Journaling Can Reduce the Impact of Trauma and Stress

JournalingIt doesn’t surprise anyone in my life when I pull out a pen and notebook. I write everything down. I love books with blank pages, beautiful paper, and pens that are comfortable in my hand and are nicely balanced. I hand write. A lot.

In particular, journaling has been a part of my life ever since I could remember. I write about the good, the bad and the ugly of my life. In many ways, my life is recorded in thousands and thousands of words. I do it because it is good for me. The research says so. That’s why, in my practice, I recommend journaling to a lot of my clients.

Why?

Because writing, even about difficult and traumatic experiences, is good for your health, your emotional well-being and for improving life functioning in general. It improves mood, objective and subjective health, and the ability to function well in an otherwise very stressful world.

Here’s what the research says.

1) A 1988 study done by psychologist Dr. James W. Pennebaker and his colleagues have proved the value of deep personal disclosure that comes with journaling. The study involved 50 undergraduates who were instructed to write about either their traumatic experiences or superficial topics for four days in a row. After six weeks, the students in the trauma group reported more positive mood and fewer illnesses than those writing about everyday experiences. They reported fewer visits to the student health center and reported that confronting their trauma was physically and psychologically beneficial.

2) In a follow-up study, Pennebaker and his research group categorized 60 Holocaust survivors as low, midlevel or high disclosure while being interviewed. Those who disclosed at high or midlevel disclosures were significantly healthier a year later when compared to low disclosures.

3) In 1994, an outplacement firm (Drake Beam Morin) followed 63 professionals who had been laid off from their jobs over an eight-month period. The experimental group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the layoff and about how their professional and personal lives had been affected. They were instructed to write for five consecutive days for 30 minutes at a time while researchers tracked their employment status. Those who wrote about losing their job were much more likely to find a new one in the months following the study.

4) Joshua Smyth and Arthur Stone extended the research to medical patients who suffered from asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. They were instructed to write about the most stressful event of their lives or about a neutral topic. Four months later, patients with asthma showed improvements in lung function while arthritis patients showed a reduction in the severity of their disease. A total of 47% of patients who disclosed stressful events show marked physical improvement.

What does this all mean?

Writing works.

Writing is easy, inexpensive and independent. It is a simple way to be resilient in the face of stress and disease. It is worth the time and effort to disclose your innermost thoughts and feelings because it is good for your health and your psychological well-being.

I encourage journaling for three main reasons.

1. Journaling reduces mental scatter and increases focus.

Difficult life events can create a scatter-brained experience like no other. Thoughts become overwhelming and can race out of control. You can become bombarded with everything that needs to get done, that you didn’t get done, and everything in between; leading to no rhyme or reason. Everything becomes tangled together in one big mess.

Writing it down can help to sort things out and keep you focused and grounded in processing one thing at a time and in a thorough manner.

Journaling assists in holding thoughts still so they can be changed and integrated.

Many times, I have clients complain about how frustrating it is for them to hang on to their thoughts while in the grip of crisis or emotional upheaval. During these times, thoughts can be powerful, fleeting and elusive – like hanging on to water with a tight fist. When thoughts move quickly, they are only processed on the surface – at the place of physiological experience and emotions.

Writing helps to hold thoughts still long enough to examine them on a deeper level where change becomes possible.

2. Journaling releases pent-up thoughts and emotions.

It can be tempting to hold everything in. Some do it because they feel, if they start, they may never be able to stop. Others, because it is just plain overwhelming and hard. It’s easier to avoid and not deal with difficult stuff.

But, it’s worse when you hold it all in. Those who hang on their emotions – holding them in, skimming over them, minimizing them – tend to build up a reservoir of unresolved issues. Eventually, the reservoir becomes too small, explodes and spills out in a big mess.

Writing helps to process things as they happen…as you have time. The alternative is to not address things and eventually, your issues will force you to take the time. Eventually, your body will say “no” in whatever way it can to make you hear and stop.

Writing can be like a valve that releases the pressure to keep things manageable.

And, most importantly….

3. Journaling allows you to re-experience the past with today’s adult mind.

When a trauma happened in your childhood, it gets coded at that age. This is why sometimes, when someone gets triggered, they tend to become that age again. For example, if you were abused as a six-year-old, as an adult, when this memory gets triggered, you become that six-year-old – behaving, thinking and feeling the emotions of your six-year-old self. As a consequence, you use the strategies that worked for you as a child, but which are unhelpful in your adult life because you have other options available to you as a response.

In essence, you have a child driving the bus. And, they can’t even see out over the steering wheel.

The goal of trauma work and therapy is to help you process your trauma so it “grows” up from childhood to adult ways of thinking and behaving in relation to the trauma. Journaling, like therapy, helps you process the disturbing event to it’s logical, healthy and most helpful resolution.

The 3 most popular objections to journaling.

“I don’t have enough time.”

My short answer to this: you don’t have the time not to. Like I said earlier if you don’t make the time, your body and your emotions will do something drastic to force you to make the time.

Journaling does not require a lot of time and you don’t have to do it every day. You do, however, need to have the courage to do it consistently.

Everything worth doing takes time and effort.

“I’m not a writer.”

You don’t have to be a writer. And, you don’t have to write in full paragraphs or even in complete sentences. Write in bullet form. Draw with words and quotes. Just get your feelings down and process your experience. There is no word or page quota. Do enough to keep your life moving forward.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • What happened?
  • How did you feel when it was happening? After? Now?
  • How do you wish it had been different?
  • In what ways did you manage the situation well?
  • What did you learn about yourself as you look back on your experience?
  • How can these new learnings move your life forward?
  • Where do you want to go from here?
  • What are your hopes for yourself and your life moving forward?
  • If the crisis/trauma could speak, what would it want for your life?
  • Is what the trauma wants for you the same as what you want for you…your life?
  • As an adult, how can you see or think about your trauma in a different way?

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop.”

Trauma and crisis can be overwhelming sometimes. So overwhelming it can derail you if you spend too much time thinking and writing about it. This is when you may need some additional support to get past the initial overwhelm. Therapy can be helpful in these situations to move you from overwhelm to managing while you process. Therapy can be a place where you learn self-soothing and coping skills you can apply to all areas of your life. There is also great power in having someone else non-judgmentally bear witness to your story, help you give language to your experience (naming things can be powerful) and guiding you through the process of overcoming your past.

So grab a pen (pencil, marker, crayon…), set the timer and choose an event.

Calm out of chaos.

It is (as Martha would say) a very good thing.

Research

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion. New York: Guilford Press.

Pennebaker, J. W., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Glaser, R. (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: Health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 56, pp. 239-245.

Smyth, J. M., Stone, A. A., Hurewitz, A., & Kaell, A. (1999). Effects of writing about stressful experiences on symptom reduction in patients with asthma or rheumatoid arthritis. Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 281, pp. 1304-9.

Spera, S. P., Buhrfeind, E. D. & J.W. Pennebaker, (1994). Expressive writing and coping with job loss. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 37, pp. 722-733.

Journaling not quite helping you to move in the direction you would like? Therapy (EMDR therapy in particular) can get you moving faster and with the support you need. Ready to have your six-year-old ride in the back where they belong? Give me a call at 610-551-8203 for a free 30-minute phone or in-office consult to see how we can make that happen.

5 Things to Keep in Mind When People Judge You for Wanting the Divorce

polite conversation“Mineela, I’ve decided to get a divorce and I need help and support navigating through the process.”

