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Understanding Shame and Guilt

In this blog post we will be talking about the difference between shame and guilt, where shame comes from, and how you can begin to heal from feeling shame.

Guilt is generally a reaction to something you have done.  It may be something you have actually done, like telling a lie. Or it may be something you’ve done or thought of doing that really isn’t wrong, but you still feel guilt about it anyway. More about that a bit later. Guilt is an emotion that is experienced when you violate your own values.

Shame, on the other hand, is less about something you have done, and more about feeling a sense of disgrace about who you are. Let me go back to the example of lying. If you lie and you feel guilty, you may think, “Lying is wrong. I should not have told that lie. I feel bad about doing that.” Shame says “I told a lie, I am no good. Something is wrong with me for having done something like that. I feel bad about myself.”

Guilt is a message, sometimes justified, that notifies you that you are deviating from what you consider to be right.  Shame is a feeling that tells you that you may not be adequate or worthy. It’s far deeper than feeling bad about a behavior – the person experiencing shame can feel inadequate and unworthy. In fact, shame can be a part of a person’s everyday way of being in the world – a sense that they are not good enough.

Let me back up for a moment and talk about feeling guilt when you haven’t done anything wrong. Where does that come from? If you are in a situation and doing your best with the resources you have, why feel guilty about the outcome? One reason can be taking responsibility for the feelings of others. Maybe you have plans to go to a family gathering, when a friend asks you for a ride to work. You say no, but carry a lingering feeling of guilt throughout the family event. Or you take a test in school, and don’t get the grade you – and maybe your parents or peers – expected to see. In each case, you probably did the best you could, someone else may have felt disappointed, and your sense of guilt is partly connected with their emotions. Guilt is not necessarily a bad emotion. It can help us hone our own moral compass, signally us when we act in ways that don’t fit our values. In the previous example about telling a lie, guilt lets you know that lying is an uncomfortable behavior, and it can end up doing more harm than good. Guilt teaches you that lying is wrong, and that you don’t want to do it. You can learn from the experience, forgive yourself, and move on with new knowledge.

Shame, though, can have deeper roots. Sometimes we are wounded in childhood, whether by our parents or teachers or friends. A part of us believes that we are fundamentally not good enough, and when we don’t measure up to expectations (whether our own or someone else’s), we feel unworthy and ashamed. Shame tells us we are bad, or not worthy of love or acceptance.

How to deal with feelings of shame:

Be aware of your thoughts: The next time you face a situation that makes you feel ashamed, examine the thoughts that come up. Then, challenge them. Are they true, or are they just old tapes that tear you down and make you doubt yourself? What more realistic, positive messages can you replace them with? As you keep practicing this over and over it will become a normal part of your thinking pattern.

Examine where you first felt shame: Were you a child, unable to make a hit in softball? Did you develop slower than the other kids in your class? Do you lack the artistic talent that your sibling excels in? Was your family life dysfunctional, such as alcoholic, violent, or otherwise not as nurturing as all children need?

Reach out for support and healing: It’s never too late to find acceptance and nurturing, whether from friends, family, support groups, or even a professional counselor. Ultimately, your goal might be to be able to nurture and comfort yourself.

While guilt may have some uses in helping us correct behaviors that we want to change, shame is nearly always destructive. Take the time to explore feelings that distort your perception of yourself and the world you live in, and know that there is always hope to say goodbye to shame and feel better about yourself.

Anxiety, Communication, Family Ties, Intimacy, Marriage Counseling, Mental Health, Relationships, San Diego Counseling, San Diego Therapist, Solutions, Stress, Support, Therapy

When Your Partner Has a Mental Illness

Mental illness can happen to anyone. Conditions like bipolar disorder, depression, or severe anxiety don’t discriminate. What can you do if it is your partner or spouse who is mentally ill? How can you support them and still keep yourself together?

Mental illness can have an overwhelming effect on a marriage or committed relationship. Whether or not the relationship can survive depends a great deal on how you deal with your partner’s mental illness. This video will provide you with some ideas for ways to cope.

1. Educate yourself about the illness. Learn everything you can about what your partner is experiencing, along with treatments, triggers, and prognosis. Knowledge is power, at a time when you may be feeling completely helpless. Learning about the illness will help you know what to expect and enable you to be a member of your partner’s treatment team. I will put some resources in the downbar to help you get started.

2. Realize that you cannot fix your mentally ill partner’s mental illness. You did not cause the illness, and you can’t make it go away. Your partner is the only person who  can make the decision to follow treatment. Encourage and support your partner’s efforts, but it’s important to accept that he or she must make and follow through with their own decisions.

