Anger provides a mixture of motivational benefits, some healthy and some short sighted and self-destructive.
On the positive side, anger creates a sense of power and control in a situation where prior to anger these positive, motivating feelings did not exist. The feelings of control and righteousness that come from anger can motivate you to challenge and change difficult interpersonal and social injustices. If handled correctly, your anger can motivate others to help you win your cause. Anger can provide you with a rest from feelings of vulnerability, and a way of venting tensions and frustrations. It can provide the energy and resolve necessary to defend yourself when you’ve been wronged. If you are a long suffering victim of domestic abuse, for example, and your anger finally reaches the boiling point so that it enables you to leave your abusive relationship, anger has been a truly positive force in your life. If you are a dedicated crusader working to further a truly moral cause (such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s drive for civil rights, or Gandhi’s drive for Indian independence), then anger gives you the strength to carry on, and the will to persevere.
There are negative motivational sides to anger too. Anger can create and then reinforce a false sense of entitlement, an illusory feeling of moral superiority that can be used to justify immoral actions. For instance, anger-motivated aggression can be used to justify terrorism, or to coerce and bully people into doing what you want them to do against their will. Angry people are likely to subscribe to the philosophy that “the end justifies the means” and then use unspeakable means of working towards their goals that defeat their purpose. If you are a terrorist like Timothy McVey (who bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995), a bully like television’s Tony Soprano (lead character in the HBO drama “The Sopranos”), or a ‘school shooter’ like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (who murdered fellow high school students in Columbine, Colorado in 1999), anger has led you to the dark side.
It is important to recognize that the effect of anger can be either positive or negative. If years of unresolved anger reach the boiling point and motivate you to leave an abusive relationship, your anger has saved you from additional abuse. On the other hand, if you use your anger to frighten others into doing what you want them to without considering their needs, you are allowing your anger to coerce and control others and you are no better than a bully.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Though anger is a normal human emotion, the way you choose to express your anger may not be normal or acceptable to those around you. If you suspect you have an anger problem, or if people you respect have told you that you do, we invite you to read on so as to learn about how to gain better control over your anger.
Help for anger problems is available through anger management programs which are offered through various sources including your workplace, employee assistance program, and through local counseling clinics. Anger management programs are designed to help you learn to control your anger responses in order to improve your relationships and health prospects. Anger management programs have much to teach that can help you to gain mastery over your problem anger. However, like any therapy or educational program, anger management programs can only benefit you to the extent that you decide to participate in them fully, and take in all they have to offer.
Learning to control your anger will be an ongoing task. You will need to rethink your automatic responses towards people. You will also have to take more responsibility for your thoughts and actions than you may have in the past. All of this will require discipline and a plan. As a means of helping you to gain this discipline and plan, we will next step back and review how normal people approach making large scale life changes. Having this perspective should prove useful in your anger management efforts. Understanding the best way to approach a problem is an important step in eventually overcoming it.
Stages of Change
People tend to go through a predictable set of several stages while working through life-changes. Progress through the stages is largely due to a combination of motivation, technique and dedication. Some people move quickly through the stages, while others move more slowly, perhaps even taking a step or two backward before continuing on to complete their change.
As you consider each of the stages of change below, think about how each stage has played out in your own life as you have made life changes in the past. Imagine how you will work through the challenges of each stage as you approach your anger management goals. While your experience may not mirror the order of the stages listed below, understanding each stage can help you on your way to achieve your goal.
Challenge. Deciding to learn how to control your anger represents a big change in how you will life your life. People aren’t usually motivated to make big life changes like this until something comes along that challenges them to examine their old way of doing things, and motivates them to learn new, better ways of handling those things. Most people decide to make changes in the way they deal with anger only after they experience serious personal, social or occupational consequences for their anger. Challenging consequences might occur when a spouse starts divorce proceedings after a violent fight, or when you have lost your job after a workplace outburst. Some portion of angry people feel personally out of control after an outburst and decide to go for help so as to gain better self-control. Others go for help just to get other people off their back.
- Awareness. The awareness stage begins as the angry person seeks information about anger management; what anger is, how anger affects health and relationships, and how anger can be controlled.
- Preparation. Awareness is all about information gathering; it involves no commitment. The Preparation stage begins with your decision to actually make a change in the way you will express anger.Beyond commitment to change, preparation involves self-study and planning. It may be useful for you to keep an anger management journal where you keep a record of the things that make you angry, how you react when you are angry, and the consequences of your reactions. Your anger journal will help you identify and become aware of your anger triggers and may help give you some insight into how proportional your angry outbursts are to the various situations that provoke them (more on this later). The more you learn about your personal anger triggers, the better your chances of success in changing how you express anger.
- Action. In the Action stage you start making real changes. You may decide to take a professional anger management course or to purchase workbooks, tapes, or videos. You may also design a personal program for anger management. Any of these approaches might help you to develop greater control over your anger. However, none of them will work if you do not apply yourself to them with dedication and persistence.
- Maintaining Gains. The maintainance stage of change never ends. During this stage, you learn to accept the fact that you are not perfect, that you will make mistakes and act inappropriately, and that you can recover from lapses in your behavior when they do occur. Achieving sustained behavior change is a project. It may take multiple attempts and multiple failures before you will achieve this goal. Each time you do lapse into old behavior, you can use the tools and strategies you have learned along the way to help you pick yourself up and recover.
It is particularly difficult for many people with anger problems to work up the motivation to seriously want to work an anger management program. Because anger has a seductive, self-justifying quality to it, people are not typically drawn to anger management on their own. Many times, people need to suffer serious negative consequences of their anger before they realize that they need help in controlling their outbursts. Even then, motivation for continuing an anger management program can wax and wane. It is fairly common for angry people to stop attending an anger management program before finishing it, or for people to never actually apply or use the techniques they learn in their program. People often need to repeat anger programs a number of times before they truly understand the message and incorporate the training into their own lives.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
- “How do I know when I am angry?”
