grace

Shame and Contempt, Part 4: Countering Self-Righteousness & Other Righteousness

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

In my earlier blogs in this series, I explored Shame and Contempt as unhealthy and unproductive mutations of Guilt and Judgment, and the ground that Shame and Contempt grow from, and the flipside of Shame and Contempt. Now that we’ve named Guilt and Contempt as potential major players in our inner worlds, as well as looked at the places from where these fickle foes plant seeds and grow, I would like to discuss how to counter the powerful pulls of self-righteousness and other righteousness.

The truth is that we are all good at some things, and we are all bad at some things.  Neither one can ever speak to our value as a human.  Performance, skill, ability, and aptitude are all completely irrelevant to our dignity and worth.

When we stand either over or under another human, we are out of place, and it wears on our souls.

The beginning of change is in observing what has always been automatic, accepted, or unquestioned.  Pay attention to the thoughts and voices with which you speak to yourself, and with which you speak of others.  Notice the elements of self- or other-righteousness.  The more you notice them, the more they will bother you (hopefully).  That dissatisfaction is necessary to finding the change you need.

If you feel stuck, seek an external observer: a mentor, pastor, friend, or counselor who is not overly impressed with you, who will be honest with you, and with whom you can be honest in return.  Work together to identify the places you need to work on.

Stepping out of self- and/or other-righteousness is a challenge, but when you find the room, you will discover a great relief in your being, and a larger amount of freedom and acceptance with and for your fellow humans.

Does Validation Matter?

Validation: Why it matters.

 

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

We have all experienced a situation where we have not validated a person’s beliefs or behaviors as we interact with them.  We also know what it feels like for someone to ignore our feelings, minimize our experiences, or change the subject of a conversation when the topic really matters. Validating our own feelings and those of other people is an important skill to have and to hone.    

What is validation?  Validation means “acknowledging that a person’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors have causes and are therefore understandable”.  

To validate someone means we are looking for the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them.

Why is it important?  Well, it shows that we are listening to the other person and that we are trying to understand them.  It helps to strengthen our relationships because we can avoid a power struggle over who is right by validating the other person.  When we don’t validate others, it hurts.

How do we do it?  Pay attention to what the other person is saying.  Actively listen and reflect back to them what they are saying, without judging them!  We have to use our observation skills and we have to be pay attention to the conversation.  It is important to notice the little things, how is the person standing, are their arms crossed, is their face red, do they look like they are getting ready to cry?  All of these clues help us in conversation.  

We need to notice how a person is acting, listen to what a person says, and respond according to what we see and hear to help create and improve connection in relationships.

What’s the impact?  Like I said, validation helps to create connection. Validation challenges us to be present in conversation. We have to be listen to what the other person is saying in order to respond in a way that helps a person to feel understood. Validation can de-escalate a situation because you’ve avoided the fight and acknowledged the other person’s experience.  

Give it a shot!  

 

 

 

 

Information adapted from DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents, Rathus, Jill H., and Alec L. Miller. “Validation.” DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents. New York: Guilford, 2015. Print.

Does your past matter?

Does your past really matter?

by:  Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

shutterstock_155509727How often to you pick up a novel or biography you have not previously read, flip to a random page in the middle of the book, and start reading from there? Have you ever tried to sit down in the middle of a movie and pick up the storyline? Our lives are stories full of experiences that connect and impact what comes next. So when we say that the past doesn’t matter or our childhood has no significance when it comes to what’s going on in our lives today, it seems to me more like it’s wishful thinking than what is actually true.

I think there are different reasons why we want to downplay the significance of our past, specifically our early years. Sometimes it seems to stem from a desire to believe we’ve moved past it all, grown too strong and mature for any of those vulnerable years to still have the power to impact us today. For others the motivation to downplay prior experiences comes from an avoidance of the pain which accompanies them.

The reality, however, is that our lives are a whole intricate story.

Think about it this way: what’s the first thing a doctor asks about? Your medical history. What do you want to know about a car before buying it? Accident history and mileage. Similarly, when you are getting know someone new, whether a friend, co-worker, or date, conversation will surely be filled with facts about the present, but part of getting to know them is also understanding their past and where they come from, both literally and figuratively.

Neglecting the importance of our past, especially our early impressionable and very vulnerable years, is a misstep that hinders our growth and depth in the present.

History is a mandatory subject in school for a reason. We can become students of our own histories and discover how and why we got to where we are, potential pitfalls and blindspots we operate with, and relational patterns and styles that may contribute to our present relational struggles.

