Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Journaling for Inspiration, Self-awareness and Personal Growth

Here are some journaling or structured writing exercises to provide a little inspiration or guidance:

1. What would you like to see improved about your life right now?

2. Describe yourself and your family. Go back as far as you can and describe grandparents, greatgrandparents and other extended family. Draw a genogram or what looks like a family tree to create a picture of your family. For an example of a genogram, look here.

3. Who were you closer to growing up, your mother, father, siblings, grandparents, others? Explain why you think you were closer to these family members and not the others.

4. What emotional messages did you receive from your parents, family, teachers, others? Pay attention to the feeling of the message. Note that people can say they care about you in words, but the feeling can be very different.

5. Create a timeline of significant events in your life. Focus on all events that you can remember, including times when you may have been mistreated, neglected or abused. For an excellent example of a family therapy timeline, go here.

6. If you wrote a 3-4 word slogan to describe yourself, what would it be?

7. You are stranded on an island, but can bring 10 items and 3 people to be with you. What and who would you bring? Why?

8. If you drink or use other drugs, when wasthe first time you drank or used?

9. Describe your history of alcohol and other substances. Focus on what role substances play in your life.

10. Go here to the Alcohol Assessment website and complete the questionaire.

11. What did you learn about yourself and your use of alcohol?

12. For another questionaire, go here and complete the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test.

13. What old or new information did you learn about your use of alcohol or other substances.

14. Describe times when you felt like you may have been mistreated or neglected. Who, what, where and when.

15. Draw a line. On either end of the line, write the words really special or unworthy. How do you feel about yourself? Put a mark on the line that describes where you are on the continuum.

16. Imagine you can do your life over. What would you change?

17. Where do you want to be in 5, 10, 15 years?

18. Describe how you would like to die? Who would be there? What would happen?

19. What secrets do you keep? Describe the pros and cons of maintaining these secrets.

20. Do you feel trapped in your life? Why or why not?

21. If you have certain problems to face, do you think you have the power to change things or do you feel powerless?

22. In the privacy of your own thoughts or writing, describe your feelings about sexuality and your sexual experiences.

23. Have you ever felt mistreated sexually in any way?

24. Have you ever been the victim of sexual harassment or any other behavior which made you feel uncomfortable?

25. What are some questions you would ask yourself?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Journaling: A Way to Develop Personal Awareness

Therapists are in a key position to help clients learn about themselves, develop confidence and grow into their potential. On the other hand, creating dependency can trap a client in old thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns and sabatage the therapy.

Journaling can immediately help clients increase self-awareness and become a better partner in an intimate relationship.

The initial gains can include less depression and anxiety, positive energy related to working on a goal, and a sense of collaboration, rather than dependency on the therapist.

It can be especially helpful in couples work, as both partners in the relationship are working separately and together on behalf of the relationship.

It is a serious therapist mistake to rely on the individual or couples client to come to the therapy session and expect to have the therapist magically solve problems.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the therapist. Having a therapist who is mature, sensitive, knowledgeable, and empathic is important. But it really is the partnership of the therapy relationship which is most important in the end.

And here is another motivation for therapist and client…one or both of you may find you love to write…our world needs your creativity.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Balance Your Fighting with More Joy, Compliments, and Passion for Each Other

Making marriage work these days is a complicated balancing act. It takes time to communicate, resolve conflict, raise children and manage the challenges of busy careers.

Marriage and family researcher, John Gottman, PhD and his research colleagues have had a huge influence on the course of marital and family therapy over the last twenty years. I use many of the marital satisfaction surveys they have created. They are very helpful to couples trying to identify and work on their problems.

His research has compiled huge amounts of data and increased our understanding of what helps and what hurts marriages. Rather than try to research a specific therapy method or style of marriage or family life, Gottman studied many marriages and families over several decades. He was able to begin to see what really worked for couples and their families.

The results of their research is found in Why marriages succeed or fail…and how you can make yours last. This is one of my top ten books to read to make your relationship better.

One of his major findings was that happy couples had a healthy balance between positive and negative feelings and actions towards each other. It wasn’t how much they fought or made love. It was how they balanced their fighting with touching, smiling, paying compliments, laughing–showing love and passion for one another. They found that the ratio of 5 to 1 positive interactions to negative interactions did the trick. These couples had a deeper, more satisfying marriage.

