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 …
“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 your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” -Daniel Goleman
As a psychotherapist, I am constantly struck by how little the average person knows about emotions– both why we have them in the first place and what we are to do about them when they cause us pain and suffering. It seems as though half of humanity wishes they could do without them–and they try very hard to avoid or suppress any painful feeling that comes along. The emotion-avoiding types say things like, “I don’t want to talk about it because then I’d feel sad,” or “It won’t change anything to get angry, so why bother…”
The other half, the emotionally dramatic as-if-on-a-roller-coaster type, seems to honor their emotions, giving them not just a voice but the whole driver’s seat. These folks say things like, “I can’t do that when I don’t feel like it,” or “I can’t possibly change the way that I feel since it is who I am.” If given too much weight, feelings can be used to blame or shame others or to justify inappropriate behavior.
As clinical psychologist and Buddhist practitioner Daniel Goleman so aptly reminds us, feelings are an essential part of our humanity, and we need to learn how to work with them so they don’t get the best of us. As infants, our emotions helped communicate our needs to our caregivers, and as adults they still help us to know what we like and don’t like. They are essential in order for us to be able to empathize and have compassion for ourself and others. The trick is how to find the balance between too much expression and too little. For most of us, this is a lifelong process. Here is a way to begin.
First, ask yourself which one of these two tendencies are you most likely to exhibit? Are you able to express your emotions? When was …
We are told that people stay in love because of chemistry, or because they remain intrigued with each other, because of many kindnesses, because of luck. But part of it has got to be forgiveness and gratefulness.” -Ellen Goodman
In spite of the headlines revealing the breakdowns and sordid secrets inside the marriages of the rich and famous, most Americans who tie the knot seem to have bought the prevailing myth of romantic love. None of us like to think of ourselves as one of them (those lying, cheating, no-good married types). No, as the song goes, our love is here to stay.
What is the harm, you might ask, in basking in the honeymoon love-will-conquer-all phase? The problem is that the expectations of marriage, when blown up to mythical proportions, leave couples believing they have failed when the proverbial stuff hits the fan. In truth, conflict and suffering come with the package, and can strengthen the trust and bond if the couple has the right tools to work with.
Far too often in my role as a psychotherapist, I have sat with couples in distress because one of them reports that he or she is no longer “in love”, and therefore must leave the relationship to find a more perfect love with someone else. Or the rejected partner tells the other to go ahead and leave, convinced that love, once lost, cannot be rekindled. How tragic that we have been so filled with images of romantic love that we think of it as something outside of our control. We wait for love, like a giant bird, to descend from some distant landscape and settle in our branches once again.
This destructive myth makes many believe that love, once set into motion, will carry us along through the complexities of life, if only we are lucky enough, or if we choose the right person. Not so, since conflict, disagreement, hardship and misunderstandings are inevitable in every close relationship. To build a strong, lasting relationship, love is better thought of as a verb not a noun. …
A week from tomorrow, on Election Day in America, there will winners and losers galore. Many people will be happy but just as many will be disappointed and upset. The same thing happens over and over (although certainly not with the same price tag) every day, every week. Countless contests flood the television channels, and prizes are awarded in our schools, in athletic events, in the arts world, and on the world stage, each declaring someone a winner and someone a loser. What values do you hold about competition? What lessons are we teaching our children, consciously or not, about how to interact with others when they are on the “other” side?
More than four decades after his death, the famous Green Bay Packer coach, Vince Lombardi, is one of America’s most recognized and remembered sports figures. I have been pondering the question of just how well are we doing at living up to his most famous credo–the one that says it’s not so important whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.
In my work with couples and families, no subject is out of bounds. Last week, I spoke to a family where the teenager stopped speaking to his parents because of what happened when they were watching one of the presidential debates. The mother, a staunch believer in her particular political party, was yelling at the television. She was calling one person a liar, a cheat and a scumbag. Her son asked the mom to be quiet so he could listen. A huge fight ensued that left everyone upset.
Does this sound familiar? How many households witnessed the same fireworks, or worse? Or perhaps during the World Series or the Super Bowl? It is one thing to be passionate …
Everyone makes mistakes. Lots of them, big and small. Even the people you love and look up to. In healthy, loving families, parents teach kids to learn from mistakes and keep moving forward. Unfortunately, many of us were punished or ridiculed for mistakes. We came to believe that being self-critical might help us do better the next time. This often backfires. We feel ashamed of ourselves and our self-despair and negative opinion of ourselves only grows bigger.
