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. ❤️
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 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.
The holidays highlight the way our relationships operate in a way that just any other ordinary day can’t. The planning, the shopping, the prep, the packing, the travel, and ALLLLL the mish mosh of personalities together in one room could singe any stray hairs off your uncooked turkey. Speaking of turkeys, (sorry vegetarians, translate to tofu and veggies as needed) as you’re thinking about what it takes to not burn your turkey, you could simultaneously be thinking about what it takes to not burn your spouse down. Wait, let me come at that from a more positive angle…as you’re thinking about what it takes to prepare a golden brown and succulent turkey, you can simultaneously be thinking about what it takes to keep your relationship juicy and delicious. Hmmm, that’s better. Good connotations.
Here are three things that could lead to a turkey disaster:
1) Not planning ahead or reading a recipe for complete guidance or a little inspiration. (Try to thaw a 15 lb turkey the morning of. Ugh, panic?)
2) Incorrect temperature and/or incorrect cooking time.
3) Neglect (Got to baste that mug…).
Here are three things that could lead to a relationship disaster:
1) Flying by the seat of your pants around the chaos without any intentions or thoughtfulness to your actions.
2) Getting yourself all hot and bothered because you haven’t worked out or done whatever it is you do to keep yourself calm and cool and/or doing or focusing too much on one thing and not enough on the other.
3) Totally ignoring your spouse, taking them for granted or just not being thankful for what they do bring to the table.
Gee, look at the similarities. I think we’re on to something here if you’re interested in killing two birds with one stone. Keep the analogy in mind through the day. Whatever you’re doing for or to the turkey, do it with and for the spouse too…(goofiness recognized).
I’ll let you go to butterball.com to get further turkey cooking tips ( a cold water bath defrosts 4lbs per half hour, BTW) but here are some further thoughts on the above list and how to get to that juicy place in your relationship during the busy Thanksgiving day.
1) Plan ahead/read something inspirational. Choose one or two things you will be super intentional about. If you know that you always get irritated at your spouse when he watches football while you bust your ass, choose to react differently. Either accept with love that that’s what he loves to do and you love him so staring at his butt crack as he grasps his can-o-beer is lovely OR talk to him ahead of time and hand him a list of the things that need to be done and discuss who’s going to do what (You better add the when in there too. Time lines can differ dramatically). Think about previous years. What are your pitfalls of reactivity? If your wife runs around all stressed and you usually just get mad at her, do something different – joke with her or approach her ahead and ask what you can do to help minimize her stress. If your husband and your mother get tense with each other and you normally get anxious and try to intervene, decide to let it go and let them hash it out, breathe… I will give you a hint about your pitfalls. They stem from having unmet expectations. He “SHOULD” do this without me asking is a common one. When you find yourself saying he or she “SHOULD” (insert anything), sound the fire alarms. That turkey’s chard. Right now, stop reading and choose the two things you will intentionally do differently (this equals golden brown).
Like looking at a recipe for guidance or inspiration, maybe there are a few quotes or things you have read that shock your brain into that “Ah ha” moment. You know what I’m talking about. When what you are reading seems to pertain to you perfectly, something clicks and for a brief period of time everything makes perfect sense. Here’s one for you: “When we are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself & study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.” Epictetus. AH HA!!! Go into your long, busy weekend prepared and inspired instead of overwhelmed and spent.
2) Give, give, give GIVE! That’s what we are supposed to do over ThanksGIVEing however a line can be crossed when the neglect of ourselves back fires into us becoming selfish bi*%^#’s! Keep a beat on your own temp and when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed and focused on all the annoying aspects of those around you, take a time out. Go for a walk or a run, sit down and read, watch something funny, call whomever is synonymous with you and a good mood. You are in control of your own mood. No one is doing anything to you. During this busy day, burning yourself out is easily done yet it’s difficult to recover from the ramifications.
Incorrect cooking times in a relationship translates in to focusing on the negative stuff versus focusing on the good stuff. Make sure you’re cooking up the positive so you’re not desiring to use your spouses limbs as the dried out wish bone. No good wishes can come true there! Balance, balance, balance. Keep your temperature even and your focus varied.
3) Neglect. It’s easy to fly by each other without stopping. Stop, look at each other and smile. If you go to bed at night and you or your spouse have a huge chunk of spinach in your teeth, that’s a true indicator that you forgot to look at each other and pay attention. Sometimes it can be really fun to have a conversation with your guy or gal in front of other people. You might hear stuff that wouldn’t ordinarily come out. Hug, appreciate, laugh with, learn from and check each other’s teeth.
I hope you have a great Thanksgiving with perfectly cooked and loved turkeys.
Glennon Gordon, LICSW
This week I have been working with a lot of couples who are hell bent on attempting to change their spouse by complaining to them over and over and over. I suppose this isn’t such a far-fetched idea. If you pound a nail into a piece of hard wood over and over again, eventually it will sink in.
