for them less.
The answer? Empathetic disappointment versus critical disappointment.
I worked with a couple who had recently returned from a family vacation up North. This couple, along with their two children set off for an adventure to New York City. The husband, who is mostly busy working, was looking forward to a week away. The wife, who home schools the children was also looking for a nice change of pace and scenery. There were some good times and some less good times on the trip, and one argument which culminated after the family was moving slowly to get to a sightseeing event that the wife had planned and no one else seemed enthusiastic about. Upon their return, their different experiences of the same trip began to emerge. The husband overheard the wife describing New York negatively to a friend, and the wife learned after the fact about the resentment her husband felt about having to come home early for a sporting event for one of the kids. It is the reactions from one to the other about their different perceptions of the trip that is being focused on here, not the differences themselves.
There are two types of disappointment. One that can come from fusion in a relationship which is more likely to create critical interactions between people, and one that can come from differentiation which may create more empathy in the relationship.
What is empathy? I would define empathy as ones ability to separate self enough from another person to sit along side their experience without taking it on as their own but to recognize and understand the persons emotion. I would not think of empathy as becoming ‘one’ with the person in their feelings which may be a typical definition of the word.
What is fusion? Fusion in a relationship is when two people become overly invested and intwined in the other person at the expense of themselves. In a relationship, there is often the covert expectation that people must act the same, be the same and have the same feelings to any given experience, and when this doesn’t exist, the relationship must be “bad”. In a highly fused relationship, if one person has an emotion, the other person feels the need to respond, react, and/or take accountability for that persons emotion, losing sight of their own individual experience and understanding of the situation. This shared brain often causes tension and unrealistic expectations of the others role in ones life and more problems exist in these relationships. A dependence is formed where loss of self ensues.
What is differentiation? Differentiation on the other hand, is when two people who love and are committed to each other can operate in their own sphere with respect for the differences between them. It’s ones ability to remain thoughtful versus simply emotional during a heightened time of tension, which usually is a result of a difference of opinion. Being and having a self in a relationship is differentiation. The higher the level of differentiation, the fewer problems there tend to be between the two people, because instead of just reacting emotionally to each other, they can have a thoughtful and communicative interaction. They take accountability and responsibility for their own lives.
With that lesson out of the way, lets get back to the couple who traveled to New York for a lovely family vacation. The wife said that she didn’t need to go back to NYC and that the trip was a lot of work and not much of a vacation. He said how disappointed he was to hear her say this because they had spent a lot of money and had planned the trip and he just couldn’t understand why in the world she would have that view. He was angry about it. This set off a defensive response in her to say, if he had helped her more with the planning maybe she could have enjoyed herself more. This set off a defensive stance within him and said that she was the one who wanted to be busier than the rest of them and they were fine with just having the down time. He expressed a fair amount of disappointment that the trip was cut off early to get back to town and she was angry at him for feeling this way and couldn’t understand why he would have such a response to supporting their daughter and her team. Add face contortions and furrowed brows and criticisms being lobbed back and forth across a net that felt more like a tall brick wall and you can imagine the tension in the room.
This whole interaction came from a place of, “fusion disappointment.” Fusion can be like a wolf in sheeps clothing because one might jump to the conclusion that this conversation stemmed from a place of distance and growing a part. It’s a common mistake. Instead, this conversation stems from fusion, too much togetherness and too close in the expectation of experiences. We didn’t have the same response to an experience, therefore we must fight and argue about it to prove whose experience was correct, right or accurate. What?? When written this way, we can see how silly and unrealistic this is, but it happens all the time between couples. Having different perceptions of the same experience infuriates people! This couple also went out to dinner and she loved the meal and he did not. She was angry and irritated with him he didn’t like the meal because she took responsibility for that particular reservation. That may be true but that does NOT mean she needs to take responsibility for his reaction to his experience of the meal. That’s his and he’s entitled to own it!
