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.

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.

What Lies Beneath Your Anger?

Anger isn’t really a feeling.

Yup. You read that right.

To me, anger is akin to Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy – a nice concept, but not real. (Sorry, Virginia!)

In fact, I teach my clients that anger is actually a set of unhelpful behaviors that signal upset. Some of these behaviors include crying, throwing things, yelling, pouting, the silent treatment, slamming doors, stomping around, “huffing”, and arguing. In short, it is any behavior that communicates to someone else that you are upset. They are unhelpful because they create distance in a relationship when emotions bring with them a potential for greater connection.

What exactly is going on behind the “anger”? What drives it? If anger is the behavior, the drivers and the origins of the behaviors are emotions.

Analogy time….

If you look at an ice cube in a glass, you will notice that the ice cube floats, but what can actually be seen above the water line is only a small part of the ice cube. The bulk of the cube rests below the surface. The part floating above the water are the unhelpful behaviors while, what is under the surface are your emotions.

25NOV0346(296).jpgRemember the Titanic? It wasn’t the little part of the iceberg visible above the water level that sank the ship; it was the larger part underneath that resulted in the most damage. In the end, it was what lay underneath that was much larger, more important and the most destructive because the crew didn’t pay attention to it until it was too late. The lesson – pay attention to what is under the water level or it will sink your boat.

When you get below the surface, you can see what is really going on. As they say, knowledge is power; if you identify and name the underlying emotion (or emotions) you can do something about it. After all, an emotion is just an emotion and one of it purposes is to give you valuable information. Behaviors, on the other hand, are something you choose.

Next time you behave angrily, stop, pause and breathe.

Consider the emotion underneath and name it. Some of the usual suspects include:

  • Frustration
  • Disappointment
  • Fear
  • A sense of injustice/unfairness
  • Hopelessness
  • Sadness
  • Exhaustion
  • Guilt
  • Embarrassment
  • Disgust
  • Shame
  • Depression
  • Overwhelm
  • Loneliness
  • Jealousy
  • Anxiety
  • Shock
  • Abandonment

We can’t choose our emotions – they are what they are. How you choose to respond to them, however, is very much in your control. Naming the emotion is your first step.