- “What events/people/places/things make me angry?”
- “How do I react when I’m angry?”
- “How does my angry reaction affect others?”
Answering these questions takes a while. It is likely you can rattle off several things that make you angry. You might even be able to identify several signs that you exhibit when you are angry (e.g., clenched fists, etc.). These quick answers are only the beginning, however; the low hanging fruit. You will want to continually ask yourself these questions for a period of time before you can be satisfied that you are fully knowledgeable about your personal anger.
Recognizing Physiological Signs of Anger
The first step in effective anger management is to learn how to recognize when you are angry. Some angry people see their emotions as a black or white state—they are either raging mad or they are calm. In reality, anger is not black and white, but rather quite gray. Anger occurs on a continuum between rage and calm where most of the time people experience some gradation of anger between these two extremes.
The same people who tend to see anger in terms of extremes sometimes have difficulty recognizing when they are experiencing intermediate anger states. Luckily, most people experience a number of physical, emotional and behavioral cues that they can use to let them know when they are becoming upset.
Some physical signs of anger include:
- clenching your jaws or grinding your teeth
- stomach ache
- increased and rapid heart rate
- sweating, especially your palms
- feeling hot in the neck/face
- shaking or trembling
Emotionally you may feel:
- like you want to get away from the situation
- sad or depressed
- like striking out verbally or physically
Also, you may notice that you are:
- rubbing your head
- cupping your fist with your other hand
- getting sarcastic
- losing your sense of humor
- acting in an abusive or abrasive manner
- craving a drink, a smoke or other substances that relax you
- raising your voice
- beginning to yell, scream, or cry
How Are Good Intentions Mischief?
Children want to be helpful and productive. That is how they learn and grow. Many parents and parental stand-ins insist on keeping their young people in a state of discouraging uselessness with good intentions. This is no more than self-serving mischief which we define as anything that doesn’t need to be done. Mischief doesn’t make sense to us. It doesn’t even make sense to the mischief maker. Mischief isn’t sensible or rational. It is non-rational. It arises out of purposes that lie below the level of conscious awareness. We can cope with our well intentioned mischief makers when we know what these hidden purposes are:
“Here, let me help you with that puzzle. “(Subtext: See what a good parent I am everybody?”) ( This is Goal 1: Attention and Service for the purpose of self-validation which will not succeed.)
(Better: “Here’s a new puzzle. Let’s see if we can put it together, you and me.”)
“Give me those scissors. You’ll poke your eyes out!” (Subtext: It’s my job to prevent bad things from happening.”) (Goal 2: Power and Control, for the purpose of preventing disaster perfectly in the future.)
(Better: “Be careful. Don’t hurt yourself.”)
“I told you not to try riding your bike by yourself! I’m going to punish you for disobeying me! I’ll teach you to listen next time” (Subtext: I am teaching the child the difference between right and wrong for his own good.”) (Goal 3: Revenge. Relieving the pain of our anger at someone else’s expense.)
(Better: “It makes me angry when you don’t do what I tell you. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. What can we do about it?” “Put it in the shed till tomorrow?” “O.K..”)
“Forget about it. It’s too hard. We’ll do it some other time” (Subtext: What’s the use of trying. We’ll only fail again.”) (Goal 4: Withdrawal in Helplessness and Discouragement. We succeed in setting an example of discouragement for our child to see and follow.)
(Better: “It’s hard isn’t it. Do the best you can and let me know if you get stuck.”)
This is how we shape the child’s attitudes and behaviors. This is how our good intentions replace the child’s native self-respect and confidence with self-doubt. This is how we eliminate the possibility of positive, productive behavior and leave only the option of making destructive mischief. The irony is that we do it all with the best of intentions.
To top off the irony, we say to our adult child, again with the best of intentions, “Why are you such a lazy bum? Look at you. You should be ashamed of yourself! After all I’ve done for you!”
We still don’t get it, do we. And if we don’t get it, how can we expect our child, our student, our employee, our client to get it?
The antidote to all of these mischiefs and counter-mischiefs is positive behavior which arises out of a context of self-respect. We teach self-respect by setting an example of it ourselves. If we do not have it, we cannot set an example of it for others people to see and follow. We can demonstrate our self-respect by replacing our good intentions with real intentions. Children can feel the difference. Real intentions make their lives happy and productive. They will carry our example of self-respect into the future and pass it on to the next generation. If we do not set the example, they cannot carry it on.
Why Do We Need To Know About Good Intentions?
If we do not understand the destructive effects that these seemingly beneficent intentions have on our relationships at home and at work, we cannot begin to counter their negative effects.
A. The Individual Parent Has Good Intentions.
1. We have just seen how “good intentions” can have a deleterious effect on young children. Parents cannot see the effects of their good intentions on that child because they are deceived by the camouflage of their self-serving concerns. But this is how parents rob their children of their native self-respect and replace it with self-doubt and self-contempt.
2. Parental good intentions have the effect of replacing the child’s healthy, appropriate attitudes with their exact opposites. The child grows up with negative attitudes towards himself, his loved ones, society, his employer and his community.
3. It is the context of self-contempt that predisposes the child to behave negatively and destructively. His negative behavior brings about punishment and other negative consequences which confirm him in his self-contempt. He carries his predisposition to behave negatively into adulthood where he inflicts his abusive tendencies on the people around him if he thinks he can get away with it.
4. In extreme cases of self-contempt, the individual’s behavior has the hidden purpose of bringing about the pain, unhappiness and destruction that worthless people such as himself “deserve.”