Now lets take the above situation and translate it coming from a place of, “differentiation disappointment.” Imagine this, two people in the world walking side by side, living life doing the best they can each do. Living, learning, experiencing life through their own individual lens that is completely unique to them. Sharing their experiences in the world with a loved one coming from a place of interest and curiosity, sharing for the sake of letting the other person catch a glimpse of their path they are clearing. There is an understanding of each persons separateness that allows for space and respect. With this in mind, when the wife shares that she doesn’t need to go back or that the state was definitely not her favorite and it wasn’t the best trip, the husbands response would be more out of love and empathy. A response may be: (exaggerated for the sake of the point), ‘Oh no, my wife whom I love and care for did not have a great experience. I have empathy for her that her vacation was not as she had hoped. I am so curious and interested to know how she could have enjoyed her experience more.’ He doesn’t take responsibility for her or get critical of her view, he accepts it as her own and has interest in what her thinking was around it. If the husband expresses frustration that the trip was cut short, she responds with love and empathy that the person she loves felt disappointment at the objective experience. She might express how hard she knows he works and can understand how important that free time away from the city he works in is to him. His feeling of frustration at the experience belongs to him, it’s how he chooses to view it and she does not need to take responsibility for his choice of reaction (they did make the choice together on the front end to come back). She can listen and love and empathize but it isn’t hers, it’s his.
On the other side of this is the importance of not blaming someone else for your reaction to the experiences. The old, “If he did this, then I could do that” mentality sets oneself up for blame of the other which weakens you. If he could have worked harder with the planning and not left everything to me, then I could have had a better time. It would be much harder for the husband to have ‘empathetic disappointment’ if she is outwardly blaming him for her experience. Her non-blaming outlook might look like this: Next time I won’t work as hard to plan and then be resentful. Instead I will include and engage in conversation each persons hope and expectation for their own vacation. If I wan’t to see a show and no else does, I’ll go alone!
Remember that separating the shared brains will actually allow you to feel more loving and close to your partner.
So go forth in your travels, and remember taking responsibility for your view of the world is mandatory for contentment and happiness and allowing someone to have a reaction to a life experience without judgment or criticism is key to a healthy and loving relationship. ❤️
Whether we like to admit it or not, a new calendar year feels like a fresh start, a new opportunity, a clean slate. We may deny its significance because it is kind of cliche, after all. New gym memberships skyrocket, new diets are researched, new apps for budget planning are downloaded with high hopes of change and permanent improvements. But most of us start and stop, experience frustration and shame and spiral down to a whole new “screw it” attitude that has us feeling stuck and powerless. How do we change that? How do we stick to these well anticipated changes and not slip and slide back to the unhealthy habits but rather continue to grow toward the person we want to be? Here are three helpful hints I’ve come up with if you’re feeling the new year, new you thing.
Brains can only act on the data and information we feed it. Data and information are fed mostly through our thoughts and our thoughts are based on how we perceive what’s going on around us. Perception, thought, action. Here’s an example of how that can hurt you if left to roam free without conscious awareness.
Perception: Viewing life as a competition, drawing comparisons to those around you, everyone is better off.
Thought: I will never be as successful as these people, I am not as intelligent, nothing goes my way, I fail at everything.
Action: Nothing. Or never applying for that promotion, giving up easily, starting at the gym but becoming easily frustrated and quitting.
1) Become an expert in your own thoughts. I can not emphasize enough the power of positive thinking from a brain changing perspective! What are you telling yourself? Collaborate and communicate with your mind using specific details. For example, instead of saying, “Ugh, I do not want to go to my mother-in-laws for the holidays, what a nightmare!” Say, “I’m choosing to have a great holiday and I look forward to doing my best to preserve my mental space!” Add the emotion that goes with having a great day, feel the happiness.
Increase your awareness and pay attention to what you’re saying because our brains are listening. I’ve been known to give clients the assignment of repeating, “I am happy, I am filled with happiness, I am sooooo happy!” the entire car ride to their next destination. 10 out of 10 times they have reported it made a huge difference. It takes a lot of practice to become aware of what you’re thinking. To help, write it down. Keep an inventory of all the things you are telling yourself throughout the day. You may be shocked at your negative perspective. It’s important to understand this negative thinking is what’s keeping you stuck. Once you write it down, go through the list and counter each thought with it’s positive. Here are some of my favorite broad ones that actually may work.
