People are important. On our better days, I think we all know that. But we all probably have those days where we lose sight of that. Those days when everyone is getting on our nerves or when people close to us disappoint us in one way or another. Those days when we seriously consider moving to a far-off cabin in the woods. Another version of that mindset, I think, also rears its head when we’re struggling. There’s some part of us, often, that thinks we can do something on our own that we simply can’t or, at best, shouldn’t. We might even look at someone else going through the same thing and say something wise about needing to lean on other people or that it’s simply impractical for them to try this or that on their own when they can get help (Ironically, counselors can be especially susceptible to this pattern).

One of the most predominant areas of research in the world of counseling, psychology, and social sciences is the topic of attachment.  The most well-known and cited research on the topic comes from John Bowlby. Bowlby’s main contributions to the field came in the 1950’s and since then countless studies have been conducted and books have been written following his initial theoretical framework of attachment.  Essentially, Bowlby explained that the early bond between caregiver and child creates a template for all future relationships. The idea is that when a parent responds to and interacts with a child in a healthy way the child internalizes this safe and secure presence. So, in a sense, this “secure base” is with the child, and later the adult, wherever they go, even when the parent is not present. What all constitutes responding to and interacting with a child in a “healthy way” is a question beyond the scope of this article. However, I have always appreciated the simplicity of the idea that a caregiver’s main job is to teach a child in their early years about the world, specifically whether the world is a relatively safe place and whether people can be trusted.

As a therapist who primarily works with individuals struggling with the effects of traumatic stress and/or PTSD, I’ve come to appreciate the impact of attachment from multiple angles. Even since I started my career almost a decade ago, I have seen a significant increase in the attention given to early attachment and developmental trauma (simply defined by some as trauma that occurs in the first three to five years of life). Research continues to illustrate how our early relationships affect us for a lifetime. The world of trauma and PTSD research takes this step further, as well, by spotlighting the impact of others on an adult’s ability to cope with trauma and traumatic stressors. Peter Levine, the originator of Somatic Experiencing, even includes the clause “in the absence of an empathetic witness” in his definition of what constitutes calling an experience “trauma.” Also, while I’m not sure there has been much research on this yet, it is a somewhat universally known phenomenon among those that work directly with trauma that kindness, even from strangers, can have a significant positive impact on an individual working through a traumatic experience. I continue to be amazed that while hearing details about terrifying and incredibly difficult circumstances how I will often witness a client light up when they talk about that one relatively kind stranger that showed up somewhere in the story. To be clear, I’m not talking about cape-worthy heroics here. Some of the most common kindnesses I’ve heard about are things like stopping and asking if they’re okay or if they need anything or just sitting with them and perhaps holding their hand until the ambulance or police get there.

This one actually popped up for me recently in a very real way. A few months ago, I was in a car accident. Thanks to my background in trauma, I knew that PTSD and the effects of traumatic experiences are primarily physiological/body-based, so very physically disruptive/high impact, violent experiences (just check out one of those crash test dummy videos if you balk at the idea of calling a car accident violent) are not something to take lightly in regards to traumatic impact. So, even though I was shaken up at the time, I was paying extra close attention to how my mind and body were responding to all that was going on around me. As I mentioned above, I also knew that the people I would interact with right after the accident would play a significant role. Then came Jo, the traffic cop. She may have been the kindest stranger I have ever met and the impact and relief of that fact was palpable for me. There is no doubt in my mind that her kindness and the role she played in this event had a huge positive impact on my response in the moment and later.

This isn’t only true during traumatic experiences, though. The power of the positive impact people can have in our healing journey also often occurs after the fact. This is where a lot of counselors will bring up attachment theory, especially as it pertains to the therapist-client relationship. The reality is that we bring our attachment patterns and style into all of our relationships. Due to the extra vulnerability present in the psychotherapy relationship, these patterns and habits play an even more distinct role. The majority of our hurt happens in relationship. A human being, whether a main attachment figure or not, almost always plays some type of role in our trauma narrative. As I alluded to above, these interactions teach us something about how safe people are in general and more broadly how safe the world is. It follows then that healing must happen in relationship. We can’t restore our faith in humanity without, well, humanity. And that’s a key element to the counseling process. If the hurt happens in relationship so does the healing. This is why it never works to go at it on our own. This is where the good stuff happens in counseling- in the container of connection, empathy, seeing, and knowing that happens between therapist and client. And it’s a truly beautiful process to be a part of.

If you’re interested in reading more about attachment and developmental trauma, I recommend the new book by Kathy Kain and Stephen Terrell “Nurturing Resilience” and “Healing Developmental Trauma” by Laurence Heller. You can also learn more on Diane Poole Heller’s website which includes a free attachment style quiz.

There is some controversy in the counseling world over whether sex and porn addictions should be recognized and treated. The primary objection raised by opponents of sex addiction services is based in a cultural sensitivity to pathologizing or moralizing anything sexual; and for good reason. For decades, individuals who experienced same-sex arousal were treated as degenerates in our country. They were written off either as maladaptive biological anomalies or morally bankrupt and spiritually inferior.

Long and swerving has been the effort to engender understanding and compassion in the eyes of our culture on the subject of sexual experience; it is a struggle that remains incomplete. Regardless of political or religious worldview, understanding the underpinnings of any kind of sexual experience must be a work of compassion and humility. But has our struggle against meanness and our desire to defend the innocent developed into a paranoia that denies help to those suffering unjustly at the hands of trauma and dependency? There may be reason to believe that it has.

Opponents of sex addiction treatment see themselves as freedom fighters. They are skeptical of anything that guides or restricts sexual expression. But freedom is precisely what the addict does not have. Opponents of the idea of sexual addictions want people to be free to live out their sexual lives the way they want. Sex addiction therapists want precisely the same thing for their clients.