If you are fighting too much, it is a good idea to slow things down, learn to listen more, and increase the positive time together.

What is Empathy?

Empathy is our ability to deeply understand and relate to the thoughts, feelings, and life experience of others.

Some of the ways we express empathy are by making eye contact, listening closely, reflecting back the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing from the other person.
Husbands and wives, life partners, significant others, parents and children, all experience empathy as the vital source of support and love.

When someone we love is hurting, it is a wonderful gift to spend time with them, listening, and reflecting back to them that we understand how they are feeling.

Next time you are alone with your partner, sit down with them, get close, look into their eyes, ask them how their day was and how they are feeling. It will be good for you too.

For Men Only! Learn How to Validate Your Wife's Feelings

Ever wish your wife was not so emotional or get defensive when she accuses you of not caring enough for her, family or family responsibilities?

I spend a lot of time trying to help men see the value of listening to their wife or partner. This is probably a little extreme, but a typical conversation might go like this:

Wife: I am so mad that you came home so late last night. You tell me you will be home at a certain time, but you are always late. I can never trust what you say.

Husband: That’s not true. I’m not always late. What do you want from me. I have a job that requires me to entertain. I can’t control the time I get home. You are totally unreasonable and have no right to be angry at me.

The husband is not really listening to the feelings of his wife. He is anticipating what she is going to say and reacting defensively. Rather than validating her feelings, he is telling her she has no right to feel the way she does.

Let’s take a look at a way of talking where the husband validates his wife’s feelings:

Wife: I am so mad that you came home so late last night. You tell me you will be home at a certain time, but you are always late. I can never trust what you say.

Husband: I can see why you would be mad. You’re right. I know you are waiting for me to get home and underestimate how long I will be. I say I will be home earlier than I know I will be to avoid getting you upset. It backfires on me because it gets you more angry that I am not more honest about when I will get home. I am sorry I do that and understand why it makes you angry. I need to be more realistic about when I can get home and try to not work so many evenings.

This second example is a great way to respond for the following reasons:

* the husband validates his wife’s feelings. He tells her, ” I can see why you would be mad…”
* He takes responsibility for his behavior. He admits he tells her he will be home earlier, when he knows it is not true.
* He apologizes right away. He says, “I am sorry I do that…”
* And he shows empathy by saying “I understand why it makes you angry.”

Learning the skill of validation will help you build and maintain closeness and intimacy in the relationship that counts the most.

The Beginning of Couples Therapy: Mastering the Art of Listening and Speaking

A lot happens in the very beginning of couples therapy. I ask questions about why the couple is consulting with me, explain how I typically work, and then get started with the problem solving process. Most couples want to start with improving the way they communicate…

Learning to communicate better is a good place to start. Once a couple begins to talk with each other more comfortably and effectively, they can address problems on their own and therapy moves more quickly.

I help the couple learn and practice some of the basics about speaking and listening. There really is an art form to this process.

When speaking to a wife, husband or partner, it is important to use “I” statements. This means focusing mainly on what you think, feel and want in the relationship.

Here are some examples of this:

Speaker: I think the recent holiday visit with your family was hard for me. There were a lot of things going on and I don’t think I managed the demands very well. I think your mother noticed that I wasn’t feeling very good and maybe that made her feel uncomfortable too.

Listener: So, the visit with my family was hard for you and you weren’t feeling well…

Speaker: Yes, when I think back on it, I feel sad that I couldn’t be there more for you and your family. I guess I get overwhelmed easily in those types of situations and check out.

Listener: I understand that you felt sad and overwhelmed back then. I could see that was happening for you. It was a pretty tense situation, so it is understandable that you would have a difficult time. Anyone would have had trouble feeling comfortable and knowing what to do and say.
Speaker: I really want to handle those situations better, so I can be more supportive to you and feel comfortable myself with your family.

Listener: I hear you that you want to do better in those situations. How can I be helpful to you?

The speaker uses “I” statements and focuses on themselves…what they think, feel and want.

