pain

Cultivating a Life that is Real: Finding Hope through Your Darkness

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

I have yet to meet anyone whose middle school years were not fraught with social perils and awkwardness and mine were no different. I can remember days I was so sure I had committed a social disaster that I laid in bed at night dreadfully imagining the possible fallout that awaited me the next day at school.  And yet, I would often awake the next day and march into school doing everything I could to pretend the truth that my knotted stomach betrayed was a lie and that none of the previous day had unfolded as it did. This got me through the day many times, but it was a miserable way to live. And, it still is.

The reality is we all still do this self-deception as adults because it gets us through the day, but we often never slow down to think about what it costs us. In the course of experiencing deeply confusing, painful, frightening, shame-filled, and aggravating events somewhere along the way we make a decision – whether conscious or not – to disown pieces of this experience that feel like too much to bear.

Just like middle school, we act like the wounds and emotions our bodies communicate we carry don’t exist, and we talk ourselves away from what the pit of our stomach knows is actual reality. We become so good at this that we disown parts of an experience while keeping all the good things so that as we move forward it seems like a bright and cheerful time even though it carries shadows on all sides of betrayal, crushed hope, or shame.

My point here is not to “miserable-ize” everything in your life, but to illuminate what is lost when we do this. The reality is what we disown is not only an event but our experience of an event. When we disown that experience we actually disown a part of ourselves – a part of the deep experience of our soul – and we take one more step away from ever being truly known by those around us. No matter how vulnerable we are with however many people, we always have those pieces in the back of our mind holding us hostage with the thought, ‘Yeah, but if they knew that about me they would run in the other direction.” We become lonely, and less and less real – no matter how many people or “positive vibes” we surround ourselves with.

Cultivating a life that is real and fighting loneliness begins with examining the pieces of our soul we have disowned, working through whatever discomfort kept us from doing this before, and bringing those pieces of ourselves back into the present so that we can live a more whole and connected life.

This is certainly not an easy task, but often when we face the darkness rather than run from it, we find some light. As English theologian Thomas Fuller once said, “The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

So what are the pieces of yourself you’ve left in the darkness? What are the parts of your soul locked away inside? Are you ready to face them openly? Are you ready for true connection? For whole-hearted living? Are you ready to be real?

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.

Why are some relationships just harder?

 

Why are some relationships just harder?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

I’ve recently seen some articles asserting that ‘if people just communicated and committed to their relationship, then their problems would go away.’ While communication and commitment are very important, I think this overlooks the many people who are committed and communicating but still struggle.

In fact, I find that many people that come in for couples counseling are deeply committed and are communicating very clearly. Then why are these relationships still difficult?

We have outside stressors

Many of the sources of relationship difficulty have nothing to do with the effort invested in the relationship. In fact, studies show that some of the biggest predictors of relationship difficulty are largely outside of the couple’s control:

  • Poor health
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage after 20 weeks
  • Low income
  • Multiple children with ADHD
  • Partner with mental health issues
  • Death of a child

If your friend seems to have an easier relationship than you, it may have more to do with your different stressors than it does with different effort. Actually, I find that most couples that come to counseling have been working tirelessly on their relationship. If they weren’t trying, they wouldn’t be coming to counseling. But with major or persistent stressors, communication can become a minefield. And it’s not always as easy as learning a few communication skills.

I am overjoyed when I see people who have easier relationships. But there is something uniquely encouraging about a couple that is still trying after years of difficulty. It takes a special type of courage and commitment to seek the help you need to better love your partner, even when it’s hard.

Our families are different

The families we’re born into also impact the ease or difficulty of our relationships. For better or worse, parents model what relationships are like, and some people have better models than others. We can choose to act differently than our parents, but in stressful times we tend to fall back into the patterns we saw modeled (or against the pattern, in an equally harmful overcorrection).  

Parents teach us what love is, how to show it, and how to receive it. They also teach us how to view ourselves. If our parents were neglectful or abusive, they gave us a distorted picture of our self. Without working through these issues, this lack of self-worth will lead us to look for that worth in our partner—creating challenging and often volatile relationships.

This requires more than a simple resolution to change. It takes awareness of how our families impacted our view of the world, relationship, and our self. Since our families tend to be our normal, we often need an outside perspective to help us heal from this impact. This doesn’t mean that you are too weak to handle it alone; it means that you are strong enough to pursue what is necessary to change it.  