The man who is looking down the barrel of his second divorce, who is going to lose his children, the career he’s labored for since his youth, and his connection to yet another partner, all because, despite his desperate attempts to stop, he cannot help meeting with a prostitute twice a week, is not a man experiencing sexual freedom. Neither is the woman who cries alone in her apartment after her 24th anonymous hookup this month. She is desperate for intimacy, trapped in a pattern of power-seeking behaviors she learned in her abuse as a twelve year-old, and she is the furthest thing in the world from being sexually free and alive. To the contrary, when she attempts sex in the context of genuine intimacy and vulnerability, she feels emotionally closed off and sexually numb. By their own assessment, these men and women do not engage in these behaviors because they want to do so, they engage in them because they have to in order to function.

Sex addiction therapy, like all other therapies, is concerned primarily with freedom. The man who uses sex with his wife to regulate his own emotions, but who longs to learn to experience sex with her differently, is not free to be himself sexually; he is in bondage and oppressed. It is only from a position of freedom that one is able to choose with efficacy the behaviors in which she would like to engage and to eschew the behaviors which do not align with her own goals and desires. Morally right sexual behavior is never defined by a sex addiction therapist. Prescriptions and proscriptions concerning what to do with sexual freedom is a values conversation; these are categorically not the concern of the therapist. Rather, sexual addictions, like all other addictions, are defined by the individual experiencing them. Clients identify for themselves which behaviors they want to reduce, eliminate, or experience differently.

So what is an addiction? How do you know it’s an addiction and not just a bad habit? According to the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals, those struggling with undesired sexual behaviors can identify the struggle as an addiction by meeting 3 of the following 10 criteria:

  1. Powerlessness/Loss of ControlDefined by a clearly identified behavior that you do more than you intend or want.
  2. Compulsive BehaviorA pattern of out of control behavior over time.
  3. Efforts to StopRepeated specific attempts to stop the behavior which fail.
  4. Loss of TimeSignificant amounts of time lost doing and/or recovering from the behavior.
  5. PreoccupationObsessing about or because of the behavior.
  6. Inability to Fulfill ObligationsThe behavior interferes with work, school, family, and friends.
  7. Continuation Despite ConsequencesFailure to stop the behavior even though you have problems because of it. (social, legal, financial, physical, work)
  8. EscalationNeed to make the behavior more intense, more frequent, or more risky.
  9. LossesLosing, limiting, or sacrificing valued parts of life such as hobbies, family, relationships, and work.
  10. WithdrawalStopping behavior causes considerable distress, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, or physical discomfort.

Men and women suffering from these criteria deserve freedom and healing, but they often find themselves abandoned by a culture that is afraid to talk about sex being a problem. Whole-hearted, integrated, and healed adults are free. They are free, not to choose their feelings, but to choose their behaviors. They can move towards sex when they want and set it aside when they want. They are free to use sex to enrich their lives in the way they choose, rather than being at its mercy as their lives fall apart.

In talking about kids and parenting in therapy, there are a couple topics I find that my counseling clients and I come back to often.  At the top of this list is what to make of and how to respond to children’s behavior. Parenting is complex. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be countless books written on the topic.  A lot of these books give pointers on specific situations and specific interventions that a parent is instructed to mimic in order to be a more effective parent. As with any important topic that is written about extensively, some of it is useful and some of it isn’t.

Often I find that it is useful to look at specifics. For example, it is helpful to have some ideas for what to do when your child refuses to brush their teeth or use the big kid potty.  I often also find it useful to zoom out and think more broadly (think forest instead of trees) about important topics. Along these lines, I’m talking more about major beliefs and perspectives on children, child development, and the job of a parent.  For example, what do you believe your main “job”/goal is as a parent? What is appropriate to expect cognitively and emotionally out of a child of this age? And specific to this article, what do I believe about a child’s behavior?

As we all know, a child’s communication is limited by the development of their vocabulary.  The reality is, though, that kids are excellent communicators. When I think of this topic, I always think back to my niece whose language was delayed as a preschooler.  What stuck out to me about her specifically was that she didn’t have many words but she was one of the best little communicators I had ever seen. What she lacked in words she made up for in all kinds of non-verbals.  If you paid enough attention to her or were around her enough, you would find that she could communicate just fine. You just had to listen to her the right way, in her language.  One of the languages of children that we can easily miss, as many people did with my niece, is their behavior.  A child’s behavior is never random. Your kid is never just “being difficult” for the sake of being difficult.  They are hard-wired to communicate and their behavior is doing just that, in a much more effective way than their words could anyway.

In The Connected Child, the authors talks about how the first things you should ask yourself or a child when they start to act out is “Are they tired? Are they thirsty? Or are they hungry?” They encourage caretakers to start with the basics, first, because often this is the root of acting out behaviors especially and, as adults, we’re in charge of helping children get what they need.  If your child is too tired to function, then you- the adult in charge- should designate some rest time for them.  When a child is acting tired, they are effectively communicating that they need more sleep or rest.  Obviously, how you handle this depends on the age of the child but, at the end of the day, you’re the boss in charge of naptime and limit-setting.  More broadly you’re in charge of helping a child learn what they need and how to meet those needs for themselves as they grow and become more independent.

The authors of The Connected Child also speak specifically to seeing beyond misbehavior of a child who is struggling emotionally:

“Play detective and watch closely for situations that trigger physical or behavior reactions in your child. This will help you respond more effectively to your child’s needs…Children who act out may appear strong but are surprisingly fragile inside. When their externalized misbehaviors are met with an assault of adult force, they come to believe that no one understands them or cares about their needs…We always need to look beyond a difficult behavior and ask ourselves:

-What is the child really saying?

-What does the child really need?