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part II

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part II

by: Jonathan Hart, LPC

Back in February, I wrote a blog called “Blood is Thicker than Water”.  You can find it here.  It might be a good idea to check that post out before reading on.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Welcome back! Just in case you didn’t actually go read the previous post, I’ll give you a quick summary:  The main thrust of that post is that we keep “holding out for healthy relationship” with family far longer than we do with anyone else because family relationships are so vitally important. We still maintain our limits, and we don’t settle for less than the real deal, and we keep at it.

I used the image of the vehicle that starts making funny noises.  We don’t “just deal with it” when that starts to happen.  We do what is necessary to get it fixed.  The problem is that some things on cars (and in relationships) are not fixable.  This brings us to the question in family relationships: At what point is persisting in relationship futile or foolish based on the other person’s lack of willingness to move toward healthy?

The short form of the question is, “When do I quit trying?”

The answer is, “It Depends.”  It depends on the actual nature of the relationship.  We have varying levels of intimacy with different people.  Some are genuinely close and emotionally connected.  Some are truly intimate.  For some relationships, deep intimacy is not expected or required.  A friend of the family might stop by for a visit, but we might feel odd if they were to begin sharing their closest struggles and marriage woes.  It would feel “too close”.

Levels of Intimacy

Some Immediate Family relationships feel “too close” like this: “She may be Mom, but I don’t tell her things like this because she couldn’t handle it/I’d never hear the end of it/she’d tell all her friends/she’d use it against me…”

The categories in the diagram do not describe the blood relationship, but the nature of the relationship.  Dad may be a nice guy, but we have to keep the conversation about sports or things go south in a hurry, then the actual relationship may be more in the “Acquaintance” circle than “Immediate Family”.  I can have friends that are so deep and close that they actually belong in the “Immediate Family” Circle.  The functional question is “who are they to you, really?”

This can be a challenging question to answer, especially if the family culture says that “Siblings Equals Close, period”.  It’s especially hard because deep down we *want* real and close relationships with close family and friends, no matter what the actual relationship is.   Pretending the relationship is closer than it really is becomes wearying and is always silly. We have to start by acknowledging the actual nature of the relationship, before we can proceed.  Once you’ve done that, then you can begin the process.

    1. Relax.  Start letting yourself be OK with relating according to the nature of the relationship.  You can release any guilt you may experience because the relationship isn’t closer.  You can’t make it happen alone.  The guilt only makes you go back to pretending something is true that isn’t.
    2. Reach.  Imagine what the next tier closer might be, and begin reaching for it.  This is important: don’t try to go from “Acquaintance” to “Close Personal Friend” all at once.  You’ll scare them.  Only reach for one tier at a time.   
    3. Give it time.  Deepening intimacy and connectedness is a process and generally does not happen overnight.  You may be hungry for a better sense of connection, but they might not realize what’s missing.
    4. Pay attention.  If they flat-out reject any overtures or offers of legitimate closeness, if they accept and then take advantage of your vulnerability, or if they continue to identify you as the problem (the “Take it or Leave it” stance), this may be as close as is possible for the foreseeable future.
    5. Repeat steps 1-4.  Ideally, the other person will eventually be able to recognize what you are doing and reciprocate.  IF they do, everybody wins better relationships.  If they do not…
    6. Repeat steps 1-4 in increasing time increments.  Maybe you make the offer of “closer” once a month for a while, and get the same answer every time.  Maintain your current position for several months and then offer again.  Continue this process and lengthen the time between offers a little at a time, and you will eventually discover the equilibrium point at which they are willing to operate with you.

This is effectively the “process answer” to the question of “When do I quit trying?”  This may mean that you will never have a “Daddy” relationship with your father, but you can operate kindly and respectfully as acquaintances.  You’ll have to grieve the loss of your father (Yes, grieve.  As though he died), but you won’t be expecting an acquaintance to be a “Daddy” to you, either.

Ultimately, unless the relationship has been vicious, brutal, fully abandoned, or otherwise horrible, you are never completely out of relationship with someone who is related by blood.  Even in the case of the horrible relationships above, even in the absence of any contact whatsoever, there is always a biological connection.  Even at its best, navigating these relationships is complicated and messy.  Trying to keep up the appearance of a “Normal Family” can be exhausting when “normal” isn’t true … and let’s be honest…  What does “normal” even mean, anyway!?

Concept image of a lost and confused signpost against a blue cloudy sky.

So, step back, find your footing, acknowledge what is true of the relationship, and then carefully, slowly, reach for more.  You will either gain a closer relationship, or be able to relax into the best relationship that is legitimately possible with the person in question.

Look out for Blood is Thicker than Water, Part 3: What Does Holding Out for Healthy Look Like, Anyway?