Old: I messed up/made a mistake/ruined something.
New: This is just important data. I’m collecting data so I can learn what to do differently.
Old: What if I go to the gym and I get really red faced and am the sweatiest, most out of shape person there? How embarrassing.
New: I will cross that bridge when I get there because somehow in the moment I’m always able to hold it together. Anticipated anxiety is the WORST! It will stop you dead in your tracks. In the moment, it is rarely as bad as we predicted so pushing your thoughts and worry to deal with it later could work.
Here is a whole list of examples
2) Goals, goals goals. We MUST give our brains something specific to move toward. Otherwise we are like ships bouncing around the harbor without a captain. These days, I’m all about index cards. Writing the goal out implants it in the brain in a more solid way than just thinking about it. Write the goal on one side and on the other write two or three strategies that would help you accomplish that goal. Adding a time frame increases your chances even more of sticking to your goal.
For example, Goal: Go on 2 runs a week for at least 30 minutes
1) Block the time out in my calendar
2) Get in my running clothes right when I wake up
3) Start really slow and walk if you need to
Time frame: By end of the month I will have gone on 8 runs.
I have clients who carry these cards around with them and they find it very helpful to read them through out the day. Go buy index cards for your kids stocking and steal them.
Making realistic goals is important of course and being really kind to yourself is key. Don’t call yourself a fat ass on those first few steps out of the door, be proud of yourself and feed yourself positive thoughts. I promise, it helps.
3) Expect the ups and downs as a part of the new habit forming process. I think most of us have two ways of thinking that sabotage our own goals. One, the expectation that we need to be perfect and two, needing immediate gratification and the proof of the reward. We get so impatient and disappointed and have completely unrealistic expectations. Change that to looking at the process with more flow with ups, downs and all arounds. Change is not a straight line. According to Loretta Breuning PhD, our brains are designed to reward realistic progress. Happy brain chemicals are not designed to be on all of the time. Her example from a mammal brain perspective is if we go for food and don’t get it we feel disappointed. Disappointment is normal and actually motivates us to keep trying. We are designed to have ups and downs but we need to learn to moderate the downs so we don’t spiral into giving up completely. Expect the “mess-ups” and know that they are actually there for a reason to help motivate you to try again. I think it’s really helpful to expect some disappointment in the new habit forming process. Using the thoughts above to not spiral, use the disappointment as data, watch your thinking by making sure you’re telling your brain you can and will do it and create a new goal with strategies to help keep you focused.
Please don’t be discouraged when I say this, but it takes 70-90 times of doing something to create a new neural pathway. You can break it up into smaller bits to focus on, 30 days is a great start.
2019 is going to be a great year. Say it, write it, think it, feel it, know it.
I had a client come in today describing a very typical “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” scenario he had going on with his wife. He described his wife as difficult and volatile, and he would do anything to avoid expressing his thoughts and opinions about any subject matter beyond the kids’ schedules so as to avoid the intensity of her reaction. His perception is, if he doesn’t say a thing in response and just listens and nods, she gets angry that he’s not contributing. If he speaks up about his view of the situation she gets angry and feels he’s trying to control her. Her anger is like a hurricane with whipping winds carrying verbal assaults and leaving a trail of trash which can take him days to recover and heal from. The manifestation of his fear of her comes out in stomach aches and pains that can keep him in bed for days. His experience is that he works so hard to not upset her and just can’t seem to get it right. Keep in mind, that while it might be easy to look at her as the problem, the reciprocal nature of the relationship is what keeps him stuck in this line of thinking that he’s backed into an impossible corner. He does have a part to play in the dynamic, even if it’s just a matter of changing his perception of the situation. He then frees himself from the corner and isn’t waiting for her to get out of his way.
I thought I would share what I coached him on so perhaps it would assist the countless others who have found themselves fearful of the person they love and share a life with and whom they believe are keeping them pinned in a corner.
