Ethics, Legal, Mental Health, San Diego Counseling, San Diego Therapist, Support, Uncategorized

Integrity in Self-Help/Wellness Communities

I received an email yesterday that I nearly deleted, unread. At first glance, I thought it was spam. I get a lot of spam. The subject header was “Is someone using your article?” It sounded like clickbait, but something made me click it anyway. I read:


I am a clinician in behavior health and was looking for information to assist a client with an ill father.  A simple Google search yielded your article written for Good Therapy:  

However, I also found this article with a different author that seems to be a revision of  your  article:  

It may be nothing but, thought you may like to know.



It took me a minute to process, sitting and staring at the screen.  I clicked the links. The first article was mine, from years ago, about coping with a family member’s illness. I was a Topic Expert for, and this was an issue close to my heart, both personally and professionally.

The second link went to my article, too. Funny, I didn’t remember being published by MindBodyGreen. Oh, wait. It was my article…but with someone else’s name listed as the author.

I checked, and then re-checked. The MindBodyGreen article was mine. Word for word. The “author” had added in a few words of her own at the beginning and the end. “Be positive!” stuck out the most, for some reason.

My work had been plagiarized. It wasn’t the first time, but it was probably the most blatant, and the most public. Apparently, three years ago someone found my article at, cut and pasted it and added her name as author, and MindBodyGreen published it. MindBodyGreen is a major, influential company in the wellness community, and the stolen article was viewed and shared by thousands of people. The ”author” had several other articles published there. I wondered who this person was, and if any of her other articles were taken from other authors. She has a website listed next to her profile at MindBodyGreen. It says she is a yogi. She states “I hope to empower, inspire, and motivate you to bring out the best in you.” She talks about karma, and hard work. She positions herself as an expert on relationships and parenting. She teaches people how to be writers.

Curious, maybe even morbidly fascinated, I Googled her other articles, then cross-referenced the titles. It took about 3 minutes. Sure enough, many of her articles and even her personal blog posts took, verbatim, chunks of other writers’ work and published them as her own. No references were cited. My curiosity gave way to indignation. How did a self-help guru justify content theft? And how did a major player in the Body/Mind community,, enable this to continue for years, unchecked?

Fast forward to the end of the day. Several emails and calls later, MindBodyGreen’s response was to remove the article and to state that they would not work with this author again. It was an anemic response, but they did remove the article.  The author then sent me an email stating that her intention had not been to steal my work (?), but that she had read it and been inspired by it and gosh, somehow there it was, published with her byline. (I didn’t ask her about her other articles and apparent plagiarism there) A couple of friends commented that perhaps I should be flattered. I’m not flattered. It’s not about my work being so utterly fabulous that someone simply had to re-post it. Theft is theft. There is no justification for it. It is a personal and professional violation.

This was a relatively small issue in the bigger scheme of things, but it still nagged at me all day. I’m not a ruminator…where was this coming from? I realized my indignation had more to do with the nature of the content and its intended purpose, than the theft of intellectual property itself. My article was written to help others who might be struggling with the illness of a family member. I made no money from that article or any other that I contributed to MindBodyGreen calls itself a “lifestyle media brand” – for-profit, complete with a clickable shopping cart on every page selling classes and wellness events. They present their mission as being here to make our lives better. Self-help, spirituality, yoga, plant-based eating, etc.  I, and many of my friends, have followed them on social media for years. Until today.

I looked at their information for aspiring authors. They warn against re-posting content which has been published elsewhere, directed toward writers who submit articles to more than one site. Nowhere does it mention copyright infringement or content theft. Technically speaking, the woman who cut and pasted my work as her own may not have violated their Terms of Service, as written. I find this perhaps the most disturbing piece of information of all.

Warning others about the hazards of the internet and taking everything you read there with a grain of salt really hits home today. We can’t trust always what we see or read, and sometimes even websites that seem established and legitimate can take the lazy way out. Not screening content before publishing it is as sloppy as it gets.  It’s a magnet for people who want to make a name for themselves, or a quick buck, without doing the work.