Although we address misbehavior directly and quickly, we also must address it sensitively and responsively as a clue to the deepest needs of the child” (p. 46)

The authors here allude to another excellent point in the discussion of children’s behavior: the fact that kids often don’t know what they need and easily confuse needs and wants.  Neuroscientists now tell us that our ability to exercise sound decision-making is limited until our brain is done developing in our mid to late 20s. Again, this is the job of the parent to help guide them. If we simply went with what a child wants or thinks he/she needs, a kid will often make poor, or even harmful, choices. When this fact comes to mind, I always think about how my nephew as a toddler was always so fascinated by my morning coffee. Eventually, he understood enough and would only point at it and say “Hot. No, no.”  But at first, you would have thought that I was killing his hopes and dreams by saying no to his requests to drink, touch, or hold this enticing mystery beverage. In those moments, he needed me to be the adult in charge because he didn’t and couldn’t know what was best for him.

The reality that many of us don’t think about is that kid-as-boss also creates significant anxiety for a child. Try thinking about it from a survival standpoint: Kid’s simply can’t survive on their own and any feeling that they are being asked to would naturally create significant distress. Keep in mind, though, this is distress that there’s no way a child could fully understand and articulate due to its depth and complexity. It is true that often kids act as if they want to be in charge (again, like a toddler absolutely insisting on drinking that coffee). But what happens when a child has been given too much responsibility or power in the family?  Anxious or acting out behaviors. Attachment expert Nancy Thomas writes, “A child feels safe when the loving parent is strong enough to be in control. When the parent sets limits and maintains established limits, the child can learn to trust. A child will not learn to trust someone who is weaker” (p. 78). I would add that a child is unable to feel safe in an environment where he/she feels as if no adult is in charge or when an immature adult doesn’t seem confident in their ability to be in charge. It’s as if something inside a child knows something isn’t right but they don’t have the capacity or language to explain what is missing. This happens in adult systems as well. Have you ever worked somewhere or been a part of a project where it felt like no one was in charge? Did it feel organized/directed/”right”? In my experience, ships without captains simply don’t feel as stable and sometimes even “unsafe” in a sense. If we experience this to some extent as adults, imagine how much more impactful this feels to our children.

At the end of the day, this topic may feel complicated at first but is really rather simple. To put it succinctly, a child’s behavior is communication. Specifically, it is communication about what a child needs. Whether it be a nap, snack, some juice, or better limit-setting, a child is constantly telling us what they need if only we’re willing to calmly and respectfully listen.

Purvis, K. B., Cross, D. R., & Sunshine, W. L. (2007). The connected child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Thomas, N. L. (2005). When love is not enough: A guide to parenting children with RAD- Reactive Attachment Disorder. Glenwood Springs, CO: Families By Design.

What if we once and for all decided that we were strong enough for the pain in our lives?

Glennon Doyle-Melton

In this Super Soul Session bestselling author and Momastery founder Glennon Doyle-Melton unashamedly tells her story of learning to be still in the face of pain and “hot loneliness”.  Glennon shares how she used bulimia and addiction to run away from her body and her emotions. In her words, she “voted her body off the island of herself” and disconnected the trinity of body, mind, and spirit. After many years of living in this fragmented way, she made a decision to stop running and start listening to what the pain was trying to teach her. What she learned is that pain and challenge, the very things we so stubbornly try to push away is what ultimately grow and connect us.

Glennon’s vulnerable story completely altered the way in which I view my own pain and conflict. It forced me to recognize the various ways in which I was trying to push that easy button and disconnect (guilty of mindless Instagram scrolling). I am reminded time and time again that we have the strength for our pain. In allowing ourselves to feel even when it hurts we are becoming stronger and more resilient. Glennon says,“Pain is not a hot potato, it is a traveling professor and it knocks on everyone’s door. The wisest ones say, ‘Come in, and sit down, and don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.’”

Is there more to being faithful than being monogamous?

The lack of sexual confidence, growth, and connection in marriage is staggering and sad.

“Should I shut it down or go elsewere?

Too often married individuals respond to unsatisfactory or nonexistent sexual intimacy in their marriage with this binary question. In other words, they feel they have to shut down or “turn off” their sexuality because it hasn’t been working (or has never worked) or they conclude that they will have to look for a partner or other outlet outside of the marriage in order to find sexual fulfillment.

I see a lot of clients in my practice who have tried, or are still trying, one of these two options. Let me share how couples often find themselves feeling stuck between them.

Shut Down Sexuality

There are many reasons someone may have sexuality that is currently “shut down” (turned off, ignored, not acknowledged, repressed, etc.) Marriages where one or both of the spouses have “shut down sexuality” have healthy and fulfilling sex less than 10 times a year, some less than 6 times a year, and some who haven’t had sex at all in one or more years.

There are many reasons that someone may not be ready or willing to “turn it on” again after realizing that their sexuality is shut down. Many of these reasons come from fears. One fear that can keep someone from putting forth the effort to “turn it on” is the fear of rejection that may have occurred earlier in the relationship or in a previous relationship. Another is the fear of embarrassment. Our culture is pretty flawed in how it portrays what is “attractive” or “sexy” and most of us can’t live up to the Hollywood definitions. For some it’s the fear of failure to physically perform as they or their spouse expects them to perform. They fear that their bodies can’t respond sexually in the ways it once did or is expected to. Most of these fears present in the form of some level of sexual anxiety.

Other reasons someone may be unwilling or not ready to “turn it on” again are based on pain. Some of the pain associated with “shut down sexuality” can be from past painful sexual experiences that has resulted in damage to genitals, or other body parts. Some pain can be from physical challenges associated with other parts of the body that make sex physically uncomfortable, like pain in the knees or back. Sometimes various other painful sexual functioning issues that have never been addressed are contributing to keeping sex “turned off”, including emotional or relational pain.

Other reasons for “shut down sexuality” can include emotional trauma, previous sexual abuse, relational conflict, religious teachings, fear of intimacy, spouse unwillingness, or clinical mental health issues.

Go-Elsewhere Sexuality

The books and articles written for “why people cheat” are many and varied. Some today see “go-elsewhere” sex as “no big deal” sex and advocate for “open” marriages and relationships. Regardless of the varying opinions out there, most marriages want and expect sexual and emotional fidelity in their relationship with their spouse. And for those who have made vows of chastity, I’m not proposing justifications for going elsewhere, but there are reasons and situations behind all behaviors. Here’s a few of the common reasons (not excuses) some choose to “go elsewhere.”

