I like to help people. It comes with the job, for sure, and it is refreshing to me to have people leave conversations or meetings with me feeling better than when they got there. When talking with people that have emotional burdens, sometimes you may wonder what you should be doing to help. Should I work to help them find the answers they need or make suggestions for how to find it? Should I encourage them to open up and talk about what is on their minds? Should I change the subject and help them think about something else?
Sadly, it is remarkably easy to make somebody else’s pain about you. Your reaction to their pain or hurt, however justified, can quickly overtake your desire to help them and drive you to process your own emotion. Another common reaction to taking on somebody else’s emotions is to shut down and separate yourself from the other person. At the least you may change the subject to take their (and your) mind off of the hardship.
In my experience, a more helpful stance to take to help people who are experiencing powerful emotions is to stay engaged without becoming overwhelmed by that emotion. The tool I teach to clients and practice myself in order to achieve this is to reflect and validate. It is important while you reflect (or paraphrase what you heard) and validate (remind them it’s okay to feel the way they do), to remind yourself that the emotion you are feeling belongs to the other person and not to you. Your experience with that feeling gives you the ability to put a name on what the other person is feeling. When you do this, the emotion becomes the topic of discussion instead of the difficult circumstances that directed that emotion. This discussion is what I refer to as meeting an emotion.
When you meet people in their emotions, it brings you closer to them. They know that you understand them and are there for them when they are feeling these emotions. It also gives you the chance to help them sort through their circumstances in a helpful way instead of in a dismissive way. If you would like to work on this method of communicating, or are curious how to connect better with people in your life, schedule a session with us!
Last month, I met with some friends of mine, both engineers, to talk about how to describe emotional connection in terms of fluid mechanics. This discussion about emotion was illuminating, as we touched on a model that demonstrates what can happen in relationships. I was excited as I realized what a life-changing model this could be for my clients. As with most models for human relationships, showing how the model works before applying it directly to their lives can help to find solutions abstractly and at a safe distance. For this example, I begin with two hypothetical containers of water that are experiencing different amounts of pressure.
When a vessel is experiencing a lot of pressure, and it connects with a vessel under lower pressure, the system seeks to equalize pressure. This means that the low-pressure vessel takes on some of the pressure from the higher-pressure vessel. If the high-pressure vessel has a higher tolerance for pressure than the low-pressure vessel, the transfer of pressure can create a dangerous environment for the low-pressure vessel. Damage or destruction can occur due to the lack of ability from the receiving container to handle increased pressure. This can alter the system, because if the low-pressure vessel is damaged, then it will not serve as effectively in future situations without repair. In this case, there must be a way to protect both vessels from taking on too much pressure. In order to assist with the pressure, it is helpful for both vessels to have systems or safeguards in place to prevent damage or destruction due to pressure overload. Part of the high-pressure vessel’s safeguards is to share the pressure with another vessel. The connection is formed partly for the alleviation of pressure from one of the vessels. This need not be a one-way transaction, as the higher pressure in the low-pressure vessel can also be transferred back. Adding mechanisms such as a pressure release valve may also be necessary to protect against the taking-on of pressure.
This metaphor is useful because it demonstrates how these containers interact with each other when there are different conditions present in each container. This example translates into our own experience as people. The containers are people, and the higher physical pressure one tank is under is higher emotional pressure that a person is under. The connection represents the emotional connection between people, and the transfer of pressure under those circumstances is the process of taking on the emotions of another person. The thresholds for pressure that tanks have are the ability each person has to handle pressure or emotions, and the safeguards are the processes that a person has for managing stress. By demonstrating these processes with a metaphor, it is easier to see what the solutions are! Much like the tanks, it is impossible to avoid sharing pressure when a connection is made. If a connection is not made, this can serve to threaten the high pressure tank, as making a connection must be one of their safeguards against high pressure. However, the connected tank will be put under increased stress, and it will be important that they have their own measures in place to protect them. Pressure release valves or other safeguards are coping skills that people can have for handling anxiety or stress in their life. Making an emotional connection can be one way to alleviate pressure. Discovering ways to do this can be difficult, and sometimes it may be helpful to talk with someone about how to accomplish this. If that is your case, schedule a consultation today.