I hear these words and my heart breaks.

I highly value and cherish the blessing of marriage. What more beautiful thing can there be in the world than two people choosing to commit to love, cherish and honor one another for the rest of their lives? To commit to relationship at its very best and its most challenging? How amazing to have someone say in a ceremony (religious or civil) and publicly they have chosen to elevate you in their lives above everyone else. It is tragic when these initial sacred intentions are torn apart by so many varied and sundry things. Things that should never have a presence within a mutually loving and nourishing relationship.

Probably one of the most painful experiences of a divorce is the experience of being the one to pull the plug. To be the one to say it is over and to begin the process of untangling yourself from one another. The next most painful is how people will react when they hear your have embarked on the process of divorce.

If I have learned anything from working with clients who are going through the process of divorce, it is who turns out to be supportive and who is not.

It is often a surprise, shocking, painful, and clarifying. All at the same time.

1. People will take sides.

Remember when you were getting married? In most ceremonies, each partner’s family and friends clearly state who they are there to support and represent, going as far as sitting on opposite sides of the ceremony.

Over the course of your relationship, each of you intentionally cultivated relationships with your partner’s loved ones, friends and acquaintances. At the first sign of a separation and pending divorce, people will again take sides and you will be surprised at who falls into each camp.

That beloved sister-in-law, with whom you shared the most and thought loved you, might abandon you. Your best friend, who has been through everything with you, might judge you. That high school friend you just recently reconnected with might be your greatest support. That friend who you shared your situation with might be going through the same thing.

2. People will say hurtful things about you and to you.

One of the ways people take sides is by being supportive of your partner in ways that will make you feel cut off and question yourself. You might hear people who you thought knew you saying to your soon-to-be-ex, “He/she wasn’t really good for you anyways”, “I’m so glad it’s ending for you”, “You’re better off without them”, and “They were (insert negative characterization here – difficult to get along with, critical, mean, etc.).” You will inevitably end up asking yourself, “Is that what they really thought of me?” and “Am I really like that?”

What you have to remember: it is human nature to want to demonize someone in order to make it easier to walk away from them relationally. It’s easier to cut you off if they can say something mean or negative about you.

This is not about you. It is about them.

All of you is glorious – the not so beautiful parts of you are beautiful too. This is how love sees us – whole. We can all be critical, mean – whatever. But, we are not all those negative things all the time. In fact, most of the time, we can be gracious, kind, thoughtful, loving, and generous. We are whole human beings. We just do the best we can and pain, hurt, disappointment, fear, and frustration can make it difficult to be our true selves; inviting us into ways of being that are against our better judgment.

This is true for everyone.

But, don’t forget who you are at your core; that part of you that wants to be the best you can be and are most of the time.

Stay connected to people who will speak truth into your life about who you are at your centre. Hang on to those people who will hold an undistorted mirror up to you reflecting back all of who you are, not just what they or you want to see.

3. People do not have all the information.

Many times, we are private about the negative things that happen in our lives. There is a culture of silence around the most important things in our lives – illness, the first trimester of a pregnancy (“just in case” goes the argument), mental health, financial struggle, and spirituality. Just to name a few. We don’t share until the proverbial “shit hits the fan”.

It is healthy to be private about sacred things in your life. Those closest to you will know what is happening and know how you came to the conclusion your marriage has ended. Those who don’t understand will question your decision and, most often than not, berate you for it.

“This is a total surprise to me.”

Of course, it is!

“I don’t understand.”

Of course, they don’t!

Because they don’t have all the information.

And, they don’t need to.

There is no need to explain or defend yourself to people who ask for reasons. Bear in mind their questions are about them – their confusion, their lack of information, their need to have certainty in their lives. And most will want more information just for the sake of having more information and not for the purpose of supporting you.

You will never need to defend yourself to those who have walked with you in your journey of desperately trying to save your relationship. Or, to those who have seen the despair move across your face as you realized you have exhausted all your ideas of how to fix things. Or, that person who listened as you prayed begging for God to break into your marriage and save it by some miracle.

The people who love you will ask you the challenging questions, help you examine your feelings and thinking. But they will also accept and support whatever decision you make even if they do not agree with you. Lovingly, gently, honestly….

Learn to discern the difference between wise loving counsel and those who are just interested in drama and information for the sake of having information.

4. You will be living your decisions, not others.

People will have a lot of things to say about what you should or should not have done and what you should do now or why you shouldn’t be doing whatever it is you are doing. They will have ideas and suggestions. Only you know what you have tried, what hasn’t worked and what you knew better than to try because it wouldn’t have worked. You are the one who has struggled through long sleepless nights trying to find a way to avoid where you are now. But, people will give you their opinions anyways as if you haven’t already thought through all the alternatives.

The thing to remember is you will be the one living your decisions and you need to be clear about the possible ramifications of those decisions. Whatever happens, you need to be willing to live through the consequences – whatever they may be. This includes potentially regretting choices you may make during this time. Ultimately, they are your choices to make and no-one else’s.

This is where a therapist or a wise friend, who will help you look at all your options as well as exploring all the possible consequences, can be helpful. It can be easy to be myopic and hope thing will turn out in a particular way. However, before a divorce is final, you will be dealing with another person (your soon to be ex) and their responses to everything. These responses can be unpredictable and surprising. You will need to react or respond as best as you can. Having someone to be a sounding board can provide you with options you hadn’t considered, help you slow down your thinking and prevent (as much as possible) you from making decisions based in fear and hurt.

5. The marriage ended long before you decided to ask for a divorce.

The person who asks for the divorce has traditionally been understood as the person who is ending the relationship. However, the death knell of a marriage rings far earlier than the moment someone sits in my office asking for help to end it.

An intention to divorce is only an acknowledgement the marriage has ended – regardless of whether it was mutual or not. At the announcement of a divorce, the process of separating two intimately intertwined lives begins. It is the transitionary space between acknowledging the ending one life and the beginning another. During this time, there are a lot of decisions to make and much pain, hurt, disappointment, loss, and fear to work through.

I don’t know why you decided to end your relationship but, it didn’t happen in my office. It happened in your home as you were working hard to live life together. Something happened to create a break in the connection between you and your partner. Repeated infidelity, abuse, disconnection, refusal to address issues, immaturity, irresponsibility, selfishness, neglect, jealousy…. The reasons are endless.

Whatever the reason, it takes two to make a relationship work and both of you played your part in maintaining it. And, both of you played a part in it ending and, often, not in equal parts. As the person asking for the divorce, you just happened to be the one to name the reality that has existed for some time. By asking for a divorce, you have given language to the situation.

Saying things out loud (naming them and calling them what they are) is powerful, painful and liberating all at the same time. You named the elephant in the room and there is no longer any hiding from it. You didn’t create it on your own, you are not solely responsible for it. You have simply taken on the mantle of courage needed to say, “This is the state of our marriage.” Once something is named, it is actionable and change becomes possible.

In the end, my hope for my clients, and for you, is that you will be able to look back on this difficult time and be proud of how you handled yourself – with grace, dignity and as the best human being you possibly could be under the circumstances.

Dealing with other people’s responses and opinions is very difficult. Moving from what is known and familiar into the unfamiliar and unknown is always a frightening proposition. Doubts brought on by other people’s voices are compelling invitations to remain where we are despite the pain. Other people’s opinions can strongly encourage you to doubt your personal knowledge of your lived experiences. Be clear about where your thoughts and experiences end and where the opinions of others begin. Find people who can show you clearly where that line is.