What really happens if we continually give our spouse the smack down in hopes that something will sink in? Lots of things. But one thing that will NOT happen is the change in the other that you think you need to see to be happier. Not only will they most likely not change in the direction you think they should go, they won’t even change in the direction they think they should go. Instead they freeze, or they rebel or they become passive aggressive, or they become resistant and defensive. They might even temporarily look the way you want them to look but it’s only temporary if they are doing it to get you off of their back. Then you have this false hope disappointment thing going on. They are only reacting to your anxiety. This is a mess, a real mess I tell you.
Here’s what’s happening. We all only have so much energy. If you are spending all of your energy on attempting to change the thinking and ways of another human being, you are wasting precious energy that could be spent on perfecting your own life goals. And for the spouse that’s “not changing,” instead of spending their precious energy on their own life goals and figuring out what they want to do with their lives they’re busy defending themselves, fighting you, or convincing you why they’re not going to do what you want them to do. The bottom line is that focusing your energy on what someone else should be doing that they are not doing is a big fat waste of time.
This is a tough situation. What if you have begged your spouse to get a new job so he can be around more often on the weekends because your losing it? Or what if you have begged your spouse to help you around the house more because you’re feeling overwhelmed and they just haven’t? What about if you have begged your spouse to actually finish a project versus starting it and then abandoning it with shrapnel left all around? What if it feels like you are at your breaking point and if this thing doesn’t change YOU will be miserable? What are you supposed to do?
It might feel hopeless and overwhelming but what I can say is whatever you have been currently doing, stop. Just stop. Let’s start there. Stop waiting for the other person to change so that you can be happier because it’s more than likely doing the opposite. Your expectations that aren’t being met are making you more miserable. Understanding some fundamentals about relationships and how they work is important and might lead to some resolution of the above questions.
So, take a deep breath and understand that all relationships can be challenging and that just because you want to kill your spouse right now does not mean you need to be calling lawyers. You are in it for the long haul and relationships are really just a series of ups and downs that need to be managed until the kids go away (hopefully) to college. After they leave, the turbulence decreases. Unless of course you have been ignoring each other for the past 18 years in which case those quiet skies become deafening loud.
The other thing I believe is important to understand is that the dependence we have toward each other goes beyond just needing the other to bring home the other half of the mortgage money or to take care of the kids while the other works. Without realizing it, we have become increasingly sensitive to what the other is doing or not doing, saying or not saying, that we begin to make decisions based on this information instead of the information that is within us (our own thinking and perceptions). When this sensitivity goes both ways, as it does in all relationships, this is called reciprocity. He does one thing, she reacts. Then he reacts to her reaction. Well, then of course she has to react to his reaction which he can’t not react to. What’s lost here? The entire original topic of discussion! The issue has become the relationship and then the original issue never gets resolved. How is this dependence? We get to the point where we can’t even think for ourselves anymore, we are only thinking in reaction to the other person. We are dependent on what they are thinking in order to form our own thoughts. Yikes, lost self. Put out an APB. Become an expert in how this reciprocity works in your relationship. In what ways are you simply reacting to what your partner is doing or not doing? If the original issue is that the house is a mess, the result shouldn’t be relationship murder. Find the original issue and trace it back. You’ll see.
Let’s say the problem has been clearly defined. The house is a mess. Notice how the reaction to the issue is quite different for both of you. For some a messy house creates a visceral reaction which quite literally makes the skin crawl. For the other, it might seemingly cause no reaction (although not caring about a messy environment can also be a sign that one is shutting down and distancing). So, there’s the difference in the thinking. Believe me, this difference was there when you got married. Here is where change comes in. If these two people weren’t married, it wouldn’t matter that there was a difference. He could keep living like a frat boy and start cool projects that don’t get finished, and she could continue keeping herself busy and calm by cleaning all the time. But you’re married, so you have to change…a little.
Heres how change has worked in my house on this issue. My husband is cleaner than I am. I can admit that. Now before you get all jealous and think I’m lucky, let me tell you it’s not all sunshine and rainbows living with someone who needs tidiness. For a long time, he begged me to be cleaner. I couldn’t hear him because I was busy being defensive and irritated at his desire to have me be any different than my wonderful self already was. Plus, he was the crazy dude who needed everything clean, not me. When, and ONLY WHEN, I realized that my disorganization was not serving me as an individual well AND it was causing problems in my relationship did I find the impetus for change. But here’s the thing. Change isn’t easy. It’s not natural for me to do or clean things as soon as I notice them. If I don’t feel like doing it, I won’t naturally do it. I had to retrain my brain to become a more organized individual. (I can hear my husband saying, “You did?” YES, I did.) I had to come to understand that the thought, “I’ll do it later,” really meant, “That’s not something I feel like dealing with now or probably for a long time, if ever.” I have made it my own personal rule that I am not allowed to say, “I’ll do it later.” Some people might be able to put things off and then actually do them later. Not me. Instead the task gets pushed deeper and deeper below the present until it’s lost and seemingly doesn’t exist anymore until it pops up and surprises me and I become a scurrying madwoman. It’s just how my brain works. You have to retrain your brain to lose weight, or to exercise more, or to become more motivated, or to stay calmer as a parent, or to be more patient with your mother, or to finish projects when you are used to doing them only half way, or to overcome the impulse to buy everything, or…you name it. You must retrain your brain to change.