The absence of or increasing distance in emotional intimacy can be a precursor to the “go-elsewhere” response. Sex is much more than an act, so many marriages with regular sexual contact can still be vulnerable to “go-elsewhere” behavior if the alternative sought holds the promise, or facade, of emotional connectivity and intimacy. This idea is more than just the lack of romance, though lack of romance can definitely contribute to the bigger issue of lack of intimacy. One date night a month or even one a week can be really helpful things to any marriage, but intimacy that is reduced to a few hours a month or a few hours a week is still likely to be missing the boat.

Sexual stagnation is often a factor in “go-elsewhere” decisions as well. Sexual stagnation occurs when sex has become predictable, lethargic, and repetitive in expression. The longer a marriage is in this situation, the more the rut feels like a sexual grave.  Stagnation can begin slowly and unnoticed. There are often good reasons it begins: job demands, time pressures, kids, religious activities, lack of physical fitness, or just assuming that you know all there is to know about your mate. Most of us innately know that sex wasn’t supposed to be this way. No one expects their married sex life to be the same 5 years after the wedding, they want it to be better! But when efforts for improvement fail (which they do at times for every marriage) some couples settle for stagnant sex.

My own practice would validate other contributing factors that occasionally pop up: early negative experiences with spouse, unplanned romantic relationship with a 3rd party, conflict in the marriage, a sexually “shut down” spouse, pursuit of media-fantasy sex, and clinical mental health issues. Marriages where one or both of the spouses have drifted toward “Go-Elsewhere Sexuality” are at risk of facing an extramarital sexual affair, heavy pornography use, addiction to sexually risky behaviors, and/or have had one or more sexual relationships outside of their marriage.

In some marriages, both spouses take the same response, and in some one spouse has chosen one response and their spouse the other. These two lists are far from exhaustive as every individual case is just that, individual. However, those noted here are common.

If you find yourself in one of these two responses to an unfulfilled married sex life, (or you think you drifting steadily towards one of them), get caring, supportive, and competent professional help.

This is one piece of insight that can be a bit tough to swallow for some of us at first, especially those of us who over-identify with our thoughts (a topic for another time) and/or overestimate the objectivity of our perspective. How many times have you been sure you judged a situation correctly and later hear more of the story from someone else’s perspective and realize you’d actually gotten at least part of it wrong? Maybe, instead, I should ask how many times that’s happened this week. Misinterpretation is normal and it’s going to happen. A healthy perspective, though, on how this process works can help us avoid a lot of mistakes in relationships.

First, let’s start with the science. In his book Trauma and Memory, Dr. Peter Levine (2015) describes the subjective nature of the way our brain works by pointing out:

”We must live with the uncomfortable acceptance that memory is simply not something concrete, definitive, and reproducible, like a video recording that can be retrieved at will. It is instead more ephemeral, ever-shifting in shape and meaning. Memory is not a discrete phenomenon, a fixed construction, cemented permanently onto a stone foundation. Rather, it is more like a fragile house of cards, perched precariously upon the shifting sands of time, at the mercy of interpretation and confabulation” (p. 2)

Most of us who sat through Psych 101 heard the example of how two people that witness a car accident will swear by completely different details about what happened, even down to the color of the cars involved. We know this, especially when we’re pointing it out in someone else, but it’s definitely harder to apply to ourselves and our judgment. The reality is that we often act as if our perspectives are factual and objective, despite even scientific evidence to the contrary. This works great for attorneys, not so much for loving relationships.

Many of us have heard the recommendation to use “I” statements during difficult conversations (for example, saying “I felt hurt by…” instead of “You made me mad by…”). This is a great strategy. Another great way to help de-escalate a sensitive conversation is to go a step further and instead of presenting what we heard or interpreted as fact (which, as I’ve pointed out here isn’t true anyway) present it as what it is- an interpretation. One of my favorite recommendations for dealing with conflict in couples counseling is to ask each individual to start each interpretation statement (many of them are in an argument) with “What I make up in my head about what you just said/what just happened is…” It’s always a little clumsy at first but this works. In my best moments, I either say this in my head or out loud when I find myself in a situation where I’m interpreting said situation and want to be careful not to present it as if I believe it’s fact. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t my way of saying that I don’t think my opinion matters. It’s simply an acknowledgment that the way my brain works is to take in what’s happening or being said, interpret it through my many lenses of personal experience, bias, etc (for better or for worse), and then come up with a finished product that can’t possibly be anything but subjective. It is what it is. I’m a human being; I’m just built that way. It’s not a flaw that I need to get better at avoiding. It’s a fact.

So what’s the solution? The solution is to have a healthy relationship with my thoughts and opinions and to never stop asking questions. What do I mean by a healthy relationship with my thoughts and opinions? I mean knowing and believing what I said at the end of the last paragraph. I need to be aware and at peace with the fact that I’m not meant to/can’t possibly be objective and I’m a better partner/friend/daughter/coworker for acknowledging that. Do you know anyone who always presents their thoughts/opinions/perspectives as factual and won’t listen to anyone else’s input? We all hate that, right? Then we should probably stop doing it ourselves. Solutions don’t get much simpler than that. The way we say things really matters. Language not only communicates how we think and feel; the reverse is also true. The words we choose to use can also change how we think and feel. That’s why practicing things like beginning our sentences with “What I’m making up in my head about that is…” matters.

The second recommendation I want to make is to never stop asking questions. That’s when communication dies. It’s when we stop coming up with questions and looking for answers. Don’t take my word for it. Next time you hear two people escalating into a verbal conflict, test my theory. It goes wrong at some point because they stop listening to each other and stop trying to understand what the other person is saying. At that point, we are no longer communicating and we might as well cut our losses and come back to that topic later. When we are no longer curious about and truly trying to understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings on whatever we’re talking about, we’re no longer having a conversation. We’re only talking at each other. We’re also no longer connecting.  At that point, I recommend you take a break until you are calm enough and grounded enough to find that empathy, desire for connection, and curiosity that are at the foundation of good relationships.