Black & White Casual3

I am a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist who specializes in helping individuals, couples and families with anxiety, depression, relational issues, and trauma. Life is tough. Relationships are even more so. There are so many things which can throw us off course from our intentions to live well and with joy.  I help people wade through the options, find resources and make their own decisions within a compassionate, non-judgmental and safe environment. I help you find solutions.

Contact me at: mineela@mineelachandmft.com or 610-551-8203 to book a free 30 minute consult to discuss the ways in which we can work together to get you back on track.

 

 

13 Best Productivity Tips for Students – Ever!

Education books in library

“Mineela, I have to cancel my session because I have too much homework to do.”

“I am swamped and I have to study for the SATs.”

“I have so much to do, I don’t know how I am going to get it all done.”

If you really think about it, a kid’s life is filled with all kinds of academic demands. On top academic concerns, they are trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be, making and keeping friends, managing the adults in their lives, and making decisions about their future. There is a lot to do and very little time to do it.

My young clients are starting to do the proverbial freaking out about everything they need to do by the end of the school year. Papers, SATs, finals, projects…. I am getting tired just thinking about it.

Following are the best productivity tips I have seen work time and time again, leading to more productivity and, surprisingly, more fun and free time.

Take Care of Your Body

Get enough sleep, eat often and health, drink lots of water, and get some exercise. You need to take care of your body and fuel it with the best fuel so it has what it needs to function at its best. Take care of your body and it will take care of you. ‘Nuf said.

Move Your Body

Exercise for 20 minutes before you get down to work. Exercise will temporarily increase increase your focus. A minimum of 20 minutes of a sweat breaking workout will give you up to 2.5 hours of increased focus for what you need to do. It’s less for some and more for others.

Interact With the Material

You will retain more information if you are able to answer a question. Make some up and write them in the margins of your notes. Take your notes and turn them into questions your teacher might ask. Then answer them.

Pen Beats a Sword – Every Time!

Write as much as you can by hand. Here’s an article about why this helps immensely with retaining more information.

For the reasons on why handwriting trumps typing, click here.

Chunk it Down

Use a simple kitchen timer and chunk your work down into smaller pieces. Work in 20 minute intervals followed by five minutes of break. Setting the timer for 20 minutes will force you to work as fast as you can with increased focus and attention on what is in front of you. So the cycle should be 20 minutes concentrated effort with a five minute break.

20-5-20-5-20-5….

If you find yourself focused and working hard, let the timer go and stay on course. But, take a break as soon as you find your mind wandering and you are not using your time efficiently.

Maximum attention span for optimal focus and attention is 40 – 45 minutes. The time gets shorter if you are tired, hungry, upset, or sick. So, feel free to play with this number to find your sweet spot. Generally, 20 minutes seems to be optimal when under stress.

List It Out

Having a list, checking it twice and checking off the items you have completed can be very helpful. It can remind you of what you need to focus on, thereby avoiding all the other fun extraneous things you would like to do. (Like the chores you normally hate doing.) Checking things off can help you see you are making progress, fueling further progress.

Break Wisely

Use your five minute break wisely. Do not do anything during that time that will get you caught up in it. (Yes, I am referring to video games, Facebook, Instagram, or knitting.) Stick to activities that will take you only five minutes to do but do not take up head space – fold laundry, do some jumping jacks or other exercise, draw, color, pick up your room, do a chore, or play with the dog. The goal is to find something you do not have to think about, can do fairly easily but, you can also tear yourself away from it when your five minutes is up.

Plan Mini-Vacations From the Schoolwork

Plan something fun to do at least twice a week. See these as rewards and vacations from the work. This will give you something to look forward to. Plan them as rewards for a job well done and a break well deserved.

Sip That Glucose

Your brain uses 25% of the glucose (a sugar) you ingest to fuel itself. It is the only fuel that your brain uses to run so, this is the reason you crave sweets when you are studying or using your brain for a long period of time. Glucose comes in a variety of forms and it’s up to you to choose the healthy stuff (like fruit and juice) and to ingest it in moderation. Because your brain needs a constant supply, it’s best to consume the sugary stuff in small doses over a longer period of time. The only rule is you do not chug or eat your piece of fruit all in one go. You eat in small bits over time – make that orange last as long as you can! If you’re drinking Gatorade (or some other drink), sip. Do not chug or take big gulps. Simply sip every once in a while.

(Be wise if you struggle with conditions where you need to limit your sugar.)

Use Caffeine Strategically

Note: This strategy is not for everyone; especially, if you struggle with anxiety.

The timing of caffeine ingestion makes a difference. The research is showing that if you have caffeine before you work, it will increase focus. If you drink it after, it increases retention of information. What you are trying to accomplish will determine when you have that cuppa Joe.

Keep in mind too much coffee and/or too late at night will lead to trouble. Stick with eight ounces at regular strength – that is a very small cup. Espresso does not count! I never recommend energy drinks or strong coffee because you will crash and it will most likely keep you up into the night. Remember what I said earlier about you needing your sleep? Keep reading and I’ll give you another good reason to get a good’s night sleep.

Manage the Ambiance

Often, we can be distracted not only by the sounds of everyday life but, also by the chatter in our own heads. Ambient noise provides a nice cover from these noises. But, not everyone benefits from ambient noise. Some work better in complete silence. You need to figure what works for you.

For those who find ambient noise helpful, the kind of noise that works might be different for each of you. Some options: the hum of the coffee shop (some of my best work happens at a coffee shop), music in the background (avoid music with lyrics and loud enough that you can hear it but, not so loud that it will demand your attention), working in a library, sitting in the hallway at school, or white noise (lots of free apps out there to work with). Experiment with what works best for you.

Sleep Makes Memorization Stick

There is a particular strategy I recommend when there is a lot to memorize. Retention of memorized materials is much better if review happens just before sleep. Brush your teeth, say ”goodnight” to everyone, change into your pajamas, and get into bed with your flash cards. Spend some time memorizing to your heart’s content, put the cards away, turn off the light, and go to sleep.

Do not collect $100; do not pass GO. Go straight to sleep.

In addition to repetition, deep and restful sleep moves information from short term memory into long term. Do this for a few nights and sometimes to refresh. This is a strategy that works really well with memorization of facts, formulae, and vocabulary.

Working Harder Defeats the Purpose

I saved the best for last….

Did you know that when you work harder to stay focused, the worse your focus actually gets. Courtesy of Dr. Amen (the brain scan/science guru), brain scans actually show that the brain becomes less efficient the harder you tell it to pay attention.

Instead, take a quick break.

Now you know what to do. Get out there and get it done!

Good luck to all my student clients. You got this!

What Do You Really, Really Want?

my resolution - napkin conceptI’ll tell you want I want; what I really, really want!

Wait! Why are the Spice Girls coming to mind?

Before I forget, Happy New Year everyone!

The New Year is an important marker in many people’s lives. It marks the end as well as, and more importantly in my mind, the beginning of exciting possibilities. The vision of the future is bright and we have plans (damn it!) of all the wonderful things we want to accomplish and see in our lives. Because we are creatures of ritual, many of us have been spending days, if not weeks, writing and fine-tuning our New Year’s Resolutions.