 

8 Things I Learned about Parenting as a Stay-At-Home Dad

8 Things I Learned about Parenting as a Stay-At-Home Dad

One great thing about writing this blog is that I get to write about my family!  My wife, Hannah, is awesome and a full-time marketing force-of-nature. My daughter, Naomi, is also amazing and a full-time coloring expert. Because my wife has a terrific job that takes her on the road a lot, I get to split time working at Avenues Counseling and caring for our wonderful 2-year-old. It has been the best and most challenging experience of my life. I had no idea how hard it would be. So I wanted to pass on 8 of the things I’ve learned about parenting from this school of hard-knocks.

Avenues Counseling

 

  1. You’re not lazy. Parents are the busiest people on the planet; right up there with your friends when you need help moving a piano. So if you want to just read the bolded parts of this article (in between meltdowns and near death experiences), that’s okay. I get it. Give yourself a break. We are finite people, with a limited amount of time. The 24-hour day didn’t expand with your added children. You’re just not going to accomplish as much as you did before. That doesn’t mean you’re lazy.
  1. Comparing is counterproductive. Ignore all the amazing things your Facebook friends appear to be doing for their kids. What your kids need most is your love, reassurance, and calming presence. Competing for parent of the year will only make you both anxious. I’ve never had anyone come to counseling complaining about how their parents ‘messed them up’ by serving non-organic vegetables. Having a community that identifies with our missteps is more life-giving than comparing ‘highlight reels’ on social media.
  1. Take time for your relationships. Whether it’s your spouse or a close friend, spend quality time with people other than your children. Contrary to popular opinion, children do not always need to be the center of our lives. That’s a lot of pressure. They want to know that their behavior does not make or break us. You have a life beyond them, and that is good.
  1. Take time for yourself. Don’t neglect your hobbies and passions. Your children benefit from your happiness. Balance tedious tasks with activities that are enjoyable and meaningful to you. Not every activity has to revolve around your children.
  1. Have one goal for the day. Parenting does not always feel ‘rewarding.’ Though parenting is incredibly meaningful, you rarely see the results of your labor. And not seeing results from a day of backbreaking work can be very draining. That’s why I have one goal each day just for the ‘high’ of crossing it off my list. The goal can be as simple as reading a couple pages, doing a few pushups, or having lunch with a friend. Whatever it is, I’ve done something to improve my life today! I get to make a big red ‘X’ on the calendar. These little things add up and visible rewards are very energizing.
  1. Nurture who your child is. Even at a young age, I can tell that my daughter has her own unique personality. She is not me. Recently I took her outside to play soccer; she showed complete disgust for the ball and went straight to the garden. Now, I could try to shape her into my own idea of who she ‘should’ be to gain my approval, or I could embrace who she is and nurture and support her uniqueness. My job is to make her feel special about who she is, not tell her who to be.
  1. Have fun with it. Parenting is easier when you just embrace the chaos. It’s gonna get messy; just go with it! Clean up time can come later. Kids have endless energy. That’s a strength not something to be subdued; growing up takes lots of work. Turn into the curve, put down the phone, and be active with them. You’re not going to get much done any way. Embrace your inner kid and have fun. They’ll love it!
  1. Don’t put disposable diapers in the washing machine. That one just kind of speaks for itself. It doesn’t end well . . .

by:  Andy Gear, PLPC

 

 

Getting Pruned

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

I have a Dieffenbachia.  It’s a tropical houseplant I’ve been growing for a few years now.  When I got it, it only had 4 leaves and stood maybe a foot high.  I stopped counting the leaves a long time ago.  It now stands three to four feet high.  Maybe I should say “stood”.  I have recently learned a great deal about the plant’s nature and needs, which resulted in my cutting it almost in half.  Let me explain.

The Dieffenbachia is also known as “Dumb Cane”, apparently because of it’s poisonous sap, which will cause throat constriction and even death if ingested.  “You’re dumb if you eat this cane”, I think is what the name means.  I, personally, call it “dumb” because it will grow itself into oblivion.  If you let it go, it becomes too tall for the root system to hold upright and it falls over, uprooting itself.  In order to properly care for the plant, one must cut off a fairly significant amount of growth.  New, healthier, growth sprouts from below the cut, and the plant is sturdier and more balanced.

I must confess, pruning seems counter-intuitive.  It feels destructive to me to chop off parts of the plant that are doing well, from which new growth is continually sprouting.  It seems wasteful to simply drop those leaves and stems into the trash.  (I actually planted the severed portion to see if it will take root and propagate.  I’ll let you know what happens, maybe.)  Yet the overall health and continued success of the plant depends on this process of cutting back.

Why the horticulture lesson?  Because this seems to be a beautiful, if unsettling, analogy for the human condition.  We are all about growth.  We love to get stronger, taller, to spread more leaves and challenge new heights.  Growth is good.