That brings me to my last point. I learned through this experience that I hold people who claim to help others more accountable than, say, someone who is on the internet selling widgets. Particularly those without credentials – counselors, life coaches, psychics, healers, energy workers, and other professions without standard licensing procedures and regulations. Before I am labeled an elitist, let me explain what I mean. I have no issue with the concept of energy psychology, I think a trained, ethical coach can help people with goal setting and personal/professional development, and I am more likely to talk to my own psychotherapy clients about mindfulness than I am about medication. My private practice embraces a holistic approach to mental health. In my opinion, it works. What does concern me, however, is accountability. When a person is unethical or out of their scope of competence and they place themselves in a helping role, they can hurt others. Their target audience includes some of the most vulnerable among us. In their zeal to gain clients or followers or subscribers, they may miss danger signs, they may not know what to ask, they may spread misinformation, and they may not even be aware of what they don’t know in terms of ethical behavior. Worst of all, if they do cause harm, their victims have no recourse. In my situation, a few people suggested that I “report her!”  To whom, exactly? Self-appointed gurus or coaches are usually not legitimately licensed or credentialed by their state the way licensed mental health and medical clinicians are, which hampers an individual’s ability to investigate a practitioner’s legitimacy or to file a grievance. I experienced copyright infringement, but imagine if I had followed some “lifestyle advice” and actually been physically or emotionally hurt. I got off relatively easily.

Unethical behavior, such as content theft or aggressive, misleading marketing, doesn’t usually go hand in hand with trustworthy service to others. I am speaking out about this experience because I believe that those of us who purport to work in the best interest of others have an obligation to maintain high ethical standards and to speak up when something is wrong. Individuals who work in unregulated jobs like life coaches and spiritual advisors, perhaps even more so. A few unethical people can do an enormous amount of harm. I came away from this reminded to regularly scan the internet to protect my copyrighted work, including utilizing services like Copyscape, to continue to provide consumer education for those seeking emotional support or wellness in a competitive and confusing market, and to support my colleagues who are providing ethical professional or volunteer services to others. My deep appreciation to the colleague who brought this to my attention – when we work together, we can try to bring a sense of integrity into the wellness community, for the good of those we serve. When we experience otherwise, we have an obligation to bring that forward, as well.

Self Esteem, Solutions, Support, Toolkit

Silencing Your Inner Critic

By request, this is the transcript from a video made almost 5 years ago. I hope you find it helpful 🙂

Silencing Your Inner Critic

Most of us have had the experience of negative self talk – criticizing yourself, beating yourself up over things you wish you could change or had done differently. What I have noticed as a therapist is that these little nasty voices in your head in no way help you change for the better. In fact, they more often get in the way of you being able to move forward in your life and feel good about yourself. This video is going to talk about negative self-talk, how and why so many of us experience this, and how to substitute the critical tape playing in your head, telling you you are not good enough, for more positive and realistic messages.

People typically judge and criticize themselves for their appearance, financial status, relationships, parenting skills, weight, and the list goes on and on. Where do these messages start? A variety of places. Sometimes we receive critical messages as children – from our parents, family members, even in the schoolyard. The media is quite often not self-esteem friendly, making you feel that if your skin is not flawless, you are not a size two, your earning potential is not what you want it to be, your relationship is not perfect – you are a failure. And finally, we make mistakes in life. We show poor judgment and we don’t always do the right thing. So guilt can linger from past mistakes, and we find we can’t let it go and forgive ourselves.

Let me ask you this. What type of language do you use with yourself when you notice a flaw or make a mistake? Do you insult yourself, beat yourself up, or do you take a more compassionate and understanding
tone? Many of us are our own worst critics, and our inner voice is unforgiving and harsh. Let’s say your inner voice is highly critical – does this help you feel better about yourself? Or does it tear you down, making you feel flawed and like a failure?

– When you notice something about yourself you don’t like, instead of feeling cut off from others, or do you feel connected with your fellow humans who are also imperfect? Do you tend to feel cut off from others when things go wrong, with the irrational feeling that everyone else is having a better time of it than you, or do you get in touch with the fact that all humans experience hardship in their lives?

– Ask yourself about the consequences of being so hard on yourself. Does it make you more motivated and happy, or discouraged and depressed? If being hard on yourself doesn’t make you a happier person, then clearly it’s not working. Time for a new perspective.