Honestly, I hate New Year’s resolutions. I have spent many years making resolutions; starting strong, succeeding in accomplishing some and others that have fizzled out. My experiences with resolutions have been one of frustration (regardless of whether I accomplished my goals or not), futility and just downright disappointment. In particular, the fizzle out factor was high when I was not emotionally connected to my goals. No passion; no success.

Eventually, I realized, I was doing the whole resolution thing wrong! I was actually setting goals and not making resolutions.

Yup. There’s a difference.

I could give you a formal definition of the words “resolution” and “goal” but, I would sound unnecessarily serious-like. For all intents and purposes, a resolution is a decision to do something, be it more different, less, or new. It is about deciding the direction we would like to go. It is an intention. A goal, on the other hand, is the activity which (once completed) will help us realize and manifest our intention.

I love the subtle nuances of language!

In other words, a resolution is a mental state as opposed to the result of an activity. It is, ultimately, what drives not only our goals, but every choice we make. It is what motivates us. I truly truly believe that once we know what motivates us, energizes us, helps us to feel connected to our authentic selves, and helps us to feel consistent with our values, everything else falls into place.

So, I did things a little differently this year. I focused on what motivates and drives what I do – my feelings. I drilled down under my goals to the core of what I want to feel and got to the foundation from which to do everything else. At the end of the process, I realized I had honed in on how I want to feel this year at the core of who I am. I truly believe that the same holds for everyone – each individual is driven by how they want to feel.

I eat because I want to feel satiated and comfortable.
I spend time with my family and friends because I want to feel connected.
I became an entrepreneur because I want to feel creative and generative.
I share resources and information with others because I want to feel generous and expansive.
I strive for my financial goals because I want to feel secure.

Underneath it all, it is fundamentally about how I want to feel. Drilling down under my goals, I found treasure!

The beauty of this perspective is that core intentions, once you figure them out, never change – they are foundational. However, the ways in which an intention gets expressed is limitless. It’s also a great way for those with ADHD to set their goals because we are so driven by our feelings and our energy levels. The less energy we have, the more prone we are to distraction and procrastination. And, don’t get me started on what might happen if we’re not feeling so great physically and/or emotionally; it’s game over!

Brilliant, right? I thought so too. Then I went to my research assistant – Google.

I discovered Danielle LaPorte’s book “Desire Map”. I would like to say I hate the woman because she retroactively stole my great idea but, she is a Canadian. Seriously, how can you hate a Canadian?

I have not read “Desire Map” as of yet, but it will be arriving on my doorstep courtesy of Amazon any day now. I’ll keep you updated and maybe do a review.
In the meantime, head over to her website and check out the first chapter of her book. (And, no, I am not an affiliate member for Danielle and am not receiving compensation in any way.) Scroll down and almost to the bottom and click on the left hand corner of the large image for the book where it says “Sneak Peak”. You will then have access to the first full chapter. Frankly, this seems like enough to get you started in a serious way. The last few pages list feeling words if you need help with generating them.

The process of working through your resolutions in this way has several benefits:

1. It forces you to language what deeply satisfies you. Often, we experience a feeling or sense of something which cannot be articulated because we have no language for it.

2. It brings clarity about what matters to you and what you value.

3. Once you know and can clearly articulate what is deeply satisfying to you, you can make more conscious and intentional choices about what activities will get you there.

4. Difficult, cumbersome, tedious, overwhelming but, necessary tasks take on a different shape and become energizing as opposed to draining. For example, financial planning is now a pleasure for me because it has moved from being something I hate to do to something which I do because it results in the experience of several of my core feelings. If you know something will benefit you on a deeper level than just getting it done, you have more energy to stick with it and get it done.

5. It allows you to course correct; changing, tweaking or even abandoning a goal if you realize it will not get you what you want to feel. Without the guilt or the feeling that you have failed in your bid to be an adult!

6. It encourages and invites you to ask different questions. Is what I want to accomplish going to bring me these feelings? What can I do today to feel one or more of my core desired feelings? What do I want to feel more of today? What can I do about those activities that take me away from my core desired feelings?

So, what did I come up with as my core desired feelings?

Core Desired Feeling

1. Generous abundance

2. Authentic connection

3. Passionate femininity

4. Purposeful focus

5. Graceful strength

6. Daring creativity

(Note: I described my desired core feelings with two words because I’m just a stickler for specificity when it comes to language.)

These feel good to me. They resonate with who I am as an individual. Collectively, this is the mental state I would like to sustain. These feelings are what drive me and my choices in positive and productive ways. They are energizing!

I am probably not alone in the experience of it being much easier to accomplish a highly defined and quantified goal when I feel good. I find goals alone pedantic, hard task-masters and rigid. As such, I experience them as soul sucking and exhausting. In my opinion, these are not the feelings that drive both a successful and satisfying life. Success comes when we accomplish things. However, success and satisfaction are not mutual propositions. Those instances where I have felt both success and satisfaction have been because they connected at a deeper level.

In terms of the original definitions of resolution and goal at the beginning of this post, my core desired mental and emotional states are my resolution. My intention is to feel in these particular ways. My goals are those things which, once accomplished, will result in the manifestation of my intentions; intentions then become a reality. (I could go into a long discussion of how, in this perspective, the intention and the goal, or destination, are the same while you define the path by which you would like to get there. But, I won’t ‘cause this post is already too long.)

Now that I have set a foundation, I feel free to write my goals for the year – or anytime for that matter.

On the first day of 2014, my status on my private Facebook page, read “Today feels shiny, new and exciting…full and pregnant with possibilities!”

(I do have a Facebook business page, by the way. Hint. Hint.)

Again, Happy New Year, everyone! May this year bring and be filled with treasure in all areas of your life!

Parenting Quick Tips

Family doing stretching exercises at home

(Note: I personally hate it when people tell me how to parent my child! But, that doesn’t stop me from honestly consider suggestions that might fit my life, me and my child. So, feel free to take and implement what is helpful and leave the rest behind.)

Parents usually enter my office worried and full of questions. My feeling is that many parents today parent out of fear and uncertainty about what exactly is the “right” thing to do.

Newsflash: There is no one right thing to do.

There are definitely things you don’t want to do but, when it comes to helping a child grow into a productive, independent, caring, courageous, and respectful adult who gives generously back to the world, many roads lead to Rome. And the road is dependent on a child’s, as well as a parent’s, personality. Even though the road might be different, there are some basic guiding principles which you might want to take into consideration.

In any profession, there are issues that repeatedly come up which you tend to consistently answer in the same way. This is how it is with being a therapist as well.

Following is a list of the most common things I teach or point out to my clients when parenting questions are brought up. There are grouped under two categories – change your perspective and improve communication. Many (or all) of these may be familiar to you but, it’s nice to have a reminder once in a while.

Change your perspective

1. Consider the resources needed by your child to succeed.

Does your child have the skills and resources needed to comply with your requests and expectations?

2. Don’t get into a power struggle.

Ignore negative reflex comments (“I hate you!”) made my your child and stay focused on the goal.

3. Avoid judgments.

Focus on changing behavior, not negatively defining yourself, your child or their behavior.

4. Be a good example.

Demonstrate through your own behavior what you would like your child to learn.

5. See it through their eyes.

Consider your child’s experience and how you would like to be treated if it were you in that situation at that age.

Improve communication

 6. Teach your child how to express and manage his/her feelings; build their emotional quotient.

They will use these valuable skills for the rest of their lives in more ways than you can image.

