Conflict Communication for Couples
Having worked with couples for over 20 years from both Psychodynamic and Family Therapy perspectives, I have identified enduring patterns that many, if not all couples experience, regardless of culture, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. The following outline may provide you and your partner with some useful guidelines on how to work through conflict when it arises in your relationship. This is not meant to take the place of martial or couples counseling, but instead to provide some tools for healthy couples to better understand how and why conflict occurs between them and what to do about it.
1) Check Your DefenseS
· When conflict ensues and we feel we may be under attack, our Limbic System kicks our basic fight or flight response into high-gear. This can over-ride our higher intellectual functioning and access to insight and therefore counter our ability to work through conflict productively. We may counter attack with hurtful accusations or flee into sullenness instead of being able to listen closely and trying to clearly understand our partner.
· Ask your partner for a brief time out to prepare for the conversation. In time, you and your partner will trust that the time out is not another way of fleeing the conflict, but a way to de-activate the Limbic System through deep breathing and cooling down.
· Remind yourself that you and your partner love each other, and the goal is not to fight so that you win and your partner loses, but rather to communication toward a win-win outcome. When one partner loses, the result is emotional injury. On the other hand, when partners communicate to a win-win conclusion, it is the relationship that wins, effectively building muscle in the love affair.
2) Check Your Anger
· When we feel hurt by our partners, we feel vulnerable. We may get angry as a way to defend against feeling hurt. However, anger is rarely a primary emotion. Generally there are deeper emotions underneath that are so uncomfortable that our psyche triggers an anger response to defend against them. These emotions can include: hurt, embarrassment, shame, fear and confusion.
· In order to prevent anger from derailing productive communication, you need to identify what deeper emotions have been triggered and to remain aware of them while you listen and communicate with your partner. This requires that you learn how to tolerate often painful, uncomfortable feelings while you communicate.
3) Rules of Engagement
- It is important to assess whether you and your partner are emotionally ready to engage in productive communication. If either of you are too angry to stop and think what other emotions might be under the surface, or to be able to actively listen to the other without being defensive, then it may be necessary for both of you to take a longer Time Out.
- Communicating through a difficult conflict is often time consuming and may even take multiple attempts before you can reach a positive resolution. It is important to choose a time when you will not be interrupted, when other tasks are not pressing, so that you can devote as much time and energy as is necessary.
- Listening is the most essential element of good communication. Good listening entails being fully present while your partner is talking. This means that you are not formulating your response while your partner is talking, but rather listening solely to understand what your partner is trying to communicate. You can take all the time you need when your partner is done to think about how you would like to respond.
- Look intently into your partner’s eyes. When necessary, ask your partner questions that clarify what he/she is trying to say. (“What I hear you saying is… is that right?”) Good eye contact and reflective listening communicates to your partner that you are seriously trying to understand without being defensive.
- When your partner has finished and you have demonstrated that you have heard and understood through reflective listening, it is your turn to talk.
- Be careful to break down the larger issues into manageable bits of communication. If one partner talks for 30 minutes, it would be very difficult for any good listener to respond well.
- “I” statements are a very simple, but effective tool for communicating about difficult issues as sensitively as possible. When we are angry we can have a tendency to make aggressive statements that only put our partners on the defense. Instead, try to figure out what feeling is underneath your anger and use an “I” statement to express it. Consider the following examples. If I were to say, “You piss me off when you don’t listen,” you might feel attacked and feel the need to defend yourself. This would stop you from listening to what I am really trying to communicate. However, if I were to say “I feel hurt when you don’t listen to me,” it might instead elicit a care-taking response and a better listening stance. The truth about the matter is that when one is angry, it is really more about an underlying feeling of hurt, shame, embarrassment, confusion or fear. Expressing anger instead of the actually root emotion is to argue about an irrelevant issue. If you and your partner do not feel safe enough to talk about the more vulnerable underlying emotions, you may need to discuss how you can first establish a necessary level of trust. If this proves difficult, you may need to seek out professional help.
Red Flag Analysis
- We all have issues left over from our childhoods. No one of us had perfect parents, thus we have all come into this world wounded in some way. Some examples of these emotional wounds include: having unmet dependency needs, having feelings of abandonment or annihilation, or experiencing feelings of shame. All of these “wounds” can exist in people at various levels of severity. In some people, the wounds have been so traumatizing that they experience serious mental health symptoms that necessitate therapeutic intervention. In most of us, they create emotional vulnerabilities that get triggered while interacting with the people we have let most deeply into our lives. I call these normal emotional vulnerabilities “Red Flag” issues. If we come to understand the nature of our vulnerabilities, we can start to deal with our life issues more directly by: 1) Becoming more aware of how they influence our reactions to our partners, 2) Sharing them with our partners so that they can be more sensitive to our issues, and 3) Reducing the amount of conflict that at first glance appears to be about a here-and-now issue but is really about our old Red Flag issues.
- Some of us may have unmet needs for dependency, especially if one or both of our parents expected us to grow up and become emotionally autonomous before we as children were ready. There are limitless ways that this can occur in peoples’ lives. A few brief examples are: 1) When both parents are required to work so much that they simply do not have enough time for their child, 2) If a parent simply doesn’t have the ability to offer the necessary level of nurturing that a child needs, and 3) When boys find that both their Mom and Dad enforce rigid gender stereotypes that requires them to act like “real men” when they are still just little boys.
- Some of us may have fears of abandonment. This happens when we literally or symbolically lose one or both of our parents before we are ready. Life situations that can create fears of abandonment are also limitless. A few brief examples are as follows: 1) When parents get divorced, young children often assume it was because of something they did. Thus, they experience the divorce as being abandoned by one parent or the other. 2) When a parent gets ill for an extended period during a child’s important formative years, the child can experience it as an emotional abandonment. They simply do not have the rational adult abilities to understand it has nothing to do with them. Obviously, this can be even more serious when a parent dies
- Some of us may experience fears of Annihilation. Children who grow up feeling threatened by violence may find themselves literally fearing for their lives. This can occur at a time when a child is too young to accurately assess the true level of danger in their lives. Thus, fears of annihilation can spring from real violence, or imagined violence that was feared but never manifested.
- Some of us may experience intense feelings of shame. There is no end to the life situations that can contribute to this red flag. Being overly criticized as we are growing up is a very common example. Another typical example is having a visible, stigmatizing disability. One may grow up suffering the slings and arrows of childhood playground taunts that can severely damage self-esteem. And finally, we can have stigmatizing identity issues that cause us to internalize crippling levels of shame about our very notions of self. Women, people of color and gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people often suffer the oppression of society’s condemnation as second class citizens at least, or as evil sinners and criminals at worst.
4) Post-Conflict Processing
- Every time you communicate through a conflict, it is important to reaffirm your love and commitment to each other. It is important to demonstrate to your partner that your relationship will survive the tough times in life. Make sure you clearly communicate that even though you may be experiencing difficult or uncomfortable feelings and issues, that you still love your partner.
- Even though you may have worked through one difficult conflict, you may be able to readily identify other areas that will require additional discussion. The ability to identify the important issues is great. However, don’t bite off more than you can chew at any given moment. Congratulate each other on the hard work you have done.