If you are or have ever served as a caregiver for a parent or other aging adult, you know that many moments can be stressful, yet also beautiful and meaningful at the same time. While being a caregiver can provide your life with meaning and purpose, as well as enhance your relationship with the person you are caring for, it can also put you at risk for experiencing high levels of stress, depression, and burnout. With all of these contradictory effects, it can be difficult to manage your own health and well-being. While this can be hard, self-care is imperative for a caregiver throughout the caregiving process. Below are some tips to help you take care of yourself and your health as you also care for your parent or other older adult:
1. Allow yourself to acknowledge both the positive and negative emotions you may be experiencing.
Many caregivers feel ashamed to admit that they feel stressed, fatigued, frustrated, angry, or sad as they are caring for their parent or other older adult. It is important to allow yourself to get in touch with these emotions, as well as the positive ones you may experience as well, such as gratitude and finding purpose. It is natural to experience both types of emotions, as well as important to express both of these. If you do not express them, they become stuffed down, which can backfire later on, often leading to depression, anxiety, and burnout. One way to begin the acknowledgment and expression of these emotions is to practice mindfulness exercises, such as meditation or guided breathing. Journaling about your emotions can also help you express them in a healthy way and give you an opportunity to work through and make sense of them. In addition, therapy can be a safe place to talk about these emotions without the worry of being judged.
2. Do something for yourself at least once a week.
When you are caregiving, it can be easy to feel like your own needs are not as important as the parent or adult’s you are caring for. But there’s a reason they tell you on the airplane that in the case of an emergency, put your air mask on first before putting it on others. It can be hard to take care of others if you are not also taking care of yourself as well. It is not selfish to take some time here and there to do something you enjoy. In fact, it is the exact opposite of being selfish because you are going to be a more effective caregiver as a result of taking some time to rest and recharge. It can be helpful to set a recurring time each week for you to do something for yourself and only yourself, such as going for a walk, watching your favorite TV show, or going to lunch with a friend.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If you are feeling fatigued, overwhelmed, and like you just need a break, listen to your body. If you have other family members nearby, ask them to step in for a few hours while you take a break. If you don’t have the option of family being nearby, asking for help can also be in the form of seeking therapy or attending a support group where you can talk openly about your experiences as a caregiver, as well as listen to those of others in similar situations.
Last month, I was asked to give a community talk about communication in relationships. To prepare for the community talk, I compiled some thoughts about communication and after the talk I decided that it would make for a good blog as well! So here, I have converted what was a 45-minute lecture and discussion into a readable (hopefully) blog.
Communication in relationships is important to talk about because it is such a common complaint that people bring when they are seeking couples counseling. In my time helping people, I have come to expect that communication will be a factor in every couple and family session I have. There are a few good reasons for this:
Communication is vague.
Poor communication, communication skills, or social skills, can be hard to define concepts. When you ask what is meant by such a complaint, most clients may offer some phrases or examples, but they are unable to say precisely how communication plays into their difficulties. This is because blaming the communication in your relationships is a way to take the problem away from an internal struggle and place it on something outside or safe. This is a safe way to describe uncertainty about where problems are coming from and a hopeless feeling about how to deal with them.
Communication is immersive.
When you are having a heated discussion with a close friend or significant other, you are involved emotionally in the exchange to a degree that prevents you from seeing the process of communication objectively. So instead of engaging directly in the conversation with the other, you separate by being wrapped up in your own feelings and your own emotions. You gradually begin to respond more directly by what you think the other person is saying than what they are actually saying. So your reactions may seem out of place, or unwarranted. You can usually tell based on the confusion or caution in your partner’s response. If you start to notice these sorts of responses, it is a sign that you may be in your head more than you should be.
Communication changes over time.
Think back to the early parts of your relationship, or even back to when you were a child and your parents were talking to you. At first, understanding requires more words and effort put into communication. After you become accustomed to the expectations and meaning behind your conversations, you may find that you develop a shorthand that allows you to communicate much more efficiently. How could efficiently communicating be a problem? The answer to this question is complex but can be very illuminating. As communication compresses, it depends more on inference (what you think is being said), and perception (what you think they are feeling). Most of the time this would not be a problem. Usually you are close enough to what you are supposed to be hearing to get the message, and it does not cause a problem. However, these misjudgments add up because communication is so immersive, and you tend to miss things when they are based off of perception.
As communication compresses, it depends more on inference (what you think is being said), and perception (what you think they are feeling).
Problems can happen sometimes when communication compresses too much. People depend too much on their inference, perception, and later, history of negative impressions left unresolved. When you depend so much on your inference and perception, you experience a fundamental shift in communication. No longer are you communicating with each other, you are each communicating by yourself. Often I hear from clients a question, “Why bother talking to each other when you know exactly how the conversation is going to go?” My question to them in response is, “Why bother standing in front of each other while you talk to yourselves?”
So how do you break this cycle?
Breaking the cycle can be extremely challenging. The first thing that helps with breaking these sorts of cycles is to slow down. Slowing down gives you a chance to pull out of the emotional immersion that happens during these cycles. Imagine if you were swimming in a dangerous current. To escape the current, the best way to start would be to find out which direction the shore is! Otherwise, you might start swimming off in a direction, running the risk of swimming away from safety. Communication is the same! If you find yourself to be drowning in the emotional turmoil, take a moment to gauge a way out. My recommendation would be to take a moment to decompress communication. Find out what your partner actually meant when they said the thing that upset you so much. Be mindful that their explanation could have a similar effect on you, but keep in mind that they are trying to connect with you too.