– Another question to ask yourself – how do you think you would feel if you could truly love and accept yourself exactly as you are? Does this possibility scare you, give you hope, or both? I have had clients tell me they felt self-acceptance was narcissistic or selfish. It’s neither.

– When you run into challenges in your life, do you tend to ignore your pain or struggle, and focus exclusively on fixing the problem, or do you stop to give yourself care and comfort?

– When you come up against problems or mistakes, do you make a bigger deal out of it than you need to, or do you tend to keep things in balanced perspective?

If you feel that you lack sufficient self-compassion, check in with yourself – are you criticizing yourself for this too? If so, stop right there. Try to feel compassion for how difficult it is to be an imperfect human being in this extremely competitive society of ours. Most of us live in cultures that do not emphasize self-compassion, quite the opposite. We’re told that we’re being self-indulgent if we don’t hold ourselves to harsh standards. We may feel that no matter how hard we try, our best just isn’t good enough. It’s time for something different. We can all benefit by learning to be more self-compassionate, and now is the perfect time to start.

Here is an exercise to not only help silence your inner critic, but to instead create your inner friend.

Create in your imagination a friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind and
compassionate toward you. Imagine that this friend can see all your strengths and all your weaknesses, including any aspects you criticize yourself for. Think about what this friend feels about you, and how you are loved and accepted exactly as you are, with all your human imperfections. This friend recognizes the limits of human nature, and is kind and forgiving towards you. In his/her great wisdom this friend understands your life history and the thousands of things that have happened in your life to create you as you are right now. Any perceived faults are connected to so many things you didn’t choose: your genes, your family history, life circumstances – things that were outside of your control. Your friend sees through these human imperfections to the core of the real you, and accepts and loves you the way you are.

Now. I’d like you to sit down with a pen and paper, or in front of the computer. Write a letter from this friend to you. What would this friend say to you about your mistakes or flaws from the perspective of unlimited compassion? How would this friend convey the deep compassion he/she feels for you, especially for the pain you feel when you judge yourself so harshly? What would this friend write in order to remind you that you are only human, that all people have both strengths and weaknesses?

If your imaginary friend might suggest possible changes you could make, how would these suggestions express unconditional understanding and compassion? As you write to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend, try to infuse your letter with a strong sense of acceptance, kindness, caring, and desire for your health and happiness.

Once you have finished this exercise, sit quietly for a bit. Step away from what you have written, and come back to re-read the letter in a little while. Maybe an hour or so. As you return and read, allow the compassion expressed in the letter to flow into you. Become aware of how it feels to experience kindness, loving acceptance, and forgiveness.

This experience can become a part of your daily life, in the way you speak about and to yourself. Replace your inner critic with an inner friend. Your work will not fall apart, I promise you. You may find that holding positive feelings about yourself allows you to increase your motivation and lessen depression or internal criticism. If you’d like to, take a few of the positive sentences expressed in your letter, write them on a sticky note or a piece of paper, and put them up around your home so that you can see these positive words as you go through your daily life.

It’s not enough to silence your inner critic. You have to fill that void, with positive self talk and an idea of friendship toward yourself.

I hope this simple exercise will help you begin to let go of being your own worst critic and begin to become your own best friend.

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Learn to Engage Life Using ACT

Discovery Mental Health

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, can help you to engage fully in your life. If you missed the introductory post on this approach to ACT you can find it here:

The Open and Centered posts, which make up 2 of 3 areas of the Hexaflex model, can be found here.



Welcome to the third part of the Hexaflex model. What you will learn:

  1. What being Engaged means in ACT
  2. Values
  3. Committed Action

Hexaflex Model

There are 6 key concepts in ACT and learning how to apply them promotes psychological flexibility. They are as follows:

act-processes Headsted UK. (n.d). The six processes of ACT [Graphic]. Retrieved from ACT breaks these concepts down into 3 areas which are “Open,” “Centered,” and “Engaged.” Psychological distress originates from within these three areas.

P_20160514_164832_1_1 Wish this image was more pretty.  Taken from the book!


You have one shot at life…

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Mental Illness Stigma in the Media

Recently, the Huffington Post contained an article covering a speech by Presidential candidate Ben Carson, M.D.. Dr. Carson was asked if he believed Muslims who adhere to Sharia Law could participate in a Democratic society and its laws.