We now know that the brain is maleable. You can create new neural pathways. But it takes three things to create these new neural pathways (or, in other words, change our patterns of behavior).
1) Motivation — A lot of it. It has to come from an original spot in your being.
2) Increased awareness — This is a daily, hourly, and a by the minute thing. You need to be more present and connected to your thinking and actions constantly.
3) Repetition — Do the new and desired behavior over and over and over again until it feels more effortless. The “new” behavior eventually will become second nature.
While this seems like a simple process, let me assure you, this is the major leagues. This is the exact reason why attempting to force someone else to change in a way that will benefit you is absolutely absurd. Without the above three things at play, patterns of behavior will remain what they are. Actually, when someone is busy defending themselves or focusing on and being dissapointed in the other, there is no mental space left to change. None.
You have the absolute right as an individual to say what is important to you and to express how you think and feel about any given situation. But there is a productive way to do it. Here is an actual example of an exchange between two people who understood the need to both shift their automatic patterns a little to be able to coexist peacefully. (P.S., this did not take place after their first session.)
“It is important to me that my living space stays clean and organized. When it isn’t, this weird thing happens in me where my brain feels like it’s going to explode and I can’t focus on anything other than the mess I see in front of me. It makes me unpleasant and I hate feeling like the bitch who is on your back all the time.”
(Meanwhile, observe the reciprocity…the messier your spouse seems, the more you feel you need to clean, the more you clean and act nutty, the less your spouse cleans and the more he avoids you because you’re acting like a nut job. It is never free from a reciprocal pattern. You are always contributing to the dynamic.)
“Huh, that’s interesting. (I always, always encourage people to become interested in the differences not critical of them) That doesn’t happen in me. I usually can’t even see the mess until it’s really obvious and then I do a mad sweep. What’s challenging for me is that you walk around annoyed and pissy and even if I do clean up it’s never good enough for you. I find myself rolling my eyes or just ignoring you which I know isn’t OK.”
(It is important that each person NOT have the expectation that the other is capable of doing it just like they want it done. NOT CAPABLE, I tell ya. The purpose of the above conversation is NOT to have the other person agree with you and do it your way. It is only to define what you think and your experience in your world.)
“Let’s each pick one thing this week that we will attempt to change. I will work really hard to not act pissy but instead give gentle reminders. (Get out of the thinking process that he SHOULD know how you feel and SHOULD clean up after himself, he’s a damn adult after all! Drop that should. It’s useless.) I will also keep working on my expectations of how clean the house should be with three kids”.
“When I hear those gentle reminders I will understand that you are feeling uncomfortable and I will do my best to assist. I will work hard at not just blowing you off when you are angry.”
(You are not allowed, by the way, to say, “I think you should work on this.” (insert loud buzzer sound indicating fail)).
One thing I do want to clarify is that her discomfort does not belong to him, it belongs to her. His irritation at her pissy attitude belongs to him, not her. Ultimately they are each responsible for managing their own discomfort. If they can each assist in this, fine. But really it’s the individual who must learn to take the deep breaths and control their own anxiety and irritation.
Two people who are willing to look at their own contribution to the reciprocity and make shifts that they each for themselves decide upon and decide is useful and contributes to their overall life goals, who are super motivated to keep on working on being their best selves are A-OK in my book. It’s hard to get to this though. Often it’s one person that’s willing and/or able. That’s O.K. if one person can work on self, the whole system will be effected by that change. Is it really worth divorcing your spouse over the spilled milk he or she didn’t clean up, again? Or is it better to manage your reaction to the spilled milk, choose not to cry, and focus on what is working? It’s not about anybody but yourself. You are the only thing in this whole entire world that you have any control over. Why not invest your energy there? It’s a high yield investment.
Don’t wait and badger and beg and be miserable because someone else isn’t operating the way you want them to. That’s so unbecoming and it is not in the recipe for a happy life and marriage. Be the change you wish to see in the relationship. You’ll be amazed at what you see.
Glennon Gordon, LICSW
4545 42nd Street NW, Suite 201
Washington, DC 20016
202-966-1145 x 3
Available for private consultation