As I was researching some of my favorite books for thoughts on this topic, I found far too many to fit into one article. So I thought I would leave you with a few of my favorites here at the end. I’m a big fan of writing quotes that I find really impactful on an index card in a spot where I can occasionally read them back over. Remember, words matter and we soak up language like sponges. It never hurts to be intentional about soaking up the good stuff.

 

From Dr. Brené Brown’s Rising Strong:

“The rumble begins with turning up our curiosity level and becoming aware of the story we’re telling ourselves about our hurt, anger, frustration, or pain. The minute we find ourselves face down on the arena floor, our minds go to work trying to make sense of what’s happening. This story is driven by emotion and the immediate need to self-protect, which means it’s most likely not accurate, well thought out, or even civil. In fact, if your very first story is any of these things, either you’re an outlier or you’re not being fully honest.” (p. 78)

“When unconscious storytelling becomes our default, we often keep tripping over the same issue, staying down when we fall, and having different versions of the same problem in our relationships- we’ve got the story on repeat. Burton explains that our brains like predictable storytelling. He writes, ‘In effect, well-oiled patterns of observation encourage our brains to compose a story that we expect to hear.’”

 

From The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz:

“Your opinion is nothing but your point of view. It is not necessarily true. Your opinion comes from your beliefs, your own ego, and your own dream.” (p. 47)

“We have the tendency to make assumptions about everything. The problem with making assumptions is that we believe they are the truth. We could swear they are real. We make assumptions about what others are doing or thinking- we take it personally- then we blame them and react by sending emotional poison with our word. That is why whenever we make assumptions, we’re asking for problems. We make an assumption, we misunderstand, we take it personally, and we end up creating a whole big drama for nothing.” (p. 69)

“We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.” (p. 74)

Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House.

Levine, Peter A. Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory. North Atlantic Books, 2015.
Ruiz, D. (2008). The Four Agreements. Thorndike, Me.: Center Point Pub.

We have 5 children, ages 1, 4, 6, 7, and 8, which means that bedtime is an exercise in personal restraint and emotional security on the best of nights, and a crucible of pain, panic, and punishment the rest of the time. Our routine includes a bedtime story which is tricky in our case because the four oldest (all boys) are split into two bedrooms. This means I have to sit in the hall and do my best to be heard by everyone.

Should I fail to be heard, it is inevitable that a question will emerge from the darkness of one of the rooms. This question must be answered over and amid the bombardment of other questions about the first question coming from the second room and, without fail, if more than two people try to speak at once, the four year old takes the chaos as a sign that bedtime is over and sets off on a quest for a drink or snack. This is all further complicated by the fact that our 1 year-old daughter sleeps in another room off of the same hallway and is not a heavy sleeper.

Sanity, for Dad, stands on the edge of a knife as any disruption could unhinge the entire process. This is not truly a problem on the nights that I am operating within my own freedom from shame and my heart abounds with patience (a topic for other posts), but the night before last just wasn’t one of those nights.

About halfway through the story, the baby began crying. Now, in this particular season, my wife takes the lead with putting the baby down and I take charge of the other four. So I pressed on with the story allowing my frustration to build with the volume of my voice, annoyed that she was taking longer than usual to make it up the stairs (probably doing something selfish like making lunches or cleaning something).

At long last she makes it to the hall, steps over me, and opens the door to the baby’s room spilling the full fury of the crying, the white noise machine, and the sound of her own voice into the hallway bringing our story to a full stop. AND. SHE. LEAVES. THE. DOOR. OPEN.

This is where my training and experience as a therapist gives me superhuman insight and understanding; she is trying to piss me off. She must be mad that she had to stop whatever she was doing and come up the stairs when I was sitting right outside the baby’s room and could have handled it myself. She is sending a message loud and clear that she sees herself as an adult but I just don’t matter at all. Such brazen disregard and lack of respect for what I’m trying to do can only be explained as a deliberate, petty, and personal act of cruelty.

After the bedtime story was finished, I came down stairs, blood pressure through the roof, breathing through my nose and hovered over my wife like a Harry Potter Dementor while she sat on the couch and I said, “So when you, um, left the door open, were you trying to ruin my life?”, with a bit of a chuckle toward the end.

Now, before you judge me, you need to know that this approach actually represents 10 years worth of progress in conflict resolution in our marriage. I know in my head that I’m reacting to stuff that isn’t in the room. I know that this is really about my history and I have learned enough self awareness through the years to know that I’m feeling the way I’m feeling because I’m struggling with my own demons and triangles (another post). But a sentence that half accuses and half allows space for the possibility that I’m way off base is still the best I can muster.

A few years ago I would have started the conversation with guns blazing, my wife would have zeroed in on the accusation and attacked in turn through her own hurt as the two of us spiraled out of control. With each turn of the interaction we would have escalated the heat and ugliness of the attacks in response to the deepening of our own pain until we couldn’t speak to each other.

We are learning a new dance. We are learning to lean into vulnerability instead of accusation. When I asked her if she was trying to ruin my life I chuckled because even as I formed the words I was wrestling with feeling it was true and knowing it was ridiculous. That’s perhaps a childish way to get it all out, but it was the best I could do in the moment. I was, in effect saying, “I’m hurt!! I wish I could blame it on you because that would be easiest, but I know I can’t.”

She smiled, half in amusement and half in appreciation for the way I was struggling, and explained that she left the door open because she thought she was only going to be in there long enough to pick up a passy. Her response graciously ignored the tone of attack in my voice and moved us yet another step toward understanding. In this instance, the whole conflict lasted only about 20 seconds because we each exercised, imperfectly, as much security and courage as we could. With each turn of the exchange we were de-escalating rather than escalating the hurt. When we are hurt, the least intuitive thing in the world is to take a step toward the person who hurt us and drop our guard. It’s so much easier to push back, put up our guard, and move toward isolation.

