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.

 

 

Anxiety, Communication, Dermatillomania, Family of Origin, Family Ties, Parenting, Relationships, San Diego Counseling, San Diego Therapist, Self Esteem, Solutions, Support, Therapy

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, Mental Health, San Diego Counseling, San Diego Therapist, Self Esteem, Solutions, Stress, Support, Therapy, Toolkit

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder

In this blog we will be revisiting the topic of Social Anxiety, including a couple of updates from the new DSM 5, or the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Social Anxiety Disorder, which was formerly called Social Phobia, is an anxiety disorder in which a person has an excessive and unreasonable fear of social situations. Anxiety (intense nervousness) and self-consciousness arise from a fear of being closely watched, judged, and criticized by others.

A person with Social Anxiety Disorder basically feels fearful that he or she will make mistakes, look bad, and be embarrassed or humiliated in front of others. The anxiety can be severe enough to build into a panic attack. As a result of the fear, the person either tries their best to endure certain social situations even though they are in extreme distress, or may avoid them altogether. To receive a diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder, the anxiety must be “out of proportion” to the actual threat or danger the situation poses. Symptoms may include blushing, sweating, heart palpitations, trembling, dizziness, and nausea.

People with Social Anxiety Disorder often suffer “anticipatory” anxiety — the fear of a situation before it even happens — for days or weeks before the event. Most of us may feel nervous before a job interview or a public presentation. For the person with Social Anxiety Disorder, the way they feel is far beyond a simple case of nervousness. It can be crippling, and can prevent the person from fully participating in their own lives.

In many cases, adults tend to be aware that the fear is unreasonable, but they are unable to overcome it on their own. Children may not have the maturity yet to recognize that their anxiety is extreme.

People with Social Anxiety Disorder may be afraid of a specific situation, such as speaking in public. However, most people with Social Anxiety Disorder experience fear more than one social situation. Other situations that commonly provoke anxiety include:

  • Eating or drinking in front of others.
  • Writing or working in front of others.
  • Being the center of attention.
  • Interacting with people, including dating or going to parties.
  • Asking questions or giving reports in groups.

Although worries about some of these situations are common, people with Social Anxiety Disorder worry excessively about them before, during and after the event. They fear that they will do or say something that they think will be humiliating or embarrassing, or that those around them are judgmental or critical.

Social Anxiety Disorder can have a negative impact on a person’s functioning, disrupting normal life, interfering with social relationships and quality of life and impairing performance at work or school. People with Social Anxiety Disorder may misuse alcohol or drugs to try to reduce their anxiety, and in some cases, alleviate depression which can co-occur with anxiety.

Social Anxiety Disorder can sometimes be linked to other disorders, such as Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and depression. Without treatment, Social Anxiety Disorder can negatively interfere with the person’s normal daily routine, including school, work, social activities, and relationships.

Treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder

As with most mental health disorders, there is no one answer for the best way to treat each individual case. Nor is every person with Social Anxiety Disorder the same. That said, I will do my best to give you an overview of the most common thinking about the disorder, and some links below where you can investigate and learn more.

People with Social Anxiety Disorder are thought to suffer from distorted thinking, including false beliefs about social situations and the negative opinions of others. I can give you a couple of examples to help this make sense. A faulty thought which can contribute to anxiety looks like “If I speak up in this meeting and ask my question, I will look like a fool.” Or “I am no good with making conversation. People at this party are going to hate me.”

That leads me to one of the most widely accepted therapies for Social Anxiety, which is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If we can work with you to help clear up any distortions in your thought patterns, improve your self-concept, and develop a realistic perception of the likelihood that others are evaluating you in a negative way, it can help develop new ways of thinking that are more realistic and healthy.

We also sometimes include assertiveness and social skills training in helping people overcome Social Anxiety. There may be a genuine sense of not knowing what to say or do in social or work situations. Speaking up or meeting someone new can be stressful if you aren’t sure how to do it.

Relaxation training can be an enormous help in dealing with any type of anxiety. We work with clients to help them recognize the signs that they are becoming anxious, and then set up steps to relax and calm any fears.

Finally, there is medication available to help with anxiety, usually in conjunction with the therapies I have already mentioned. My suggestion in most cases is to try therapy first, and if we don’t see improvement within an agreed-upon period of time, we will discuss a referral to a physician who can prescribe medication.

As I mention often, I want to know what my client with anxiety is eating or drinking. If you feel anxious, and you are drinking coffee or soda with caffeine every day, your symptoms are likely to be worse. I would say the same for a diet with lots of sugar and processed food. There does seem to be a correlation between diet and mental health – be kind to your body, feed it nutritious food, and chances are your mental health will benefit as well.

Thank you for reading, and feel free to add your comments below about Social Anxiety Disorder.

Video on this topic: http://youtu.be/Wma-UXKVfNg

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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