- If you and your partner are having difficulty bringing your conflicts to a win-win resolution, you may want to consider seeking out some couples therapy. A professional, neutral third party will be able to offer you assistance in sorting out your red flag issues and help you learn the communication skills necessary to process through your issues on your own.
- All relationships experience conflict. All successful relationships require frequent, long conversations about the state and nature of the relationship. When worked through honestly, conflict can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of our partner’s unique humanity. It can also lead to a deeper, constantly maturing love and level of intimacy. It has been my experience that real intimacy in our committed, love relationships in the here-and-now can heal our old wounds from childhood. And finally, it can increase the amount of joy and meaning we experience, as well as contribute to our general feeling of safety and security in life.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: Common Thinking Errors
One of the most useful and teachable psychotherapy theories is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Research on CBT has shown that it is often the method of choice in addressing a wide variety of issues including: Social Anxiety, Traumatic Stress Disorders, Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Agoraphobia, Depressive Disorders and general issues of stress and low self-esteem. Additionally, CBT can be utilized in individual, couples, family and group therapy modalities. And finally, the usefulness and power of CBT derives from it being a modal that can be easily taught to clients so that they might use it on their own to deal with the ongoing issues in their lives.
In this blog post I will not attempt to describe the full extent of the CBT model, but rather to offer a brief look at three useful components of the theory that you might use without ever attending an actual therapy session. These components are: mindfulness, the Socratic method and thinking errors.
CBT maintains how we THINK about things determines how we feel about them, and can ultimately lead to behavioral choices. Thus, if we think negatively about ourselves, we then may feel depressed, and when we are depressed we can sometimes choose self-defeating behaviors that lead to a downward spiral of depression. But what if our thoughts are wrong? What if we have developed negative “thinking habits” that keep us locked into depressive or anxious feelings and behaviors?
CBT urges us to develop “mindfulness,” an ability to consistently observe the “automatic thoughts” that routinely flow through our heads. If you think about it, our minds never stop thinking. Thoughts flow through our brains in an unceasing manner and often times we are not even paying attention to them! Thus, they can be affecting the way we feel or behave without our ever critically assessing them! The CBT model has clients keep a record of their automatic thoughts to search for patterns that may reflect inaccurate thinking habits. It labels these inaccurate thoughts “thinking errors” and instructs us to use a series of analytical or rational response questions to assess the validity of our thoughts. This kind of questioning comes to us up through the ages from the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates and is called the Socratic method.
Ok, sounds good on an abstract level, but what does this process look like in reality? I will demonstrate it by identifying 4 of the most common thinking errors I have observed affecting clients in over 20 years of psychotherapy practice and then offering real life examples of them and the appropriate rational response questions.
Mind reading occurs whenever we assume others are responding negatively to us without any evidence that this is actually the case. It is the most prevalent of all the thinking errors and I have yet to meet anyone, including psychotherapists, that don’t slip into this bad habit. Bars, nightclubs and gym scenes are notorious for creating the opportunity for some especially nasty moments of mind reading. How often have we turned our heads away so that a person we find attractive doesn’t catch us looking at them? Countless clients of mine have responded to this behavior by thinking “He/She must think I am...too fat, too skinny, unattractive.” If we are being mindful, the rational response to this negative self-thought is “What is the evidence that this is true?” Of course there is no evidence as the other person may have turned away due to their own fear of rejection, or their glance may have been turned when they see someone they know. Whatever the case, in the absence of any real evidence, the thought must be checked and disregarded, thus preventing any resulting negative emotional response.
Black and White (dichotomous) Thinking
Another prominent thinking error, black and white thinking, occurs when we view things in terms of two mutually exclusive categories with no “shades of grey” in between. The classic example of this is when we believe ourselves to be either a success or a failure based on one piece of work. Examine the all or nothing quality to the words success and failure. They are all encompassing in nature. I often ask baseball fans who are falling prey to this thinking error “what is a really good bating average?” A perfect average would be batting a thousand. In reality an excellent average falls between 250 and 300! Future hall of famer and short stop for the New York Yankees, Derek Jeter batted a 297 in the 2011 regular season. That means this all star’s failing average was 703. Is Jeter a success or failure? I’ve had graduate students who believed they were failures because I gave them a B grade on ONE paper assignment! The rational response question here would be “What is another way of looking at the situation?” A B grade is hardly a failing grade and doesn’t even mean their final grade will not be an A!
We can fall prey to fortune-telling when we react as though our negative expectations about future events are established facts. I had client whose partner had a busy week at work and missed a few mid-day check in phone calls as was their routine. During their next couples session the client nervously asked, “Are you leaving me?” to the shock of their spouse. The relevant rational response questions in this case are first, “What is the evidence?” followed by “What are all of my options for reacting?” What if the couple had not been in therapy? What if the fearful client did not ask the question, but instead acted as if it were true? This could lead to behaviors that might create a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Albert Ellis coined this term while developing his rational-emotive therapy, a forerunner to today’s CBT. He observed his clients responding to negative events as if they were intolerable catastrophes, instead of attempting to keep a healthy perspective. As many of my clients know, I have enjoyed training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Injuries come with the territory in the form of deep bruises or groin pulls that seem to take forever to heal. My sparring partners and I have shared the torment of being sidelined from a form of play we love and admitting that we had to beat back thoughts such as “What if I will never heal” or “What if I can’t ever train jiu jitsu again?” These thoughts can trigger a real sense of grief and loss about an event that not only has not occurred, but for which there is no evidence! With some disciplined perspective one might instead say to themselves, while being sidelined with an injury sucks, it does not mean I won’t heal.
Albert Ellis, a man known for his sense of humor, provides the example of clients struggling with social anxiety. The clients might worry about any number of embarrassing events and think to themselves, “I won’t be able to stand it!” Ellis points out the appropriate rational response question would be “So what if it happens? So what if the worst occurs?” Confronting this thinking error leads one to the conclusion that, while feelings of embarrassment can be very uncomfortable, they are not life threatening. Ellis would give his clients assignments to do something embarrassing on purpose to help them discover experientially that in fact they can stand it. He would have them go to a hardware store and ask if they sell flowers, or go to a crowded mall and shout out the time of day.
In conclusion, cultivating the art of “mindfulness” by paying attention to our automatic thoughts can help us identify “thinking errors” before they can foment uncomfortable feelings or behaviors that might lead to a self-fulfilling prophesy. This is just one aspect of the usefulness of CBT.
Internal Family Systems Theory
Have you ever been asked what kind of movie you would like to go to and you say “Well, a part of me would like to see a comedy, but another part of me would like to see a drama?” Inherent in this experience is 2 different parts of your “Self” pulling you in separate directions. Another common experience is when a Part of you says “I really need to get some work done” and another Part of you says “I would rather goof off and watch TV.” It just seems to be the case that what we refer to as our “Self” is really made up of multiple, divergent selves or “parts” that each have their own agendas and functions within us.
This is not a controversial notion within psychotherapy theories, nor is it a new concept historically. From ancient Greece and Plato’s tripartite model of the soul to Freud’s Structural model of the mind (Id, Ego and Super Ego), the notion that our Self is made up of a variety of parts has been a consistent way to understand our internal experiences. More contemporary thinkers refer to this as multiplicity of the mind.