B. People In Positions Of Authority And Responsibility Have Good Intentions.
It isn’t only parents. Teachers, counselors, administrators, politicians, police and so on have good intentions for the people they control. Their misintentions turn out to make things worse instead of better. It is as if they were standing in loco parentis on their fellow human beings, as if they knew what was best for everyone by virtue of their superior station in life. There is no basis for this assumption.
In extreme cases, unstable politicians and religious leaders set their followers on a high-sounding but destructive path that has little or no relation to the demands of living in the real world.
C. Good Intentions Make Us Angry.
The good intentions of others make us angry. We don’t know what to do with our anger because these people seem so beneficent. We are reluctant to displease them because of the seeming kindness in their hearts. We need to see that this is not kindness, but rather self-serving, over-compensatory, inappropriate behavior on their part as a our first step to countering it effectively. For instance, we can say, “I know you mean well, that you want the best for me, but I prefer to do it this way. Or, we can say, “No thanks, I’ll be fine.”
D. Good Intentions Can Make Us Violent.
Some people, who do not respect themselves to begin with, are vulnerable to becoming super angry. They are angry at being controlled by well-intentioned but unself-respecting superiors; they resent the well intentioned rules and regulations imposed on them for their own good, as if they were too stupid to make independent judgements on their own. They become super angry when they perceive an injustice in the “wrongness” of a public policy with which they disagree. These controls are often imposed by someone who meant well but had a self-serving power and control agenda below the surface.
The person who becomes violent often has the good intention to right these wrongs by taking up arms against them. We may disagree with his tactics, but we “see his point.” But his point can never be made by using good intentions instead of mature, difficult thought processes. That is how problems are solved in the real world. That is a real intention.
E. We Need To Repair Our Own Damage.
We all had parents! To the extent that our parents weren’t perfect, they made mistakes, too. Their good intentions for us contributed to our present self-doubts, inappropriate roles and negative attitudes. It is our responsibility to identify these carryovers from our imperfect childhoods and bring them into alignment with the demands of the real world. We cannot be as effective in our capacities as counsellors, teachers, parents or spouses until we repair the damage that was done to us. We need to repair the damage in the right way. Too many of us try to repair it with techniques that make things worse instead of better, such as indulging in addictive behaviors, withdrawing from life, escaping into negative excitement and so on.
F. We Have Good Intentions For Ourselves.
Most of these self-destructive techniques are no more than good intentions that we have for ourselves. We bring about our own misfortune when we operate out of mindless attitudes from the past instead of our adult, considered judgment in the present. We must get out of our own way if we wish to live happy, productive lives.
How Do We Get Out Of Our Own Way?
How can we replace our inept good intentions with real intentions for ourselves and our fellow human beings? By doing our Homework. We can catch ourselves in the act of inflicting a self-serving good intention on someone and choose not to. We can catch ourselves:
• Wanting to be liked by pleasing in ways that are inappropriate to the situation.
• Wanting to be more responsible than reality requires us to be.
• Wanting to prevent disasters in the future as if we knew what was going to happen, as if the worst case scenario was the only possible outcome and that it had to be prevented at all costs. We cannot predict the future out of attitudes that formed in childhood.
• Wanting to prove that we are not inadequate by doing more than the situation requires us to do “just to be on the safe side.”
• Wanting to prevent the humiliating exposure of our inadequacy to cope by withdrawing from reality.
• Wanting to get our own way by controlling others for their own good.
• Wanting to ensure a perfect outcome.
These “wants” are all silent good intentions that we have for ourselves. We want our way.
Specifically, we can catch ourselves wanting to give someone what we are sure is good advice: “This is what I would do” or “This is what you should do.” We do not give advice. We find out what is preventing the individual from taking appropriate action in his own behalf. We want to find out
• What is he afraid will happen if he takes appropriate action?
• What attitude is he operating out of and how can it be replaced with a more
• What is his operating attitude towards success? If he doesn’t deserve to succeed, he will find a way to fail and sabotage our good advice. He will then blame us for the negative outcome and he will be right. We have fallen into his dependency trap.
Instead of giving well-intentioned advice, we identify and remove these impediments to action. We reveal to people that they are not powerless and dependent anymore. They have the power of choice; they have adult judgment; their judgment can be trusted now. It is good enough. They have the courage to take appropriate risks. For example, we reveal that they have the option of doing what pleases them. They may not even know what pleases them. That possibility has not occurred to them heretofore. Their Homework, then, is not to take our good advice, but to find out for themselves what it would please them to do and then do it, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
After they have done it, for example, treat themselves to a nice breakfast in a restaurant for a change, we can debrief their Homework. We can ask them how they felt after they did it. We can ask if they felt relief, control, accomplishment, success, identity, maturity, appropriate responsibility, security, independence, liberation, trust in their judgment, equality, courage, living in the present and belonging. These are all components of self-respect which is the antidote to the self-doubt from their childhood. We can even ask, “Was that a good intention that you had for yourself?” They may say, “Yes,” but it wasn’t. It was a real intention to do what the situation required them to do. They earned the right to enjoy this treat after all their hard work. If it were mere self-indulgence, they would not have experienced all these components of self-respect. Having succeeded once, they are in a better position to do it again. That feeling is called confidence. We did not give them this confidence. They earned it. They gave it to themselves.
Another problem unself-respecting people have is that they are unable to express their appropriate needs and wants. Their impediments to accomplishing this task include:
• “I want to avoid displeasing.”
• “I want to avoid looking selfish or inconsiderate.”
• “I want to avoid appearing weak and dependent.”
• “I won’t get it anyway so why bother?”
• “I don’t deserve to get it.”
• “I’d feel guilty if I got it and then have to give it back in the end.”
• “I want to avoid feeling obligated to return the favor.”
• “I’m afraid I won’t ask for it in the right way, that is, perfectly.”