A growing body of research about the effectiveness of practicing self-compassion brings new light to this dark landscape. But how exactly can someone learn how to be more loving towards themselves? If you are a parent and you want to give your child the gift of self-compassion, the first step is to learn how to be more kind and gentle with yourself first. Here are some ways to practice.
First, begin by noticing the times you are most self-critical. Each of us has a voice inside that says negative things to and about us. What does yours sound like? What does it get on your back about? Does it say things like: You are so stupid. How could you have done that! You are mean and selfish and no one really likes you. You will never amount to anything. You are too fat. You are too skinny. You are lazy. You are always so insensitive. Get the idea?
It helps to write down what the inner critic says about you. It is usually a very black and white perspective. Since very few people are always selfish and never kind, it paints a one-dimensional picture of you. Sometimes just taking this first step is a big eye-opener. I have had clients come back after one week of listening to their critical voice and exclaim to me, “I would never talk to my greatest enemy that way!” or “I realized that I was telling myself …
Forgiveness is only one part of a larger process of working through a painful event, trauma, or loss, and it generally comes at the tail end of that process, after a lot of work has been done. As I explained in the previous post, it’s a choice not an obligation. When our hurts have been many and encountered over a lifetime, it sometimes takes years to get to forgiveness. There are no rules. Each of us must come to the decision about whether or not to forgive for ourselves and in our own time–much to the dismay and worry of our friends and family.
Consider the reasons why you might choose to forgive someone who did you wrong. Forgiveness is usually accompanied by a lifting of depression and anxiety and an increase in physical health and well-being. Forgiveness also brings a lessening of suffering and offers a newfound peace that helps you go on with life.
What is forgiveness, exactly?
In the effort to define and describe forgiveness, researchers have differentiated between “decisional forgiveness” and “emotional forgiveness.” Decisional forgiveness is having the thought or intention to stop an unforgiving stance and to respond differently towards the person who hurt you. Emotional forgiveness is actually replacing negative unforgiving emotions with positive more empathic emotions.
Most of us start with the desire to forgive someone (the decision) and then go through the emotional work to finally let go. It’s a two part process. The first step is the decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge. The second step, once completed, brings newfound feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you. (Reminder: You can forgive the person while still condemning the act.)
What are the Steps to Forgiveness?
1. It helps to begin by recognizing the value of forgiveness and its importance in …
“Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.” –Lewis Smede
We’ve all been hurt by others–some in small, but painful betrayals and others in ways almost too horrible to imagine. I’ve listened to stories from victims of physical and sexual violence, from children who were bullied and tormented by peers, from adults whose partners cheated on them, from families torn apart by drug and alcohol abuse. Should we forgive people even when they’re unwilling to acknowledge their wrongdoings, let alone take responsibility for them? And if so, why?
Yes. The reason that forgiveness is important is because it actually helps the victim recover and get on with life. In the past ten years, the focus on this topic has grown enormously. The research has been teaching us what the benefits are to an individual’s physical, emotional and psychological health. In 2010, an entire issue of the Journal of Mental Health Counseling was devoted to forgiveness in therapy, summarizing the findings of over 1000 published psychological research articles on the topic.
There are clear mental health benefits that come with the ability to pardon those who have hurt us. Perhaps most notably, the research shows that an improved ability to forgive results in decreased depression and anxiety.
Those who are able to forgive also have a greater likelihood of experiencing significant posttraumatic growth. This means being able to get on with your life after the crisis has passed.
We also know that forgiving helps people shed their negative affect about whatever happened whether it be fear, anger, hurt, or all of the above. In turn, the subsequent decrease in obsessing about the crime or betrayal facilitates better sleep. Don’t we all know how difficult it is to participate happily in life when our sleep is chronically poor…
Speaking of sleep and physical health, other researchers have …
Fehrnstrom’s comment this week about the Etch A Sketch game inspired a lot of political commentary and boosted both sales and fond memories of the hugely popular toy. A client of mine posed a timely question near the end of his session. “My family really sucks at letting go of grudges. So what’s the shake it all away, ya know…Etch a Sketch tool for that?”
His question got me thinking about how helpful it would be if people were more like an Etch A Sketch, as least when it comes to negative feelings. Faced with upsets with our loved ones we could just turn ourselves upside down, shake a bit, and the emotional slate would be clean!
Unfortunately, life’s problems aren’t always so easy to resolve, but there are some ways of communicating about and handling feelings that can help us to shake off what’s bugging us and start with a fresh slate.
Given that all humans make mistakes, it is essential that we know how to recover and repair. Research shows that letting go of upsets in constructive ways is fundamental to maintaining happy, loving, long-term relationships. It’s really difficult to be positive with those around us when we hold grudges. And since we know that emotions are contagious, they are hard to hide.