We don’t seem to like the idea of pruning much, though.  First, it means experiencing pain, and nobody likes pain.  I’m sure my plant was terrified as I approached with my knife.  Second, it means understanding that not all growth is necessarily good.  There is a kind of growth inherent in humanity that turns into pride, an appearance of strength that leads to catastrophe.  I love to see new sprouts on my plant, but I was utterly dismayed when I returned home one day to find that the plant had toppled over onto its neighbor, damaging both plants in the process.

There is a kind of pain that originates in our own actions and attitudes.  I am not speaking of the pain that comes from death, natural disaster, or the predation of others upon us.  I am speaking of the kind of pain that we experience as a natural overflow or consequence of our own actions and words. These actions and words grow from attitudes and a sense of entitlement that feels like strength; in other words, from pride.

The moment we believe we have overcome a temptation, that we have succeeded in surpassing the weakness that used to trip us up, we have entered a kind of denial that we often label as growth.  “I’m better now.  I wouldn’t do that! It’s no longer a problem for me.”  Pride is the language of “I’m better than that”.

I celebrate when I see anyone overcome a temptation or weakness, but I also cringe just a little, because I fear that in the certainty of having surpassed the actual behavior or attitude, they may come to deny that the core weakness to it still exists.  It is the core weakness that will topple us, for in the moment we believe we are proof against it because we have “come so far”, we let down our guard and open ourselves up to it all over again.  None of us is as strong as we think we are.

Wise is the one who will open him- or herself to pruning when it comes, who will humbly acknowledge the truth that their heart whispers to them and reveal it to a trustworthy helper.  It hurts, it’s scary, it changes things irrevocably… and it spurs new, real, balanced growth.  Those who resist pruning head for a far more painful tumble when the overwhelming weight of “growth” tumbles them from their pot.  The damage is greater, the recovery longer, the hurt done to self and others deeper.  The very hurt we fear from the pruning is intensified and broadened.

Not all growth is real or healthy.  Often it becomes an illusion of strength or competence, while on the inside we deny the toppling sensation we feel deep down.  Better to bring it out voluntarily and deal with it sooner -to submit to the pruning knife –  than to let it continue until we fall.

Why can’t I handle it on my own?

By: Andy Gear

When I think about life before the Fall, I don’t think of people going around lonely. But that thought comforted me because I realized loneliness in my own life doesn’t mean I am a complete screwup, rather God made me this way. You always picture the perfect human being as somebody who doesn’t need anybody, like a guy on a horse in Colorado or whatever. But here is Adam, the only perfect guy in the world, and he is going around wanting to be with somebody else, needing another person to fulfill a certain emptiness in his life . . . I wondered at how beautiful it is that you and I were created to need each other. The romantic need is just the beginning, because we need our families and we need our friends. In this way, we are made in God’s image. Certainly God does not need people in the way you and I do, but He feels a joy at being loved, and He feels a joy at delivering love. It is a striking thought to realize that, in paradise, a human is incomplete without a host of other people. We are relational indeed
Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller
I often feel like I should be able to handle all my problems on my own. Images of John Wayne and Bruce Willis float through my mind as I suck up my pain and try unsuccessfully to pull myself back up by my bootstraps. If only I just relied on God more, all my loneliness would just melt away. But as I read the first chapters of Genesis, I begin to question this assumption. Adam walked in the garden in perfect fellowship with God, and even then God said that Adam needed other people. He didn’t create us to be lone wolves. He created us to need each other, and He doesn’t call this weakness. He calls it being made in the image of God. We are relational, like our Father.

Growth in maturity doesn’t mean learning to solve all our problems on our own. Seeking caring, empathetic, and authentic relationship is not a concession for the weak. It is the wisdom that comes from realizing who we were made to be. We were not made to ‘stick it out’ on our own. In the Old Testament God called a family and a nation. In the New Testament He called His church to do life as a community of brothers and sisters. He wanted us to understand our need for help in this journey. Why can’t I handle it on my own? It’s not because there is something wrong with me. I was never meant to do it alone.  

Giving Yourself Grace in Change





by: Courtney Hollingsworth, PLPC



This humorous clip is obviously an example of very poor therapy that is unlikely to be helpful. People are just too complex for such a simplistic and one-dimensional approach. I certainly hope that you do not have anyone in your life who interacts with you in such a way. But how many of us have internalized this ungracious and callous voice? How often do we grant ourselves little patience and understanding in the midst of our circumstances and our attempts to change? Oftentimes, we are the harshest critic of our progress or our performance.

In what areas of your life do you need be more patient and understanding with yourself? What words play in your head on which you need to turn the volume down? Grace is not only for shortcomings and failings, it is for growth too. And lest I fall into the same trap I am speaking against, here is your reminder that changing this way of thinking will require patience and grace for yourself. When it comes to warding off contempt in order to more fully embrace grace, you cannot tell yourself to simply “STOP IT!”