• “There’s no guarantee I’ll get it. I’m afraid to take the risk of failing. I will take my failure personally. It would hurt too much. It hurts less to just do without.”
All of these are negative attitudes and these are all consistent with self-contempt. These are all counter-productive good intentions to avoid the painful disaster that unself-respecting people predict for themselves. This person’s Homework would cut through all of these negative considerations and just ask. That is a real intention. Reality requires that we secure the cooperation of our fellow human beings in a context of mutual respect. But reaching out to someone after all these years is scary. It takes courage, and some of us are willing to take anything but a risk. As adults, people have the power of choice to do it or not. They are in control of the time and place. Asking is not a sign of weakness or dependency at all. It is a matter of interdependence between two equal, imperfect human beings. After they succeed in getting what they want, they will experience all the components of self-respect. It will come easier next time. They are prepared to enter into appropriate give and take relationships with their friends and coworkers. This is called positive cooperation as opposed to negative cooperation which is mutually destructive mischief.
If the answer to their request is no, the individual is prepared for the problem of taking “rejection” personally. Their antidote is the knowledge that self-respect is not conditional upon getting what one wants. This is not a reflection on ones worth as a person. One is a worthwhile human being in spite of ones faults and imperfections, whether the answer is yes or no. We would have preferred a positive response, but we are worthwhile either way. If the negative response makes us angry, we can express our legitimate anger like a civilized human being, “It makes me angry when you won’t lend me a hand when I need you.” This is not self-pity, or a threat of revenge. It is telling the truth about ourselves even when that truth is displeasing. This demonstration of self-respect is often the first step in the creation of an atmosphere of mutual respect in which it is possible for people to give and take as equal members of the human race.
These concepts remain intellectual and theoretical until the individual works up the courage to make a break with his or her unhappy past. These new ideas become incorporated into the newly forming personality in the moment that the individual gets out of his or her own way and does what reality requires them to do. Then these concepts become real.
In doing an appropriate Homework, we heal the heart/mind connection that was broken in childhood. We feel integrated into a new whole that did not exist before. We can do it again. Like anything else, it gets easier with practice.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
The simple fact is that for many while there are children in the home, the marriage relationship often seems to be thrown to the background. The schedule revolves around feedings, changing, bedtime, bath time, homework, and on it goes. It is inevitable that just when you think the kids are asleep, and you make a move with your spouse, the baby starts crying or your other child ends up standing at the foot of the bed. Passion wanes. Time for adventure disappears. It is, however, possible to capture time with your spouse before passion fades. Here are a few ideas:
1. Establish a schedule. This is not only great for the kids and their development; it also helps create time for each other. This could be done as simply as scheduling a weekly dinner or lunch date. A coffee break together. Or a regular sexual encounter together (scheduling this does not lessen the passion and heat despite the lack of spontaneity; you can be spontaneous during the encounter). By having something scheduled, you create room for anticipation.
2. Utilize babysitters or family members. There are many very capable teenagers out there interested in earning a little bit of money while you take your spouse out for the evening. The beauty of this option is the kids get someone new to play and interact with, while you get a break together. Be sure to plan out the evening away in order to ensure you don’t return home until after the kids are in bed asleep. That way, if the date has gone well, there will be the possibility of being invited in for an uninterrupted “nightcap.” To create a greater flow towards the end of the date, look for a babysitter that either drives or can get to and from your home easily. An even better option is to utilize family members that live nearby. It is amazing to me the number of couples I have met that have not had their kids stay over night with family members or friends. Not only do you and your spouse benefit from this time, your kids do as well. They experience an expanded range of people who love and care for them. This can set a foundation for greater self-confidence and growth as they develop. It also begins to create a village mindset in the raising of your children. The best thing about the family option is the likelihood that the kids would be out of the house the whole night.
3. Secret signals or code words. It is often difficult to have conversations that may lead to deeper more intimate connections when you are interrupted every five minutes by one kid tattling on the other or needing something from you for their homework or wardrobe. This can be overcome by creating another language or codes to use with each other. This language or code should be based on whatever you would be saying to each other if given the opportunity. If this type of language is not part of your normal dialogue, then it would need to be created all together. It could be as simple as lighting a candle that is centrally located in the home as a signal one of the parties is interested in an encounter. Whether the encounter is sexual or emotional is up to you. Or it could be as complex as learning a second language. How great of a motivation would it be if you were trying to woo your spouse in another language? And if your kids begin to understand the language, they would only discover more about the love and desire you have for your spouse. There are far worse things they probably already know about you.
4. Be a lover to your kid’s other parent. As your kids grow older, there is nothing wrong with informing them of your plans to be alone with your spouse. You don’t have to give all the details, but claim the time you want to spend with your spouse and let the kids know they are not invited to join or interrupt. When your spouse and the marriage are a priority, the kids benefit. In fact, research is now showing that when the marriage is the focus rather than the kids, it is better for the family. I have always believed that the best thing you can do for your kids is to love your spouse. Let them also appropriately see you love them as well. Hold hands, talk, hug, kiss, sit by each other, and cuddle in front of your kids. They may be jealous that they aren’t getting the attention, but in time, they’ll be glad you paved the way for their relationships.
Kids in the home present some obstacles to passion in marriage, but they aren’t the only reason passion wanes. By overcoming the hurdles of kids, you are faced with what else may be going on in the marriage. The kids can provide a buffer for a stale marriage. If that’s the case, more work will need to be done individually and relationally to address the other concerns. Marriage is work. But the things in life that require work are more valuable and more worth it.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
We hear what we expect to hear, we see what we expect to see. Our expectation changes our experience. If we walk into a meeting and expect it to be a long, drawn out process rivaled only by a root canal or preparing your taxes, more than likely it will not disappoint. At that same meeting, another member of the crowd may come with a more open mind and willingness to learn and think it is the most enlightening time they have ever spent. So what’s the difference? This same rule applies to our relationships. Our expectation changes our experience.