3. Avoid blaming your spouse or partner. Just as you wouldn’t express hostility or anger if your partner were struggling with a physical illness, people with mental illnesses don’t choose to be that way. Symptoms of mental illness can appear to be laziness, avoidance, or lack of consistency. It’s hard not to take those symptoms personally.

4. Feelings of frustration, sadness, and even anger are normal for you to experience. This may not be anything like the relationship you had hoped to have. Your mental health is important right now also. Finding a way to express your feelings safely, like to a trusted friend or a counselor, can help you validate and process what you are going through.

5. While taking care of your mental health, it’s important to take care of yourself physically, as well. First, be sure you are sleeping, eating, seeing friends, and participating in your own activities as much as you can. Second, there are some mental illnesses which can cause the person to act out in verbally or even physically abusive ways when they are in the midst of a crisis. Keep yourself and your children safe from harm, above all.

6. Reach out to others who understand. There are groups for partners of people diagnosed with mental illness, both in person and on the internet. Sometimes just speaking with someone who has been there and understands what you are going through can be an enormous help.  Don’t let stigma or shame prevent you from seeking the support you need.

Mental illness can be very difficult for couples and families to deal with. Remember that in most cases there is effective treatment available, and support for you as well. In every committed relationship, couples face hurdles and this is a big one. At the same time, there is always hope that symptoms can be managed and the two of you can face this hurdle successfully, together. Not all couples are able to weather the storm of mental illness – it can tear families apart. But it’s always worth a try, and you may find yourselves with a stronger bond when you make it to the other side.

Communication, Family of Origin, Family Ties, Marriage Counseling, Mental Health, Parenting, Relationships, San Diego Counseling, San Diego Therapist, Saying Goodbye, Solutions, Therapy

Parental Alienation Syndrome

PARENTAL ALIENATION SYNDROME

When a couple with children makes the decision to end their relationship, the effect on their children can be profound.  How the parents manage this major life change can determine the difference between a positive outcome for the children, or years of prolonged struggle.

Parental Alienation Syndrome refers to an active campaign to turn a child against the other parent. I have heard it termed brainwashing – it is damaging to everyone involved. In my work with families, I have rarely seen behavior this extreme. But I have seen families struggle with negative feelings between the parents spilling over onto the children – even without meaning to.

In cases of divorce or breakup, there can be animosity between the ex-partners. Even when they start out committed to remaining friends or ensuring that the children are untouched by the breakdown of their relationship, this is not always easy to accomplish. Ideally, when a relationship ends, the children’s interests are put first. When the parents move on, even remarry, it is possible for this new, expanded family system to be a thriving and healthy environment for the children. I have seen it in my practice in working with families.  It takes effort and commitment on everyone’s part, and sadly, it doesn’t always work out this way, especially in the first years following a breakup.

Issues like custody, visitation, and child support can become very heated. The ages and maturity of the kids plays an important part, as well as the type of home each parent can offer. By home, I don’t mean luxury or extravagance, I mean that the child knows that he or she has a welcome spot in each parent’s home, and in their life, and that they are cherished, understood, and cared for. They need to know they matter, and that they can trust their parent to still be a parent.

Children were probably witnesses to the breakdown of the parents’ relationship, and they may have developed a sense of who was at fault. As parents, it is not our role to trash talk the other parent, or attempt to turn the child against them. What we can do is try our best to separate marital issues from parenting. If a “good guy/bad guy” scenario exists for the child,  both parents have to first become aware of their behavior, their words, and even their body language. Notice if there are any ways they are contributing to parental alienation. Even if your partner was a lousy wife or husband, they may still be a great parent to the kids, and again, this is what matters most.

So, what if a parent is not such a great mom or dad to the kids? When is it parental alienation and when is the child’s reluctance to be with a parent justified? In his extensive work on Parental Alienation, Dr. Richard Gardner states that if “true parental abuse and / or neglect is present” and the child’s animosity is justified, Parental Alienation Syndrome would not be an appropriate explanation for the children’s feelings. In other words, if the child has feelings of animosity toward a parent who is abusive or neglectful, those feelings may be justified.  Even then there is hope for repairing the parent-child relationship, if the parent who lacks parenting skills or has emotional issues is committed to getting help. If not, again, the child’s welfare is what matters.