The idea of multiple parts is not about fragmentation of the self or about multiple personality disorder. It is not a metaphorical way to understand our internal lives. It is simply the way our internal, psychological experience of self is organized. Three ways to begin to understand the nature and implications of multiplicity are 1) The Linear Model, 2) General Systems Theory and 3) Internal Family Systems Theory.
The Linear Model
The Russian Matryoshka Doll, commonly referred to as a Russian Babushka or stacking doll, refers to a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other. This provides a good visual way to understand the linear model of the self. Generally speaking, every age we have ever been literally lives on inside us as separate parts. Thus we have an infant part, a toddler part, a child part, an adolescent part and so on. Those parts that received a healthy amount of attention and nurturing tend to make less “noise” inside us and therefore coalesce into a comfortable community of our parts inside us. However, those parts that received less then a necessary level of attention and nurturing, or that were traumatized in any number of ways, may carry and continually resonate with emotions such as shame, hurt, sadness, confusion, fear, or even terror.
General Systems Theory
Whereas the linear model helps us to understand parts in a static way, General Systems Theory (GST) adds the important notion of parts interacting in a dynamic fashion. GST uses the analogy of an organism. An organism is more than the sum total of its parts. An organism is alive with all of its parts acting in dynamic interaction to create a system wide equilibrium. For example, when the human organism gets hot, it creates sweat to cool itself to reestablish its core temperature or equilibrium. GST has been used by a wide array of sciences to understand both the internal functioning of systems as well as how individual systems interact externally with other systems, or systems nested within ever larger organizations of systems. Family social scientists and family therapy theorists have used GST to explore how families work as systems. Family members as individual parts interact dynamically with each other to form a family system. Dr. Murray Bowen introduced Family Systems Theory (FST) to suggest that individuals (parts) cannot be understood in isolation from one another, but rather as a part of a family emotional unit. Families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals who as a group work together to establish equilibrium. If one member of the family creates a change or challenge to the family, it has ripple effects throughout the whole family. The family must therefore re-establish a new emotional and systemic equilibrium to accommodate this change. For example, parents’ divorcing requires the whole family to create new ways of interacting in order to eventually arrive at a new organizational system and equilibrium. Another example would be if a child comes out as gay and thereby challenges the ideology of the family culture. It will have emotional ripple effects through out the family system to accommodate this new reality and re-establish a new ideological equilibrium.
Internal Family Systems Model
Internal Family Systems Theory (IFS) was developed by Richard Schwarts who married the conceptual frame works of Family Systems Theory and Multiplicity of the Mind to create a very powerful way to work with and heal trauma and unresolved losses. He applied the Family Systems concepts of the dynamic interaction of family members to create an equilibrium to the internal notion of multiple parts of the Self. He created both a way of categorizing our parts in terms of how they function within us, and a way of understanding how they then interact inside us to create an organismic equilibrium among them.
His functional analysis of our internal parts includes the assumption that each part has its own perspective, interests, memories, and viewpoint. Additionally, he states each part has only good intentions for the person and endeavors to protect the person from pain, even if the end result of a part’s efforts causes dysfunction.
Therefore, IFS concludes it is counter productive to try to get rid of a part or to force it to change. Instead, the IFS method of therapeutic intervention is to promote internal connection and harmony among all our parts. IFS theorizes 3 types of parts: Exiles, Firefighters and Managers.
Exiles are usually traumatized childhood parts that carry emotional “burdens” such as sadness, hurt, shame, fear or terror. They literally live on inside us in a constant state of emotional distressed, that if allowed into our awareness might overwhelm us with clinical symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks or depression. Managers and Firefighters try to exile these parts from consciousness to prevent this pain from coming to the surface.
Manager parts operate in a proactive role to protect the person from pain. They work externally to protect us from being harmed by other people and internally to prevent painful feelings carried by Exiles from flooding into our immediate awareness.
Firefighter Parts are our internal emergency first responders. When an Exile threatens to break through the Managers and cause us to feel the fire of their emotional pain, Firefighters work to erect a firewall between Exiles and our conscious awareness by triggering distracting behaviors. These behaviors include impulsive drinking or eating, taking drugs, compulsive sex and over working to name only a few.
The IFS method involves first helping the person develop an awareness of their internal parts. Then the person gets to know their Managers and Firefighters in order to understand their positive intentions towards the Self (protection from pain) and develop a relationship of trust with them. Next, by gaining the permission of these protector parts, therapist and client work to access one Exile at a time in order to understand the childhood incident that caused the emotional burden it carries. Finally, the exile is retrieved from being stuck in that past situation and helped to release its burdens, thus allowing the protector parts to let go of their protective roles and assume healthy ones. Ultimately, all internal parts realign in a healthier equilibrium, creating a new, more harmonious internal family of parts.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” out lines one of the central tenets of Positive psychology. He draws a distinction between Happiness and Meaning. The idea of human happiness in our popular awareness seems at times something we experience infrequently, but is generally beyond our reach as human beings. Far too often we associate happiness with “peak” experiences such as the joy one might experience on the grandest of New Year’s Eve celebrations. But what is happiness on a day-to-day basis? Csikszentmihalyi argues that happiness is better understood and accomplished by us mere mortals through the pursuit of meaning, and urges us to cultivate “The Flow Experience.”
All of us have already experienced “flow.” Remember a time when you were so absorbed in a task that time seemed to fly by? Your attention was so focused that five hours may have seemed like 5 minutes as you went for a great run, wrote a paper for school, or completed a job task in which you were highly invested. The flow experience has also been associated with meditation, yoga and martial arts.
Csikszentmihalyi describes the elements of flow as follows. One must achieve a high level of skill capable of mastering a highly challenging task. Accomplishing an easy task will not produce flow, nor will failing at a higher- level task. Thus, one must invest time in developing a high degree of competency at a task one finds interesting, and this requires the ability to tolerate the frustration that occurs during the learning process.
At mid-life, I set a goal of achieving a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the first level belt one is awarded as a beginner. Thus, the goal was not too high or too low. The skill set one must become competent in for basic jiu jitsu requires physical training, learning the rules of the game, positional strategy as well as the techniques of transitions, attacks and defense. At first it all seemed a blur, as I was lost in the action, and it was quite frustrating. As adults we often find it difficult to be once again an absolute beginner! Additionally my ego was a barrier to my learning process. I was more worried about winning and how it would look and feel if I lost, rather than purely focusing on learning the game. In time I understood that real learning required being comfortable with losing. Once I let go of the ego desire of winning, which is to say mastering the game immediately, I was then able to concentrate on developing the skills necessary to be awarded the blue belt.
The art of jiu jitsu itself, when done at advanced levels, appears as flowing motion. I knew I was getting better when I was achieving a sort of mindfulness that was un-self-aware. The passage of time and any ego concerns fell away. I was fully absorbed in sparing without having to think about what I was doing. I had integrated the necessary skill set so that it just came naturally. One move followed another smoothly. I had achieved the flow experience and with it a sense of well being that comes with doing something meaningful to me.
One of the ways I try to help my clients attain a real sense of human happiness is by cultivating meaning in their lives by assembling a number of tasks that produce flow experience. Careers can often provide opportunities for flow. However, work is not our only worth. Many people find flow in learning to play an instrument, helping their children do their homework, or finally finding the time to take up a hobby such as photography or yoga with vigor. Ultimately, human happiness involves finding ways to challenge our selves to lead well-lived lives that provide meaning and an abundance of flow.