Dr. Carson answered, “Only if they are schizophrenic.”

This is not the first time Ben Carson, a well-known neurosurgeon, has used the term “schizophrenia” in a pejorative manner. On October 15, 2015, Dr. Carson was asked about America’s relationship with God and faith. He stated: “So if it’s in our founding documents, it’s in our pledges, in our courts and it’s on our money, but we’re not supposed to talk about it, what in the world is that? In medicine it’s called schizophrenia. And I, for one, am simply not willing to kick God to the curb.”

Actually, Dr. Carson, there is no term in medicine which provides a diagnostic term for separation of church and state. Or to address the experiences of one type of group and their ability to embrace another society’s government structure.

Because those are not, in the wildest stretch of the imagination, medical issues. Or psychological issues.

What is schizophrenia, then?

Schizophrenia is a serious disorder of the brain. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, schizophrenia is chronic, debilitating, and complex. Its diagnosis is also complex, and physicians, psychologists, and psychotherapists spend years learning about symptoms, their range of severity, and how to diagnose and treat this condition. For example, part of the diagnostic process involves assessing for positive, negative, and cognitive symptoms, as follows:

Positive symptoms: “Positive” symptoms are psychotic behaviors not generally seen in others without the diagnosis. Symptoms include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Thought disorders
  • Movement disorders

Negative symptoms: “Negative” symptoms are associated with the absence of the usual feelings, emotions, and behaviors. These include:

  • “Flat affect” (flattened tone, expression, emotion)
  • Decrease in feelings of pleasure life
  • Difficulty beginning and sustaining activities
  • Reduced speaking

Cognitive symptoms: Cognitive symptoms (memory, thinking, decision-making) can range from subtle to severe. these include:

  • Poor “executive functioning” (taking in information and using it to make appropriate decisions)
  • Trouble focusing, or paying attention
  • Problems with “working memory” (learning information but struggling to be able to use it)

Complex, indeed. No mental health practitioner arrives at a diagnosis of schizophrenia quickly or easily.

I don’t for a moment believe that Dr. Carson is actually diagnosing “Muslims” or “American society” with schizophrenia. However, Dr. Carson was known as one of the country’s top experts on the brain. Prior to becoming an M.D., Dr. Carson graduated from Yale with a degree in Psychology.  He knows what schizophrenia is, how it affects lives, and what it does to the brain. So why does he continue to use “schizophrenia” as a pejorative term in his speeches?

Stigma is a real issue with regard to mental illness. Even though millions of American live with some type of mental illness diagnosis, misinformation abounds. How often do you hear “I changed my mind…I’m so bipolar!” or I hate my job. My boss gives me PTSD.” Schizophrenia in particular, is greatly misunderstood. The term carries with it images of danger, potential violence, and rampant hallucinations. Those of us who dedicate our lives to the field of mental health work tirelessly to support our patients in living productive, happy lives, and to raise awareness of mental health.

Ben Carson is certainly not the only public figure to use terms related to mental illness as slurs. However, he is currently in the media spotlight. He has the ability to raise awareness, and as a physician – a brain expert – he certainly has the knowledge. Using a mental health diagnosis as a way to denigrate a person, a group, or a process is wrong. When done by a renowned neurosurgeon, it is unconscionable.

Dr. Carson, please join with us in pledging to stop the stigma of mental illness. An educated man, doctor, and author, you have a multitude of words at your fingertips. Please consider foregoing the “wallop” carried by a word like schizophrenia to fire up your audiences, and instead use a more thoughtful, accurate vocabulary. If you feel someone is being foolish, say so. If describing a dichotomy, call it that. If nothing else, mental health conditions cannot be used as blanket insults, not anymore. Please join us in raising awareness.


How can I help my child stop picking/pulling?

How Do I Get My Child to Stop Pulling or Picking?

(watch the video here: )

Those of us who treat Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors like trichotillomania or dermatillomania hear this question often from concerned parents. I will try to give some support in this video, and let me specify that this is geared toward kids who are teenagers and older. I think the advice is a bit different for younger kids, especially those age 5 and below. I work mainly with teens and adults with chronic hair pulling and skin picking, and I can tell you that even those who are adults have concerned parents who may feel at a loss for what to do. So let’s talk about some things that help, and some that are not so helpful.