We get stuck in a cycle

Couples often get stuck in patterns of relating that rob them of their joy in connecting. These cycles have nothing to do with their effort, compatibility, or how much they love each other. In fact, the fear of losing the other is often what escalates the conflict.  

The most common negative cycle is the pursue/distance (or attack/withdraw) pattern. People usually aren’t even aware that they are in this cycle. Most often, each partner simply sees the other as being unnecessarily critical or distant. It is hard for people stuck in this pattern to see the bigger picture.

Beneath this cycle, both partners truly value their connection, but they seek to preserve it in different ways: the pursuer by attacking  (to get through to them) and the distancer by withdrawing (to avoid conflict). Their mutual attempts to save the relationship (seen as criticism or lack of care by the other), only escalate the problem as each person doubles down on their ‘go-to’ strategy for preserving the relationship.

In these cases, demands for more communication will only push the withdrawer deeper into his bunker. Instead, we need help gaining awareness of our own role in the harmful cycle, so that we can interrupt it and develop a healthier pattern of relating.

Everybody’s relationship is different

It isn’t useful to compare our relationships to others, because everyone’s history and circumstances are different. Learning a few communication skills may be very helpful for someone whose relationship has had few stressors, had model parents, and hasn’t been stuck in a cycle.

For others, there will be too much anxiety and conflict in the relationship for communication skills to be the answer. This doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, that you don’t love each other, or that you aren’t compatible. Relationships are messy, and life often leaves us in places where we need help sorting out the pieces. In my opinion, one of the surest signs that someone loves and is committed to their partner is that they are willing to seek help during the hard times.

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

by Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

“Blood is thicker than water.”  

It’s an old saying. I don’t know where it came from. The meaning is that family relationships are more important than any other. You’re supposed to be loyal to your family first and foremost, because “They’re blood”. The genetic familial bond is deep and powerful.

Use your imagination for a moment.

Imagine you have an acquaintance who routinely cuts you down, employs guilt trips or unreasonable expectations to get you to do what they want, yells when you let them down, or tells you that you don’t measure up to their expectations. Perhaps they aren’t as directly difficult to handle, but many of the conversations you have with them feel “off”, like they’re doing something inappropriate, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Now imagine that when you mention or resist any of these ways of communicating, they shrug and say, “I’m doing the best I can. Don’t judge”, or “This is who I am, you need to figure out how to deal with it,” or, “You’re too sensitive,” or “You know, it’s for your own good.”

How much time would you want to spend with this person? How often would you want have them over, or pay them a visit, “just to catch up”? Would you want to take your kids over to their house and leave them in this person’s care for a few hours while you went on a date with your spouse?

I’m guessing that the answer is somewhere between “Not so much,” and “Are you kidding me!?”

And yet as a relationship therapist, I routinely see people who place themselves and their children in the path of people who relate in these hurtful ways. These are not reckless or foolish people. They are common, everyday folks who care about their families and friends, who are careful parents and thoughtful about their choices.

And yet, when I ask them why they would want to make themselves or their children vulnerable to someone who treats others so harshly, they reply, “It’s important to maintain a connection with this person! The kids need to have this relationship.” All the while they acknowledge that they feel the pain of being treated this way, and though they feel like withdrawing, they refuse to do so. Parents acknowledge that the way the people in question treat their children to is inappropriate as well. They feel a protective instinct, but routinely squash that instinct in favor of maintaining the connection.

The reasons these wounded people (whether they are parents or not) offer for why they persist in this pattern of maintaining connection with relationally reckless others are many, but generally have one theme. See if you can pick it out:

“But they’re Family!”

“The kids need their grandparents. They need to know where they came from.”

What am I supposed to do? He’s my father/ She’s my mother.”

“I have to stay connected. I can’t just NOT have relationship with them.”

“I have to put up with it and do damage control after.

“What am I supposed to tell them? They have to change who they’ve always been just to please me?“

One of the hardest questions I have to ask anyone is, “If it was anyone else, would you be so willing to put up with it?”

The answer is pretty universal. “No. But… they’re not just anyone else. They’re family.”

“Blood is thicker than water.”