So where does our main model for relationships and communication come from? You probably guessed it, our parents; who received their patterns from their parents and so on. How they did and do relationships has an impact upon our own. Like it or not. If you had an affectionate relationship modeled by your parents, you will most likely carry the model forward or go to the other extreme so as to try and break the cycle, either way the influence is there. If your parents were good communicators when it came to the sticky topics; money, discipline/parenting styles, intimacy, then you most likely can handle the tension most people try to avoid when it comes to talking about some of the tough things in life. If this information gets you down, don’t worry. You can change the pattern if you choose. When you understand some of the forces at work in your relationships and life, you attain the possibility of being able to have your past no longer dictate your future.
When you shed some light on this process in your relationships it’s easy to see why our important relationships are so much work. There are two family systems fighting to gain control of this newly formed system. Coupled with the idea that we see what we expect to see and hear what we expect to hear, no wonder there are times of conflict in this relationship. Surprisingly, there are many people I have worked with that are shocked at this fact. Apparently they have held on to the fairy tale version of relationships for too long. Maybe you have too. Movies and TV portray relationships as an alluring time of romance, love, laughter and joy. You know what I mean, “and they all lived…”
If you can complete that sentence, you have had that illusion as well.
Now back to the initial question, what did you expect? The onus rests on our own shoulders to make the most out of this life. If you expect things to be tough today, most likely they will be. If you expect your marriage to be rocky, it will. I am not advocating that you don’t examine reality honestly, but more often than not, what we expect out of things becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. By changing your focus or outlook on things, other aspects of life will begin to change as well. Problems in life are inevitable, struggling is optional. Improve your ability to improvise, adapt and overcome will allow you to take charge of your life and harness more energy for your day. Rather than spending a lot of time trying to change the wind in your life, adjust your sails.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Now I know you have been in this situation. You are involved in your daily tasks with your family or significant other and they say something in passing to you. While whatever they said was innocuous, your interpretation was anything but. So you storm out of the room or react with a verbal unleashing that would give any baseball coach in an argument with an umpire a run for his money. If the preceding hasn’t happened, maybe the following has. You are so deeply involved in your routine of life and work that when you come home after a long day, you simply co-exist with your spouse. You don’t even talk anymore. You’ve drifted apart and are living lives together under the same roof but miles apart.
A common belief regarding the cause of these examples is usually that the people involved are having trouble communicating. They would benefit from some communication training. Learning how to be assertive and use “I” messages properly. Nothing against these types of approaches, they are each good concepts to learn and incorporate within the right contexts. It is however my belief that within a committed relationship is not one of these contexts. Let me explain. As a foundation for this article, keep in mind that you cannot not communicate (pardon the double negative).
Everything we say; spoken and otherwise speaks volumes. Everything we don’t say speaks loudly as well. Research continues to confirm that around 93% of our communication resides in our body language and tone. How we say what we say speaks louder than what we say. The reverse is also true, how we say what we don’t say speaks louder than what we don’t say. I think I just confused myself. Maybe an example will bring about a little clarity. My wife comes in while I am watching a show on TV and begins a conversation (sorry if this is stereotypical). I now have a choice. I can turn off the show (or more likely hit pause on the Tivo) and respond to her invitation for a conversation. I can continue watching without saying a word. Or I can leave the show on and respond with the distraction of the show still in the background. She will react to whichever path I choose since she will read whatever I am saying by my reaction to her reaction and so forth. No wonder there are times when it seems communication is difficult.
The fact of the matter is, more often than not, communication problems are not the result of trouble understanding each other; it’s that we understand each other too well. In other words, the problem lies in me not liking what the other person is saying, and then reacting. When we react to the spike of emotion we get while interacting with another human, we often do so in an attempt to sooth ourselves.
Back to the previous example. If I do not pause the TV show and respond, or at the very least ask to have the conversation later, that can be interpreted as a threat to the status of our relationship. The message could be the show is more important than the conversation, and then the relationship, and then the family, and then the marriage, and ultimately then my wife. She may as well pack her bags and move out. I realize that is a bit overboard but it often starts that simply.
A majority of communication within a committed relationship in my opinion is covert. We are afraid to say what we really mean because we are afraid to take the “hit.” So we say it in code. We also interpret what we hear and see on our own without asking for clarity. Mainly because we may not want to know what the answer really is. We treat our significant other with kid gloves so as not to damage them. Incidentally, when exactly did I marry a person who is fragile? Why do I treat them as though they can’t handle what I truly think?
Conflict is not all bad. It is only through some conflict that value and rewards are increased. I hate to break it to you, but living a life that is more alive requires some work on your relationships, unless this life you envision is alone.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Have you ever wondered why there are times in life when it seems that you are simply coasting along? Throughout life, there are many tasks that must be undertaken in order to experience a life or relationship that is more alive. Granted there will be times when each of us may be bogged down with a particular event or stage in life (I have a 2 year old and a 3 month old in my house, needless to say, life right now is about them). Life has its natural ebbs and flows of emotion. But if you find yourself asking the preceding title question frequently, let me offer you some hope.
First, you are not alone. There are many, many people that have chosen to settle into their schedule driven life and have begun to believe that this is all there is for them and their loved ones. For many people, a routine life full of kid’s activities, homework, one week of family vacation per year, grocery lists, church meetings, carpool, etc. is enough for right now. What about later? When the kids are grown and out of the house (hopefully not boomeranging back). Have you planned that far in advance? Incidentally, did you know that the second most frequent period of relationships experiencing divorce is after the kids are out of the house? When you are forced to spend time with your spouse whom you may have avoided by “diving” into your kid’s life for all those years. You don’t have to wait that long (to change something, not get divorced).