Healthy marriages don’t have an absence of conflict. We are going to hurt each other. The two feet of bed space between the backs of a hurt couple can feel like an unbridgeable chasm. Every marriage experiences the pain of conflict. I am often amazed at how quickly and easily my own heart can turn from fondness and admiration for my wife to frustration, accusation, and even contempt. But here’s the crazy thing, when we use conflict to move us toward vulnerability instead of isolation, conflict becomes an instrument of intimacy in our marriage rather than a vessel of destruction.

“Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.”

Kristen Neff, Self-Compassion

In the last article in this series, I focused on negative self-talk. Initially, that piece was meant to cover self-talk as a whole. However, as I wrote, it became clear that this topic couldn’t be given justice without separating it into two parts. I started with the negative side of the coin because, unfortunately, I think many of us are more familiar with it than the positive side. What I certainly do not want to suggest, though, is that it’s only the negativity of our self-talk that makes it so compelling. Our positive self-talk can be equally transformative and, quite frankly, a lot simpler.

Much like the inner critic, positive self-talk as a concept also garners a lot of attention in a variety of forms via many different perspectives and traditions: modern psychology, meditation, mantras, affirmations, etc. The most recent mainstream perspective that aims at shining a light on the significance of our internal world is positive psychology. In his highly entertaining 2011 TED Talk, Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, states, ”We’re finding it’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.” He posits that, as the adage says, we should work smarter not harder. We’re better off spending our energy remaining positive in the present moment than striving for the next thing that will make us happy or successful (which probably won’t work). In his work with businesses, Achor (2011) reports, “What we found is that only 25 percent of job successes are predicted by IQ, 75 percent of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat.” Near the end of his talk, he gets more practical:

“We’ve found there are ways that you can train your brain to be able to become more positive. In just a two-minute span of time done for 21 days in a row, we can actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to actually work more optimistically and more successfully. We’ve done these things in research now in every company that I’ve worked with, getting them to write down three new things that they’re grateful for for 21 days in a row, three new things each day. And at the end of that, their brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative, but for the positive first” (Achor, 2011).

If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “Nope. Sorry, I just can’t believe it could be that easy. Something that affects so much of us so deeply can’t shift significantly with an intervention so simple.” I hear you, and I, by no means, want to oversimplify a profound topic like self-talk. As I mentioned in the last article, many different factors play into our self-talk, many of which are the stuff of therapy. However, I do believe, again, that the jumping off point can be as simple as a small consistent habit, such as practicing gratitude. This concept, though, applies across the board well beyond the scope of gratitude specifically. As Achor mentioned, a daily practice of noticing and acknowledging something shifts how we operate on a subconscious plane. We can change our thinking on a fundamental level in whatever category by sheer force of focus. That focus is changing our internal world over time in a way that can bring more lasting change than any amount of in-the-moment conscious white-knuckling.

One of the biggest real-life examples of this for me came from an experience during my college years. One day, a friend of mine invited me to a weekly small group she had been attending for a while. She explained that they weren’t studying anything and the group didn’t have a specific agenda. They simply spent their time together talking about the ways they had seen God show up in their lives over the past week. Looking back, I’m sure I went to this group to prove that nothing good can come from warm-and-fuzzy share time without some intellectual bounty involved. What I found, though, surprised me. Never at any other time in my life have I been more aware of daily divine intervention in my life than when I was attending this group. Do I believe now that God was moving more at that point in my life than others? No, not at all. What was different was merely the fact that I was looking for it and paying attention. So I found it.

For those of us who need, perhaps, a more research-based example of this, keep reading. This topic also significantly shifted in my journey while working at a residential addiction treatment center soon after finishing my counseling degree. It was a small facility, and I was the rookie therapist, so one afternoon I  found myself scrubbing some graffiti off one of the bathroom walls next to my office. Apparently, I was using my outside voice while saying “I love my job” over and over to myself (sarcastically, in case you missed that). At this point, one of my supervisors walked past and said: “Hey, you know that actually works, right?” After he took a second to take in my blank and probably more-than-slightly exacerbated facial expression, he proceeded to tell me about an article he had read about a common practice of Navy SEALs. I found after some fact-checking that Navy SEALs have used positive self-talk as a part of their training curriculum for years, which has resulted in significantly higher passing rates in their training program. Eric Barker, in his book Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong, claims that we should pay close attention to what Navy research has shown us about the impact of self-talk:

“A Navy study revealed a number of things that people with grit do—often unknowingly—that keep them going when things get hard. One of them comes up in the psychological research again and again: ‘positive self-talk.’ Yes, Navy SEALs need to be badass, but one of the keys to that is thinking like ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ In your head, you say between three hundred and a thousand words every minute to yourself. Those words can be positive or negative. It turns out that when these words are positive, they have a huge effect on your mental toughness, your ability to keep going. Subsequent studies of military personnel back this up. When the Navy started teaching BUD/S applicants to speak to themselves positively, combined with other mental tools, BUD/S passing rates increased from a quarter to a third.”

So, let’s sum up some of the practical pieces of positive self-talk. As I mentioned above, there are elements of our internal world that create barriers to the simplicity of what I presented here about changing our self-talk. This is where a wise, trusted friend or counselor can help you navigate what gets in the way of harnessing the power of the positive potential of your mind. As discussed in the last article in this series, when trying to help a counseling client understand what our self-talk should look like I try a few different avenues by asking questions that challenge the internal beliefs that function as the cogs of the internal self-talk machine. If you force one gear (the negative) to stop turning and instead focus your efforts on movement of the positive gears, your mind machine will automatically begin moving in the direction of wellness. Even our simplest intentional daily actions change our brains. It really is that simple. Try it out and see for yourself.

 

Achor, S. (2011, May). TEDx Bloomington. The happy secret to better work. Video retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work

Barker, E. (2017). Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. New York: HarperCollins.