Just from my experience, I have seen many couples achieve a connection and closeness that had been previously absent from their relationship.
A tool I frequently teach is reflecting and validating. These simple statements can transform the way couples feel about their conversations. Just from my experience, I have seen many couples achieve a connection and closeness that had been previously absent from their relationship. Reflecting, explained simply, is a synthesis of the information received by the hearer from the sharer. So if the sharer is explaining about how difficult their day was, using many examples and demonstrating how troubled they feel about their day, the hearer could say, “Wow, it seems like you had a really hard day.” These reflections are occasionally met with relief, but often they are met with an increase in sharing. This happens in part, because the hearer is opening to the sharer, inviting them into the safe connection they have together. The next thing it is very important for a hearer to do is to validate. Validating, in effect, assures the sharer that they aren’t crazy for feeling the way they do. A size-fits-all validation statement that I recommend to people who aren’t sure where to start is a second part to the earlier reflection. Wow, it seems like you had a really hard day. If I had a day like that, I would be frustrated too. The second part of this sentence is critical, as it builds connection by implying a shared reaction to the stressors. When the sharer realizes that they are not only justified for feeling the way they do, but knowing you would feel the same way if you were in their position can shift the conversation from a tense and uncomfortable venting session to a loving and comforting connection.
What if you are the only one?
Feeling like you are the only one trying is a typical reaction to the beginning parts of changing your relationships. Several things are important to check on if you are feeling this way. The first thing to check on is whether your partner knows you are trying to work on your relationship. The second is to make sure that you explain how you are trying to make changes. The last way to do this is to consider the possibility that you are missing something. There is a chance that you are trying so hard to explain yourself fully and clearly, and it is keeping you from hearing your partner well. If this is the case, slow down, and reflect and validate your partner. See what changes it will make!
What if it is too hard?
A sticking point heard or left unspoken too often in therapy, the belief that these emotional situations are too intense, and too difficult to handle. In these instances, I offer three areas of insight. The first is assurance that connecting with your partner is hard, but it gets easier if you are brave. The second is that these problems were created over time and must be solved over time. The third is that when you have been involved in a long-lasting cycle, sometimes you need an outside perspective to help find the way to safety. Schedule with us today to begin your journey back to a safe and meaningful connection.
As a couples therapist, one of the things I hear couples say the most is that their goal is to never argue. It is so often that our idea of a happy, healthy couple is one that never fights or disagrees-this could not be farther from the truth! In fact, if someone tells you they never argue with their spouse or partner, they are probably not telling the whole truth. Many relationship experts, including Dr. John Gottman, would argue that conflict in a marriage or long-term relationship is actually completely normal and healthy (Gottman, 1999). It is how you handle these disagreements that is the key to having a happy, healthy relationship.
According to Gottman, one of the main things that keeps couples from arguing in a healthy way is the language that is used during a disagreement. So often, partners will become overwhelmed with emotion during an argument and begin saying things they later regret. Criticism, verbal attacks, and put-downs only escalate the argument, keeping partners from being able to solve the issue at hand. In addition, couples often get so wrapped up in arguing over problems that can never really be solved (such as differences in personalities or core beliefs). It is amazing how much time is freed up when couples choose to agree to disagree on these types of issues, and focus on the issues in their relationship that they can actually solve (such as the division of housework).
So how do you change these behaviors and learn to argue in a way that actually strengthens your relationship instead of chips away at it? According to Gottman, one of the keys is to be able to calm yourself when you are feeling overwhelmed with emotions during an argument, as well as know when to call a time-out from the argument (time-outs aren’t just for kids!). Another key is to be able to come back to each other following a disagreement and work to make repairs, such as by expressing appreciation to your partner or apologizing for anything that may have been said strictly out of anger during the disagreement.
As a couples therapist, I coach couples in how to disagree in a healthy way. Believe it or not, when you learn how to do this, your relationship will strengthen as well. Some skills you can learn in couples therapy are how to be mindful of the body language you use during disagreements, how to soothe yourself during arguments, and how to express appreciation for your partner, rather than fixating on the things that you cannot change about them. Through practice, these skills can become second-nature, and can have enormous effects on many areas of your marriage or relationship.
Reference: Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
The stories you tell your children about them matter. Stories that are recalled first by you to your children at times that seem good for teaching, but gradually broaden to act as a warning or comparison to other examples. These broader examples inform children of the meaning and implications of these stories.