Human beings are social animals. We are born and raised in a group (the family), are socialized in groups (day care, schools, sports teams, faith communities, social media, friendship networks) and spend our lives working in groups (career groups, professional organizations). The initial experience of our primary family group often contributes to the development of thinking, feeling and behavior habits that in later life can prevent the individual from fully realizing their potential and in creating meaningful, intimate relationships. This can lead to difficulties negotiating satisfying relationships throughout our lives in all the various groups we live in whether it is managing difficult work place politics, establishing a supportive friendship network or making our romantic partnerships and marriages truly nourishing and growth sustaining.
Group Psychotherapy is one of the most powerful ways to help people increase their insight and awareness about their interpersonal behavior and to help them create the kind of change needed to more fully get their needs met.
Irvin Yalom has been a leading advocate, practitioner, researcher and educator on group therapy. His book “The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy” is in its fifth edition and has been used as a primary source for teaching the art of group since it’s first release in 1970. In it, he outlines 11 therapeutic factors found within the experience of group therapy. I would like to offer a brief overview of his first 6 factors as a way of explaining how group works to help people heal and grow.
Instillation of Hope
Whether clients are excited about the opportunity to grow or on their last leg of hope, it is a crucial part of the therapist’s job to instill faith that the therapeutic process can help them. In group the therapist can rely on the aide of fellow group members to further instill and nurture a growing sense of hope and optimism that change is possible. Older group members can role model hope through their willingness to struggle with their own issues as well as having worked through similar issues that have just brought new members to the group. In 2 different groups for LGBT young people, one in the Midwest and another in New York City, I have witnessed scared and confused youth who are struggling with issues of sexual orientation or gender identity, find solace in other young people who have successfully negotiated the coming out process.
Almost without exception, clients come to therapy with some fear that they alone face certain issues that make them feel uniquely broken and hopeless. In individual work, therapists can sometimes struggle in vain to help a client understand that they are not alone. Group can provide powerful help in the establishment of a sense of universality, or what Yalom calls a sort of “welcome to the human race” experience. I lead a psychotherapy group for 5 couples all experiencing difficulty working through conflict in their relationships.
In our culture, we are all to some degree under the influence of the rather pernicious myth that “perfect love” leads to being a ”happy loving couple.” Pervasive throughout television and film is the romantic notion that finding your “soul mate” leads to a life together without conflict. Countless couples I have seen alone in marital therapy have expressed shame and dismay at the amount of conflict they must work through and fear that this means they are not “right for each other.” One recent couple even expressed pride in never having had an argument, only to find them selves now engaged in a conspiracy of silence. Over the years they had avoided conflict and brick by brick thereby built a wall between each other. They wonder where their love has gone.
Couples group therapy confounds these destructive myths by showing the members not only that all couples experience conflict, but also that engaging in healthy conflict can build real muscle in their love affair. Member couples demonstrate to each other that engaging in healthy, problem solving oriented conflict can help them build greater intimacy and a sense of well-being. Marriage and family therapy research has consistently shown that learning the necessary skills to argue toward win-win solutions leads to a greater sense of safety in their relationships and a stronger sense of security in life in general.
Whether through didactic instruction by the therapist or through direct advice shared between members, the imparting of helpful and healing information occurs in every type of group psychotherapy. Over the years I have run a variety of groups for people struggling with persistent mental illness. In each case, providing the members with accurate information about the nature and treatment of their disorders helps them to better understand and cope with their illnesses. Additionally, group members’ role model for each other various day-to-day ways to cope with their conditions.
Yalom points out that the act of giving to others has intrinsic value in and of itself for group members. Clients often have the experience of being “stuck” and ineffective in dealing with their own issues. Like sinking in a tar pit, the more they obsess on their own “stuckedness,” the deeper they sink into a hopeless sense of self-absorption. Finding that they can be instrumental in helping others successfully deal with issues boosts their own self-esteem. It takes them out of their heads and allows them to feel effective. And this new sense of self-efficacy empowers them anew to address their own problems.
I had a client whose wife divorced him due to his abusive, chronic anger. He came to therapy bitter and even more depressed. The world to him was a dark place and he found my attempts to instill hope Pollyannaish and absurdly optimistic. When I placed him in a mixed adult group, he was immediately labeled “the angry guy.” Over time, however, members began to see him as an intelligent problem solver and, ironically enough, very empathic towards others. His advice always came from a place of personal experience. For example, he would say, “I know how you feel John, when I would take my anger out on my wife, it never made me feel good, only more powerless.” As he took in how others positively viewed him, he not only started to take more responsibility for his anger, his world-view gradually started to brighten. Being of use to other group members allowed him to connect more intimately with them. And the more he started to care about others, the more he started to care about himself.
The Corrective Recapitulation of the Primary Family Group
The concept of transference is a long honored one in psychodynamic psychotherapy. It occurs when we experience the therapist as we once experienced one or both of our parents. Our earliest child-parent relationships are so deeply ingrained that we go through life recreating them with our friends, romantic partners and work place colleagues. Early relationship dysfunction therefore can cause us difficulties in our here-and-now interpersonal relationships. Yalom’s “Corrective Recapitulation of the Primary Family Group” is transference writ large. Instead of having a one-on-one transference with a therapist, in group therapy we may interact with therapist and the group members as we may have interacted with our family, parents and siblings. This gives us a chance to become aware of these ingrained interpersonal patterns and a “new” family willing to help us work through old family baggage and develop more adaptive and healthy relationship skills.
When I was a Graduate student studying to become a psychotherapist, I myself entered a mixed adult therapy group for professional training and my own personal growth. I grew up with an angry, overly critical father who constantly loomed over me in a threatening way. I can remember that this oppressive relationship seemed so unfair! I was not allowed to express my anger at him directly, as that would merely incur his wrath. So instead, I developed a passive-aggressive pattern of dealing with my anger and a fear of my own bottled up rage. My mother and brother, being equally cowed by my father, were unable to come to my defense and so seemed at times to side with my father. When I entered the therapy group I had no idea that I would soon come face-to-face with this early family dynamic.
As is standard in most groups, the weekly fee was prefixed. One is expected to pay for their spot whether or not they could attend every session. It was this classic financial boundary that triggered my family transference when I had to miss 2 sessions in order to attend a conference out of town. That old sense of unfairness riled me, as the male group leader appropriately would not budge on our fee agreement. The old rage I had for my father boiled inside me at my new oppressor! I remember sitting in group furious but terrified. On one hand I was pissed that the fee I agreed to now seemed so unfair, but I also had a powerful sense that this group leader could really help me. If I expressed the rage I risked incurring his wrath, being punished and never getting to work through this enduring pattern. I felt hopelessly stuck between my old baggage and taking what seemed like a huge risk.