I ask clients early in therapy what their goals are for treatment. If the client is a minor, we may start off with mom and/or dad in the room. Treating a BFRB for a teen is a family issue, and enlisting family members in treatment can help ensure success in many cases – at least that’s always my hope.

So here are some common questions that parents (and sometimes their kids) ask when going into therapy for a BFRB:

“Can you make my child stop picking or pulling?”

In talking about treatment goals with one family where a teen had trichotillomania, one mom said to me “I want you to make him want to stop.” Right away, we were in trouble. Sometimes through the course of therapy a person can become motivated to make positive changes, but there is no guarantee. It helps if there is already some motivation on the part of the person being treated, or at least a willingness to give it a try. Worst case scenario – we teach the tools needed to help stop picking or pulling, we offer lots of educational material and support resources, and we hope that when the child is ready, they will have what they need to be successful. That is still beneficial for all involved, in my opinion. But no therapist has a magic formula to make anyone want to stop a Body Focused Repetitive Behavior. We do have knowledge, training, experience, and lots of tools. But recovery requires a lot from the person who picks or pulls. There is homework, like keeping track of the behavior and maybe changing daily habits or the environment.

“Why does my child pull (or pick)?”

There are a wide variety of reasons people of any age engage in chronic skin picking or hair pulling. Some contributing factors can be anxiety, impulse control, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, genetic predisposition, and sensory input issues like the Highly Sensitive Person personality trait. In some cases, there is nothing we can point to as a cause. This can be frustrating for parents – if your child is exposed to strep, and they get strep, chances are there is a standard treatment and they get better. BFRBs aren’t like that. They take time, patience, some detective work, commitment, and a flexible, open approach. We do spend some time looking at “why,” because there may be important guideposts there. For example, if the person who picks has a problem with anxiety, we not only provide tools to stop the BFRB, but we treat the anxiety. In many cases, where the “why” is less clear, we spend more time looking at the “how” – the sensory and environmental contributors to picking or pulling.

“How can I help?”

Talk to your child. Whether they are 14 or 35, they can tell you how they experience the urge to pick or pull. Listen to them. Ask them how you can help them – do they want to be reminded if you see them pulling? Do they want to join a support group, or see a therapist who is trained in treating BFBRs? Let them know you are a safe person to talk to. Read what you can about these behaviors.

I have to talk for a moment about what does not help. Unfortunately, these stories are not unusual. Seeing your child struggle with a BFRB is incredibly stressful for parents. You wonder if it is your fault, if other kids will make fun of them, or if the behavior will ever end. With teens especially, some have trich or dermatillomania and they are actually not bothered at all. But it is upsetting for parents all the same. The bottom line here is not to take that frustration out on your child. It breaks my heart when parents become so frustrated that they end up screaming at their child, telling them they will never quit, and basically taking out their anger at the behavior on the person. It happens more often than I would have believed when I started working with people with BFRBs. I have never once seen this work in helping to motivate someone to change. More often, it destroys their hope and their faith in themselves, whether they are 15 or 50. If you are feeling so upset that you are taking your anger out on your child, please consider talking to someone to help come to grips with your feelings. If you have a toddler who is learning to walk, you don’t yell at them or call them a failure every time they fall. You know they will get there, you show them compassion, you help maximize their chances of succeeding. That same approach is recommended with someone who picks or pulls.

“Can you recommend some resources?”

I have seen some absolutely awful advice on the internet, so if possible try to stick with people and websites where they actually have extensive knowledge and a track record of helping people. The gold standard in my opinion is the Trichotillomania Learning Center, and I will put a link to their website below. They have a wealth of information on both trichotillomania and dermatillomania, as well as lesser discussed BFRBs like thumb sucking and nail biting. Facebook has some great resources as well, such as the Canadian BFRB Support Network. I would be very wary of websites promising an instant cure, or that make you pay just to get a glimpse of their “advice.” Those of us who actually work with BFRBs tend to write, make videos, and talk to groups for free, just to help get the word out. The Trichotillomania Learning Center also has lists of support groups and qualified therapists in your area.

