The White family overwhelms my office with noise and activity from the first moment they arrive for family therapy. The three boys, aged 6, 10, and 13, immediately begin to argue over who sits where.
Pouncing on one another’s laps, they push and poke. The youngest one screams as though he has been mortally wounded. Mom and Dad make a feeble attempt to create order out of chaos but they are clearly outnumbered.
Is this normal sibling rivalry? (After all, boys will be boys). Almost anyone who grew up with siblings, particularly those fairly close in age, will not have trouble imagining this scene or one like it.
Didn’t you fight over who got to sit in the front seat of the car (before the laws changed), who decided what channel the TV would be on, or who got first dibs at the dinner table? Or was it about who mom loved best?
Sibling Rivalry is Normal–and Annoying
I’ve listened to so many couples arguing about whether or not their kids are normal…
“It’s way too much!” insists Sylvia. “They might kill each other.” Her husband Sam rolls his eyes. “You never had brothers–girls are different!”
The parents sounded like two kids fighting over the rules of a game. The truth is–no one knows just how much is normal since it depends on the “rules” that silently govern each family.
Depending on your culture, your ethnicity, your gender, your age, the size of your family, and the rules of the family you grew up in, what seems inappropriate or out of control to one family can seem funny or like normal bickering to another.
That being said, one of the most frequent complaints I hear from parents is about the incessant fighting between the kids. If the conflict in your family is driving you crazy, perhaps it’s time to turn the volume down to the extent that you can. The first step is to understand what all the fighting is for.
The Roots of …
Ashley burst into tears within a few moments of sitting down in my office. “I don’t know why I’m crying. I have a loving husband and two precious children. I work out a lot and I eat well–at least most of the time. I have really great girlfriends although I never get enough time with them. I just don’t know who I am any more…and I don’t know where I lost myself.”
It didn’t take long for Ashley and I to uncover the source of her despair. Like so many of us, the noisiness of all the external demands of life had drowned out the needs of Ashley’s inner voice. She was taking quite good care of herself on the outside but simultaneously ignoring her emotional vulnerability, her desire for quiet alone time, and her connection to her soul.
Are You Tending Your Own Garden?
One of the most important lessons I have had to learn (often the hard way)–and continue to teach the many parents who come for counseling–is how important it is to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others. I often use the metaphor of a garden because even the most beautiful garden, if left unattended, will eventually wither and die.
Just as plants need water, healthy soil and regular weeding, so do budding humans need care and attention in order to thrive. Perhaps this seems obvious (as truth often does), but most of us get so caught up in taking care of the kids, the house, the job and all the other responsibilities of daily life that we simply forget ourselves or run out of time to listen to the crying of our soul’s deep inner longings.
What About Your Inner World?
“Scarcity of self value cannot be remedied by money, recognition, affection, attention or influence.” ~Gary Zukav
Most of us know by now–and are constantly reminded by self-help literature and blogs–that we need to tend to our physical bodies in order …
Hardly a day ever goes by when I don’t hear someone blaming someone for something. It is one of the most common–and one of the most frustrating patterns that confront couples and families. Blame can destroy a good marriage, wreak havoc on our friendships, and put innocent kids in the middle of their parents’ arguments.
Not only are families besieged by this destructive pattern, the whole culture is mired in it. We blame the President; the Democrats blame the Republicans and vice versa; women blame men; consumers blame companies; patients blame their doctors. The dance goes on and on all around us. Is there any way to break through the blame barrier and why should we even attempt to do so?
We actually believe that we are right. Since the time human beings lived together in tribes and villages, there had to be laws to govern our behavior. Rules and laws are typically black and white with a right and a wrong answer. You are guilty or not guilty of a crime. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, we simply apply this black and white reasoning (whether or not it is helpful or endearing) to our partner or child’s behavior.
We are blind to our side of an interaction. Most all of us are trained to see the world in a linear sequence: A causes B. In …
Countless research studies have underscored how anxiety and depression correlate significantly with an individual’s sense of control or lack of control over his or her own destiny. The same thing is true when it comes to stress.
In fact, given our mortality combined with our lack of control over so much of life, stress goes hand in hand with being human. Although we can’t make all our stresses disappear with a magic wand, we can learn to cope more effectively with stress so it doesn’t kill us.
(Although don’t all of us secretly long for a fairy godmother or a genie who will grant us three wishes and remove all the suffering in the world? I know I do).
Stress is a complicated process that affects us on every level–physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Because of this, we need a holistic approach to build our resilience. It is best to work with all four levels but start wherever you know you are weakest, and build your stress-proof muscles one day at a time. Until the fairy godmother comes around, here are some lifelong practices that will help immunize you against stress.
