It Takes a Village

Over the years, advancements in technology and transportation and an increased emphasis on higher education have led to migration within our society.  It is no longer unusual for people to move away from their families of origin or to marry people from different parts of the country or world.  Along with this shift in geography there has been a gradual increase in the importance of independence.  We have become a society that prizes the ability to “do it all by ourselves”.  It is my belief that this has led do greater isolation, depression and anxiety and a higher level of marital distress. 

Attachment to others is a basic human need.  Anyone who has read any of John Bowlby’s work can attest to this.  We have a need to be connected to others, and to be heard and understood.  Yet asking for help from others is often viewed as a sign of weakness.  This is a recipe for being overwhelmed and unhappy.  How can you possibly work, take care of a family, foster good relationships, and manage a household alone?  For many of us, it is not possible, especially if you want to have any enjoyment in your life!

It is my opinion that a strong social support network is vital, and since in many cases that no longer includes extended families, we have to get better at giving each other help and receiving it.  Therefore, I often recommend that patients make developing good relationships with friends a priority.  Don’t hesitate to jump in and help others without being asked and don’t ever hesitate to ask.  Instead we are often limited by our fear of being viewed as needy or weak.  The key is getting enough assistance from others that you have the time and energy to reciprocate.  Making ourselves vulnerable to others allows them see us as genuine people and creates stronger emotional intimacy, which can reap its own personal and professional rewards.

So I challenge everyone to think about ways you can help others and who in your life can help you.  Something as simple as making a meal for a friend who had surgery, grabbing something your friend needs at the grocery store while you are already there, or giving a ride to the airport could be the thing that helps make the day feel more manageable for someone you care about.  When you are struggling to ask for help, remind yourself that by asking you are allowing a friend to do something that will make them feel better about themselves and creating a connection that is more likely to last.  Understand that we are not in this world by ourselves.  Make use of the resources around you and think about how you can become a resource to someone as well. 



Effective New Year's Resolutions


In the tradition of New Year’s, it has become time for resolutions.  However, I often hear people lament about starting the year strong on their path to change and then, ultimately, failing to follow through with their resolutions.  So what is the key to successfully achieving the changes you want to make and what are some of the pitfalls into which people often fall? 

One of the biggest mistakes I see in terms of making actual change begins with the goal.  Are your goals realistic?  Is the change that you wish to seek even something you can do in a year?  Often, in order to reach the goals that you have set out for yourself, you have to make drastic changes and drastic, sudden changes aren’t lasting changes.  I often point out to people that you did not wake up one day and decide to be overweight or develop a habit of yelling at your children. 

Habits, by their very nature, develop over time and it takes time to change them.  It is important to be realistic about how long it will take.  You don’t go from being a worrier to someone who doesn’t worry about anything.  You go from being a constant worrier to someone who only worries sometimes about some things and so on.  It might be valuable to break your goal into smaller milestones so you can clearly see the steps involved in making the change and so that you can feel a sense of achievement.  In my experience, the biggest predictor to the failure of a resolution is someone not feeling successful at their endeavor.  In order to achieve successful feelings while on a long journey of change, you have to set achievable milestones throughout the process.

Finally, make sure that your goals are whole life changes.  Fad diets and temporary fixes that don’t become total life changes, don’t last.  Lasting change comes from incorporation of new habits into your total lifestyle.  So if you hate the gym, joining one will likely be a temporary change.  You are much better off, developing a hobby that is physical that you are likely to continue such as hiking, running, or surfing. 

Finding someone in your life who knows your goals and can offer support doesn’t hurt either.  So this year, set yourself up for success.  Let your resolutions be well thought out goals that you will actually achieve.  Whatever the goal, you will have no trouble achieving it if you follow these simple guidelines.  Best of luck for a happy and successful 2017!


Living with Mommy Guilt

This time of year happens to be a busy and stressful time for many people, so it is no surprise that my office sees an increase in calls as the end of the year approaches.  Just like anyone else, I rush around managing holiday commitments while maintaining all of my regular responsibilities.  As usual, my kids’ bad behaviors grow as my stress level increases and the effectiveness of my coping mechanisms decrease.  The end result is a common one: I question my abilities as a parent and think I should be doing better. 