Except it’s not. And it is. Let me explain.

Because a person is related to you by blood does not give them carte blanche to treat you as they will. It does not mean you have to take whatever they say or do no matter what. It does not mean you MUST maintain connection with them in spite of the history and/or ongoing damage they do in their recklessness. If you wouldn’t put up with it from a friend, acquaintance, or stranger, you don’t have to put up with it from family. Period.

“Blood is not thicker than water.”

Except it is.

The difference between “blood” and “not blood” is not what we have to put up with, it’s that we keep on reaching for healing. It’s not that we accept whatever they have to offer, but that we hold out for healthy relationship. We don’t give up on the relationship quickly, but we also don’t settle for less than what it is supposed to be: healthy, mutually affirming, encouraging, strengthening. We resist recklessness in family relationships more than in any other precisely because they are so important.

If our vehicles start making funny noises, or dripping fluids from strange places, we don’t generally say, “But it’s my car. I just have to put up with it.” If our physical bodies start making funny noises, or dripping fluids from strange places, we don’t usually say, “But it’s my body. I just have to learn how to deal with it.” In either case we take steps to seek the cause, seek a remedy, deal with the issue, and keep confronting the problem until it’s fixed. (OK, you might end up having to sell your car, I get it. I’ll deal with that in Part II.)

The difference between family relationships and other relationships is the persistence we use in seeking healing. “Any other a-hole can take a hike, but this a-hole is family.”

Maybe blood actually is thicker than water. And maybe we’ve gotten confused about what that idea actually looks like in real life.   –JEH

Click here to be taken to “Blood is Thicker Than Water, Part II: I Tried, But They Won’t Change! Now What?” And click here for Part III

Abuse is Abuse. Period.

While the impact of abuse on a person’s soul may actualize differently, we need to break free from old ways of thinking.  Abuse is abuse.  Period.

 St louis counseling

It never ceases to amaze me how people still seem to define what abuse is and isn’t, and what abuse a person should just “put up with” for the sake of preserving the martial relationship.  I once heard a mental health professional tell a client, “as long as he (the husband) isn’t hitting you then you need to stick it out.”  This professional was saying this to a woman who had been suffering through emotional and mental abuse by her husband for over 8 years.  This post is not about whether the abused should or shouldn’t leave or divorce their partner when abuse of any kind is taking place – so let’s not get hung up on that issue.  This post is about brining awareness that abuse is happening in your community and the abused deserve more from the person they trust to disclose to then just “stick it out” or any type of response that undermines the abused.  We need to listen.  We need to protect.  We need to advocate.  But the truth is, this mental health professional’s view on abuse is not uncommon in our society that demands physical and visual proof of something before its believed.

The reality is, out of the many types of abuse a person can experience, only one type (physical abuse and sometimes this remains hidden as well) will outwardly produce the physical and visible proof our society tends to want in order to believe a person is being abused.

Since we know abuse can remain hidden from us so easily, why do you think we still tend to respond to a persons disclosure of abuse with suspicion or disbelief?  It is a question for us all to ponder.

Instead of responding in these ways, why not chose to BELIEVE and not question the validity of what you hear?  It doesn’t matter if you think their partner is or isn’t capable of abusive behaviors.  It doesn’t matter if the abused has their own flaws in the relationship.

We are not listening to the one abused to judge them, provide excuses for the abuser, or justify abusive behavior.  Abuse is wrong, but until we stop providing excuses and justifications the abused will have to continue to fight to be heard and believed.

Here are some thoughts on how to support the abused.  What I am about to share with you is just a snippet out of Lundy Bancroft’s book, Why Does He Do That.  To learn more about each of these points please read his book.  The following information can be found on pages 370-372.  This book is a must read for everyone.

How to care for the abused: (this list shows the difference in how you can care from that of the abuser)

1.  The abuser:  Pressures her severely

So you should:  Be patient.  Remember that it takes time for an abused woman to sort out her confusion and figure out how to handle her situation.

2.  The abuser:  Talks down to her

So you should:  Address her as an equal.  Avoid all traces of condescension or superior knowledge in your voice.

3.  The abuser:  Thinks he knows what is good for her better than she does

So you should:  Treat her as the expert on her own life.  Don’t assume that you know what she needs to do.