1) Shift the purpose of the communication
There is a fundamental concept that one would benefit from understanding inside and out. If you can shift the purpose of communication from an attempt to change the other by getting your point across and having them see the light of (your) day, or to avoid them from having a strong emotional reaction, to simply an opportunity to define yourself to the other clearly and calmly, the fear of the other decreases. You are no longer trying to communicate in a way that will get or avoid something from the other, whether thats a change in their opinion or for them to calm down. You are simply first, getting in touch with what you think and what is important to you, and second, working on delivering this in a way that is consistent with who you are or how you want to be. If you can let go of the importance of the reaction or how it may or may not be perceived, or what the outcome will be, you are killing two birds with one stone. Decreasing fear of the other while not bottling up what you think. We can not communicate authentically when the focus is on the others possible reaction. Disconnect from the outcome of them being different by what you do or don’t communicate and connect to being your best self.
2) Choose your words in a way that reflects accountability. Even in the face of their blame
Most people begin their statements with ‘you’. You always do this or you are incorrect or you shouldn’t feel or think the way you do about this particular situation. They may be saying this out loud or just in their heads. Regardless, this only speeds up the wind that is blowing toward the eventual storm. Acknowledge that you understand how upset this person is. Judging whether or not this is a “right” or “wrong” reaction is pointless. If you care for this person, seeing them suffer in the discomfort of their anger could make you pause. If you accept their blame for their anger at any level, this will be hard. You might say, “I see this is really upsetting you” or “I see this is really important to you, I’m listening”. Then acknowledge the dilemma that you are up against. You might say, “It is very challenging for me to stay in this conversation when you are coming at me this way” or “I want to talk about this and hear your perspective but Im finding I’m having a hard time staying calm when you are so angry and are communicating so intensely”. With self defining “I” statements, you are taking accountability for your own reactivity to the other person. Silly me, I’m having a hard time staying calm. Again, the purpose is to not get or avoid a certain reaction from the other, but instead to try to stay clear headed yourself and in the conversation without fear of repercussions. It is your choice to accept blame, and/or to get reactively angry or shut down.
3) Attempt to interrupt the pattern
Throw out a statement that is completely out of place and may even be opposite of what you are feeling and thinking. ” I really want to hug you right now because I see you are hurting” or “I love you so much it is hard for me to see you this upset”. Sometimes recognizing that the other persons anger and reactivity comes from their own fear they are experiencing can help shift you in to a more objective and thoughtful person. It is in our biology to act aggressively when we are in a fear based state. Stress hormones released in a perceived threat situation trigger our fight or flight response. This person you love thinks they are under attack! Let them know you are not the enemy.
4) Take the time out
I’ve had people complain that the person follows them around the house continuing to rant and rave. Nothing, and I mean nothing productive will get accomplished when anger is high and both people are in that perceived threat place. Most people don’t even store memories in a proper place useful for recall when emotion is high. So, not much can be learned! It is best to let your cortisol levels return to normal by taking a time out. If the intensity does not dissipate, let the other person know you are interested in circling back around when both of you have calmed down. Leave the house if you need to after stating why you are. The goal becomes to get your biology back to a normal state which will allow you to be thoughtful versus reactive. Even if you are blamed for dipping during a hard time, it is worth taking care of that which you can control in the moment.
So you see, the dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t mentality is constructed by you! You always have a choice on how you perceive something and how you react in the moment. Have that be your focus versus what the other person is doing to you. It keeps life more interesting! Keep trying to be your best self by taking control and accountability for you.
I don’t know about you, but left over from school days long ago, September feels like the mark of a fresh start and a new year! It’s a good time to asses your mental health as you prepare for change of season, kids going back to school and the holidays fast approaching.
Following are some questions that you can ask yourself for a quick inventory of where you are, what you really want and a quick guide for a plan to get there. Think about these categories as you asses your life: spouse/partner, parenting, work, social, family, and last but definitely not least, self care.
1. Am I happy right now?
2. What is working for me and contributing to my happiness, what am I proud of?
3. What is standing in the way of me and happiness?
4. What at the end of 12 months would I be really happy I accomplished?
5. What at the end of the day would I be really happy I accomplished?
6. What do I feel motivated to put some energy in to that I haven’t?
7. At the end of the day, what would have to have happened for me to say, ‘that was a perfectly balanced day’?
8. How are things with my spouse/partner? Do we have open, easy communication and a partnership that feels balanced with logistics (business) and fun?