I announced at the start of the next group that I had something to say to the leader. Now I had done it. I was stuck. Now I had to say something. The group stared at me in silence, waiting for me to speak and appearing to me as useless as my mother and brother once seemed. The leader sat expressionless looking at me, but I could not speak. Even though the rage grew inside me, it was like I was encaged in a psychic membrane through which I could not emerge. The pressure of the moment grew as I steeled myself, psychically clawing through the membrane until suddenly I screamed “FUUUUUUCK YOOOOOU!” at the leader. Silence. More Silence. I was now deeply self-conscious and embarrassed. I literally cannot remember what the leader said, if anything. But I do remember he did not punish me. He could take my rage and still care about me. Anger did not kill love! And then the other members that had seemed so useless mere moments before actively congratulated me. One member who reminded me of my brother and whom I had great fondness for said, “that was the best “fuck you” we have heard in a long time.” Others said they didn’t know if they could have been so strong. My embarrassment vanished, replaced with pride. I could breath again.
This was not the end of my work in group, but it was the beginning of my efforts to break out of my passive-aggressive pattern. In time I learned how to directly and appropriately express anger at the people closest to me in my life. My relationships in and outside of the group deepened.
Development of Socializing Techniques
Most clients come to therapy with unconscious social habits that work to undercut or even sabotage their interpersonal relationships. Others merely have gaps in their social skills set that leave them unprepared to deal with specific life and relational situations. These social habits or skill deficits often do not come fully alive in individual therapy, but place a client in a group and suddenly they are on full display. A client may even make tremendous progress in individual therapy, but once joining a group exhibit a lack of assertiveness, an inability to effectively resolve conflict, poor active listening skills, or a lack of an empathic understanding of others. Group therapy can offer clients a safe space to gain awareness of their relational difficulties through feedback from others and an opportunity to learn and practice new, more adaptive social skills.
A woman in one of my mixed groups, and a psychotherapist herself, came to therapy to understand why she was unable to meet men who would really care about her. She demonstrated great skill at empathic listening and provided useful feedback to others. However, she never seemed to make any headway on her own issue. One session a male member remarked that he didn’t think of her as an actual group member, but as just a “nice lady here to assist the group.” This feedback stirred up long buried resentment in the woman. It created a new awareness that she was over-identified with being a good helper to the detriment of getting her own needs met. Further exploration revealed that, as the eldest child of 7, she was expected by her mother to take a parenting role towards her younger siblings and her own autonomous strivings were punished.
With the group as her experimental laboratory, she gradually learned and practiced new assertiveness skills. She demonstrated this by feeling free to ask the group for what she needed and by engaging in conflict with other members when they upset her. In time the group came to see her as a more fully fleshed out human being. They were surprised as her extraordinary, even edgy sense of humor began to emerge. One day a male member remarked that he found her very sexy! It was not long after that she met a man who she eventually married. She realized that by being a constant caretaker in the past, she only attracted needy men. Now she was able to meet a man who could be a full partner to her in a mutually satisfying relationship.
Interpersonal group psychotherapy is widely recognized as a powerful modality for therapeutic change. Over the 20 years of my psychotherapy practice, I have found it to be extraordinarily useful to my clients. Group can also work even more effectively as an adjunct to individual therapy. Individual work can feel safe for some clients, but group often reveals issues that remain hidden in individual work. By observing clients interpersonal behavior in group, we both discover new issues to deal with in individual sessions. Clients may then process their group experiences in one-on-one with me, and then return to group ready to try a new social skill or engage another group member in a new, more effective way.
Real Men Process
The following psychotherapy “story” is about two gay men struggling with their issues in couples therapy. “Carlos and David” are character composites that blend components from a variety of client couples, both heterosexual and gay, in order to protect client confidentiality. With the exception of homophobic oppression, the basic psychodynamic issues presented in this story are relevant to all kinds of couples and are not exclusive to gay male couples.
Real Men Process
I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is two men can have a perfectly healthy, intimate, long-term relationship if they so desire. The bad news is they have to learn to do the work of “processing.”
Processing is what all couples must do if they want to nurture and grow their relationships. I find it a bit mystifying at times that men shy away from the often times hard work of processing; they certainly don’t shy away from hard work at the office or working out at the gym. No pain, no gain, right?
Well, all right, I confess: I am not all surprised that men find it so difficult to process in relationships. The ability to process successfully involves being able to identify the full range of human emotions and to express them authentically. However, many men have been trained to deny their feelings. So, if you are reading this and scratching your head, then I suggest you first take Human Emotions 101 (subtitled: Why Am I So Angry) or make an appointment with a qualified therapist and start to sort out your internal life. It takes some work, but is well worth the struggle in terms of the meaning it will bring to your life.
If the rest of you knuckleheads can admit that you occasionally feel hurt, confused, embarrassed, ashamed, or sad in life—or within the context of your relationship—then you are man enough to begin learning about processing.
What is Processing?
“Processing” is psychobabble for talking about how you and your partner are feeling about the relationship. The myth about successful relationships is that when two people are really in love, or perfect for each other, then they will live happily ever after, never arguing or hurting each other, effortlessly. The clinical word for this myth is horseshit. Every successful relationship involves having long, frequent talks about each other’s feelings, your family histories and childhoods, and the current state of the relationship.
The truth about authentic love and intimacy is that while it can bring great joy, it can also unearth the pain we all experience growing up with less than perfect (read: human) parents. When our love reaches deep inside, it stirs up our secret insecurities and we feel very vulnerable. But if our partners show us that they will listen lovingly and respectfully to our hurt and fears, then we will feel safe enough to work through issues as they arise.
If, on the other hand, we do not feel secure in talking about how we feel, then we understandably get defensive and fall back on the one emotion Society gives men full rein to express: anger. And, boy, we men can find all manner of creative ways to express this anger. The problem is, when conflict arises in this way, we create issues to argue or fight about in the here and now, when the real source of the conflict may have its roots in early childhood feelings of our parents not fully loving or accepting us. Classic examples of childhood issues that we play out in relationships include: 1) Internalizing the homophobia from our families and communities, 2) Feeling abandoned either physically or emotionally by our parents, and 3) The experience of being physically or emotionally abused.
Carlos and David
I worked with Carlos and David for over a year. Both were in their early 30s and had satisfying careers. They were bright men who loved each other a great deal. At first blush, they seemed to have an enviable relationship and life together; but in the privacy of their Manhattan Co-Op they often felt hurt and angry at each other, growing more distant over the years. A particularly difficult argument brought them into couple’s therapy.
Carlos grew up in an upper middle class family in Mexico City. Financially, he wanted for little as a child, but he grew up with unmet dependency needs from his parents. His father was quite homophobic and, sensing his son was somehow different, made constant anti-gay remarks throughout Carlos’ childhood. This made it difficult for father and son to share any bonding and kinship. In his early teens, Carlos began to look for emotional dependency and connection through anonymous sexual encounters. He, like so many men, confused sexual intimacy for emotional intimacy and brought this conflict into his adult life.
When Carlos was four years old doctors diagnosed his mother with colon cancer,that required a series of operations. She struggled with her illness for many years before passing away when Carlos was fifteen. As a child, Carlos knew his mother was ill, but had difficulty with his overwhelming feelings of abandonment. His mother simply could not be there for him emotionally the way he needed because all strength was spent battling her illness. Carlos felt emotionally abandoned and thus overwhelmingly vulnerable. He was forced to cut the proverbial apron strings years before he was ready. To defend against this overwhelming reality, Carlos learned to shut down his feelings to the point that all he could experience emotionally was irritation and anger. Additionally, his mother wasn’t able to be there for him in a way that might have softened the impact of his father’s harsh, rejecting homophobic comments.