Stress & the Body
Stress stimulates our fight/flight response, sending the signal to our bodies that we need to run for the hills or turn and face a threatening attacker. Our bodies rush with adrenaline and our heart rate quickens. What are the best tools to help the body recover?
Tip #1: Practice deep breathing and get regular exercise. The fastest way to calm down your nervous system is with your breath. Learn how to breathe from your belly. This is taught in yoga, in voice lessons, in self-hypnosis, and in instructional videos on line. No one thinks twice about brushing their teeth every day. If you practice self-relaxation or meditation for ten minutes twice a day for the rest of your life, you will be more able to remember how to calm your emotions when you need to do so quickly.
“Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also–if you love them enough.” -George Washington Carver
I’ve been a psychotherapist for over thirty years. I have long ago lost count of just how many of my clients have commented–sometimes with appreciation, other times with disbelief–on how they don’t know how I do what I do. How can I possibly listen to so many terrible stories, they wonder. These comments invariably emerge after a patient has shared a deep dark secret.
I reply with my genuine feelings–I am constantly grateful and feel deeply privileged to do what I do. Although I do hear horrible stories at times–those of violence and pain, rife with injustices and betrayals–I also bear witness to the healing that can come when people reveal certain secrets about themselves or their loved ones that they thought they had to carry alone.
People keep secrets for a variety of reasons that are not necessarily good or bad. Each individual, family, and culture has spoken and unspoken rules about privacy vs. transparency. I am not suggesting that it is better to tell everyone everything.
But there are some secrets that become toxic when not revealed to anyone, ever. Underneath toxic secrets there is some fear that keeps that person from opening up. Sometimes the fear is justified but often it is misplaced, magnified or completely false. What are some of the reasons all of us keep information buried inside even when we desperately want to tell someone?
If you were one of the lucky people, raised in a happy loving family, you’ve most likely emerged with many of the skills and strengths necessary to form lasting healthy relationships…and you are probably NOT reading this blog right now.
Unfortunately, far too many people were raised by parents filled with good intentions but plagued by bad, sometimes destructive habits from their own childhood upbringing. These ghosts of the past, if not recognized, can haunt our families.
Our histories pack a powerful punch when we’ve buried (or tried to bury) old feelings as a way of avoiding the pain associated with them. Unfortunately, the unfinished business from our childhood and previous relationships also tends to get projected onto and then played out with our partner and/or our children. It is sad but true that the people we love the most in the world become the unwitting victims of this process.
Our emotional brains allowed us to survive as a species. We had to learn–and then be able to respond very quickly–about what or whom to approach and when to run like hell. Memories, especially ones with strong emotions, get wired into our brains without our awareness. Events that remind us of an emotionally charged experience from the past then trigger the same thoughts, feelings and body memories.
The emotional mind reacts to the present as if the past event were happening again. The combat veteran who leaps into the closet at the sound of a door slamming is instantly back on the streets of Iraq running for cover. Luckily, most people don’t suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a severe syndrome now widely publicized and better understood. But our brains are wired the same. Every one of us has our “emotional triggers” or “buttons” that move our emotions to the foreground and our clear …
Parenting is one of the hardest jobs around. Especially here, especially now, in our rapidly moving, constantly changing modern world. Most parents seek out this job willingly and joyfully with the best of intentions. Doesn’t everyone want to raise happy healthy children who grow up into competent independent adults? Of course. So what goes wrong?
It is easy to pick out the parents who are not doing their jobs. These are the parents who have too many problems of their own to contend with–like substance abuse, severe untreated mental illness, domestic violence or highly conflictual marriages, inadequate physical and emotional resources–so that they are clearly unable to provide the nurturing and supervision that all children need. Anyone can understand why children raised in unsafe and chaotic environments are at risk for developing emotional or behavioral problems.
But what about the kids who come from loving homes with well-meaning parents who shower their kids with attention, affection, guidance and opportunities of all kinds. Can you ever love a child too much? Probably not. Can you smother a child with too much love and attention? Yes indeed.
Parents today are far better informed about the importance of forming strong secure attachments with their infants. Babies need to know that their caregivers will meet not only their survival needs but their needs for touch, empathy, and connection. But with every passing year, children also need the freedom to explore independently in order to develop a sense of autonomy.
Finding the balance between the two is an exquisite dance of moving apart and then moving together again, like breathing in and breathing out, stepping forward and stepping back, leaning in and letting go. In my experience as a family therapist, I am seeing more and more parents struggling with the desire for too much closeness, and as a result producing kids–particularly teens and young adults–drowning …
What if you turned on the news to the following headline…FREE new technique–with no known side effects–is found to improve the mood of 88.8% of users!!! Would you be curious or do you already know what it is?