Let’s say you come up with a few goals for yourself. For example, some might be; to be more organized, to be more patient, to spend more time with my spouse/partner, to hang out with friends more, to be a calmer parent or a more present parent, to focus more at work, to go on more dates etc.
We know it takes three things to change the neural pathways in your brain.
1. Motivation Choose the ones that you feel really inspired to work on and change. Write a list of reasons why it would be good to focus on these particular goals.
2. Awareness Increase awareness around these goals times 10. Pay attention in ways you never have before. For example, if you want to be a calmer parent or calmer presence in general, take note of your physiology, what negative thoughts are you thinking, what happens when you take deep breathes instead of react.
3. Repetition Focus on them every day. Write notes and lists to stay focused on them. Write and say mantras around them. Every day.
You will notice that what you decide to put interest and focus in will begin to shift in ways that will inspire you!
If you would like to learn more ways of creating and meeting goals, improving your most important relationships, and overall live a more optimal life, contact me to make an appointment. Skype sessions available. Glennontg@me.com or 301-325-8490
I recently read an article entitled: “What does it mean to hold space for someone else” by Heather Plett.
I believe this is the key to good, open, honest communication. It’s an important article to read. You can read the article here: http://upliftconnect.com/hold-space/
So what does it mean to hold space for someone else?
“It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control”
It sounds glorious, but the reality is this is very hard to do in our most important and closest relationships. Why? What gets in the way of this perfectly harmonious union? Well believe it or not, what you need to achieve the above, love, is also the very thing that stands in the way of accomplishing it.
We become confused about what love actually is and what loving another human being looks like. Love can look like care but care can also look like control. Love can look like guiding, but guiding can be judgment. Love can look like concern, but concern can also look like criticism. Love can look like inseparable romance, but inseparable romance can be dependence. We are under the illusion that we are in a loving relationship, but are we in the best most sustainable one?
Love is an emotion and no emotion stands alone. It is paired with anger, sadness, happiness and underlying it all, fear. On a very basic level, it’s fear for our survival. If the one we love does not fit what or who we think they should be, we will feel abandoned and alone, left to fend for ourselves and our offspring. Love becomes a need. And any time we need something from someone else there is the risk of disappointment. Why? Because love/need becomes focus on the other person, and this is the single most detrimental dynamic for ourselves and the relationship. You find yourself saying: “If they would just, then I could.” You have just hit a brick wall, a dead end in the maze of life. So let’s review: love + need=fear. Fear+relationship=focus on other. Focus on other=loss of self and the sum of it all is anxiety and discontent in the relationship. Isn’t it kind of crazy that our partner can become the one that can best trigger our fight or flight response? It’s a different kind of heart pounding then the one we started off with when the relationship was new.
In order to hold space for someone, you need to learn to love the person in a different way. Turn love/need into just love (the love probably very similar to when you just met the person) But how? Here are 3 suggestions. Please note before you read these that the theme of these suggestions is shifting focus from them to you; a key handed to you to love in a different way.
We must love and trust ourselves. I hate to sound cliché but it is absolutely true. It is trust that we can survive happily and courageously on our own if we need too. If abandoned in the forest our ability to make solid decisions in the moment, tap in to our resources, and find inner and outer strength would come through and allow us to survive. Once we trust that we can survive and are not dependent on someone else, we can look at our significant other as a partner, two people walking side by side. Two separate brains are better than one. Two merged brains (loss of self) bounce off each other, and like a wall of mirrors, disorientation ensues. So, loving in a different way means knowing that we want to be with this person not that we need to be with this person. Suggestions: Do something that requires you to feel alone and vulnerable. Take a trip alone, think of ways in which you would normally be dependent on your partner and do them yourself. Use the grill, cook a meal, pay the bills, recognize ways in which you have become dependent and work on changing that. Prove to yourself you are capable. A good question might be, “In what way am I focused on my partner rather than what I am responsible for?”
