Tuesday, June 5, 2018

To do or To be?

Are you a people pleaser?  Do you know one?
What do you feel you have to do to make someone proud of you?
How did we learn to feel that way?  I think we are conditioned by society to think that we have to DO something to be worth something.

Consider this passage from Mark Chapter 1, where Jesus had gone to John the Baptist to be baptized in the Jordan river.  As he came up out of the water, he heard a voice saying, "You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased."  In Bible class a guy commented, "What had Jesus been doing that God was pleased with him?  I mean, we haven't heard anything about him for 18 years."

We all kind of chuckled because we had a shared understanding that if someone is pleased with us, it MUST be because we did something.


What if our understanding is wrong?  In some cases, we don't (or shouldn't) have to do anything to be pleasing to someone else.

A client shared, "I wake up every morning and my sole purpose is to put a smile on that woman's face", pointing to his estranged wife on the couch next to him.  I asked, "You feel like it is your responsibility to make her happy?"  He agreed.  I followed up, "Is there anyone else you have worked to make sure they are proud of you?"  Without missing a beat, he responded, "Yes, my father."  Intrigued, I asked, "Did you have any success?  Did he ever tell you he was proud of you?  That you made him happy?"  The client shared, "He came to visit my ranch one time, after I'd quit working for him and had my own spread.  We had ridden out to inspect the property and I remember him telling me he was proud of what I'd done."

Did you catch that?  His dad was proud of what he'd done.  Not "proud of him" but "proud of what he had accomplished".  I think this is a great example of the thinking in the world today.  Our value is found in what we do and not in who we are.  Because that is how we perceive thing to be toward us, we have difficulty believing that we belong or that we are accepted by others.  It is this sense of "not enough-ness" that torpedoes our self esteem.

Author Brene Brown wrote, "Most of us use the terms fitting in and belonging interchangeably, and like many of you, I'm really good at fitting in.  We know exactly how to hustle for approval and acceptance.  we know what to wear, what to talk about, how to make people happy, what not to mention - we know how to chameleon our way through the day.  One of the biggest surprises in this research was learning that fitting in and belonging are not the same thing, and, in fact, fitting in gets in the way of belonging.  Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted.  Belonging, on the other hand, doesn't require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are." (Gifts of Imperfection p.25)

What if we no longer felt like we had to DO something to be acceptable to others?  What if we understood how powerful it is to be certain that we are worth something no matter what we do?  What if God is pleased with us because he chooses to be and not because we did anything in particular?  What if we quit expecting others to do or behave in ways that we want them to and just accept them as they are?  Can we change the world?  Maybe, even if it is one person at time.

May you learn to accept yourself.  May you learn to accept others.  And in doing so, may we all get out from under the tyranny of not being "enough".


Monday, May 28, 2018

Unanswerable questions

What do *you* do when someone asks you a question to which there is no good answer?

"Do these jeans make my butt look big?"

"Why didn't you take the trash out like I told you?"

"How could you hurt me like that?"

Wow, that escalated quickly.  The 1st question is a toughie... we don't want to hurt the other person with our answer and if they asked the question in the first place they are unlikely to accept any answer we would give anyhow.

The 2nd question isn't really a question.  It is an expression of the speaker's own disappointment, wrapped up in a question format.  Think about it.  The truth could be that the trash didn't get taken out because you were figuring out the cure for cancer but it wouldn't matter because what the speaker was really saying was, "I expected you to do what I told you and you didn't and now I'm hurt and disappointed and I'm blaming my feelings on you."  No answer would be good enough, just take the trash out.

The 3rd question though...
It is a different level.  It expresses not just the speaker's hurt and disappointment.  It indicates that a relationship has been damaged.  Trust may have been broken.  There is no good answer to that question. "How could you hurt me like that?"
"How could you hurt me?"
"How could you?"
Sometimes when we've been hurt, we can't even get the whole question out.  It seemed unthinkable before it became known.  We couldn't even have imagined that person could do that.  Our disbelief and hurt is based on a faulty assumption.  It goes something like this:  If (person) really loved me, they would never do (behavior).  Ipso facto, if (person) does (behavior) they don't really love me.  Ergo, they never really loved me, therefore our whole relationship has been a lie.  I believed the lie, therefore, I'm a fool.