Neff, K. (2015). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: HarperCollins.

In part one of this series, I started us out with some basics about thoughts by focusing on the power of words. For this second part, I want to shine a light on negative self-talk. As a therapist, there are a few different themes that I come back to often due to their relevance to a wide variety of presenting issues and goals clients bring to my office. Self-talk is one of my top five most-visited topics in therapy. I’ve found that the subject usually isn’t treated with the deference it deserves. Its impact on our mental health and general wellness is significant and, in my opinion, well worth exploring.

When I use the term self-talk, I’m referencing the voice in our heads- all the thoughts in our minds that sound like one or both sides of a conversation. The unmistakable reality is that we’re constantly talking to ourselves, whether or not we realize it. Much has been written on the topic using a variety of terminology. One of my favorite terms used is “inner critic.” I appreciate this wording due to its intent to externalize our negative self-talk to help keep us from making the mistake of over-identifying with it. Regardless of the label used to describe our negative self-talk, key themes emerge in our understanding of its origins, impact, and proposed remedies.

There are many different views concerning the origins of the nature of our internal dialogue. Peggy O’Mara, an author and editor whose work centers around children and motherhood, simply states, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Other authors and researchers, like Geneen Roth, also claim that our self-talk mirrors the way we were spoken to and dealt with as children. Roth (2011) explains that as children we learn to internalize the messages our parents sent us, for better or for worse, as a survival strategy. For example, as children it’s best that we internalize messages such as “Don’t run out into the street,” but those that sound more like “You’re only worthy of love and acceptance when you accomplish something” don’t do us any favors as children or later as adults.

When I delve into this topic with a counseling client, I usually tell the following story of an experience that forever shifted my view of the importance and impact of negative self-talk and served as the beginning of the end of my, then, thriving inner critic. While in graduate school, I was given the amazing opportunity to intern at an addiction treatment center where one evening I was invited to observe an eating disorders group. During my first visit to that group, the group therapy agenda was set to include the reading of a letter assigned to one of the members the previous week. After discovering the extreme nature of her self-talk and it’s connection to her disordered eating, her therapist asked her to write a letter to herself from her inner critic as she experiences it inside her head on a daily basis. During this group therapy session, she was asked to pick the person in the group whose voice sounded most like her inner critic (the one male in the group who she chose appeared to be a good friend). The friend was a champ, following through on what he was asked- to read the letter to her knee-to-knee in the tone in which it was clearly written. The scene was heartbreaking. Not only in watching the emotional reaction of the woman who was being read to or hearing the awful things written in that letter but also the friend who was tearfully reading those words of which he didn’t believe a single word. Though years have passed since witnessing this scene, I still can’t tell this story without tearing up. It was an incredibly powerful object lesson about what our unchecked negative self-talk can turn into and just how toxic it can be for us and for our relationships. I think, on some level, most of us can relate to this with a look in the mirror. I encourage you to take a second and imagine yourself in this young woman’s shoes. If others could see and hear your inner critic, how would that change the way you talk to yourself?

Let’s take it a step further then. Not only does this inner critic mirror something we likely have no desire or intention of reflecting but it is also self-sustaining. Imagine that you have the most healthy, robust self-esteem of anyone you’ve ever known, then you hire an assistant who is with you continuously and who never ceases to criticize you. Even with your world-class self-esteem, your assistant’s constant monologue about your work and your worth will eventually wear you down. Without anyone else there to defend you (which is the case when this is all playing out only in our heads), you’ll likely slowly move toward believing it, regardless of whether or not it’s true. Like a slow and steady gas leak, it will bring its toxicity into the way you think, slowly poisoning your view of yourself and the world around you likely without you even realizing it’s happening. In many respects, your self-talk is no different than this hypothetical third-person. Whether the messages are true or not, if you listen to it for long enough, you’ll eventually come to believe them. The more deeply we believe something, the more likely we are to see the world through that lens of self-fulfilling prophecy. Brené Brown (2017) illustrated this beautifully in her book Braving the Wilderness:

“Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you’re not enough. You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world.”

Don Miguel Ruiz (2008) in his book The Four Agreements posits that our acceptance of someone else’s abuse is contingent on the severity of our abuse of ourselves. He claims that we will only leave an abusive situation when the abuser treats us worse than we treat ourselves. In regards to a solution to this pattern, Ruiz (2008) goes on to say, “…we need a great deal of courage to challenge our own beliefs. Because even if we know we didn’t choose all these beliefs, it is also true that we agreed to all of them. The agreement is so strong that even if we understand the concept of it as not being true, we feel the blame, the guilt, and the shame that occurs if we go against these rules.” The process of seeing, challenging, and replacing these rules is often a core element of therapy. We can’t go back and un-send the messages we’ve received. However, as Ruiz alluded to, we can make the choice to face the blame, guilt, and shame that solidify our loyalty to these imprisoning messages. If we never make ourselves aware of these internal beliefs, we will likely continue to shoulder their burden unknowingly and to our great detriment.

So then what’s the solution? As with many truths, it’s simple but not necessarily easy. Roth (2011) in her excellent book Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything explains it this way: “Freedom is hearing The Voice ramble and posture and lecture and not believing a word of it…Listening to and engaging in the antics of The Voice keeps you outside yourself. It keeps you bound. Keeps you ashamed, anxious, and panicked. No real or long-lasting change will occur as long as you are kneeling at the altar of The Voice.” Roth sites “living as if” as the solution for silencing our inner critic- living as if we don’t believe a word of it. When helping a client move toward healthier self-talk, I take a similar approach: (1) name the lies that our inner critic is known to speak to us (we can usually boil it down to a few major themes), (2) label them as lies (some form of “Is this standard true for me but no one else?” or “Can I imagine speaking this ‘truth’ to a child?” usually does the trick), and (3) then treat them as a lie regardless of how we feel in the moment. Every time we act out of the truth rather than a lie we’ve been led to believe, that voice becomes a bit quieter until eventually, it fades into the background. Sure, it takes practice but starting down the path to a healthier internal world really can be that simple. We will, also, take this a step further in the next part of this series. Stay tuned.
Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House.