Second, something can be done now that can begin the process of experiencing a life that is more fully alive. Experience a life full of passion, energy, love, adventure, and fun. It begins by asking yourself a series of simple questions: Would you want to be married to you? Would you want you as your father/mother? Would you want to work for you? Be friends with you? When we can honestly answer these questions, we have entered the beginnings of a life transforming process.
Far too often we want or expect those around us to change and accommodate us. We also may fall victim to the stagnating process of waiting for the other person to change before we respond. Let me explain by personalizing this. There have been times in my marriage when I have grown tired of the routine we have established of interacting, but I wait for my wife to do something different before I do. And to compound the issue, while I am waiting for her to read my mind, I get frustrated that she doesn’t respond fast enough or adequately to my unspoken expectations. Now I know how you may be responding to this; if she truly loved me and understood my needs, she should just know. If you are thinking this, you have fallen victim to the Hollywoodization of relationships. Just because you are in a marriage/committed relationship/close friendship/family does not mean that you cease to exist as an autonomous being. One with your own hopes and dreams and fantasies.
Having a life that is more fully alive, starts with you. By answering these questions honestly, you can begin to grow yourself into a better human. However, this does not come easily. This honest assessment of self and life is often accompanied by a spike in our levels of anxiety and discomfort. This is why we settle into the routine of life and don’t rock the boat. What I am proposing is that you have the willingness to stand up and address the things in your own life that get in the way of the life you want and in turn, take charge of your life and become more fully alive.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Ashley was 19. She had been away at college her freshman and sophomore years when her life unraveled again. In high school, she had struggled for several years with escalating depression, drinking, and marijuana use, and the painful feeling that her mother was ashamed of her. Her parents did not recognize the seriousness of the situation until she began to scratch and then cut her arms with sharp objects, at which point her mom got scared and sought help. During senior year of high school, her mom forced her into treatment, and with intensive individual, family and group therapies she become sober and psychologically stable.
Before leaving for college, Ashley was much better. She felt strong, proud of herself, and grateful to her parents for the ways they changed and learned to support her. Ashley even seemed to rise above her past – becoming an informal spokesperson for treatment and sobriety and seeking out ways to help friends and others in trouble.
At college Ashley initially participated in the support system set up for her, but then her attendance at therapy became sporadic. She became absorbed with campus life and seemed to revel in her independence. Ashley told her parents she felt “fine,” and announced that she no longer needed any anti-depressants and had gone off them.
Towards the end of first semester, Ashley tried to avoid her parents’ calls. When they did speak, she was short with them, refusing to talk about school or therapy. When Ashley came home during winter break, she spent much of her time sleeping and staying in her room on Facebook. Though having agreed and intended to get a job, she became too anxious to follow through the process. When her grades arrived, she could no longer hide that she had failed a course and was on probation. Ashley felt ashamed but promised her parents she would do better next term and go to her therapy appointments.
Unfortunately, the same cycle occurred the following year, culminating in a mounting emotional crisis towards the end of spring semester which she attempted to hide from her parents. When they questioned her over the phone about how she was doing she told them she didn’t not want to talk about it and wanted space. Her parents complied and backed off. When she was home over the summer, however, the signs that she was sinking became harder for her parents to ignore. (The warning signs of her depression included poor grades/failure at school, avoidance, inertia, withdrawal, staying in bed too much, weight gain, lack of motivation, irritability, depressed mood.) Though her words stated otherwise, Ashley had again fallen into the danger zone.
Ashley’s mom, Laura, was a successful surgeon. She struggled with tremendous guilt over her role in her daughter’s emotional problems and failure to heed warning signs that Ashley was in trouble until things were so bad that Ashley started cutting herself.
Laura recognized that, due to her own upbringing, she had been unable to be available emotionally to Ashley and, on top of that, was perpetually disappointed with her. She came to understand that she had tried to mold her daughter into someone more conventional and ambitious, pressuring Ashley to be more like her, thereby giving her the message that she was not good enough.
Ashley’s dad, Tom, was an easygoing guy who generally aimed to please. He loved Ashley very much and gave her whatever she wanted, but did not comprehend what was going on with her psychologically. Tom did not like conflict and feared Ashley’s anger. When she went to college and pulled away, he worried that if they upset her, they could lose her and she might no longer want to come home or no longer want a relationship with them.
Ashley’s mom made remarkable progress in her own therapy during Ashley’s senior year of high school, propelled by motivation and willingness to be honest with herself. This progress was noticeable and quite important to Ashley. By taking explicit responsibility for her own mistakes as a mom, learning to accept and appreciate her daughter as she was, and acting as a supportive presence and guide, Laura played an important role in her daughter’s recovery and helped mend their relationship. Before Ashley went off to college Laura felt good about herself as a mom for the first time, and her relationship with her daughter became more solid than ever.
Once Ashley went off to school, however, Laura began to feel pushed away and their relationship changed. She sacrificed so much to help her and it now seemed to have been wasted effort. As she became aware of Ashley’s failures at school, she wondered whether her daughter was just a slacker, capable of doing better but manipulating the situation to get away with whatever she could. Feeling angry, defeated, and unappreciated, Laura commented that being a mom was a thankless and hopeless job. She wanted to give up and, pulling away in anger, she decided she would stand back and not do anything.
Laura took it personally when she felt her daughter pull away, becoming consumed by an emotional reaction which obstructed perspective on what was really happening. For all of us, executive functions go “off line” when we are triggered into dysregulated emotional states and over-reaction. When this happens, our capacity to respond flexibly, think clearly, and react with good judgment is compromised. When the part of our brain that allows for reflection is deactivated by intense emotion (often originating from unprocessed experiences from our own childhood), instead of being thoughtful about how to respond to children’s needs, we are driven to react automatically and reflexively, as Laura did in her hurt and anger.