Yes, you are a fool.  Love is a foolish emotion.  In order for it to happen, we have to take the risk that we can be vulnerable with a person by caring about them and feeling cared for and hope that the other person will handle that risky choice with respect.  But they don't always do a good job with that task.  In fact, for a variety of reasons, the other person just may not handle that trust well.  And that brings us back to the unanswerable question: "How could you hurt me like that?"

The truth is that it is possible to love another person but behave in ways that are devaluing.  However, we cannot continue to behave in ways that devalue the other person and expect that they are going to continue to believe that we love them.

In couples therapy, I often run into situations where there are competing definitions of what it means to "love".  I may hear him say, "I wake up every day trying to put a smile on her face and show her how much I love her.  I'd walk a thousand miles to show her that."  Her reply, "I didn't *ask* you to walk a thousand miles.  I just want you to do a load of laundry!"  What looks like love to one person doesn't always line up with the other's view of love.  Lots of people have attempted to encompass the ineffable definition of love. Gary Chapman gave it a go with his Five Love Languages.  I use his framework frequently, but there is still more to be said.

Love is a feeling.
Love is a choice.
Love is action.
Love is ..... (fill in your favorite way to describe love)

Problem is, although we have overlapping definitions, the areas where things don't overlap cause problems.  I've adopted a definition of love from Everett Worthington Jr. from his book, Hope Focused Marriage Counseling:

Love is valuing the other person and refusing to devalue the other person.

I love this definition because it encompasses the understanding that we can say (or feel like) we love the other person, but if we aren't demonstrating it through our behaviors (in active and passive ways), it isn't really complete.

May you learn to value others and refuse to devalue them.  May you find the answer to the unanswerable questions.  And may you discover in the process that part of the answer lies in questioning our assumptions and finding ways to ask different questions.

Thursday, May 17, 2018


Sometimes I run across ideas that don't seem to make much sense on the surface, but they have deeper truths that reveal themselves later.  They seem to run counter to conventional wisdom and require me to give some thought to them, so I call them "counter-intuitive".  Today's counter-intuitive idea came from a Facebook post by the straightforward thinker and TV personality Mike Rowe (https://www.facebook.com/TheRealMikeRowe/posts/1916686088341525).  While the entire post is well worth a read, here is the part that jumped out to me:

"Failure was simply viewed as the most common symptom of trying. Consequently, the more I tried, the more I failed. The more I failed, the more I succeeded. The more I succeeded, the more confident I became."

For many of us, 'failure' is a bad thing.  It is associated with a sense of inadequacy, with shame or with uncomfortable feelings.  Because of this, our brains begin to associate 'failure' with 'bad' and we learn to avoid not only actual failure, but anything associated with failure.  You know, like, effort and trying.  After all, if I don't try, I can't fail. See?  This can snowball into other's perceiving us as 'lazy' and cowardly, but somehow, those things are more tolerable than feeling like a failure.

Wait.  There it is.  The subtle, but powerful, distinction.  *Being* a failure vs. failing.  As Mike Rowe indicated, when we fail.... when failure is an action, an outcome of trying something... something outside of us, it is possible to learn from it.  To grow from failure.  In this sense, when I try and fail, it is feedback.  It is experience that I can use to change my attitude, my behavior, my intention as I try again and move closer to success.  Far from being a bad thing, failure is an *essential* thing for me to experience.  When we internalize failure, we begin to see it not as something that often happens when we try something.  We think that failure is something that we *are*.  Can you understand the powerful difference between thinking, "I *am* a failure." vs. "I tried something and failed at it."?

I'm thankful for people like Mike Rowe, who can succinctly remind me to think differently about failure.  I'm thankful that I can think more deeply about what it means to fail and learn that failure, far from being a bad thing, is an essential thing to my success.