David grew up in a solidly middle-class household in the Midwest. Unlike Carlos, David’s mother was largely available to him emotionally and supportive of him throughout his childhood. However, he too had a traumatic relationship with his father. In retrospect, David could understand that his father suffered from chronic depression, but as a child all he knew was that his father always seemed to be critical and angry toward him. It seemed he could never do anything right and this created painful feelings of shame and a sense of inadequacy. On a number of occasions his father became physically abusive, throwing David into walls, screaming at him, and calling him a sissy when he cried.
Even more traumatic was his father’s constant irritable mood and emasculating tone. David feared his dad could get out of control at any moment. He even found himself wishing at times that his father would just hit him. At least then he would have known he could have survived it! Instead he nursed an internal, smoldering rage for his father and learned to express his anger in indirect, passive ways. As he grew up, he would avoid open conflict with everyone in his life, and instead grew sullen and distant, hoping that this would somehow punish those with whom he was angry.
Both Carlos and David grew up and, as adults, made peace with their fathers. Carlos’s father, distraught over his wife’s death, eventually learned to cherish his relationship with his son. Life was simply too valuable and short to allow such a thing as sexual orientation to separate father from son. David’s father eventually sought out psychotherapy to treat his depression. Through family counseling, David and his father were able to put the pieces of their relationship back together. David’s parents also eventually joined a P-FLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) support group and learned how to value their gay son.
Trouble in Paradise
Carlos and David’s life stories would seem to point toward a happy ending. At peace with their respective fathers, these two bright and capable men found successful careers and met each other and fell in love. All was romance and fun for more than a year, and they became as good of friends as they were lovers. However, slowly they started to let the personal baggage left over from childhood infect their relationship.
They began to argue more frequently without achieving resolution. Over time a basic pattern emerged. David became increasingly hypersensitive to any kind of criticism. Even constructive criticism from Carlos would produce powerful feelings of shame that David hadn’t felt since childhood. To defend against this lacerating, painful shame, David would get angry and sullen, withdrawing from Carlos for days at a time. This withdrawal would trigger Carlos’ abandonment issues and he would worry that David might leave him if he confronted him directly. Carlos felt trapped and controlled by David’s moods and, unaware that he was actually feeling scared and vulnerable, he would get angry.
They would repeat this basic cycle until Carlos sought solace in an anonymous sexual encounter after an especially painful argument. Unconsciously searching for an emotional connection, he had sex when he was really looking for love.
The infidelity haunted Carlos, but fearing even more that David might leave him, he found it impossible to tell David about it. Carlos began to feel more shame and anger and would look for ways to find fault with David in the relationship. Both men found themselves in a cycle of anger and recrimination until one night Carlos threw the fact of his sexual encounter in David’s face.
Carlos and David get “Real”
The couple limped into my office. Hurt, angry, and embarrassed at even having to bring their relationship into therapy, they laid out their tale for me. Every time I would try and get to their underlying feelings, they would resume arguing about how the other had done them wrong. Going into their actual feelings was simply too painful for them at first, especially when the past seemed so irrelevant to the here and now of their lives together.
In the end, Carlos and David fought valiantly to find their way back to each other by finding the courage to go fully into their painful childhoods. The pain at times was excruciating.
Slowly pride gave way to tears, which gave way to humility. Though they knew quite a lot about each other’s childhoods, they started listening to each other’s life stories with empathy. In time they were able to gain the necessary insight into their mutual cycle of hurt and shame. They learned how to take responsibility for their own issues and how to “process” their thoughts and feelings about each other as these issues came up.
In the end their friendship and romantic ties turned into a more mature bond where they were able, with humility, to accept each other’s limitations and human foibles. They learned how to identify their feelings and express them tactfully but directly. They would still go through painful times together, but something new started to happen. Whenever they would courageously face up to a difficult conflict and process through it, they would be able to find each other again more quickly. They discovered that their anger did not destroy their love, which in turn made it safer for them to deal directly with future conflict between them. Their love deepened. Their parting gift to me was saying in their last session, they never knew how much they could love another person, and they thanked me for all my help. I told them they did all the hard work and their results were theirs alone to own and celebrate.
The Logic of Going There: Men and Emotions
Have you had a Michael Monday? Boy, are they good for the Soul. Basically I’m talking about a good old-fashioned cry. They don’t have to happen on Mondays; that’s just the day a client of mine named Michael had his routine weekly appointments. Michael taught me what most every male client, gay or straight, has taught me over the last 15 years of being a psychotherapist: The logic of going there.
Michael would walk into my office, plop down on the couch and peer out at me through the eyes of a 10 year old boy that just so happened to be currently carried around in the body of a 30 year old, hyper-masculine, fully gym-bodied gay man. In order to avoid dealing with his sexual orientation in high school, he played football, ran track and wrestled. In what can only be regarded as drastic measures, he enlisted in the army after high school in a further attempt at not being gay. He then became a fireman and married a very nice young woman with whom he had a son. The perfect picture of a masculine man of the late 1990’s, until it all came crashing down around his biceps when his fellow fire fighters discovered that he was gay and drove him from the station house. After his divorce he spent 4 years drinking and tricking until his masculine body was as battered from denial as the sweet little gay boy inside him.
After years of stigma avoidance, Michael decided he was ready for therapeutic help, but wasn’t quite ready to buy into it all the way. “I just don’t feel comfortable losing it,” he would say when we would talk more directly about the need to explore his feelings. He had all the insight in the world, but feelings made him bury his head in the sand. “Michael, you have been a fireman and a soldier,” I said. “By all accounts you have conquered the fear of physical pain, why are you afraid to feel emotional pain?” He responded, “I guess I just don’t see the logic of going there.”
Men struggle so valiantly to be what they believe is a “real man.” Real men don’t cry, get confused or feel vulnerable. Real men kill things and drag them back to the cave to feed the family. Real men compete for success and can only win if another man loses. The culture drives home the “boys don’t cry” code of living so thoroughly that men don’t even know what emotions may be lurking under their chronic irritation or empty feelings. In other words, men have been suckered into being less than fully human. Michael was no exception.
"Michael, you are able to relate stories from your childhood when you felt different from other kids; when you felt lonely and alienated. You remember the time when your father, intent on divorcing your mother, left the house when you were five years old. You remember how scared you were that he might never come back to you and you thought it was because he didn't love you. You felt abandoned. You even remember times when it was your mother who told you to stop crying. Remember when she dropped you off at kindergarten for the first time and you felt scared to be left alone with out her? Your father had just left and she told you it was time to grow up and be a man. You were five years old for pity's sake and all you wanted was some sense of security. You told me all these stories because you made the connections that they may be relevant to how your life is going in the present. But you tell me these stories blankly, like you are your own personal historian. How do they make you feel?"
Shifting nervously on the couch, Michael would stare at me impatient with both of us. "I just don't see what the past has to do with the present, it's not like I can go back and do it over. What's the point of crying over these things now?"
I can feel Michael's sadness as clearly as I can see how blank he experiences his internal self. Now it is my turn to be impatient; not with Michael, but with myself. Here this man has been traumatized about his emotions, all he needs is some wise ass psychotherapist beating him up because he cannot access the painful feelings associated with some of the worst times in his life.
