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.

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!

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.

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.

Because I’m Your Therapist, I Can’t Also Be Your Friend

a Dining tableI really enjoy my job as a therapist.

As a therapist, I am in a very privileged position because I get to know my clients in a way that, most likely, no-one else in the world knows them. I get invited into the most raw and vulnerable places of a person’s soul, heart and mind. And, under all the uncertainties, the pain, and everything else clients bring into therapy; there are amazing individuals who have so much to offer the world. My clients are caring, thoughtful, driven, creative, brilliant and gifted in ways I am not, and have a sense of humor that brings tears to my eyes.

As I get to know my clients, I often find myself thinking, “Why did I have to meet you in therapy? Why couldn’t I have met you at the grocery store? You are such a cool person. Now that you are my client, I can’t be your friend!” And, when clients ask me if we can just “hang out” over a cup of coffee, I have to say “no” for a number of reasons.

The differences between therapy and friendship.

1. Ideally, a therapist’s office is a neutral place; the therapist has no agenda aside from supporting your agenda for change in your life. There should be no pressure for you to behave in a particular way – the only expectation is that you will be yourself and be open to possibilities you had not considered for your life. Friends generally want what they want for you often because it is what they think is the “best” for you

2. Friends do not listen without expecting that they will be listened to in return. A relationship with a therapist is one sided – we listen; clients talk. And, when we do talk, it’s to help you be clear in your thinking.

3. You pay your therapist. The exchange is one of money for knowledge, support and direction. Payment relieves a client from the responsibility of the reciprocity necessary in a friendship. In therapy, there is no give and take on an emotional level. Because there is payment, the situation is and is supposed to be imbalanced in your favor – clients are freed up to talk about themselves and not worry about the therapist’s well-being.

4. In therapy, you are the recipient of a particular knowledge base of how certain psychological issues tend to look and play out in your life. At its best, therapy is a combination of art, intuition, intellect, and science. Sometimes, it’s not done so well. Although running into the “wrong” therapist can be discouraging, don’t give up in the pursuit of finding a therapist who is a good fit for you. A good therapist will be one who can take your experiences, help you name and understand them, help you come up with your own solutions, and cheer you on as you meet your goals for your life.

5. Therapists often talk about therapy as a “holding environment” where the therapist is someone who is strong, loving and understanding when you are going through some turbulence in life. In short, we are like the good parental figure that can hold whatever you bring into the room and be able to sit calmly in the presence of your strong feelings. Therapists are (or should) be able to think about your situation rationally and see it objectively for the purpose of pointing out that which you may not be able to see. Therapists are people whose primary job is to listen without reaction and judgment – to take in and gently mirror back to clients what they have a hard time accepting about themselves.

Okay, so the above list is pretty thorough in explaining the differences between therapy and friendship. In theory, a therapeutic relationship can be turned into a friendship, but this move would be fraught with a high level of risk to the client. (“Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!”) Generally, most of us therapists will not make this move in an effort to protect both ourselves and our clients.

A few weeks ago, a client and I were finishing the work we were doing together. In our last conversation, we were discussing how difficult it is to end a therapeutic relationship that has been a constant for a long time. My client asked, “Are you allowed to just have coffee and hang out?” I pretty much told my client that a friendship would be impossible because she would never be able to win an argument with me. I joked that getting into a fight with me would never be a fair fight.

“I would decimate you! I know everything about you; especially those things in your life that are the most painful. You, on the other hand, know nothing about me.”

She pondered this for a couple of seconds.

“Yeah. That would be weird…and unfair. I never thought of it that way.”

We then proceeded to seriously discuss the imbalance in a therapeutic relationship – an imbalance that is necessary for me to do as objective work as is possible for me, for her benefit and in her best interests.

Because of the lack of reciprocity in therapy, I have a great deal of power as a therapist. If you think about what I do for a living, it becomes clear I have been extensively trained to help people change the way they think, feel, behave, and what they believe. It’s like having a superpower! Thankfully, I have chosen to use my powers for good (mainly because I have a very low threshold for the kind of stress and guilt that comes from living on the dark side).

If you really think about it, a superhero has a secret identity, not because they don’t want relationships, but because they value them. They have secret identities because they want to protect the people they love. Therefore, they keep their private and personal lives separate from their work. Things can get very confusing for both parties if there is what is called a “dual relationship”. When Clark Kent told Lois Lane that he was Superman, ugly things happened. Clark badly wanted to share his life and everything that he was with Lois, but to do so would mean that her life would be in danger.

Okay, so I am not Wonder Woman (no matter how badly I wanted to be when I was a little girl). In the real world, a dual relationship (being therapist-client and friends at the same time) means there would need to be mutual vulnerability and, as a result, all manner of confusing things are introduced into a place that should (and needs to) be as neutral and safe as possible for you. Safety in therapy is established by keeping the boundaries very clear as to the purpose of the therapeutic relationship. This is why therapy is framed by your goals and the expectation is that I will help you accomplish them. It never goes in the other direction. It’s all about you, baby!

So, please don’t be offended if I say I can’t be your friend when you are or have been my client or if I seem a little standoffish when you reach out to me outside of the therapeutic context. It’s because I am protecting both your safe experience of therapy and the role you have asked me to play in your life as your therapist.

The truth is, as difficult as it is for clients to hear “no”, it is just as difficult for me to say.

The Potholes of Life

potholeI have to tell you, there are a lot of potholes in Pennsylvania where I live. They are all over the place, seem to keep coming back regardless of how often they are patched up, are the bane of my driving existence, and have done a number on my beloved VW Bug.

Life’s problems are the equivalent of potholes in the road of life. (Yup, “…life is a highway….”) And, ultimately, therapy is about change. As a colleague once told me, therapy is about “more… better… different….”

Change is never easy. And, most of the time, things get worse before they get better.

However, life’s challenges, like potholes and holes in the sidewalk, need to be addressed. Here’s a lovely poem written by Portia Nelson to help you consider the process of change – it is slow, progressive, and a process during which there are slow improvements.

Be encouraged. And, safe travels!

(Great. Now that song is stuck in my head!)

 Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

By Portia Nelson

 Chapter I

 I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in

I am lost…I am helpless

It isn’t my fault,

It takes forever to find a way out.

 Chapter II

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I am in the same place.

But, it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

 Chapter III

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in…it’s a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

 Chapter IV

 I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.