4.  The abuser:  Dominates conversations

So you should:  Listen more and talk less.

5.  The abuser:  Believes he has the right to control her life

So you should:  Respect her right to self-determination

6.  The abuser:  Assumes he understands her children and their needs better than she does

So you should:  Assume she is a competent, caring mother.  Remember that there is no simple way to determine        what is best for the children of an abused woman.

7.  The abuser:  Thinks for her

So you should:  Think with her.  Don’t assume the role of teacher or rescuer.  Instead, join forces with her as a respectful and equal team member.

-Lianne Johnson, LPC

Relational Trauma

By: Andy Gear, PLPC

I recently read a book entitled Your Sexually Addicted Spouse that I found very illuminating, and I wanted to pass on what I learned to you. In it Barbara Steffens specifically seeks to help partners of sexual addicts “survive, recover, and thrive.” But her ideas can be helpful for anyone dealing with pain from damaging relationships.

One of the most helpful ideas she brings up is the concept of relational trauma. When many of us think of trauma, we think about physical wounds. But she points out that victims of betrayal have also experienced very real trauma. This relational trauma is often just as painful and life altering as physical trauma. Many people even experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress as a result of being betrayed or emotionally victimized. The pain is increased when done by someone we should have been able to trust.

I have found this concept extremely helpful, because I have noticed that many people who have experienced consistent relational trauma tend to minimize what they have been through. People often believe that because they cannot locate one definitive trauma in their life, then they have no reason to feel hurt or traumatized. But Steffens helps us realize the lasting impact of chronic relational trauma.

The rest of the book proceeds to explain what it looks like to begin the journey of healing. If your life has been impacted by a damaging or hurtful relationship then I would encourage you not to ignore its impact. Please take the time to begin the journey of healing, because relational trauma is significant and your pain is real.

 

 

 

What’s so great about grief?

by: Andy Gear, PLPC
                  

I remember those first moments after the accident as if everything was happening in slow motion. They are frozen in my memory with terrible vividness. After recovering my breath, I turned to survey the damage. The scene was chaotic. I remember the look of terror on the faces of my children and the feeling of horror that swept over me when I saw the unconscious and broken bodies of Lynda, my four-year-old daughter Diane Jane, and my mother. I remember getting Catherine (then eight), David (seven), and John (two) out of the van through my door, the only one that would open. I remember taking pulses, doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, trying to save the dying and calm the living. I remember the feeling of panic that struck my soul as I watched Lynda, my mother, and Diana Jane all die before my eyes. I remember the pandemonium that followed—people gawking, lights flashing from emergency vehicles, a helicopter whirring overhead, cars lining up, medical experts doing what they could to help. And I remember the realization sweeping over me that I would soon plunge into a darkness from which I might never again emerge as a sane, normal, believing man.

–Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised

I remember a time when I experienced loss. As I walked home that evening, I remember telling myself this isn’t going to ruin me. I made a vow that I wouldn’t let it affect me. I wouldn’t be weak. I wouldn’t feel. I would forget; pretend it never happened. And then it wouldn’t hurt me. Then it wouldn’t touch me. I would ignore the wound; pretend it wasn’t there. Then it would go away.

But it didn’t go away. Neither did my memories. I started watching more TV to try to divert my attention. I had trouble concentrating on work, my mind wandering back to that event. To that pain. I had to distract myself, numb myself. I mustn’t think about it ever again. It was too painful. If I thought about it, something bad would happen . . . I had to avoid it at all costs.
None of us want to suffer. But none of us can truly avoid it.

We all have reason to grieve at some point in our life: loss, mistreatment, rejection. In the end it affects us all. But how we approach it influences how it forms us. As I see it, there are two basic options: we can ignore it or we can grieve it. And the path we choose determines how we come out on the other end.

On the surface, ignoring it sounds like the safer option. Just ignore it, don’t let it affect you. But it doesn’t work that way. When we ignore it, it continues to grow inside us. We waste away from the inside out.

It affects the way we approach life; we shut down parts of our selves. We shut down part of our mind. We shut down part of our heart. We become less than a whole person. Our relationships become shallow and stilted. There are parts of us that are shut away, irretrievable, unreachable to the closest people in our lives. We find ways to distract ourselves: TV, hobbies, work, porn, busyness. They may seem harmless enough. But they begin to own us. We live with eyes half open. We live with our heart half closed.