And now, may you find failure, and in failing, may you find that you are successful.  In feeling successful, my you try and fail and try some more and in the process discover that you are powerful beyond belief.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Word Power

There is a phenomenon known as the Michelangelo Effect, named for the renaissance artist who was reported to have described his work saying, "In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action.  I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."
I hold the same opinion about relationships.  There is a generally accepted notion in psychotherapy that you can't change others, you can only change yourself.  While this is generally true, I think that it ignores the power of relationship.  What I mean is that when we are in a significant relationship with another human, it is possible that our mutual influence on each other will have a transformative effect.  It is, of course, possible that despite the significant relationship we share, our influence may prove ineffectual in motivating another to change.  How do we maximize our influence?
I believe part of the answer lies in how we perceive others.  Research indicates that we begin to form our self-image, how we think about and consider ourselves, by the way that others treat us in our very young years.  Ideally, loving parents and adults would help shape a baby... a toddler, a child's view of him or herself as worthy, capable, valued and unique.  However, I've facilitated enough therapy sessions to know that all too often, we pick up other messages from our tender years.
Let me offer this word for your consideration today:


You have probably heard it's antonym, 'incorrigible', used to describe someone who is a miscreant, unredeemable and not worth your time.  Or possibly, you've heard someone tease another by saying, "Oh, you bad boy... you are incorrigible!"  Outside of obscure texts, I don't think I've seen or heard 'corrigible' used in everyday conversation.  This is a shame, in my opinion, because it should be the foundation of healthy relationships.  Corrigible means: capable of being corrected, set right, or reformed.  When we are able to view others as corrigible, it transforms our relationships from inflexible, unyielding prisons of habit and patterns of behavior and attitude and turns them into a place where when you mess up, you can own up to the mistake and work on improvement.  When we do the opposite, when we view others as incorrigible, we relegate relationships to brokenness, disappointment and, eventually, disposal.  And then we jump from relationship to relationship seeking something outside ourselves that is whole and healthy and not broken, when the truth is that what needs to be fixed most is how we see others.
May you learn to shake off the lie that your past defines you and may you begin to see yourself as someone who is open to correction and able to improve... and in doing so, learn to value yourself and others in a whole new way.  May you be corrigible.

note: crossposted from www.youneedacounselor.com

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Decide, don't slide

The first time I heard this phrase, I thought it sounded silly.  A simple rhyme devised on the fly to help someone remember a concept, but maybe a little too silly and not clever enough.  Over the years though, I haven’t come up with a better way to help explain and remember such an empowering idea.   There is something mighty about the conviction that I am able to make a decision and feel assured that I can manage the consequences.  That silly phrase, “Decide, don’t slide” helps me realize the power of that conviction.
We make decisions daily, but not all are equal.  Some have more weight than others.  What to eat for breakfast vs. where to go to college are very different decisions.  The amount of energy and focus put into the heavy decisions will be important whereas some decisions don’t merit much thought.  However, one long term effect of having a good decision making process is that we build confidence in our ability to not only decide but also to handle the consequences of our decisions.  That is where this phrase “Decide, don’t slide” is helpful.
Many decisions are unconscious decisions that get made by default.  By not consciously acting on information (making a decision), we are in effect, deciding not to decide about something.  For instance, many decisions are ‘made for us’ when we don’t pay attention to deadlines.  A habitual procrastinator, I have frequently fretted about a looming deadline, telling myself all of the lies   
procrastinators espouse: I work better under pressure; I’m better at impromptu; I’ll have time later… As the deadlines approach and then zoom by, we might experience some relief that we are no longer pressured mixed with some regret for not having stepped up.This is a scary precedent that we set.  This is what is meant by “sliding”.  Many of us slide through life without realizing that we are missing out on an important part of developing our own character and self-image.  When we slide, we may have the advantage of complaining that we are victims of our circumstances.  While this may be accurate because there are many situations that affect us which are beyond our control or influence, it is not very helpful.   Victimhood is an assumption of powerlessness.  On the other hand, we may possibly end up where we want to be by sheer luck.  In the long run, I believe that many people who get stuck in ‘sliding’ through life at some point look up and look around them and finally ask themselves, “How the hell did I end up here?” 
In contrast, people who are able to decide are at least able to look around and know with assurance that they are where they are because they chose to be there.  Depending on where that is, it may not be pleasant.  It may be divorced, or incarcerated, or it could be educated and empowered and self-sufficient.  But along the way, I’d be willing to bet that the person who is able to “decide” at least has a powerful character trait: self-determination.  I repeat, there is something mighty about the conviction that I am able to make a decision and feel assured that I can manage the consequences.  If I have this ability, even if the consequences are a hard lesson, I can always make another decision to course-correct if I need to.   For a ‘decider’, there are no good or bad decisions, just decisions that help or decisions that hinder.  Setting and working toward goals are part of the process, but decisions are the action steps that get us to where we want to be rather than ending up someplace and wondering how we got there.
This little, silly phrase has helped me understand my poor habit, but also empowered me to take control of my outcomes, responsibility for my decisions and ultimately, feel good about myself because I am learning to trust the decision making process as I make continual course corrections.   