So, whatever their age, listen to your child, be someone safe to talk to, offer help and resources, and reach out for help yourself if your frustration reaches the boiling point. Your child is still your child, even with dermatillomania or trichotillomania. People with BFRBs can feel very isolated. Don’t let this behavior drive a wedge between you and your child. Join their team. Keep the dialogue going – your supportive presence can go a long way in your child’s recovery.

Resources in the video description box here:


Making Sense of Suicide

Many people are talking about suicide this week. We lost a beloved icon in Robin Williams, who ended his own life by suicide. For a number of reasons, it’s important to talk about this difficult topic. As we struggle to make sense of this death, we come up against confusing and painful questions – why did he do it? He always seemed so happy – what changed? Was it depression? Drugs? A diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease? All of the above, or none of the above? We understand deaths from heart disease, or cancer. Suicide…? Not so much.

So we talk about suicide because it’s frightening and it doesn’t make sense. We want it to make sense. We look for reasons so that we can move on to closure. The truth is, suicide is something we may never truly understand. We can talk in generalities, such as the high numbers of people with untreated depression who take their own lives. Or the studies which have shown that people who attempt suicide and survive are glad they did. But generalities won’t help us understand what happened to Robin Williams, or to a friend or family member whom you have lost to suicide.

So. We do know for certain that losing someone you love to suicide is an excruciatingly experience. Let’s start there.

When someone takes their own life, we are left with all kinds of doubts and questions. Did I miss the signs? Could I have done more? Maybe it’s my fault. So not only is your world turned upside down by the loss of a friend or family member, you may be agonizing over these types of thoughts. The important thing to know is this: you did not cause the suicide. There are a number of support groups, including those that are online and free of charge, for suicide survivors. If you have lost a loved one to suicide, please reach out to others who know what it’s like. Grief, in any form, is difficult, but grief when there has been a suicide is very complicated. Take care of yourself and reach out.

One myth that exists about suicide is that the person who takes their own life is selfish or cowardly. I believe a couple of public figures actually made comments about Mr. Williams to that effect. These types of statements show ignorance and disrespect, and contribute to the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness. Again, I am speaking in generalities, but typically the person who takes his or her own life is desperate to end emotional pain. They want the pain to stop, and for whatever reason, they cannot perceive of other solutions. To make judgmental statements about them after the fact is uninformed and cruel – to the deceased and their survivors.

Another myth about suicide centers on the assumption that if the deceased could have only been more resourceful or positive, they would still be with us. Quotes like “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” make sense – unless you are suicidal. So what does help?

If you have someone in your life who is suicidal, here’s what may help. Listen to them. Let them talk. Don’t jump in with solutions right away. Take them seriously and let them talk as much as they need to. When you are talking to someone who is suicidal, offer encouragement, be gentle, and try your best not to be shocked or judgmental. Ask them what they need. Help them find a doctor or therapist if needed. If they are not in immediate danger, check back with them regularly to make sure they are all right. Remember, talking about suicide doesn’t cause suicide.

If you feel they are in immediate danger, or if they clearly have a plan, a timeline, and the means to kill themselves (such as a gun, or pills), call for help immediately. Call 911, or 1-800-SUICIDE, or 1-800-273-TALK. Those numbers and other resources will be in the description bar below. Write them down and save them. Don’t hesitate to contact professional help. A qualified mental health professional or physician can intervene and get the person the help they need.

Finally, I want to touch on one last piece of the Robin Williams story. After his death, news came out that Mr. Williams had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. A number of people reacted with comments like “Oh, now it makes more sense. He didn’t want to live that way. I understand better now.” I’m not sure it does make more sense now, actually. Maybe this diagnosis played a part in the suicide of Robin Williams, but maybe not. Either way, as devastating as it can be to receive a diagnosis of a serious medical condition, people can and do live productive, happy lives even with disease and disability. A diagnosis does not mean suicide suddenly makes sense.

Suicide never makes sense. There are always other choices and there is always hope. This may be impossible to see, for the person struggling with so much pain that they believe suicide is the only option. What can get them there is support and treatment for whatever is causing such pain. I have heard time and time again from people who didn’t die, even though they believed at one time it was their only option, that they are grateful to still be here.

If you are feeling suicidal, please pick up the phone and call for help. Allow someone to help you. Stick around, please.