Divorced parents need to understand that loving both parents is important whenever possible, even if they have ceased to love their ex-spouse or ex-partner. When one parent repeatedly belittles the other parent, or consistently brings the child into discussions of their faults or the reasons for the relationship breakdown, this can be called Parental Alienation Syndrome. Even if the faults are true, this is not appropriate for our children. Any behavior which is intended to disrupt the relationship between child and parent may be considered alienation. As I mentioned earlier, if there is neglect or abuse, this is an entirely different issue – if the child is frightened, unsafe, ignored, or subjected to harmful behavior, then custody and visitation may need to be adjusted for the child’s well-being. Being a parent is a privilege, and we owe our children our very best parenting regardless of how we feel about our ex-partner.

I hope this very brief overview of Parental Alienation gives you an idea of what it is, and what it isn’t. If this is an issue in your life, I encourage you to explore parental alienation and reach out for support for yourself and your children, if needed.

Video on Parental Alienation Syndrome is here: http://youtu.be/aGkJ5l0Z82s

Communication, Family of Origin, Family Ties, Mental Health, Parenting, Relationships, San Diego Counseling, San Diego Therapist, Saying Goodbye, Solutions, Support, Therapy, Toolkit

Writing Your Personal Story

Here is the written version of my recent interview with author Johannah Warren. The interview can be seen here: http://youtu.be/Dsa5AdiEBuo

“Hi and welcome back to TalkTherapyChannel on YouTube. Today I am going to be talking with Johannah Warren about the experience of writing your own life story.  Johannah is the founder of Saint Columba Press, where she publishes and promotes these unique treasures.  Welcome, Johannah.”

1. What are the benefits of writing down your story?

People write down their stories for a variety of reasons; usually to leave behind a personal accounting of their life.  Whether they served in combat or were a farmer’s wife, it offers a sense of purpose and meaning that these experiences will not be lost forever; that they have some wisdom or “life lessons” to pass on.  [There is a quote that I like from The Bridges of Madison County, from a mother who leaves behind a story and prefaces it with, “…as one gets older, one’s fears subside.  What becomes more and more important is to be known.”]

However, you don’t have to approach the end of your life to be able to reflect on it.  For the writer, it can be transformative.  Writing down your story is a form of taking personal inventory.  Some of it is just plain nostalgic, like the childhood curiosities and blunders.  But traveling down memory lane is not 100% uplifting.  When I shared with people that I had been writing my own memoir and some things were coming up that were unpleasant, I heard things like, “What’s the sense in digging up the past,” and “There is a reason you’ve put these things out of your mind.”  I disagree, because understanding one’s self is critical.  It’s completely natural to want to put things behind us, focus on the positive, and keep moving forward.  I’m not suggesting dwelling on negativity, but anyone familiar with the expression, “sweeping things under the rug” knows that these little things build up.  We are a collection of our experiences, and the rug starts to get lumpy, maybe even turns into a mountain – and it can affect our judgment, our relationships, and our well-being.

Some of the experiences are not traumatic but simply have not been processed appropriately because they happened in the developmental period of childhood before we were emotionally mature enough to understand their significance.  But with a pen and paper (or laptop), in a non-judgmental environment, recalling the details can give a shape to these events – a story with a beginning, middle, and end and ideally an acknowledgement of how you became the person you are.

For example, I was able to recall vividly a humiliating comment by my 2nd grade teacher about how I smelled like cigarette smoke.  Of course it was from my parents, but I was already self-conscious about their lifestyle.  And everyone deals with things differently.  The same comment made to my sister would have provoked a response that landed her in the principal’s office, but I internalized it and let it contribute to my already existing sense of isolation.  I never thought about this again until I began writing, and now as an adult I can put it into perspective.  It certainly wasn’t positive but it was very influential, and I believe being the recipient of such insensitivity made me more empathetic, which is something I’m quite proud of.  I could only see that in retrospect.  Overall, the process was cleansing and changed the way I looked at myself.

In writing my own story, I was able to recognize patterns that I wanted to change, and the sense of isolation that sort of lurked in the background and created a ceiling on my growth.  I was able to admit things that I didn’t even know I felt.  Most importantly, I finally accepted what a colorful kaleidoscope of life I had been a part of.

2. Who might want to try personal storytelling, and why?

Personal storytelling has become very popular for professionals as a way to connect with their audience, fan base, and customers.  Many of us know the story of how Steve Jobs dropped out of college and was ousted by his own company.  Business leaders like to tell the tale of how they overcame obstacles to become the successes they are.  But you don’t have to be the head of a Fortune 500 corporation to do so.  You don’t have to have a rags-to-riches scenario or even have crossed the finish line yet.  Everyone has a story, and inspiration can be found in the smallest things, in any industry, in every walk of life.