7. Anticipate potential problems.

Put strategies in place beforehand instead of responding reactively in the moment.

8. Don’t lecture.

Speak briefly, clearly and with authority (which is not the same as yelling). You don’t need to yell to get respect. Stay in control of yourself.

9. “Catch” them doing the right things.

Children respond to verbal praise much better than they do to punishment and criticism.

10. Be consistent.

Rules, expectations and schedules are important and children find them comforting.

11. Follow through.

Mean what you say and say what you mean. Do I really need to say more?

12. Give them choices whenever possible.

Help children feel and learn that they can choose how they want respond. Life is almost never about only one choice but, one among many.

Ultimately, it boils down to one thing – does your child feel loved?

There are so many great parenting books out there. But, keep in mind that the way someone else parents may not work the same or as well for you and your child because you and your relationship with your child is unique. Take whatever is helpful and leave the rest – trust your instincts as a parent. However, try something consistently for long enough to build habits and don’t give up too soon.

Happy parenting!

 

How Do You Want Me To Listen?

 

 

Millions of people have watched this video over the last few months and many of my friends (and, admittedly, I myself) said, “That’s so true! It’s not about the nail! He’s not listening!”. And, we have all made comments from the other side’s perspective as well, “I was listening. It’s so obvious; why can’t they see it?!”

Personally, if I saw someone with a nail stuck in their forehead, my instinctual response would be to reach out and just yank it out. My philosophy is to rip the bandage off in one fast motion, instead of putting yourself through slow and extended torture. Yeah, a little direct and probably the most helpful and needed thing in my mind. Isn’t this, after all, what the mouse did to the lion with a thorn in his foot? And, look, they became the best of friends. (But, in my case, the person’s head would most likely fall off because the nail was actually holding their head in place. That’s a whole other blog post.)

Someone asks you to listen to them. You think you’re doing a great job. The next thing you know, they walk away in exasperation saying, “You’re not listening!” 

How frustrating! And, what just happened?!

You were just doing what they asked you to do…or were you?

The following is my take on this commonly occurring scenario.

Ultimately, it really isn’t about the nail. Really. Even though it’s the most obvious thing and the solution might be really clear, the nail is a distraction from what is really needed.

So, again, it’s not about the nail. It’s really about relational connection and needing to be understood and empathized with.

My recommendation is, if someone asks you to listen, if they haven’t told you already, ask them specifically how they want you to listen. I know. I know. Does communication have to be so complicated? No, communication is that simple and makes conversational expectations clear.

There are four potential responses the person who has asked for a listening ear can give you to your question, “How would you like me to listen?”:

1. “Listen but, I don’t want you to solve the problem for me.”

Many people, most of the time, just need to talk to someone and have someone empathize with their struggle or problem. They’re not looking for answers, because they feel on some level that they will find the answer if they just talk it through. You are not expected to do anything except understand. Do NOT stare or be distracted by the nail and stay focused on them. They can tell, my friend, that you are staring. (My only caution, when they lean in for a hug, make sure they don’t take out your eye.)

2. “Listen and give suggestions when I am done.”

Here, people are generally looking to have the opportunity to say everything they feel they need to say. They don’t want to be interrupted. But, “um-hm”s and nodding your head in understanding is all that is required as they get through all the information they want to convey. Try and see their perspective and, eventually, they will stop and ask, “What do you think?” This is when you begin with clarifying anything you still don’t understand. Then you can make suggestions about what could be done. (Resist the strong and almost overpowering urge to reach over and just pull the damn thing out of their forehead.)

3. “Listen ’til I’m done and give me a few possible solutions while I also share the solutions I came up with. Then, leave me free to make my own decision which I would like you to support.”

This is just another way of saying, “I need to find a solution and two heads are better than one.” (And, hopefully, only one head has a nail in it.) They want to make their own decision regarding the challenge at hand so, leave them free to come to their own conclusions about what they would like to do. And, anyway, if you are insistent about a particular solution, they follow through, and it bombs, guess who they will make responsible? Yup. So, don’t do it.

4. “Listen and comment, add suggestions and ask questions along the way.”

This is the sign of someone who is looking for a dialogue and ongoing conversation. They’re willing for you to point out the nail and have you look at it. (Gross, by the way!) They are looking for you to ask questions and make comments that are clarifying or help them consider possibilities and points of view they have not yet considered.

Some general tips:

1. Never (and I really mean never), offer only one or two options if you are asked to provide a suggestion. One suggestion is not really a choice and you risk being heard as saying, “this is the right way”. Giving two suggestions is a forced choice and an either/or proposition which isn’t really a choice. Always give three or more options and let them choose.

2. If you can, support the decision but, do not take responsibility for it. Just because you are supporting it, does not mean you have to agree with it. One option they may choose is to leave the nail exactly where it is until further notice. Worse yet, they may feel they need to substitute the nail with a screw. (Okay, stretching the analogy a little but, you know exactly what I’m talking about.) Your only job is to make sure the nail doesn’t snag your favorite sweater knit for you by your great-great grandmother. In other words, protect yourself from the impact of their struggle and speak up if the nail gets in your way – accidentally or otherwise.

3. Your goal is for the speaker to feel understood and empathized with. This is always necessary for someone to be open to and able to receive suggestions and consider difficult feedback. You want to influence this person to change? Then don’t just listen to what they have to say, hear them.

So, when someone asks you to listen, seriously consider asking in return…

(…all together now…)

“How do you want me to listen?”

See. It’s really not about the nail…unless you are installing new baseboards.

Now, if you will excuse me. I’m off to find my pneumatic nail gun and air compressor.

Spirituality in Therapy (or “M.Div.?”)

hope, freedom and spiritualityWhenever I give my business card out, people are quick to point out the “M.Div.” after my name. It is usually followed by, “You went to seminary?” Often followed by, “Do you only work with Christians?” And, then, “Do you only work from a religious perspective?”

So the answers to the questions are “yes”, “no” and “no”.

“M.Div.”, by the way, stands for “Master’s of Divinity”. And trust me, there is no such thing as “mastering the divine”. The more I learn, the more questions I have and the more I realize I don’t know.

Before going any further, I do have to start off by saying that I did grow up in the church and I self-identify as someone who has a relationship with God. My spirituality is a very big part of who I am as a person, how I choose to live and greatly informs my life and work with respect to the nature of relationships, problems and being human. It helps me to understand myself, myself in relation to others, myself in relation to the human collective, and that I am a work in progress.

Notice that I am using the word “spirituality”. By this I mean having a sense of connection and/or relationship with something that is bigger than myself. Relationships can be life-nourishing or they can be life-diminishing. In other words, you relate somehow to a greater being, energy or power. Not having a relationship is also a relationship of sorts, in the same way that not communicating is communication. (Surprise!)

I had two main reasons for attending seminary. First, when I began my undergrad in Psychology (go U of T!), there was no discussion of how spirituality could be addressed within a therapeutic context. I had noticed there was almost nothing being discussed about how spirituality impacts (both positively and negatively) many areas of a person’s life. Some find it comforting, others painful and others still who want to have nothing to do with it or are simply indifferent. The dominant conversation came from a Christian perspective and focused on how to quote scripture, praying in sessions and, to a large degree, using the therapeutic context as a means to proselytize (a fancy word that means to encourage someone to convert to a particular religion). Even today, the question of whether therapy is an appropriate place to discuss spirituality is passionately debated. The conversation can get quite heated and often ends with some reference to Hitler. (I am always fascinated by this phenomenon, by the way. There’s even a name for it – Godwin’s Law.)