Recognize and respect your separateness. You are two different people in the world perceiving everything you come across in a different way from each other. This is a very simple concept that most people do not understand at all. While our current president may be high on the continuum of narcissism, we are all somewhere on the scale and we believe the only way in which to see the world is the way we see it. But understand that everyone is feeling the same way. The clashing of perceptions and the desire to have them be the same causes tension, and our main mission becomes getting the other person to see it like we do. This will never happen. This creates a huge wedge of sensitivity that causes fights and/or silent treatments and the partner whom we are supposed to love becomes scary and unapproachable. Loving in a different way means truly understanding that you and your partner will never share the exact same view of the world and the way things should be done. Loving in a different way means understanding that each of you brings a unique perspective and understanding to the relationship that must be honored, not judged. If one of you loves the beach and the other loves the mountains this is ok! You can still be good together if you respect the others interests. Suggestions: Be truly interested in learning to understand the way your partner sees the world. Ask questions, be open to what you hear, don’t judge it or try to change it. Just listen. Experiment. Take one issue in front of you and explain what you would do, or how you see it. See how similar or dissimilar they might be.
Communicate with kindness. One of the main things that interferes with good communication is the inability to tolerate our partners range of emotions. Whether directed at us or not, we don’t want the other person to feel uncomfortable. Yes, because we love and care for him or her, but also because if that person is uncomfortable, we are uncomfortable (there are those merged brains again) , and we humans will do almost anything to avoid discomfort. If you are friends, partners, teammates you will recognize naturally the desire to communicate with kindness, interest and respect. We lose this when we are in a fear based state but once you realize you can trust yourself, that you are a strong individual in the world having and needing life experiences that enrich you and make you healthy and happy, you will want that for your partner too. Suggestions: Tell your partner what you appreciate about them on a daily basis. Take time to be grateful for how they contribute to your life. Thank them. Offer to do something that would be helpful to them. When they are having an emotional response to something, listen to them. Ask questions, do not be threatened or scared by their emotions that belong to them. Just be present with those emotions, and sit with them.
So what is the key to loving in a different way? Focusing on what you can actually control. Yourself. It is the recognition that fear in a relationship increases the desire to control. The very effort to try and make our partner in to what we think we need propels them in the opposite direction and creates the very fear we were trying to avoid. Get in touch with what you fear, recognize your strength as an individual human in the world, and love someone for who they are not who you wish they were.
What if the anger we felt toward another was all just an illusion? Maybe we are never really mad at someone else, but instead, at ourselves for the way we are reacting to them. It’s a little mind bending when you are looking at a picture and you think you know what you are seeing only to feel your eyes and brain shift to seeing something completely different. I had my own ah-ha moment a few weeks ago when I was super outraged at my 10-year old daughter, who was acting impossible. I yelled and I was so angry I wanted her to suffer under the stare of my evil, I’m totally disappointed-in-you glare. I texted my Mom (who in situations like this always seems to calm me down) and I asked her, “When I was a kid and acting terribly, did you feel like you hated me and that I had ruined your life?” Her response shifted my brain and I saw a completely different picture. She wrote back, “Yes, because I felt so bad about myself and my inability to self regulate.” Boom. I wasn’t mad at my daughter. I was mad at myself for jumping on her mood train and crashing into a wall. I had lost my battle at staying calm and thoughtful and in the moment to fearing for her future, feeling as though I had messed up the past by creating this monster and imagining how amazing my life would be if I had decided never to have kids. It was me, angry at myself for loosing control and feeling crazy. Once I read that and my brain snapped in to a different place, I stopped and hugged her and everything melted away. Roll your eyes all you want at my pollyana-ish experience but I definitely felt less angry at her and more forgiving of myself in that moment.