When a child’s distress is not taken seriously, and responded to appropriately by the parent, it can fuel an increasingly dangerous situation in which the child feels unconsciously compelled to continue “upping the ante” until the parent shows that they feel something empathically on the child’s behalf. Laura’s failure to recognize Ashley’s state of mind and step in to help led to her daughter’s continued escalation and deterioration, just like in high school when Ashley’s experience of not being “seen” in her pain perpetuated her self-destructiveness. During family therapy in high school, Ashley told her mom that she had felt out of control and driven to cut herself to produce physical evidence of her suffering – desperately hoping her mom would “get it.”
Another problem here was that when Laura was able to step back from her anger, she felt scared and helpless in the face of her daughter’s fragility. She feared that if she took action to set limits, Ashley would be forced to face the truth about her own limitations and might then want to kill herself. The truth was that Ashley was, of course, already aware – at least unconsciously – of her limitations and forced to be alone in it. She needed her parents or someone to step in and take charge.
Attempting to shield children from what they know intuitively to be true usually backfires, impeding the possibility of growth and causing them to feel shame, confusion, and aloneness. Projecting her own anxiety onto Ashley and colluding in a family-wide denial, Laura in effect reinforced Ashley’s sense of shame – and left her feeling unseen again.
Having the courage to face children’s limitations with them and offer help lends courage, builds coping skills, and is reassuring. Despite fears to the contrary, shame is actually decreased when parents are not afraid to face their children (in an non-judgmental way), and do not feel compelled to pretend or hide what is really going on.
What Ashley wished and protested she could do – and even intended to do – did not match her capacities. She demonstrated that she was unable to function in an environment with unlimited freedom and limited structure. She required a setting where help and supervision were built in, where she could not get lost and hide, and fall so hard. And, most of all, she needed her parents to recognize this and not be afraid make hard decisions with her.
Ultimately, Laura phoned her daughter’s therapist who was able to help make explicit what the realistic choices were for Ashley and her family. When presented with limited options for what she could do going forward, Ashley not only seemed relieved but, interestingly, selected the plan with the most structured and contained environment, (a therapeutic residential environment combined with college). This choice was telling and startled her parents – who been too caught up in their own emotions to recognize that, behind Ashley’s protests and demands for independence, was a cry for help and limits. As in this example, setting limits involves using adult judgment to protect children, based on what they can safely handle. Limits and consequences are often confused with punishment, but limits are not “reactive” or delivered out of anger, and differ from punishment in that there is no intent to retaliate and “teach a lesson” or cause the child suffering.
Not long after Ashley was accepted and decided to go to this program, she returned home to get ready. Three days prior to her planned departure, however, Ashley began desperately pleading with her mother that she changed her mind and really did not think this was the right plan for her. She no longer wanted to go. Laura could feel tension from her anger building inside her and a voice in her head saying, “Oh my God, not again – I want to run away.” However, having worked on understanding what happened between her and Ashley leading up to then, Laura was able to step back from this reaction. She was prepared and determined not to make the same mistake this time. However tempting it was, she knew it would be a bad idea to insist or close in on any decision with Ashley in this conversation – as she would have in the past out of anger and her own need for reassurance.
Laura calmed herself by reminding herself that things would be better if she could truly listen and not retreat, be reactive, punitive, or authoritarian. With this approach, Laura learned that her daughter was scared about the road ahead, and worried that she would lose all her friends. Laura was able to be empathic, while holding a calm, confident, but unspoken resolve about what her daughter needed, in effect, creating a sense of security for her Ashley.
At the end of the conversation, Laura matter-of-factly asked Ashley if she wanted to do some packing for the program together and Ashley nodded in agreement. She thought to herself, “Hmm – clearly she still actually intends to go”. To Laura’s surprise, even though she had not given in to Ashley’s begging, her daughter experienced her as supportive and protective, and eventually calmed and settled down.
Afterwards, Laura invited Ashley to go out for a walk. Ashley complained that she was still in her sweats and was “too fat and ugly” to go out. Laura responded by putting on her sweats too and showing up unobtrusively at the entranceway to Ashley’s room. Ashley looked up at her mom and the two of them headed towards the front door for their walk, quietly in step with one another.
Tips for Parents
• Respond thoughtfully and collaboratively with your teen to signs of trouble including: behavior changes, withdrawal, unhappiness, inertia, self-harm, repetitive cycles of academic or other failure, drug/alcohol abuse, shame/hiding. Seek consultation.
• Listen to teen’s behavior, not just their words. Understand behavior as a communication to you – and think about what the message might be. Try the following: If your teen’s behavior told a story, what would the title be? In this case, for example, the title of Ashley’s story might be, “I’m too ashamed to admit it but I’m out of control. Help!”
• Recognize that often through no fault of their own, teens’ best intentions may not carry over into their actions.
• Notice your own state of mind. Be honest with yourself and your teen about whether you are reacting out of your own needs, fears, anger, helplessness.
• Recognize that anxiety and worry about teens’ reactions (for example, whether they will be mad at you),should not be the primary determinant of what to do, or the gauge of whether you are doing the right thing,
• Differentiate between letting your teen have autonomy and reacting (in kind ) to their pulling away.
• Recognize when your teen is unable to make good decisions – and step in.
• Remember the power you have to affect your teen, even if privately you feel powerless or not needed.
• Recognize that, though they will say otherwise (and that’s ok), teens feel protected by limits. No one likes feeling out of control without anyone strong enough to help them.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
There are many events ripe for unearthing family dramas, often featuring a popular story line about competing loyalties. Though there are variations on the plot, the focus here will be on this dynamic as it plays out with men and boys and their mothers. Many men, caught up in powerful family dynamics from childhood, are plagued this time of year with having to choose between their mothers or their wives, as practical decisions regarding shared holiday time take on added meaning and consequences.