And now, may you decide today that you want to have some say over where you end up.  This decision will not only affect where you end up, but how you get there.  Decide today to enjoy the journey. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Holiday Gift to yourself: Forgiveness

Seasons Greetings!  I know that we all manage to do things that we regret in life.  Some of us come to terms with that and move on, but a lot of us get stuck.  I hope this season, you can get caught up in the practice of giving gifts and do yourself a big favor and explore the awesome power of forgiveness.  Maybe someone needs it from you.  Maybe you need it from someone.  Perhaps that someone is you!  Enjoy the following paraphrase of a therapy session in three parts.  Leave comments if you found it helpful.  Share it with friends!  Happy Holidays!

Forgiveness, pt 1.
Client: I used to pray every day, asking for forgiveness.  I mean, who does that?  Who walks away from their child? 
Me: Whose forgiveness were you seeking?
Client: I don’t know.  God’s?  I hope my daughter can forgive me.
Me: Is it okay if we explore those for a moment?
Client: I guess.
Me: Well, let’s play a game of “what if…”  Suppose that your daughter actually came to you and said, “Mom, I forgive you.  Truly, you have my forgiveness.” Do you suppose you would accept her forgiveness or would you still feel guilty?”
Client: I would probably still feel a little guilty.
Me: I see.  So whose forgiveness do you need to accept so that you no longer bear the burden of guilt?
Client: God’s?
Me: Okay.  Yeah, that is a very important aspect.  God’s forgiveness.  So, to continue the “what if…” game… What if God came to you and said, “Hey, good to see you!  Here, I got you this gift!”  I mean, it is the holidays and all right? So, God tells you that he got you this gift.  How would you receive it from him?  Would you accept it?  “Wow, thanks so much God… but I didn’t get you anything.”  He would be all, “That is okay, there is no way you could match this gift, it is just something I wanted to give you.”  And a lot of the time we say in return, “No, I can’t accept it.   It is too much.”  And God says, “No, really, this is important.  It is a gift.  Take it.” and we still fight with him, “But I don’t deserve a gift from you…”  Now God is starting to get exasperated, “C’mon!  That is the whole point of a gift… you didn’t earn it… you couldn’t earn it.  Of course you don’t deserve it.  Nonetheless, it is my gift to you.”  So you finally open it and it is the gift of forgiveness.  You say, “God, I really don’t deserve this.”  He replies, “I know.  But my willingness to give it to you is not dependent on you being deserving of it.  You just have to accept it.  Actually, truth be told, I thought I took care of this forgiveness business a long time ago.  Every time I offered it to you, you sent it back to me, unopened.  Really, the part where I *offer* forgiveness was accomplished a few thousand years ago on the cross of Calvary.  What we are dealing with now is your acceptance.”
Client: So, God has already offered me forgiveness even though I don’t deserve it?
Me: Yes.  I believe God still wants us to make changes in our lives and live differently, live better… that is on us, but as far as offering us his forgiveness, that part has been done.  So, let me ask again, whose forgiveness do you feel you need so you don’t feel guilty anymore?
Client:….  (in a small voice)  I don’t know.
Me: Whether or not your daughter forgives you, you shared that you would probably still feel guilty.  God is willing to forgive you, he has made that clear…. Who else do you need forgiveness from?  Who is reminding you daily of your guilt?  Who is still blaming you?
Client: ….. (even smaller voice) I guess I am.
Me: So… what if… you were able to offer yourself forgiveness and accept it from yourself?  How would that change things?