I would like to blame these guilty feelings on our current societal trend towards creating “well-rounded” kids by over scheduling them with lessons and tutors designed to make them the best at everything they try, but in my experience this guilt spans many generations, socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures.  So why do we have this tendency to believe that our children’s behavior is directly proportionate to our parenting ability and what do we do with the inevitable guilt that occurs when our children don’t live up to our (likely unrealistic) expectations?

First, it is important to challenge these irrational thoughts with a more sensible inner voice that reminds us that nobody is perfect.  Neither your children, nor you.  Personally, I had an “aha moment” last week that allowed that sensible inner voice to break into my own guilty thought patterns.  In the midst of this end of year chaos, my children both had parent-teacher conferences.  Nothing I heard at either conference was a big surprise to me but, despite the fact that sometimes it feels like my children have morphed into uncivilized beasts, the feedback from their teachers was overwhelmingly positive.  Morever, my son’s teacher made a comment that really brought me back to reality.  She expressed that my son was not just a good student, he was also a good and thoughtful person.  As I sat there and listened, she outlined to me that all of the messages that I had been giving him at home were being used in his daily existence at school.  In that moment I realized that every time I repeated something to him for what felt like the fiftieth time and it seemed like I was wasting my breath, he was actually listening to me. 

So my takeaway was this, I am not a terrible Mom and I am doing everything I should be doing because my kids are GOOD PEOPLE.  When confronted with difficult situations, they do the right thing even when I am not there to make them.  I really can’t ask for more than that.  Suddenly I could look at them and no longer see the monsters I had been seeing all week.  The conference had shifted my perspective and made me realize what I knew all along.  Unfortunately not every parent has well placed conferences with insightful teachers to shift their perspective.  And sometimes we can get so caught up in the daily stresses of the moment that we don’t notice these little hints that life provides.  That is why it is so important to cultivate the inner voice that confirms to you that more right is occurring than wrong with your children and your parenting. 

Our brain is a complex thing that often makes connections of which we aren’t even aware.  The connections that often lead people to seek my counsel are negative ones.  What starts as one small negative experience triggers a chain reaction that spreads like a spider web across their brain connecting every negative event that is even remotely similar to this one.  However, if you cultivate them, positive experiences can create the same spider web.  The problem is that most people absorb negative experiences, and lose sight of the positive, easily.  The key to changing that pattern is cementing the positive experiences in your mind and making them easier to recall.  So write them down.  Keep a box full of wonderful things your children have done.  Tell the positive stories often.  Make those the things that are readily at the front of your mind or use those written down reminders when you can’t get your brain to recall.

So I wrote down all of my proud feelings and a reminder of the things that were said in that conference and I am keeping it.  Next time I start to feel like a horrible mother, I will have a tangible reminder of how silly that thought truly is.  That is my starting place for managing my guilt.  It is unlikely that I will never experience mommy guilt again, so I needed to ask myself why I felt guilt in the first place.  Here is the revelation: I want to be a perfect Mom even though my logical self recognizes that perfection doesn’t truly exist.  So how can I reconcile the difference between reality and my expectations for myself?  The answer is simple: I remind myself that when I make mistakes and take responsibility for them I am teaching my children important lessons.  I am teaching them that it is okay to make mistakes and that they don’t need to try to be perfect.  I love them anyway, enough that I am willing to say I am sorry when I need to.  This also means that I am teaching them how to take responsibility for their behavior.  I wrote all of that down too.  I don’t want to let those revelations get away from me again, although they likely will.  So when they do I have my reminders ready.  I want to help others learn to be similarly prepared.


Timers as Tools

In my practice I am constantly looking for small changes that can be immediately impactful in my clients’ lives.  While we all know that lasting change happens in small increments over longer periods of time, it is important in maintaining motivation for the work that needs to be done for there to be recognizable and measurable progress in one’s therapeutic goals.  Timers are a small, easily acquired tool that can have a big impact on several negative behavior patterns.  In this technological age it is increasingly easy to work with timers.  In  most cases, they can be set on phones and computers within seconds.

Experts have long extolled the virtues of using timers to assist individuals who struggle with attention and focus.  Setting a timer when doing longer tasks can be a great tool to help draw your wandering mind back to the present task at hand.  The notification of a timer breaks into wandering thoughts and gives you a signal that it is time to refocus.  A timer may also be used as a reminder to take a movement break if necessary.  Often movement is a great tool to help individuals refocus as well.  How often the timer should go off is dependent on the severity of the distractibility of the individual.  A highly distractible individual may need the timer to go off frequently, while a more focused individual might need only occasional reminders to break and refocus.  The hope is that over time the timer can be phased out as the brain adapts and learns to refocus itself through repetition.