The silence regarding spirituality in the mainstream literature, I believe, got translated into “you can’t talk about your faith/spirituality in therapy”. However, not discussing someone’s spirituality in therapy doesn’t make sense to me if it is important to my client and if they want to make it a part of the conversation. Spirituality is strongly linked to ideas of meaning, values, purpose, and direction – the very stuff of therapy. How can you not discuss something that someone thinks of as a serious component of their well-being (or their not well-being)? If spirituality is an important part of your life, you should be able to talk about it in therapy. In this sense, discussing spirituality in therapy becomes a discussion just like any other discussion and not a tool used by the therapist for the purpose of therapeutic change.

…many of life’s most basic questions (who we are, our purpose, why we are here, etc. ) are directly connected to spirituality….

During my years at seminary, it was really important to me to figure out how to discuss spirituality in ways that are respectful, nonjudgmental, from a position of curiosity, and detached from my own beliefs. For those who are spiritual, many of life’s most basic questions (who we are, our purpose, why we are here, etc. ) are directly connected to spirituality and, for many, these same questions have a profound, existential, and spiritual meaning that shouldn’t be ignored. And, I wanted to be able to have these conversations regardless of how people self identify in terms of religion, spirituality or faith.

I remember the first time I asked a client, “Is spirituality or faith an important part of your life?” The client looked at me in shock and asked, “I can talk about that here? I didn’t think I could.”

Being sensitive to the role that religion and spirituality play in a person’s life potentially opens the door to more and different solutions as well as possibilities that may have not been previously considered. It can also bring a very beautiful aspect of the human experience into therapy.

My second reason to choose to attend seminary came as a result of hearing from others about their negative experiences with therapists who claimed to work from a spiritual perspective. More recently, I often get clients who have come out the other end of therapy with a previous therapist having been harmed rather than helped when their spirituality came up.

The complaints I often heard, and continue to hear, are:

1. “I felt judged.”
2. “Our sessions turned into a debate. The therapist was trying to convince me that what I believed was wrong.”
3. “He only quoted scripture at me and we didn’t really get anywhere.”
4. “She told me I had made the wrong decision. I should have done it her way.”
5. “I came out of sessions feeling like I was bad or there was something wrong with me.”
6. “He turned everything into a spiritual issue.”

So, if you are hoping to discuss something from the perspective of your faith or spirituality, here are some things you might want to look for in order to spot a therapist who knows what they are doing:

1. They ask more questions than make statements. Questions are geared towards understanding your particular perspective and the quality of the questions will tell you whether they are listening to you.
2. They will not assume what you mean if you use jargon that is particular to your beliefs. To me, “I’m a Christian” says nothing more than there might be some belief in there about God and Christ; “Muslim” means some type of beliefs around Allah and the Prophet Mohammed; “a higher power” could mean Gaya or collective consciousness…or something else altogether. They will look for clarity and will not assume their understanding of what you said is what you actually meant. So, again, they will ask lots of questions.
3. They will not tell you what the “right” thing to do is. They will explore your options with you and discuss the potential consequences of the choices you feel might be possible. Then you will make your choice because it is yours to make.
4. They will not say, “I told you so.”
5. They will support you in your choices and allow you to own your choices even when they are worried about the choice you eventually make and the impact it may have on you.
6. They will help you generate the solutions you feel may help to resolve the questions or struggles that you have. In this way, the solutions sit comfortably within your beliefs, make sense to you and resonate with who you are.
7. You feel free to say, “I want to pray about that this week”, “I want to meditate on that before next session”, “I would like to discuss this with my priest”, “This is not a spiritual/faith issue”, or “That sounded like you were judging me.”
8. They are sensitive to not only religion, faith and spirituality but also to age, gender, ability, sexual orientation, power and privilege issues, and race.

So, yes, I have an M.Div., but it might not mean what you think it means.

Children and Sleep Problems

Bully pulling hairConnie is a young mom who is frustrated with her nine year old son, Matt. “I know he can pull it together because he can do it at school.” Her conclusion, “He’s just choosing to misbehave.” The pattern that Connie describes is one where Matt is well-behaved at school, but when he comes home, he is impossible to manage. He is picking fights with his siblings, wants to run around instead of sitting and doing his homework, “he is defiant and won’t listen to me”, and “his temper tantrums are explosive”.

The scenario described by Connie above is one I hear all the time from parents. Nine year old Matt is well behaved at school, but once he gets home he is his mother’s worst nightmare. (Really, when it happens most days out of the week, this is not an exaggeration.) Moms usually report that teachers don’t have any complaints – “He’s quiet, well-behaved, gets his work done.” So, what’s the deal?

When parents come in wanting to discuss their children’s behavior, one of the first things I ask about is how their child is sleeping. If it’s off, it’s one of the first things we work on. Because children and sleep problems do not mix well.

Think about your own life as an adult and what you are like when you haven’t gotten the sleep you need. Not only are you physically exhausted, but you are also an emotional wreck. It takes a lot of energy and resources to keep your emotionally wrecked and exhausted self contained. When sleep deprived, we adults are easily emotional, exhausted, unfocused, unproductive, and irritable. There are very few physical and emotional resources available to live life, let alone manage relationships well and give your best at your career. Now take all this exhaustion, apply it to your sleep-deprived child and then multiply it a hundred fold.

Why multiply it? Because kids don’t have the knowledge, experience and skills that adults have acquired over a lifetime to manage their lives. Children are still learning how to do this thing called life. They have many developmental tasks they are expected to accomplish and master each day – making and keeping friends, managing and organizing educational demands, extracurricular sports, responding to adult demands, and generally having very little control over how they live their lives and spend their time.

When exhausted, most children work very hard to get through their day at school, holding back the tidal wave of all the behaviors they would rather engage in to express their exhaustion. When they come home (from holding their breath all day at school), they finally take a breath and let loose. It’s a lot like you holding back anger towards your boss all day and then, when you get home, well…you know.

A good night’s sleep can have a huge impact on how your child functions, copes with every day demands and their resilience in the face of life’s surprises. It also makes your job as a parent a little easier. A good night’s sleep is vital to your child’s mood and brain function (not to mention your sanity). Difficulties with sleep can potentially point to bigger issues – ADHD, anxiety, depression, behavioral problems, academic difficulties, and worry. It is an early first sign your child’s body uses to communicate, “Something is wrong in my world. I need your help.”

Sleep difficulties fall into five categories

Falling Asleep

Kids who fall into this category often describe that their mind “clicks in” when their head hits the pillow. Anxieties, worries and events of the day can flood their consciousness, rev them up and make it difficult to sleep. They often complain, “I can’t shut it off.” Their brain becomes a place where thoughts, feelings, ideas, memories, and imagined futures bounce uncontrollably off one another. Their brain jumps at lightning speed from one item to the next.

Staying Asleep

This sleep difficulty is characterized by multiples awakenings during the night. The repeated interruption of the sleep cycle makes it very difficult for children to achieve Mother comforting her crying little girlREM (rapid eye movement) sleep which is the restorative stage of sleep.

Early Morning Waking

In this scenario, kids wake up super early and then cannot go back to sleep. This can make for very long days and less than stellar behavior at the end of the day.