After scolding myself for being so thoughtless, I remember that I too am only human. And in my humility I turn to one of my psychoanalytic heroes, D.W. Winnicott. Winnicott tells us that which we are most afraid of has already happened to us. This is heady stuff! When we are children, our emotions are less modulated by more mature defense mechanisms. They are quite dramatic and lead to equally dramatic fantasies of being abandoned or annihilated. As adults we look back and know we were never truly in any danger and so we forget how traumatizing it was as a kid. However, early trauma cannot be rationalized away by an adult assessment of past realities.
To understand the blankness Michael and others feel we have to understand the concept of "multiplicity of the mind." This ten-dollar phrase made up by those in my profession who wish to make it as difficult to understand as possible, are really obscuring a very simple human reality. It just seems to be the case that we are all made up of parts. Freud postulated 3 parts; Id, Ego and Super-Ego. More contemporary thinkers believe we may be made up of many different parts, maybe even hundreds. Think about a time when you wanted to see a movie and said to someone "part of me wants to see an action-adventure movie, but another part of me wants to see a drama." This language speaks very eloquently about the fact that different parts inside of us may want or feel very different things all at the same time.
In psychotherapy, I believe that every age we have ever been lives on inside of us as parts. Thus we have an infant part, a toddler part, a child part, an adolescent part and so on. When these parts got what they needed from their parents or the world, which is too say they were supported and validated, they then become integrated into a more cohesive self. We are then able to maintain a sense of continuity of who we are as we act in the world, as opposed to constantly being pulled to and fro by various parts in need of attention. When more fully integrated, we can call upon our various child selves when we need to play or let our imaginations run wild. We can also call upon our adolescent self when we want to question authority in a healthy way. However, when we experience trauma as children, those parts of ourselves freeze up. They do not have the adult ability to accurately gauge the real level of threat or to muster the necessary defense mechanisms to keep from feeling overwhelmed with fear, shame, confusion or terror. These parts stay frozen and do not integrate into the more cohesive adult self. Instead they stay split off and remain frozen in fear or shame even as the rest of the self grows into an adult.
Here, then, is the logic of going there. No rational adult would allow a young child to go on crying in fear or shame without trying to comfort that child. Yet, that is exactly what we do every time we ignore our own internal children by doing all we can in an effort not to "lose it." In reality, when we turn inward to our internal children and nurture them with a quiet, loving embrace, we have not lost anything. Rather, we have found our Self/Selves at deeper levels and are afforded the ability endowed in all human beings: the ability to self-heal. Just as an adult may soothe the hurt feelings of a child, we can soothe our own hurt children with psychic hugs by allowing ourselves to empathically feel their feelings. When we cry, they are allowed to cry in the arms of a caring, supportive adult. To cry, then, is to love our selves.
With this understanding it is easy to see the folly of telling young male children that boy's don't cry. To cry is to be strong enough to weather the slings and arrows of existence in a healthy way. And when we feel the depths of human pain, we also open ourselves up to the heights of joy as well. The kind of all encompassing joy we might see in the laughter of a young boy at play.
Eventually, Michael courageously scaled the wall that separated him from his hurting child parts and learned how to empathically connect with them.
Boy, did he cry.
He worried he would never stop.
In time, however, he discovered that not only did the tears start to come much less often, but he had gained a new, healthy sense of play in his life. No longer did he drink and trick as if it were a matter of life and death. Instead, he learned to play like there was no tomorrow. And while he continues to work out, it has ceased to be a way of avoiding the stigma of being gay by creating the outward appearance of masculinity. It is also no longer part of the deadly serious game of attracting men. It is a fun past time and a way to keep him connected to the healthy aspects of athletics. Now when he plays it is more about the joy of playing rather than needing to win to avoid the literal agony of defeat.
And speaking of men; my man Michael has also found love. It seems his outward masculine shell only served to keep him from really connecting with another man in truly intimate ways. Now he can cry in his lover's arms and allow himself to be comforted by another man, as well as be the one who comforts when his partner is sad. During his last session he told me how strong his love was for this man. How they wrestle like school-boys and goof around like kids, but also how they have committed to an adult relationship where truth and love bind them together. Michael has found a man with who he can be a man and a child. Michael has found himself. I couldn't be more happy for him.
Adolescents & Depression
I highly recommend a re-reading of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” for anyone struggling to help an adolescent loved one.
With its themes of identity confusion and alienation, it can help youth workers and parents to more fully understand the young person’s internal experience.
“Catcher” has been notoriously misunderstood, misinterpreted and maligned for generations now. Though it has many useful and accurate interpretations, including existential and Buddhist ones, I believe it presents an important, first person account of the very nature of adolescent depression.
Holden Caulfield, the seventeen-year-old narrator and protagonist of the novel, is often seen solely as the picture of teenage rebellion, or worse, as merely a spoiled rotten, prep-school member of the Manhattan “martini set” in late 1949, on a bender of meaningless bad days. This less then empathic view misses the fact that Holden’s younger brother has just died. And rather than being supported in working through his grief about the loss of his brother, he has been unceremoniously sent off to prep school by his parents. Many readers are put off by Holden’s constant state of irritability and his view that everyone, especially adults, are “phonies.” He tries and fails to connect with most everyone in his life. Adult characters try and fail to help him. The character is literally hard to be around! Does this sound like anyone you know?
Holden, like many adolescents, is struggling with the loss of childhood innocence, made more complicated by the death of his brother. He is like a prickly pear. Obviously in pain, his struggles lead you to sweetly care about him, and yet he spurns all attempts at help or understanding. Youth workers will immediately identify him as an adolescent in emotional crisis. Depressed adolescents are hard to be around. Many psychotherapists and social workers will not even deal with this age group, while many parents become sad, confused and angry, wondering where the hell the son or daughter they loved went!
“The Catcher in the Rye” can help those interested in helping young people understand the emotionally difficult internal experience that drives them. If you are struggling to help a young person and are finding it hard to get through to them, finding a therapist specifically trained to work with adolescents may be very useful to you. And it can help that young person successfully negotiate their path from childhood to adulthood. I have worked extensively with adolescents in individual, group and family therapy as well as through foster care, youth centers and juvenile justice organizations.
Thoughts On Surviving The Holidays With Our Families…
Holidays can present quite a challenge for many of us as we engage our families. Whether you experience your family as difficult to be around or downright dysfunctional, 20 years of talking to clients about their experiences has taught me that taking time to develop a survival plan can help one make the best of the holidays and minimize painful conflict.
Some people have made an authentic choice not to be in their families’ life because they find it abusive or unhealthy. However, if you remain an active member of your family, at least around the holidays, then it is important to acknowledge that YOU have made that choice. Therefore, you should not pretend to yourself that you are unaware of the fact that various family dramas exist. For example, you know in advance that 2 of your siblings have been in conflict for years; that you have a racist uncle or a homophobic aunt; that there is a political divide between democrats and republicans, or that any number of relatives may disapprove of others for any number of reasons. You can go into the holidays with your family and get caught up in the emotions of the moment and add to the drama, or you can make a plan to keep your sanity.
In formulating your survival plan, I recommend taking an anthropological perspective to help you gain some emotional distance. Try thinking of yourself as a Martian, attempting to understand earth culture. How does each member of your family relate to the others? How do you relate to each member of your family? What are the disagreements you should avoid and what commonalities exist that you can use to connect in a more meaningful way? With this perspective in mind, I would like to offer some useful survival tips.