The listener reflects back to the speaker in a caring, but non-defensive manner. They show empathy, understanding and validation for the speaker’s feelings.

Working on these issues early in therapy is really essential to make any progress. I like to tell couples that if they can master this method of talking with each other, particularly when things get stressful, things can get better quickly.

Avoid the pain: What we can learn from the Seligman research on dogs exposed to electric shock (Part 2)

What do you do when you experience the electric shocks in your life?

Most of the dogs (gods spelled backward) from group 3 learned to be helpless. When they could have easily escaped, they simply laid down and experienced the painful electric shock.

Many of us grew up in very vulnerable families where our basic needs for safety were not met. We felt fearful about one of our parent’s moods or what they might do after drinking too much. We were physically, emotionally, or sexually abused.
You could say that any of these traumatic situations would be similar to the exposure to painful electric shock causing the dogs in group 3 to learn to be helpless.

Children have very little power in their relationships with their parents. How can a child control how much their parent drinks or whether the parent is depressed or suffers from some serious type of mental illness?

Likewise, children can’t control whether they are abused or mistreated in some way. This is why adolescents run away or commit suicide so often. The developmental changes of adolescence enable more independence and autonomy.

Some teenagers just say, “I won’t take this anymore, fight back and/or leave home for protection.

To recover from these complicated situations, children need to begin to understand what has happened to them and their family, express their feelings, and then learn new and more effective coping skills to escape the viscious circle of learned helplessness.

If recovery is not possible during childhood, maybe some perceptive teacher or social worker will notice a troubled adolescent and offer a helping hand.

Or no one will notice until that troubled teen is an adult facing a serious life crisis.

What might be helpful to this adult? Of course, we hope that the crisis will lead them into a therapist’s office who is competent to do a thorough evaluation and develop a treatment plan.

Think of the crisis as an event that is big enough to cause the person to lose their ability to cope. They become lost and experience depression and, yes hopelessness.

If they are perceptive enough, they may realize that they have “been here, done this” before. This is the repetition compulsion part of the problem.

Just when they may have thought they were doing well enough, something throws them back into the abyss of darkness.

They may think to themselves, “Why is this happening to me (again)?

The learned helplessness research shows us that people, like the dogs, can be so brutally pushed down, that they believe themselves unable to cope.

They can become paralyzed with fear, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, depression, low self-esteem and a deep sense of shame and unworthiness.

The first thing a therapist would do is to begin the process of helping the client explore the connection between prior history of abuse or neglect, and the formation of irritational, automatic beliefs.

Much of these beliefs and thinking are below the awareness of the client, so it is very important for the therapist to begin helping the client discover for themselves, how this irrational thinking keeps getting them in trouble.

Here is an example:

If a person believes it is important for others to like him, he may become guarded in what he says to others.

Telling the truth to people who don’t want to hear it can lead to conflict and, in his mind, threaten the relationship.

Let’s call this “peoplepleasing.”

Having some experience with this personality type myself, I can tell you that peoplepleasers often get in trouble with others.

Listen, if you don’t tell the truth, it will definitely get you in trouble sooner or later.

Where might someone learn not to tell the truth?

If your father comes home every night drunk and threatens to beat you if you get in his way, you learn pretty quickly to keep quiet and get out of the way.

Imagine how ludicrous it would sound if someone said,

“...yea, my father came home really drunk last night and started threatening my little sister. I stepped between them and tod my father he was drunk and he should leave her alone. He realized I was right and apologized to my sister, me and my family and told us he would stop drinking immediately.”

I and hopefully you will agree that this is irrational thinking. However, adults who grew up in alcoholic homes will admit that they confronted their alcoholic parent a lot.

It’s like we are trapped in the belief that we really can do something, but what we do ony creates more heartache for us in our lives.

We become more and more convinced that there is no hope, so why not just give up.

This is where the treatment plan becomes a “conceptual map” for a client.

One of the most important gifts a therapist can give is a plan that offers a client a way out of the repetitive problems, like the one that brought them to therapy in the first place.

Perhaps the most important part of the plan is to explore, evaluate and change faulty, irrational beliefs and thoughts.

It is true, change your thoughts and beliefs, change your life.