I have also found that timers can be a great way to increase motivation in individuals who struggle with procrastination.  It is much simpler to motivate yourself to complete a task you have been avoiding if you can assure yourself of limits and rewards.  I recommend setting a timer at the beginning of the task.  That way you can tell yourself that after a certain amount of time you will stop working on the task and give yourself a break.  That break may involve a snack, checking the news on line, a TV show or any reward that you would like to offer yourself for getting started on your project.  Breaking a larger project into smaller pieces like this can make the whole project feel more manageable. 

Finally, I find the timer to be an invaluable tool when parenting.  Setting a timer can help aid in difficult transitions from one activity to another, especially with small children who are being asked to stop doing something that they are enjoying.  For instance, you may set a timer while they are building with blocks and say that when they timer goes off it will be time for them to put the blocks away and get in the bath.  While this won’t remove all of the grumbling, it often removes the power struggle because the timer is the notification instead of the parents.  In the same way, a timer can remove the power struggles that break down parental child relationships when children can’t complete tasks on time.  For example. There need not be fighting about getting breakfast eaten before school.  It is simply done before the timer goes off or there is a consequence.  This removes the turmoil and helps start the day off in a calmer, more predictable fashion.  The use of timers in this manner can also be used to help kids have more awareness of the passage of time, which in the long run can make them more time conscious individuals. 

While these are a few of the very effective ways timers can be utilized, the possibilities are endless.  If you were to present me with a nagging problem that you have been facing in your life, I am sure that I could identify a way the timer could be useful in kicking off its solution.  So start thinking outside the box and use a timer to jump start your change. 


Would You Rather be Right or Happy?

As the weather gets colder and the holidays arrive, the natural stressors associated with this time of year arise.  Significant relationships in our lives often suffer from the stress associated with the hustle and bustle of the holiday season as well as the demands of social events with extended family and work colleagues.  For many people, financial burdens weigh especially heavy at this time of year.  Tempers run high, tolerance is low and communication can often break down in couples and families.  As a result, many people express feelings that they are taken for granted by significant others during busy times in life such as these. 

My first piece of advice to combat these feelings is to make spending time together with your partner a priority.  It is often when we get busiest that our coping mechanisms are taxed and we need recuperating reconnection time more.  Unfortunately, during these times we often make less time for this recuperation.  Finding the time to spend with your partner despite the other demands on your time allows you to balance those stressors with positive interaction and communication with your loved ones.  These positive moments can help give you the perspective you need to not develop a negative impression of your significant other during these stressful times.

However, it is inevitable that arguments will occur, especially at this time of year.  While all couples have disagreements, it is important to argue productively.  Disagreements can lead to anger and resentment, which actually changes the way you see your partner.  Arguing in a way that leads to resolution without resentment requires knowledge that two people can experience the same situation entirely differently and a willingness to bridge the gap between those different perceptions.  It is entirely possible to have the same experience as your significant other and walk away with different feelings, meanings and thoughts about that experience. 

We all filter everything we experience through our past experiences and our own moral code.  Since no two people have the same experiences in life, we may (and probably do) interpret the input we receive in any given moment entirely differently than our partner.  It is important to keep these differing perspectives in mind when an argument arises and evaluate what you intend to achieve during the argument.  Consider whether the battle is important enough to justify an argument.  If the issue is that important, why is it important and what about your feelings do you want your significant other to understand?  One of our basic intrinsic needs as a human being is to feel understood, so you will often be more successful if you try to understand where your partner is coming from.  What might they be thinking and feeling that are causing them to act in this way?  If you are focused on proving that you are right (or they are wrong) instead of trying to understand their viewpoint you are not really listening to them.  If you are trying to force them to perceive an event in the same way that you did, you may be ignoring the fact that your partner is viewing that event through a different filter of historical experiences than you.  This is what leads to the resentment.  After all, would you really like to be with someone who isn’t listening to you?

So as this stressful time of year approaches make your significant other a priority.  Spend time alone together away from the stresses of the season.  Have enough self-awareness to know your own stress level and pick your disagreements wisely.  If an argument has to be had for you to move forward, ask yourself do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?  More often than not, you can’t have both.