I’m working with a couple in which the wife was on the verge of leaving her husband. One foot-out-the-door close. The dynamic was common and simple but so complicated all at the same time. She married someone who had a very clear sense in his mind about right/wrong, good/bad and could be a bully, in her opinion, to have his way. For years she had given in on things from the minor – what to have for dinner, to the middle – what color to paint the baby room, to the extreme – having sex when she didn’t want to time and time again. Years of giving in had created a fierce resentment in her that had propelled her anger toward him to catastrophic levels. She was so tired of feeling disappointed that she no longer felt anything at all. She could see nothing that attracted her to him. She couldn’t even be around him. He was struggling to breathe, gasping for air, grasping to anything he perceived as hope. He attempted a complete turn around – in which being accused of having checked out of being a part of the family and the raising of the kids had now become wanting to do everything and anything to be included. Their marital dance became a war and they became locked in their view of the situation. Therapy gave them an opportunity to gain a fresh perspective and redefine what they had come to view as fact. For her, realizing that her anger at him was in large part due to the disappointment she felt toward herself for years of not defining what was important to her was an ah-ha moment. This change in perception allowed her to work on what she needed to instead of blaming him or waiting for him to change. His realization that he had repeated the exact relationship his parents had allowed him to shift his perspective on what he thought was normal.
All of us have a dance in which we participate in all of our relationships. These two examples show how the dance can quickly become a war when we project our fears, have expectations, blame the other and get locked in our views of what is right or wrong.
Here are some things to think about to keep your dance flowing:
Assume your anger at another is an illusion and a perfect opportunity to assess how you have contributed or are handling the situation. When we simply focus on the other as causing our pain, fear, or discomfort we are in the victim role. Victims experience fear which triggers our fight or flight response which makes us release the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine into our bloodstream. When this stress response kicks in, our ability to think clearly and act maturely becomes limited. Take ownership of your anger and reactivity and don’t be the victim. Once the wife from the example above became less of the victim, she was able to be less angry and more engaged.
Be mindful that there are multiple ways to perceive one situation. Stretch your mind to gain another perspective. All we really know is the world we live in. This has been formed by our childhoods and our experiences and by no means is inaccurate. But as many people as there are in your relationship network there are that many differences in perspective. A healthy relationship is one where there is genuine interest in understanding the others perspective without judgement. My daughter reacts visibly to her fears, and when I view her as scared and lost, I am less likely to jump on the crazy train.
Be in the moment as much as possible. Worrying about what we have messed up in the past and worrying about what might happen in the future skyrocket our anxieties and prevent us from staying calm and thoughtful in the moment. None of that other stuff exists anymore and we cannot predict the future so why not just deal with what does exist – the moment in front of you. Notice when you are in the past or future, take a deep breath and let it go. You’ll notice a change in how you feel immediately.
Break routine and do something different in your relationship everyday. This is more of an exercise for the brain. We all fall into autopilot and this is not good for us or our relationships. Challenge your brain by increasing your awareness and choosing to react in a different way than you are inclined. Hugging my daughter when I had been angry at her totally shifted the emotional climate.
Don’t forget that it is always in your power to see a situation differently. Part of the joy in life is knowing there is always something to work on in you. So just when you think you are certain you see one thing, look more closely and watch the whole picture change to something spectacular and new.
I recently had a conversation with a young woman who seemed very concerned that she was one way with her friends and colleagues — light, fun and dynamic and a different way with her husband — withdrawn, cranky, timid and on edge. Of course her automatic inclination was to blame her husband for this. She pointed out that he was too critical of her, he was mean at times, she was never good enough or smart enough for him. In her mind, it was he who made her become timid and distant.
This isn’t the first time I had heard someone describe this phenomena of having two faces. Most people who describe themselves as having this experience much prefer the person who can relate to friends and colleagues than the repressed old bag they feel they have become with their spouse. The longer and more intensely one focuses on the other as the cause of their differences in personality, the more they feel distant and panicked at the thought that they should no longer be together. I have witnessed people spend years waiting for the other to change so that they can….be happier, be skinnier, be richer, have more fun, be a better parent, a better host and a better friend. Waiting around for the other to make it possible for you to do and be these things in an endless cycle and energy suck that not only splits two people apart but it splits the individual apart. I believe that not being a consistent person in relationships actually contributes to one’s overall anxiety and even the physical manifestations of this anxiety. It’s a lot of stressful work trying to figure out who to be with whom and when to be it. What would it take to merge these two personalities together to create one person?