People in transition are probably the most likely group to benefit from the therapeutic effects of storytelling.  Divorce and unemployment are just two of the major life changes that can trigger someone to look for answers, and – as cliché as it sounds – the truth can usually be found within.

Not all transitions are undesirable or sudden, like the newly retired or the Empty Nesters, but they still bring about mixed emotions of freedom and restlessness, excitement and fear, as you find themselves with time on their hands to examine the richness and wisdom of a bygone chapter.

There are also those who have overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers – both external and internal.  Sometimes the triumph of the human spirit is heroic in itself, like overcoming addiction.  There are also those who took a painful experience like the loss of a child and channeled it into a movement to help others.  Stories such as these are moving and inspirational for the people who are going through the same thing by reminding them that anything is possible and there is light on the other side of healing.

3. What are a couple of key points to help someone get started?

I would say the most important thing is to identify what’s unique about you.  Some people are naturals – they can talk about themselves all day long with complete strangers – and others take a little more coaxing to share.  The obvious identifying markers are thing like where you were born, marriage, children, career, but these only tell part of the story.  The truly defining moments are usually thrust upon us; the detours that changed who you would become and possibly your worldview.  These stories within the story are the gold.  You can start with the obvious, like immigrating from overseas to New York City fifty years ago.  Or maybe you grew up in an orphanage.  The back story will begin to leak through.

If I’m making it sound easy, my apologies.  And there are many ways to get the thoughts flowing in ink before you dive into the deeper issues.  My favorite prompt is for you to make a list of all your addresses and jot down the first memory that is stirred from each.  Then pick one to describe.  How old were you and who else lived there?  Was there a particular neighbor that aroused curiosity?  Maybe it was on Skid Row.  Imagine that you will take this writing and roll it up into a bottle anonymously, send out into the water, and it will be found by a stranger.  The best advice I ever heard with respect to memoir writing was from Joan Didion who said, “Remember what it was to be me:  that is always the point.”  As a reader, I want you to take me there.

4. If a person needs help in this process, where can they find it?

There are some great books on memoir writing, various blogs, and local writing groups.  I have been involved in an exciting project that will launch this month, so make sure you go to my website and connect with me if you want more information.  There will be a link below.  In summary, it is a hub of resources as well as a Road Map to Writing your own Memoir.  There will be a place to connect with other writers on the journey, collaborate, and share your stories (privately or publicly).  I have been collecting these stories for publication, and I’m really excited about where this will lead.  My hope is to have a positive effect on understanding the human race, beginning with ourselves.

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Anxiety, Communication, Family of Origin, Family Ties, Mental Health, Parenting, Relationships, San Diego Counseling, San Diego Therapist, Solutions, Stress, Support

Managing Holiday Stress

The holidays can cause overwhelming stress for many people. This time of year can even trigger depression and anxiety for some. This article will focus on ways to remain calm and even enjoy yourself during the holiday season.

Why can holidays be so stressful?

Life may already be stressful, juggling work, family, school, and other obligations. Add to that holiday preparations and you can feel overwhelmed. It’s difficult not to take on too much, and even more difficult to say no. It’s important, though, to set limits, so that you can relax and enjoy this time of year. Much of what we are talking about here can also apply to birthdays, anniversaries, and other special days all year round.

Part of the sense of being overwhelmed comes from EXPECTATIONS – if you are not sure how holiday expectations can stress you out, watch some TV, open a magazine or newspaper, or just walk into your local supermarket or store like Target or Walmart. In our city, Christmas displays went up after Halloween. It can be difficult to get away from the expectation of a picture perfect holiday, but let me give you a couple of thoughts that might work for you. Expectations can often get us into trouble. If you have the bar set way up high, and it falls anything short of that, it can feel disappointing. So, you get to decide what constitutes a good enough holiday. Is it seeing loved ones? Having some time to unwind? Is there a spiritual component to the holidays for you, that can help you rise above the commercialism? Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the media frenzy of what holidays are supposed to look like. Decide what really matters, allow some room to go with the flow, and don’t stress so much about gifts or decorations that you can’t enjoy a dinner with your family or friends.

SHOPPING STRESS is another potential landmine during the holidays. Watch enough Black Friday commercials and pretty soon you may find yourself convinced you can’t live without that new 60” television. Not only does the media encourage us to spend ourselves into financial ruin, we may find it hard not to overspend on friends, family, and coworkers. Gifts are supposed to be from the heart. Don’t let yourself get caught up in guilt or competitiveness or even just the fun of spoiling someone. Set a budget and stick to it. If you shop for gifts, start early so that you don’t find yourself in a last-minute panic on December 24.