Intimacy, Marriage Counseling, Premarital, Relationships, San Diego Counseling, Solutions

Relationship Killers

San Diego Couples Therapy

Today we’re going to talk about four habits that can weaken your relationship and even tear it apart. These are taken from the work of Dr. John Gottman, a man with over 40 years of research into what makes relationships succeed or fail. I was fortunate enough to train with Dr. Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Gottman, and as a Marriage and Family Therapist, their work is groundbreaking. They call these four relationships habits “The Four Horsemen.” I call them relationship killers. So let’s talk about what they are and how to interact with your partner in a more productive way.

The first habit is Criticism. Criticism sounds like “you always” or “you never.” It makes a negative statement about the other person’s character in a way that makes them feel personally under attack. Let’s say your spouse is responsible for managing some of the bills, and he forgets to pay the cable company. You get a collections call, and you are upset. Criticism would say something like “Why are you always forgetting to pay this bill?? I can’t trust you with the simplest thing. Honestly, I think you would forget your own head if it weren’t attached to your body!” Ouch. Chances are, your partner’s reaction to this is not going to be good. They may be defensive, angry, guilty, or feel verbally put down. You have a valid complaint, because bills have to be paid on time. But instead of sharing your concern without blame or personal attack, you have come at your partner with guns blazing. A way to handle the situation in a healthier way might be to say something like, “I got a collection call today from the cable company. The bill wasn’t paid as we agreed. Can we talk about how to handle this better? It makes me feel really uncomfortable when bills aren’t paid on time.” You express your complaint, which is a valid one, but without Criticism.

The second habit is Defensiveness, which can sometimes be the other side of Criticism, or it can be part of your interaction all on its own. Defensiveness sounds like “It’s not my fault the bill was late! The bank didn’t post my transfer on time. It’s their fault!” Defensiveness is making excuses, to protect yourself from a perceived attack. It’s meeting a complaint with a cross-complaint. “You didn’t pay the cable bill” is met with “Yeah, well YOU forgot to take out the garbage again!” Defensiveness gets you nowhere. An alternative to defensiveness is to take a deep breath and listen to what your partner is saying. If they are not saying it perfectly, try to listen for the meaning behind their words. Ask for clarification, and really listen with the goal of understanding where they are coming from. If you own part of the problem, take responsibility for your role in it and then work together to move on to solutions.

Third, we have one of the most insidious relationship killers, and that’s Contempt. Contempt is ugly and it hurts. Sometimes it’s used to hurt on purpose. Contempt is a form of attack – it’s attacking your partner’s sense of self with insults, superiority, eye-rolling, name-calling, sneering, mockery, and humor that is used in a hostile way. In Dr. John Gottman’s research over four decades, he found contempt to be the #1 predictor of divorce. Contempt shows that you feel disgust for your partner, and it can be poisonous enough to not only destroy your relationship, but studies are showing that it can have a detrimental effect on your physical health as well. Contempt usually comes from longstanding resentments against a partner. Working together to set ground rules for communication and arguments, and beginning to build an environment of respect and appreciation can help resolve contempt.

Finally, we have Stonewalling. One partner shuts down. They withdraw, tune out, suddenly become “busy,” change the subject, turn on the Silent Treatment, or they leave the room. Stonewalling generally comes from feeling what we call “Flooded.” The person who is stonewalling is actually feeling completely overwhelmed, and they withdraw as the only available option to self-soothe. When your partner is stonewalling, you may feel rejected, ignored, or as if your partner doesn’t care enough to continue to work through an argument. So, here is the way to handle stonewalling. The partner who shuts down has to learn to recognize the signs of stonewalling, such as an increase in heart rate, and know that it’s okay to say “I am feeling flooded right now. Can we take a break, and return to this in an hour?” Then use that time to calm down, to walk, to find a healthy distraction. Chances are if both partners can approach stonewalling in this way, they will come back to the interaction feeling more calm and clearheaded.

So, the next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation with your partner, notice which of these relationship killers are present, and work together on how you can resolve them for good. It might take a lot of practice to learn to consistently use new relationship tools, but it is worth it. If you find yourself stuck in old patterns, reach out to a qualified couples therapist in your area to work with you both and help restore your healthy connection.