Forgiveness pt 2
Client: I know what you are saying about forgiving myself.  How do I do that? I mean, I still feel like because of what I did, I can’t be forgiven.  It is not like I can go back and change things. 
Me: You said that you feel like you can’t be forgiven… but we established that your daughter could forgive you and God does forgive you… What if it was as simple as that example of the gift… you just have to simply say, “Thank you” and accept it like you would a Christmas gift, or a birthday gift. 
Client: I don’t think I can do that.
Me: You would find it too difficult?
Client: No, it is just that I would know what I did.  I can’t go back and fix it.
Me: Yeah, that is rough.  We can’t un-do what has been done.  I get that.
Client: So what do I do?
Me: I wonder if you give yourself any credit for the here and now.
Client: What?
Me: I mean, I think of all the things we have worked on that are clear evidence that you are making different choices and having better outcomes.  You are more responsible for your actions, more accountable for your feelings.  By your own report, you are different now that you were then.
Client: I guess I am.
Me: I remember when I was in college, I had to take a language class where I learned that different words carry different tenses.  For instance, in grammar, there is past tense, future progressive, simple present tense… how we use words carries a sense of timing.  Blame and guilt… those are things that belong to the past.  I cannot logically blame someone for something they haven’t yet done.  “I’m so mad at you for what you will do next week!”  It just sounds silly.  Guilt is concerned with something that was done.  In one sense, guilt is something that is black and white… did you do it?  Did you not do it?  Are you guilty?  In that sense, it is easy to use the word guilt in a productive way.  But the way we tend to use it is in a continuous sense… I continue to be guilty of …. Whatever I did.  But the truth is that when we stop doing…. Whatever we did and we in fact are doing differently now… we sometimes inappropriately carry a continued burden of guilt when it is not helpful. 
Client: So I can be guilty of having abandoned my daughter, but not still be feeling guilty?  I don’t get it.
Me: I think we are conditioned by our society to not understand how guilt and forgiveness work.  Guilt should be the feeling that we need to change something.  If we continue to blame ourselves for stuff we did in the past, we would get stuck and never move forward.  Blame and guilt are not useful for finding solutions and making progress.  They are only useful for accusation and getting stuck.
Client: I sure have been stuck on this for a long time…
Me: Getting stuck is easy.  Getting unstuck takes courage to change how we think and act. 