Another possible stressor can be FAMILY DYNAMICS. It’s the season to show gratitude and love, right? What if you are struggling to feel that way, or even to remain civil during dinner with certain family members? Maybe one family member always drinks too much. Another gets into shouting matches about politics. Mom and dad are divorced and there are step-parents now – who goes where, with whom, and how to manage each person’s idiosyncrasies can make holidays stressful.  Don’t forget, many of them have their own expectations, as well. It can be a fine line between setting healthy boundaries for holiday get-togethers, and hurting someone’s feelings with those boundaries. The bottom line is that, again, you get to decide what works best for you. If a 5-hour holiday family gathering is too much, split up the time and join them for dessert. If you are part of a couple, arrange an “SOS” signal if one of you feels cornered or needs some support. If you are single, bring a friend to diffuse some of the tension. Take on a task, like helping to serve or cleaning up gift wrap, to keep your focus off any difficult family dynamics. Above all, know that it’s not forever. That said, if the situation is abusive, there is a lot of anger, or drinking, or something that you can’t manage even for a few hours, there is no rule saying you must go.

REMEMBER WHAT MATTERS. This is a time of year for reflection, for gratitude, and for connecting with others. If you find yourself feeling isolated, take advantage of resources in your community and reach out. At dinner with your loved ones, take a moment to allow each person to express what they are grateful for this year. Remember those who are no longer with you.  Don’t forget to make self-care a priority as much as you can. Above all, make this holiday season one you enjoy.

Communication, Family Ties, Intimacy, Marriage Counseling, Mental Health, Relationships, San Diego Counseling, San Diego Therapist, Solutions, Stress, Support, Therapy, Toolkit

How to Repair Damaged Trust

There are a number of ways trust can be damaged in a relationship. The first thing that comes to mind might be infidelity, but there are a number of ways partners can betray one another. Abusing drugs or alcohol, gambling or overspending money, lying about how you spend your time, not being reliable or consistent, or not keeping your word…all of those things can affect your partner’s ability to feel comfortable trusting you. The good news is, in many cases broken trust can be repaired. It does take absolute commitment on the part of both partners, especially the one who has betrayed the other. In this article, I will give you a few tips on ways you can rebuild trust in your relationship, even if it has been damaged.

Number one – APOLOGIZE: It is vital that you be able to sincerely and wholeheartedly apologize to your partner. Your apology should contain no excuses or defenses, nor should it be an attempt to minimize the issue. If your actions have resulted in damage to your relationship, accept full responsibility for your part in that. Anything less will make it harder to rebuild. Express your regret for your actions, and your commitment to whatever it takes not to repeat them.

The second tip is TRANSPARENCY. Regaining trust and helping your partner through grief and anger requires perhaps more openness than you have ever show, and a whole set of new rules. It might mean sharing computer passwords, cutting off contact with toxic friends or someone with whom you have had an affair, call or text a couple of times a day, be open about bank and credit card statements, and show up where you say you will be, on time. You and your partner can discuss what kind of transparency is needed, depending on your circumstances. The key to transparency is your willingness to be this open, for the greater good of your relationship.

Third, be willing to COMMUNICATE. Your partner may need to know what exactly happened, and why, as part of his or her efforts to accept it, trust that it won’t happen again, and eventually move on. I don’t mean spending every waking moment discussing the event that damaged the trust between you. But I do mean a commitment to honesty and an understanding of your partner’s confusion and need to make sense of things. These kind of discussions can be delicate, maybe even feeling like you are walking through a mine field.

You may benefit from the help of a couples therapist to help mediate such a discussion, and help you open up the lines of communication about difficult topics, so that they can be discussed in a productive way.

Finally, BE PATIENT: When trying to earn back your partner’s trust, the most common pitfall is not being patient enough. It will take time, maybe more time than you expect, for your partner to move past a major lie or an infidelity. You can’t control how long this will take, and there may be times when you want to say “Get over it and trust me again.” Please don’t. Stay consistent and reliable, and this more than anything will help your relationship heal. Keep following through, show your partner how you have changed and that you are in it for the long term.

On rough days, ask your partner what you can do to help. Express your own needs, as well – it takes both parties commitment to heal and move forward to a healthier place.

With time, patience, and consistent action you will likely walk away with a stronger relationship than you could have imagined. If needed, again, reach out to a trained couples therapist to offer a safe place to explore difficult emotions.

Thank you for visiting, and I welcome your comments below – has your relationship been affected by trust issues? How did you recover?