Being a consistant person in all of your relationships is the responsibility of the individual. Even having an expectation that someone should or could make this easy for you takes energy away from being able to work on it. I’m sure at this point some of you detest me and are going to go google, “5 steps to changing your man (or women) to be who you want.” You’ll probably find it out there too. But before you go, at least finish this.
Here are (my own list of) 5 things that I think are key when figuring out how to move toward being a consistent self in all of your important relationships. By the way, give yourself the deadline of a lifetime to work on this. Get excited with the idea that you are your own science experiment and a constant source of data for and about yourself. It can take hours, days, months and years to integrate this data in a meaningful way that translates into behavior. So, patience please.
1) Know who you are and what’s important to you and act on it
If being alone, being social, traveling solo, traveling with friends, spending time writing, being alone in a museum, being a nerd and studying something nerdy or whatever it is that is important to you then do it. Don’t give things up because your spouse doesn’t do it, doesn’t get it, or may not approve. Most people in long term relationships give their solo missions and interests up and I’m here to tell you, that’s not a good idea. It splits you. Yes, you’re not a single free floater anymore so schedules do need to be discussed, but there are ways to build it in. Conversely, give your spouse the space and encouragement to do these things too.
2) Manage yourself
If we are constantly in reactive mode we are essentially spreading our own anxiety like a flu bug. It’s highly contagious and there’s no preventative shot for this one at CVS. Rein it in, people, and decide how you want to react in every situation you encounter. Yes, if your wife or husband is acting bitchy it is understandable that you would snap back because, Dammit! They can’t treat you that way. I’ll have you recall however that simply reacting contributes and prolongs the problem. What if you took yourself off auto pilot and purposefully and thoughtfully changed the pattern by responding differently. What if you made a joke and shocked the heck out of her? Loosen up and find the flexibility to react in a way that doesn’t just keep the wheel spinning. This requires thought and discipline and a lot of deep breathing.
3) Awareness of when you are blaming others
It’s just so boring to blame everyone else for the things going on around you, but it feels so damn good! It is so tempting to blame your husband for your distant and cool behavior. After all, it is he who seems so grumpy and irritated and when we just ping off his mood we don’t have to think for ourselves. Blaming others for your own moods and actions keeps you stuck in the endless cycle of misery in the home. Take accountability and see what happens when you blame yourself for choosing to be shut down and icy. I actually don’t like the word blame but I’m using it to get you charged up. If you can plow through others emotions and stay true to who you are and how you are versus getting sucked up into their vortex, you will have graduated from blamer to liver of your life. Ahhhh, short term pain for long term gain.
4) Banish the expectations of how others “should be”
A dream is but a dream and its time you wake up. You have an idea of how your spouse should be and its holding you back and making you resentful. I promise when you drop the monkey off that is wishing someone was different than they are, you become lighter and less burdened. When you become lighter and less burdened you enjoy who you are with more. When you enjoy who you are with more, you are more free to be yourself. When you are more free to be yourself, you are actually more enjoyable to be around. When you are more enjoyable to be around, you might find miraculously that people are lighter and more fun too. Yes, it starts with you, and yes, the harder you try and change someone to match who you think you want them to be, the more stuck the relationship will be. Look at who is right in front of you and respect and appreciate them.
5) Write, write, write it out
The best way to integrate changes so they stick is to work on it every day. Not every other day or once a week or in fits and spurts. Everyday, multiple times a day. Repetition is the only way to build new neural pathways in the brain which will eventually become your automatic way of living. Writing down what you are working on, positive thoughts, the script for how you want a particular interaction to go, your strengths, what you are excited about, what you appreciate about your husband/wife/partner, what you are hopeful about and what you are grateful for is singlehandedly the best way to do this. I had a client who every morning upon waking immediately began a negative spiral about her life, her husband and her day. I suggested she get a journal and write down the above and read it and re read it first thing in the morning. At first it was a stretch and she wasn’t even sure she believed what she wrote but within two weeks she noticed a difference in her outlook on life and her relationship with her husband. Her experiment was to keep it going for 3 months consistently. Change is not for the faint at heart. Be tough and work it.
Move on from blaming others for your lack of being a consistent self and take the reins, the wheel, the handlebars or whatever drives you and steer.