 Forgiveness pt. 3

Me: I hope you don’t mind me continuing the “what if…” game…
Client: No, go ahead.
Me: This may sound kind of silly, but imagine that you leave this office and go home.  It is kind of late, so you may eat dinner or maybe not.  You probably have stuff to do before bedtime and then you have a bedtime routine, right?  Maybe you brush your teeth, read a book for a while.  Get a glass of water or maybe not.  At some point, you are ready for sleep.  You lay down, take a few deep breaths and then you are out.  Now, while you are sleeping, let’s pretend that a miracle happens.  Something magical… what we have been talking about… the gift of forgiving yourself… it happens.  Overnight.  While you are sleeping.  Now, when you wake up, you don’t know that the miracle has happened, because you were asleep.  But you can tell that things are different this morning.  What might you notice about yourself as you go about your morning?
Client: I would be happier.  I would wake up feeling happy.  I might smile instead of grumping around.
Me: You would feel happier.  That is great.  What else?
Client: Maybe I would have more peace.  Maybe I wouldn’t be worried so much about stuff.
Me: Happiness and peace.  That sounds nice.  What else?
Client: I don’t know.
Me: What would your family notice about you, if this miracle happened?
Client: They would see me smile more.  I would not be so stressed out and they would feel better about talking to me.
Me: They would notice those things about you and respond differently?
Client: Maybe. 
Me: Would your co-workers and friends be able to tell the change?
Client: I’m sure they would.  I would have more patience with customers and with co-workers.
Me: Sounds like it would be nice, this miracle.
Client: Yeah.
Me: What do you think is keeping this miracle from happening?  Is there anything that would stop you from acting as if that miracle took place?
Client: I don’t know.  I guess not.  Just me doing it.
Me: Listen, it is Christmas time.  I’d like for you to go home and get a small box and give yourself a gift this season.  You can put something in the box to represent the gift, or you can leave it empty.  But wrap it up and label it for you and drive your family nuts wondering what is in that small package addressed to you.  What is that gift going to be?
Client: Forgiving myself.
Me: Yeah.  What an awesome thing to do for yourself, and for your family.  Let me know how it works out for you.
Client: Thanks.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

I hate Anger Management

     One of my biggest gripes as a therapist is that 'Anger Management' is a widely accepted term to refer to a course of treatment that should more accurately be termed, 'Emotional regulation skills'.  It bothers me that Anger gets a bad rap, as far as emotions go.  In my experience, emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are.  They can be uncomfortable, in the sense that we do not enjoy the experience of feeling that emotion (sadness, depression, humiliation, fear) or they can be comfortable (peace, tranquility, happiness, joy).  I try to help people understand that depending on the context, ANY emotion can either be helpful or unhelpful in that moment.
     Most of the 'Anger Management' courses I have come across do a great job at helping people manage the symptoms of uncomfortable feelings like anger.  They teach you to relax, calm down, take a break, scale your feelings from 1-10, etc.  The really good courses also go beyond managing symptoms and help build skills to manage the emotions themselves. 
     Here is one of the first steps that I try to take with clients who are struggling with managing their emotions:

Step 1: Change how you talk about your emotions. 
     I hear people say all the time: "You make me so... (insert emotional word here)"  It is such a commonly heard phrase, no one stops to question the implications.  If it is true that another person can MAKE us feel a certain way, that is very scary.  That means that another person has tremendous power over me.  On the other hand, it also frees me of the responsibility for my own emotions.  In a way, when I use language like that, it frees me from being responsible.  For instance, if "YOU" are making me angry, then I can't possibly NOT be angry until YOU stop making me that way.  See? 
    It is more accurate to understand that others can contribute to how we feel, they can do annoying things or have hateful actions toward us, but our feelings.... how we choose to feel in response to their behaviors... those are our individual responsibility to deal with. 

   So when it comes to changing our language, "You make me so angry!" becomes "I am feeling angry right now."  That is it.  Simply own the feeling. 
"You are getting on my last nerve!" becomes, "I am feeling irritable."
"You always make me feel like a loser!" becomes, "I feel like I'm worthless"
"You make me so happy!" becomes, "I feel happy when I am with you."

An interesting shift happens when we start using our words to accurately reflect what is happening.  Whereas the former statements all contain an element of blame, the latter statements are blame-free.  Can you hear the blame that comes with "You make me sooooo ANGRY?"  It is an accusation about something YOU are doing to ME.  Naturally, when someone accuses me of something, I look to defend myself.  When I get into defense mode, I will eventually realize that the best defense is a good offense and I'll attack (accuse) you back... and suddenly we are stuck in a blame cycle.

When we can own our emotions and stop accusing others of MAKING us feel a certain thing, then we reduce the likelihood that they will need to go into defense mode, and our communication starts to improve.

Try it out and let me know how it works for you.  Take the simple step and change how you talk about your emotions.  No one can "MAKE" you feel anything.  Our feelings belong to us and are our own responsibility.