1) Time Outs
Even the people we most love and admire can sometimes get under our skin. So, whether a family member is driving you completely crazy, or merely just rubbing you the wrong way, time outs can help you take a break. The classic notion of a time out may mean going for a walk or a spending five minutes in the backyard to clear your head, thus interrupting your immediate emotional response. Other variations could include taking time to play with your nieces and nephews, having some one-on-one time with a cherished grandparent or sibling, or engaging in an enjoyable family tradition of playing cards or having a game of pool. Who says you have to constantly be around family members who annoy you? For those who are traveling to see families and are spending 3-4 days with them, make sure you get away from each other. Go to a movie or out to eat with friends who may still live in the area. Some people chose to stay at a hotel just so they do not have to eat and breath their families for 3-4 straight days. Lastly, you can line up a support person that you can call to remind you that you have a life beyond your family! This support person may be your best friend, an AA sponsor or your psychotherapist. I have often made myself available for phone sessions when clients are visiting their families out of town.
2) Remember: You are not your family; you are a separate person.
Some of us experience feelings of shame about our families. We can sometimes fall back into old family “roles” that developed as we were growing up. The field of addictions treatment developed a matrix of family roles into which children from dysfunctional families often get forced. These roles include: 1) Family heroes that can do no wrong, but feel forced to hide their secret inadequacies or struggles in life; 2) Scapegoats that negatively act out their inner feelings of hurt and guilt by being so invalidated by their families; 3) Lost children that withdraw into invisibility rather than risk being targeted by dysfunctional parents, but end up with deep feelings of loneliness and a sense of being unimportant; and 4) Mascots who mask their fear of the problems occurring in their families by providing ‘comic relief.”
By increasing our awareness about our old family roles, we can choose new ways of being in the world. Thus, one part of a good survival plan could be to make a list of all your good qualities, achievements and triumphs in life BEFORE being around your family so you can mentally remind yourself that you have moved beyond these destructive roles. You are not what your family may think you are!
3) Avoid Alcohol
Many families may enjoy wine, beer and alcohol as a part of the holiday festivities. On one hand, alcohol can reduce anxiety and inhibitions, thereby increasing a general sense of wellbeing. On the other hand, nothing can help escalate family drama better than alcohol! Choosing to Avoid or limit the use of alcohol may be an important judgment call as you prepare your survival plan.
4) Avoid Politics & Religion
The American political landscape has become increasingly polarized and at times, down right uncivil. As we enter an election year, arguing about politics or other potentially controversial topics is a sure fire way to derail your holidays. These days people do not engage in political debate to solve important national problems or to arrive at consensus, they argue to win. There is no rule that says you have to engage family members with whom you disagree, especially if you know you inhabit entrenched positions. In the end, you each have only one vote in a nation of millions. Even if you were to persuade your entire family to your point of view, it still will make no real difference in the national scheme of things. Therefore I would urge you to try and keep perspective and behave yourself!
5) Grief Issues
Holidays can be further complicated by the death of a family member. The first Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or Ramadan since their death is a kind of anniversary of sorts. Left unrecognized it could create conflict and isolation between family members, with each member grieving the loss in their own personal way. However, holiday gatherings can provide an important way for the whole family to work through their grief. Include the deceased in your conversations and celebrations. Hang a stocking for your loved one in which people can put notes with their thoughts or feelings. Look at photographs. Once others realize that you are comfortable talking about your loved one, they can relate stories that will add to your pleasant memories.
6) Blood family vs. Chosen family
Many people have a network of friends who are kindred spirits. Often times these friends feel more like family than our actual blood relatives. Spending time with both kinds of families can be a very important way of not only surviving the holidays, but also truly celebrating them. Spending time with those kindred to us is especially important for those who are alone without family during the holidays.
7) Keep Your Sense of Humor
And finally, having a healthy sense of humor not only helps us maintain a good perspective on those family members we find difficult to be around, it makes us easier to be around as well! One way I prepare for the holidays is by watching the movie “Home for the Holidays.” Directed by Jodie Foster and staring Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft, and Charles Durning, it’s depiction of a dysfunctional family that only gathers during the holidays is an often hilarious, and at turns touching human drama. It can serve as a reminder that all families have their dramas; that family members grow up and create their own lives and then find it difficult to easily blend back with each other once a year.
Resolute in the New Year
Many people make New Year’s resolutions, but then find they give up or lose determination. Even resolutions to change simple things in your life can be difficult to sustain unless you flesh out a full plan to create the context for change. By the end of January, many have already given up on their “resolutions.” Here are a few things to keep in mind as you prepare to make change happen in your life.
1) Change is hard.
It involves changing thinking, feeling and behavioral habits that may be deeply ingrained. Kicking yourself for “slipping” only punishes your self. Be gentle and forgiving with yourself and remember, it will take as many attempts as it takes to make enduring changes in your life.
2) Redefine “Consistency”
Being “consistent” in human terms about making change happen is not a black or white concept. For example, there are those rare creatures that go to the gym without failure and maintain excellent health their whole lives. For the rest of us, consistency is about getting back on the horse after you have fallen off. Punishing your self for not being able to make immediate, absolute consistent change only decreases self-esteem. The more important thing is to remain positive and don’t let a few lapses make you feel as if you have failed. Keep trying! Change most often involves a variety of changes to your lifestyle and that means breaking many habits and then creating new ones. It also often involves developing new skill sets. No one learns a new skill without trial and error and setbacks are unavoidable. Give yourself credit for not giving up!
3) Barriers to change.
Treat set backs as a learning opportunity. Why were your initial attempts not successful? Was it an issue of timing? Did unforeseen circumstances arise? Identify any barriers that got in your way of changing and problem solve on how to remove or deal with them differently.
4) Add Before Subtracting
For those trying to stop a negative habit, try and think of at least 3 positive things you can ADD to your life to give you the ego-strength to then attempt subtracting the negative. Taking stock of your strengths and resources can help you come up with the necessary positives to fuel your attempt at change.
a) Make a list of all your strengths/positive personal attributes as well as times when you were successful at accomplishing goals in your life. What makes you proud about yourself? What positive things do people say about you? Having difficulty in making a change in our life does not diminish all those times in your life we you were successful!
b) Take a look around your social ecology. How can spouses, partners, family and friends be supportive of you? Who are the people that you can rely on? Who has made you feel understood, supported, or encouraged? What strengths do they have that you can lean on or borrow to help you? If you know anyone who has made the change you seek, ask them how they made it happen in their lives.
5) Goal Setting
The most important element to successful goal setting is breaking down the change you desire to make into smaller, achievable units. Setting the initial goal too high sets us up for failure. A classic example is the individual who wants to quit smoking, drinking and over eating all at once. This is simply way to many thinking, feeling and behavioral habits to change all at one time! In attempting any kind of long term change, set short, medium and long-term goals so that you break the over all change into smaller, more manageable increments and then award yourself for achieving each goal.
In conclusion, self-empowerment is the key to making successful changes in our lives and comes from three things: 1) valuing oneself, 2) having achievable goals, and 3) creating a plan to reach these goals that has the potential to be successful.