Restless Sleep

In this case, sleep is…well…restless. Kids toss and turn. They awaken to any noise in the house. They are so fitful they often awake to find the bed torn apart and covers kicked onto the floor. Sleep is not refreshing and they awaken as tired as when they went to bed.

Difficulty Waking

Difficulty waking is usually preceded by an inability to stay asleep or multiple awakenings until about 4:00 a.m. Then, they fall into “a dead sleep”, from which they have extreme difficulty rousing themselves or being roused by someone else. These are the kids that sleep through two or three alarms and family members’ attempts to get them out of bed. They are commonly irritable, even combative, when roused before they are ready. Many of them also say they are not fully alert until noon.

Strategies For A Good Night’s Sleep

Maintain a regular sleep schedule

Recent research (see the journal Pediatrics; a study involving 10,000 children) has come out that actually shows a strong connection between an irregular sleep schedule and behavioral issues in children. Thankfully, it is possible to get them on the right track by the time they are 7 – 10 years old. Phew! Kids like routine. It helps them to know what can be expected and many of them find consistent schedules quite comforting. It can be tempting to flex on a sleep schedule during weekends and holidays, but I would recommend you not. Keep things as consistent as possible.

Get their bodies moving – exercise

Exercise helps with burning extra energy as well as helping to manage depression, anxiety and ADHD. I usually recommend something that involves staggered breathing, constant movement or movement that involves a left-right contralateral movement. For example, cycling, running, and swimming. But, exercise is exercise. Get them moving in the morning or at some point during the day, so they’re not moving so much at night. Exercise can also promote deeper sleep and more time in restorative sleep.

No eating and drinking two to three hours before bedtime

This is a difficult rule to follow because kids love their snacks before bedtime. If they must eat something, keep it small and focused on carbs – milk, toast, a small bowl of cereal – whatever your child’s diet can manage. You want to give them just enough to quiet their bellies; avoid overstuffing them or they will need bathroom breaks in the middle of the night. Overfeeding will defeat the purpose. If they are asking for water at bedtime, this is a possible sign they are dehydrated and not getting enough water during the day.

Reduce nighttime distractions

Some kids are very sensitive to light and sound. Kids with ADHD are wired so they can’t not pay attention. So, eliminate as much noise and light as possible. Some options: use a white noise maker, use a clock that lights up only when a button is pressed, put up blackout curtains, use a sleep mask, or use earplugs.

Have healthy bedtime rituals

Evening rituals signal to the brain and body that it is now time to slow down and move towards sleep. It also provides kids with the opportunity to connect with caregivers. Some rituals could include: cuddle time, reading a book, turning all technology off, dimming lights, brushing teeth, changing into pajamas, getting a favorite blanket or stuffed animal, and/or saying goodnight to family members and pets.

Dress for sleep comfort

Chilly feet keep some children awake; wearing socks may help to send them into dreamland. Remove any scratchy tags from pajamas. Keep kids cool.
One tip from a client: don’t combine flannel pajamas and flannel sheets. Apparently, this combination makes it difficult for kids to turn over in bed because the fabric has a tendency to stick to itself.

family momentsHave some pre-bedtime relaxation routines

Foot rubs, visualization (imagining they are descending slowly on an escalator as they breathe deeply), breathing exercises where you can help your child focus on their breathing, and prayer (if this is a part of your life) to encourage them to entrust loved ones and concerns to God.
Another way to manage anxieties is to give kids a “parking lot” for their worries. Give them a place to put their worries so they don’t have to take them to bed. A journal where kids can write or draw their concerns works really well. Do this before their bedtime routine and store the journal in a place designated as a “safe place”.

Teach them to use self-soothing skills

Pay attention to what might give comfort to your child. Does he like wrapping himself in a blanket with only his mouth and nose exposed? (Many find it comforting to sleep this way.) Does she like it when you gently rub her back? In this case, you may want to teach your child to lightly rub her own arm as a relaxation technique. Maybe playing soft instrumental music would be soothing?

A self-soothing skill to try – teach your child to tap. One simple way of doing this is to have your child lie on their back with their arms at their sides. All they have to do is slowly tap their hands, bending up and down at their wrists in an alternating left-right pattern. This may help with promoting an automatic relaxation response in the body.

Pay attention to what works for you and your child and leave the rest. Then, be consistent.

Sweet dreams!

To Post or Not to Post…Pics of Your Kids?

BW portrait of sad crying little boy covers his face with handsA couple of years ago, an absolutely creepy application was released on Facebook during the Halloween season. It’s an interactive short film that shows a grungy and crazed looking man rifling through your Facebook page, accessing all your information and finding out where you live. The application actually uses the contents of your Facebook page to up the creep factor to dizzying heights.

The application is called “Take This Lollipop” and to enter the site, you are dared to click on a lollipop with a razor blade in it. The app then asks for temporary access to the information on your Facebook page. The application uses your data in the short film and then promptly deletes all your data and access permission. To date, it has had almost 14 million views.

The application is a brilliant piece of work, but I warn you, it is scary in an “Oh my god! I need to pick up my child from school right now!” kind of way. It’s brilliant because it changed how I thought about something which I had, to this point, taken for granted. It made me think more deeply about the information that is available on the internet about me, my family and my friends.

The creator, Jason Zada, who happens to be a commercial and viral marketing director, came up with this piece of horrifying film as a way to draw attention to online privacy. Zada’s desire was to create “something that messed with people”, “to get under people’s skin without any gore or anything” and to promote discussion about online privacy.

The application did its job…a little too effectively, if you ask me. I was so creeped that I refused to watch it as part of the preparation of writing this post. Once was enough, thank you very much!

He goes on to say, “Our privacy was dead a while back and will never be the same,” he said. “Life as a whole has changed. If you look at the video, the scariest part is that your information is in the video. The piece is scary because a person is violating your privacy, not because it’s bloody or there’s anything jumping out.”

To post or not to post your child’s picture online? That is the question.

Online, there is a very active and ongoing discussion about whether or not you are a bad parent if you post pictures of your child on Facebook (or any other social media site).

You’re bad if you do.

People in this camp adamantly say you should never post anything about your children. Two of the best reasoned arguments are: (1) to protect your child’s identity and safety and (2) to provide your grown child with a clean slate with regards to their personal image and branding.

You’re bad if you don’t.

The world has gotten very small and part of how this has happened is the level and extensiveness of connectivity provided by the internet. The argument on this side of the fence is that technology and the internet are a part of our culture. Social media has changed how the world functions and to keep your child disconnected technologically is to isolate them socially.

Frankly, I have never been one to sit on one side of a fence or another. I find that issues like this are more nuanced than the two opposing and extreme positions presented.

My personal response to the “to post or not to post” question is be wise about what you post.

A few rules you may want to consider when posting pictures of kids:

1. Do not out your child regarding their less than stellar behavior. No-one wants to be reminded of the times they behaved badly – not even you. It’s best to move on from bad days.

2. Do not post pictures of their embarrassing moments – tripping, falling, etc. Wasn’t being humiliated once enough?

3. No bathtub shots or anything provocative.

4. Kids sleeping. I know, they’re really cute and angelic when they’re sleeping, right? However, this feels to me like invading their privacy without their knowledge, so I personally don’t do it.