Consider what stories you tell your children. Consider how they may hear those stories about themselves. Consider the effect your words have on their young minds. To demonstrate what I mean, allow me to use an example from my own life. My daughter, when she was young, was a fantastic sleeper. Within her first month, she slept through the night, up to twelve hours sometimes. My son, however, was not a good sleeper. It took him several months before he slept through the night and he never has slept the twelve hour stretches our daughter would. Now, let me consider some different ways this fact, this part of their lives could be told by me to them later in life, changing and festering from a simple statement of fact to a damaging and vague description.
Why Does It Matter?
As they grow up, I could remember how my daughter slept better than my son. Maybe I would even mention it to them. After all, it is a factual statement about them as infants. However, over time, it is very understandable how what begins as simple fact becomes more vague. You may even forget how specific the factual example is. When I remember that she slept better as a baby, I may say to my son that he never slept as well as her. Though it is possible to reach a conclusion that would be damaging from this statement alone, it is unlikely that he would think about it any more than just that time. However, as this story is repeated by various members of the family, it becomes less of a singular fact describing his infancy, instead joining the narrative that defines who he is to others.
From there, the shifts become progressively more damaging as they become more vague. Beginning with the thought that my son did not sleep as well as his sister, it may shift to a more general, but similar thought of being a harder baby than his sister. While I am thinking about how he was a harder baby than his sister, it is easier to notice other ways that raising him is harder than raising her. So what began as my daughter sleeping better than him turns into him being harder to raise. A natural progression in description; a massive impact in meaning.
My urge is this: think of the stories you tell your children about their raising. Have they always been that way? Are they vague? Are they helpful? Your answers to these questions may help you recognize uncertainty and shame your children feel. My suggestion to begin to alleviate this is to open the subject up to your children. What stories do they remember? What do they mean? If you have young children, how do you explain your experiences with them growing up? Can you think of things you will remember fondly of them from this time period? Tell them!
You may have been fighting for months, years even. Maybe you discovered an affair, or perhaps you are worried about how you handle simple disagreements with your spouse. Then again, things might be totally fine, but you are wondering what you can do to strengthen your relationship. Marriage counseling isn’t for right for every situation, but it is helpful more often than not. Wherever you are in your marriage, consider these things:
At the first session of marriage counseling with a new client, I always ask the same question after we get to know each other a bit. I ask each person, “What are your best hopes for marriage counseling?” They almost always pause, sometimes for a long time. It’s as if they never thought about what they actually wanted to happen on the other side of this conflict. Having these hopes for their lives and their marriages in hand, couples can be helped to take steps toward realizing them.
Beyond knowing and understanding what you hope for your relationship, it is also helpful to think about what your spouse wants. What do their best hopes mean for your relationship? What might need to change to help achieve the goal? What is already working? Working out goals can be encouraging and exciting, but even at this stage, it is important to remember that no meaningful change occurs instantly. Time is required to reach enduring goals.
One of the most difficult things to do when things are tense with your spouse is to take a breath and stop the exchange. However, that may be exactly what your marriage needs. If you notice that you are becoming frustrated, take a moment before responding. Some people take deep breaths, counting from one to ten, and others think of a peaceful place. Whatever your choice may be, just slow down before you make a tense situation worse. If you wait and still feel you need to discuss the difficult topic, you have the benefit of coming to it a little bit separated from the powerful emotions you had when you were feeling frustrated.
This step of improving everyday interactions is the most difficult to do without assistance. It may be necessary to have a therapist coach the couple through this stage of the process.
Communicate With Purpose
One of the most important parts of any relationship is communication, but what is the point of communicating? How you answer this question changes that way you communicate greatly. If you believe that you communicate to get your point across, then you will be more likely to be direct and upfront, sometimes at the price of being kind and considerate. If you believe that the point of communicating is to affirm people, you are more likely to compliment and nurture, sometimes at the price of removing your own input and perspective. If you believe that the point of communicating is to connect, you will be more likely to see deeper meaning in conversation with your partner, sometimes at the cost of being aware of practical concerns.
There is room for all of these different views of communicating in a happy marriage, but the drawbacks of each viewpoint can cause problems. Rather than trying to do one of these all the time, spend some time thinking about what methods work for situations that repeat in your relationship.
If Wishes Were Horses
There is an Old English proverb, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” The meaning of the proverb is if people are able to achieve what they want just by wishing for it, even the most desperate of people would have everything their hearts desire. This proverb applies to relationships as well. If wishing you would stop fighting or being upset by your partner were all it took to get past it, we would have perfect relationships. We would always be satisfied because, if we weren’t for any reason, we could fix it just by wanting something else!
Of course, it isn’t that easy. In fact, it can be very difficult to work better with your spouse. You may wish that you knew some way to improve your marriage but don’t know where to start. If that is the case marriage counseling may be for you, if so, please set up an appointment today.