Holidays typically recreate old family dynamics as adult children reunite with parents, creating pressure from the original family system to replay the same patterns as before. This pressure invites conflict as new boundaries, competing with earlier ones, are tested and challenged. How the scene unfolds, and the outcome, depends on the level of differentiation achieved by the man from his mother, and the security of the boundaries he has established around his marriage and new family.
Loyalty binds are part of a common dysfunctional family dynamic which occurs when mothers use their sons to make up for previous loss, and lack of connection with -or anger at- their husbands. In such families, mothers often have a history of unresolved trauma, loss, or insecure attachments with their own mothers. This leads to a parallel and compensatory style of attachment with their sons, whereby instead of the mother tuning in to the child’s emotional states, the reverse occurs, requiring the child to adapt to the mother’s needs,
“Good enough mothering” involves a delicate dance of noticing and attuning to the child’s own rhythm, and adjusting one’s own rhythm to be in sync with the child’s need for closeness or distance, stimulation or retreat. Healthy attachment requires mothers to be secure enough to allow their children to safely differentiate from them without pulling them back in with the threat of anger, withdrawal, and/or guilt. Unresolved issues from the mother’s own childhood, particularly around separation and loss, can impede her capacity to allow the child’s needs and rhythms — not their own — to guide attachment.
As the child becomes an adult, a mother with this anxious, insecure attachment style may refuse to let go, secretly needing to remain the primary love attachment. This may not become apparent until her son finds a romantic love partner and devotes himself to her, allowing a competitor to enter the scene. The situation is then often enacted in full drama around family events and holidays when the mother’s explicit demands, and [unspoken] expectation of “loyalty” (e.g. exclusive love) from her son, conflicts with his role as a husband.
Jason’s mom required a possessive, symbiotic union with her son to guard against experiencing buried feelings of loss and abandonment. Losing her hold over Jason as he shifted his loyalties to his wife was the ultimate threat to her sense of security and control. When Jason married Kelley, the split he felt as a boy when he had to choose between his mom and dad – was recreated between his mother and his wife. This split became most apparent during their first holiday season together, when Jason’s mom made him feel guilty about how he divided his time, accusing him of abandoning her, and directing hate and blame towards Kelley
Jason’s parents divorced when he was a very young boy. Growing up, when he was at his dad’s, his mom called him frequently, asking him if he was ok – even when he was happy – and reassuring him that he had other people (her family) who loved him. She communicated to him in a variety of explicit and implicit ways her hurt and betrayal over his dad, which made Jason feel responsible for taking care of her.
Jason coped by developing a pattern of emotional detachment and blunting his feelings with both parents, so as not to let on that he was having too good a time with either. He experienced muted enjoyment with his dad in particular, often acting as if he were less excited than he was, especially when his mom phoned him, which was often. He felt particularly protective of his mom – the “abandoned one, ” often hiding the nature of his relationship with his dad, though it was secretly vital to him, and feeling guilty for leaving her alone. Jason’s father, in turn, took his son’s blunted reactions at face value, worrying that Jason did not like him or enjoy their time together, often pulling back in reaction or becoming angry.
Jason was in the dark about how he felt because both parents imposed their own feelings onto him. No one helped him understand what was happening or gave him a safe space to experience his own natural reactions, which went underground. Without help articulating their own and other’s states of mind through words and emotional resonance, children do not develop a “sense” of themselves. This self-awareness or inner wisdom is needed to guide us, allowing us to gauge what it happening in our relationships, and make decisions that are true to ourselves.
In place of authentic experience, Jason developed an adaptation to relationships in which he was detached and “other directed”. His reactions were driven by fear and dread of his mom’s unhappiness. When she was angry or hurt, through a process of “projective identification,” he took on her feelings as if they were his own, experiencing the weight of her depression, and the related feelings of guilt and badness she projected onto him.
Projective identification is an unconscious psychological process occurring in relationships whereby one person’s disowned feelings are put into the other. The recipient identifies with these projected feelings as if they were his own and both enter into a shared delusional cycle. In this case, Jason experienced his mom’s rageful accusations of abandonment as an emotional truth, feeling depressed, guilt-ridden and mad at himself for not looking out for her.
Using guilt, as Jason’s mom did, to control others in relationships disregards boundaries and disrespects the other person’s autonomy. This approach to relationships replaces mutuality and negotiation with greed and emotional blackmail, presuming a lack of faith that others would give of their own free will. It is typically an unconscious process whereby the guilt-tripper feels self-righteous, entitled, and innocent of any misdeed. Emotional manipulation through guilt can be costly – breeding resentment, limiting authentic engagement, and hijacking initiative and genuine desire.
In cases such as Jason’s, the lack of differentiation between mother and son is so complete and unconscious that the man may be unaware of the source of his resentment, easily displacing it onto his wife, usually a safer target than mother. This pattern leads to unintended collusion with the mother, causing the marriage to become divided until the man “owns” his unexpressed conflict with his mom, and recognizes that she is the source of his anger. An absence of anger towards his mother, or the inability to come forward with it is likely a sign of re-experiencing a once adaptive, but now instinctual, response to danger experienced as a child for any such emotional separation from mother.
Jason needs to see what is really happening in order to disentangle himself from his mother’s projections and find a space to think and feel for himself. Awareness of his internal conflict and anger over the emotional burden and manipulation he has had to bear will allow him the courage to set limits with his mom. Standing up to his mom will reduce his fear and avoidance, creating a space for him to act of his own volition and desire and choose his wife as his primary loyalty and partner in life.
Tips for the woman:
• Stay aligned with your husband
• Communicate feelings and requests clearly, without anger, or acting out
• Don’t demonize or bad-mouth his momRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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