Touted throughout history, described by Aristotle, Freud, and modern day psychotherapists of many theoretical backgrounds–the answer is allowing yourself a good cry. Weeping helps almost everyone, young and old, male and female.
Not All Tears Are the Same
Our eyes produce three kinds of tears–each of which serves a different function. Every time we blink, our eyelids produce continuous or basal tears to keep the surface of our eyes protected and moist and also necessary to help protect us from getting infections of the eyes.
Reflex tears, like basal tears, are 98% water. Their production is triggered when a foreign object or something irritating gets into the eye by accident, acting like a natural eye shower to keep our eyes clean.
Emotional tears are composed differently and include an endorphin and natural painkiller called enkephalin. “Emotional tears contain higher concentrations of proteins, manganese, and the hormone prolactin which is produced during stress-induced danger or arousal,” says Dr Carrie Lane of the University of Texas. This difference explains why “crocodile tears” (the type used for manipulation and trickery) are not the same as real ones.
Crying Helps Us Heal
Dr. William Frey from the University of Minnesota is a biochemist who has been studying crying for over thirty years. He found that emotional catharsis helps shed both stress hormones and toxins. Simultaneously, crying stimulates the body to produce endorphins which not only help reduce our experience of pain but also help turn up the volume of our immune system.
Tears can make us feel better and physically stimulate healing at the same time, which is a pretty powerful combination. If you find this subject fascinating, check out Frey’s book, Crying: The Mystery of Tears. Frey is a believer in what is dubbed “the recovery theory” which hypothesizes that we literally cry things out as a way …
If you don’t know exactly what I mean by contempt, it is disdain for another, openly acting patronizing, insulting, and disrespectful. Contempt is criticism with a twist. When I have contempt for another, I put myself above them. It is criticism with a holier-than-thou attitude mixed in.
Who could possibly act this way? The answer is: we all do. Hopefully, not very much.
On the other hand, if you grew up in a family where your parents had lots of contempt for each other or for people who were different-racially, politically, religiously, ethnically-then you probably picked up this bad habit without even knowing it. If you want, as most of us do, to have close, loving relationships, it is essential that you know about contempt, and that you do your best to eliminate it from your arsenal of emotional weapons.
Many of the couples that come to me for therapy love one another and are trying to practice good communication. They usually have no idea how often contempt creeps into their relationship, particularly in times of disagreement and difficulty. Or how much damage it can do to an otherwise happy marriage.
The Face of Contempt
The psychologist Paul Eckman is probably one of the world’s foremost experts on human emotions and how they can be seen in facial expressions and body language. (If this interests you, watch reruns of the TV series Lie to Me, based on the application of Eckman’s research to uncover liars).
Eckman studied contempt in both Western and non-Western cultures around the world, and believes it is universally communicated in the same way. When a person feels contempt for another, the corner of the lip on one side of the face is tightened and raised slightly and the head is tilted slightly back. It is even easier to spot when it is accompanied by the rolling of eyes.
Eckman classifies contempt as …
Stan and Tiffany came to see me for marriage counseling after an argument over the children erupted into a shouting match. Although they were each embarrassed that they had screamed and used foul language, what confused them the most was what they had said to one another in the thick of the fight. Both of them had said cruel, blaming words, and they had been unable to reconcile and feel close again afterwards.
When I pushed for more details, Stan had said things like, “You’ve turned out to be just like your mother–I don’t know why I thought you were different–but you’re not! I don’t even like you anymore.” Tiffany hadn’t minced words either, screaming “I hate you–you’re not a man, you’re a child who throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. Don’t touch me!”
Stan had stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him. He slept on the couch, and neither had been able to talk things out any better in the morning. When I probed them each to tell me where they were stuck, they both said essentially the same thing, Each of them was afraid that the cutting words shared that night were the other’s deep truth. “If that’s what he/she really feels about me, how can we stay together,” they asked me.
Stan and Tiffany, like most couples, have never been taught about what happens when emotions take over the driver’s seat and grab the wheel. What they had experienced that night was what Dan Goleman named “an amygdala hijacking.”
Here is what happens when emotions take the wheel: The seat of emotions is in the old part of the brain called the limbic system–the part we share not just with all our fellow mammals but with reptiles. Animals in the wild and our early human ancestors had to be vigilant in order to survive, constantly searching for something to eat and, at the same time, desperately avoiding being eaten.
Similarly, humans are wired …