Roth, G. (2011). Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything. New York: Scribner.

Ruiz, D. (2008). The Four Agreements. Thorndike, Me.: Center Point Pub.

Thoughts. The ever-present voice in our head that we often only pay much attention to when there’s a problem. Even then, we often hand the bulk of the blame to our emotions and don’t give much thought to our thoughts- the litany of words constantly running through our minds. In this series of articles, I want to highlight a few key points and observations I’ve made about our thoughts from my personal life and my work as a therapist.

First, let’s talk thoughts “versus” emotions to clear a little air here. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way thoughts and emotions, to some extent, have been philosophically pitted against one other- as if they’re enemies or on different sides and we have to pick one. This simply isn’t realistic. If that were true, we’d all have to choose to be either emotionless robots or puddles. We can easily look at people on either extreme- of over-identifying with thoughts (more on that in a later article) or with emotions- and clearly see that they aren’t interacting with the world around them in a balanced, healthy way. But, even so, often when I ask someone about their emotions, I hear claims about preferring to be a “more rational person.” To me, that seems a bit like your physical therapist asking you how your legs are feeling and you tell her you prefer to concentrate on your arms. Both thoughts and emotions are on the same team. We need them both and they work best together, assuming we can separate them at all. As I wrote about in another article- “The Truth About Pain”– we can no more separate thoughts and emotions than we can fully separate emotional and physical pain. I bring this up to clarify that in this series when I’m writing about thoughts I’m doing so under the assumption and understanding that thoughts and emotions are not completely separate entities.

The next part in this series will focus on the topic of self-talk so here I want to only touch on this idea as it relates to the power of our words. It is hard to argue with the fact that words have power. Words play a part in much of what inspires us. Speeches by charismatic leaders have started revolutions (think Hitler, for example) and have converted people to religions or ideas they never considered (think brilliant authors like C.S. Lewis). They’ve convinced people to change entire perspectives. We see this on both the positive and negative ends of the spectrum. Either way, it’s difficult to deny that words have power.

I see this present itself in a few different, very significant ways in my work as a therapist. First, there have been countless articles, books, and research studies since the dawn of the field of counseling about the effects of our thoughts and internal beliefs on our mental health. In fact, there is an entire model of counseling called “Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy” (CBT) that posits that our thoughts directly impact our behavior. To put it simply, you can significantly change behaviors by changing the thoughts that drive them. Without getting into a theoretical debate regarding Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, I believe most of us in the field of mental health counseling would agree that our thoughts (the beliefs we’re rehearsing and justifying in our heads) have a significant impact on our behaviors and our general well-being.

The second and probably most compelling way I see the power of words work in my counseling office is when they are spoken, often for the first time, by my clients. Sometimes I even feel a bit guilty about how much this continues to amaze me. As a therapist, I know that so much of the power of therapy lies in the clients’ courage to talk about and through things in a way they haven’t done before. I say I feel guilty at times because, deep down, I know this to be true- that there is something nearly magical about talking through something difficult and vulnerable in the presence of a non-judgmental witness (whether this is a therapist or a friend), especially for the first time. However, I’m still amazed each time I hear a client say, “Wow, I feel so much better/lighter/freer.” when I’ve essentially only sat as an actively-listening, empathetic witness. It’s such a beautiful part of how we are foundationally social creatures who, at our cores, are ready-built for relationships. Peter Levine (1997), the originator of Somatic Experiencing, speaks to this profound truth by stating, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.” The opposite of this, then, also holds true. Hurt that happens in relationship can be healed in relationship.

Third, on a personal level, working as a counselor has changed my view regarding the impact of the spoken word. Before, honestly, I don’t know that I’d given a lot of thought to the topic. Yes, I was a sensitive kid so I was keenly aware of how others words could affect me but had never considered this on a more global level. I had given little thought to how my words affect others and, then even more so, how words have such power to heal, to harm, to stick to the insides of our heads, and to even lay the groundwork for lifelong beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart, speaks to the power of words by calling the detrimental words spoken over us, especially as children, as “wounds of the heart.”  He goes on to explain that if we hear a “message” enough times, we’ll eventually start to believe it to the extent that I believe my eyes are green (they are, by the way). We can come to believe it so wholeheartedly or so unquestionably that we accept it as fact. Once we then accept something as fact, the tint of our worldview lens tends to confirm rather than deny this “truth.” My colleague Allan spoke to this beautifully in his recent article about how these messages can play a part in our parenting. Some of the most powerful moments I’ve been a part of in my therapy office have been those in which I have had the opportunity to speak truth to obvious lies. Sometimes it’s the first time that person has heard (or better yet allowed) someone else to speak against their wounds masquerading as “facts.” From time-to-time, I think about that original moment(s) when the wound was first inflicted. I wonder whether or not the speaker had any clue the impact they were having on that person (often a child) and whether they would have said what they did if they had known. In his wonderful little book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz (2008) writes, “The human mind is like a fertile ground where seeds are continually being planted. The seeds are opinions, ideas, and concepts. You plant a seed, a thought, and it grows. The word is like a seed, and the human mind is so fertile!” This is true whether the words spoken are harmful or affirming. I believe it is best for us to remain aware of just how fertile this soil is in ourselves and each other.

Words are powerful. As I said at the beginning, our thoughts are essentially the words we’re constantly speaking to ourselves. While I won’t argue that spoken and written words may differ in some ways than our thoughts, I think the backbone of the matter is the same. Words are powerful, even if no one but us hears them. In part two of this series, we’ll delve into the huge impact these specific types of words can have on our overall well-being.

 

Eldredge, J. (2011). Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. Harpercollins Christian Pub.

Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the Tiger. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Ruiz, D. (2008). The Four Agreements. Thorndike, Me.: Center Point Pub.