6. Public displays of affection. I get that the first kiss is special, but really?

7. No posts of those pictures they told you not to take in the first place. “No” means “no”.

8. Anything that can be used to identify your child’s location (team logos, school banners, mapped locations).

9. Use strict privacy settings. However, be aware that it doesn’t matter if you have the highest of privacy settings as a picture can quickly get beyond your personal list of friends.

10. Monitor your child’s Facebook page.

12. Do not use your child’s picture as your Facebook cover or profile picture. These are automatically made public and can easily be found on Google images.

11. Let your children view your Facebook page, using it as a tool to teach about what is appropriate and safe to post. Show them what good online habits look like by practicing them yourself.

12. Do not tag your friends’ children’s pictures without getting their permission first. This is just plain rude.

By now, all parents should be aware that anything that goes online is permanent. What you ultimately decide to do with your children’s privacy online is your decision. When I’m not sure what to do, I think about how I would feel if someone did to me whatever I am considering doing. In really ambiguous situations, I err on the side of caution and don’t do it.

Question: Are there pictures of you on a social network that you wish weren’t there? What did you do about it?

A Genuine Apology Requires Empathy

Fotolia_16345577_Subscription_XLHere’s a frequent conversation couples have in my office:

“Why do you always have to bring that up?! I have apologized for that so many times. I don’t understand what you want from me.”

“No, you don’t understand. It still bothers me.”

“You need to let it go. Why are you hanging on to it? There is something so wrong with you.”

This is usually where the offended partner ends up crying or emotionally shutting down. I can literally see the shutters fall over their eyes; they have left the conversation and everything comes to a standstill.

I think one of the most basic human needs is the need to be known as we are. This need to be understood and validated is what causes a partner to continually bring up an offence. I see this happen often in my office. The injured party repeatedly brings it up in an effort to resolve something that does not feel closed to them. It is not an effort to punish, but to bridge the continued disconnection they feel with their partner because of an unresolved issue.

Human beings come to conclusions about another’s sincerity and authenticity in very complex ways. They take into account a number of sources of information: content of the message, how the content is delivered (tone, volume, speed, and language), emotion, and body language. People can feel a disingenuous apology and will reject it because of its insincerity. The result is that the offense keeps being brought up because the offended person feels neither understood nor empathized with.

It’s frustrating when someone does not acknowledge your apology and tells you they do not believe that it is genuine. The truth of the matter is…

…they are probably right.

Repairing a relationship after a rift is a skill that most couples struggle with and, if not mastered, can cause the relationship to flounder. Repair helps you to draw closer to one another instead of drifting apart; rebuild connection as opposed to causing greater disconnection. Ultimately, it cannot happen if empathy and understanding are not present.

The foundation of an effective apology rests on two key words: “understand” and “empathy”.

To understand means to grasp the significance, implications, or importance of something. And to have empathy for someone is to directly identify with and understand the vicarious experience of another person’s situation, feelings, and motives. There’s a subtle difference between the two – understanding is about acknowledging the importance of and its impact on someone else. In other words, it might not be important to you, but to them it is more serious. Empathizing is literally feeling what they feel; seeing things the way they see it.

Steps to identifying with someone else’s experiences:

1. Initiate the conversation.

Someone has to go first and your apology can’t be a condition of your partner doing something first. Take the first step because this is the kind of person you want to be. There’s nothing more unconvincing than someone who apologizes while in the middle of a fight or as a response to, “You never apologized.” You know how that goes. “I asked for an apology so, I doubt that it’s sincere.”

2. Put your feelings aside.

In other words, momentarily put aside your personal feelings, needs, wants, and complaints. Note that I said momentarily. You are not negating, diminishing or ignoring yourself in any way. You are simply putting them aside for the time being.

True empathy demands you put your own feelings aside to understand and validate someone else’s. When you have behaved badly and made poor word choices, it is particularly difficult because it requires that you push aside the need to defend yourself. It also requires you to be vulnerable and consider the impact you have had on someone else.

An apology is negated when it is followed by:

  • Countering with your own accusations – “Yesterday, you did this….”
  • Keeping score – “Well you did this to me so,….”
  • Judging – “I would never have come to that conclusion” or “I don’t know anyone who thinks like that….”
  • Defending – “I am not really like that, but….” or “I didn’t do that, but since you’re feeling bad about it….”
  • Minimizing – “Aw, c’mon. It wasn’t that bad.”
  • Not taking responsibility – “Well, if you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have…. If you just changed….” or “You brought this on yourself.”
  • Justifying – “Well, I was really upset at work. You just have to accept that I was in a bad mood and wait for me to get out of it.”
  • Diminishing – “You’re overreacting”, “You’re being silly”, “That’s the stupidest thing that I’ve ever heard”, or “Get over it.”
  • Define your partner’s experience – “Oh, you don’t really feel like that. You feel….”
  • Compare – “Bob’s wife would never do that to him.”

3. Get behind your partner’s eyeballs.

See the events from their perspective.

Here are some questions to help you move to greater understanding and empathy towards your partner:

  • How would you feel if a stranger on the street had done the same to you? Name a few feelings that would be probable for you.
  • How would you respond? What would you do?
  • Would you do the same to one of your parents? To your child? To your best friend? To your boss?
  • What would be the consequences if you had done the same to a stranger on the street? To your boss? To your child? To your best friend? To your parent(s)?
  • If someone treats you poorly, how would you relate differently to this person? Would it draw you closer or farther away? Would you avoid them? Would you walk on eggshells when you were around them? If you feel fear, how would you protect yourself? Would you question your value to them?
  • What could a stranger conclude about you as a person if they had witnessed what you did and/or said?

You can’t fake understanding and empathy with someone who sees you regularly, if not on a daily basis.

Once you get past your own defenses and into your partner’s experience, here’s the formula for an apology:

“I’m sorry that I….” (Describe briefly what you did or didn’t do.)

“It must have felt….” (Describe your guess about their feelings about what you did.)

“If I was in your place and someone had done that to me, I would feel….” (Insert your “behind the eyeballs” insight.)

“It makes sense to me that you feel this way….” (Again, get into their experience and understand in what ways it makes sense for them to respond the way they did. No judging.)

“Please forgive me.” (Yes, you have to be open to the possibility that your partner may not offer forgiveness and you will need to accept that.)

“What can I do to make this better for you? I was thinking maybe we could….”

This is what it might sound like:

“Honey, I’m sorry that I haven’t spent much time with you lately. I can only imagine how I would feel if I were you – neglected, frustrated, overlooked and maybe even like you are not the most important thing in my life. It makes sense to me that you have been feeling frustrated and disappointed. I want you to know nothing in my life is as important as you. I’ve been selfish and have allowed myself to be distracted from our relationship by other things. Starting tomorrow, I promise that I’ll commit to working fewer hours, and I’ll make every effort to come home in time to have dinner with you every night. I’d also like to make it up to you, so please, let’s go out sometime next weekend and do something nice, just the two of us. You mean the world to me, and the last thing I ever want to do is make you feel lonely. Please, I hope you can forgive me for the way I’ve been acting lately.”

Okay. That was a bit of a speech. But, you get the picture.

So, how do you know you have understood your partner’s experience? They will let you know. It doesn’t matter if you feel you understand. What matters is whether your partner feels you have understood.

Remember, what I have outlined is only the bare bones of an apology. However, a simple formula will not result in the connection you want unless you add understanding and empathy. Only then can sincerity come through naturally.

The more you apologize, the better you get at it….

…and, funny enough, the less you need to do it.