But we choose to ignore it because we feel overwhelmed and powerless. We want some sort of relief, any relief to get us through the days and nights. We keep ourselves busy to avoid our tortured thoughts. We numb ourselves to avoid the unbearable pain.

When we notice the pain less, we think we are out of the woods. We have survived the grief unscathed. But we have merely pushed it below the surface. And it will pop up again: in anger, in addictions, in unhealthy relationships. We have not saved ourselves pain; we have merely stretched it out, separated it from its source, and allowed it to dictate who we become. The irony is that in trying to escape the pain, we have given it the keys to our heart and allowed it to blindly drive us—as we simply pretend it isn’t there.

So what about the second option? The scarier option: facing our pain head on. Admitting the hurt. Acknowledging the loss. Processing the damage. Mourning what once was and will never be again.

This is the way of healing. We can choose to face it squarely. To meet it head on. To enter it honestly with our eyes wide open. It is a long and painful journey, but it can be a journey of growth not destruction.

But this requires facing reality for what it is. We cannot ignore it and hope that it goes away. A wound will not heal with lack of care; a bone will not mend without being set. We cannot heal by denying that something has been broken. We are made to share our stories, to experience our pain, to feel deeply, to mourn fully.

We must allow ourselves to grieve. This is not something that happens overnight; it takes time and community. It is not easy. It takes sharing our hurt, expressing our pain, acknowledging the damage done. Grieving does not make us weak; it makes us courageous. It is facing life as it is, not as you wish it were. There is hope in authentic suffering, but only false-hope in denial and distraction. Loss does not have to ruin us. In fact, if we face it honestly, it can grow us. 

Wisdom from Calvin and Hobbes

by Courtney Hollingsworth & Calvin and Hobbes

Change can be scary. It can be hard. It can be painful. It’s risky. It’s dangerous. Ignorance can be all of those things too. Neither option eliminates risk. You can choose to walk into the risk and embrace the scariness of it. Or you can choose to close your eyes, walk forward, and pretend it isn’t scary at all. Ignorance isn’t bliss. But don’t take it from me, take it from Calvin and Hobbes:



Sweet Sorrow

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Living in this world means living in the tension between good and evil, love and sorrow, joy and pain.  It is to experience the pleasant comfort of cuddling with your spouse on the couch and to ache with the beauty of the moment, while knowing that the moment must inevitably end.  It is to experience the trauma of loss and death and to know that growth and wisdom often come through pain.  Juliet loves the sweetness of Romeo’s affection as they say “good night” and yet must release him for a time to do without it.

To deny or diminish either of the parts is to live out of balance.  To pretend there is no pain is to smother and  invalidate your genuine and legitimate grief.  To live in the pessimism that says “good is always crushed” is to smother real and life-giving joy.  We can exist in either of these out-of-balance ways, but we cannot truly live.

To love is to risk loss, and the more we love, the more pain we experience in the loss.  Intimacy requires vulnerability, and the more open and emotionally naked we become with the other, the greater the closeness and experience of connection.  We live in a world of friction, and yet within the friction there is heat and light and life itself.

If you are protecting yourself from either of these elements, consider that a full, rich experience of life in this world is only possible when we acknowledge the truth of sorrow and loss while holding on to solid hope that there is good and light in the world at the same time.

Theology Now

or, “When Faith Kicks in for Real”
by Jonathan Hart, LPC

I went on a 20 mile hike with my 9 year old son last weekend.  We took a couple of days, camped overnight, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Except the last four miles.

It started with two rumbles of thunder.  The rain turned on like a faucet. This was not wholly unexpected.  The forecast had predicted “scattered storms”.  We donned our ponchos and put away our lunches.  We, wisely or foolishly, chose to hike through it, since we were pretty close to the end.  I believed the storm would be over quickly.

I was wrong.  The rain persisted.  Thunder and lightning rolled, becoming if anything more frequent.  We hiked off the hilltop and were working our way down into the valley.  My son was nervous about the rain and the lightning, especially the close ones (I was too, but I tried to keep a brave face on for his sake).  Half an hour into the storm when the hail started falling, he became terrified.

We found a  fairly large bent tree trunk to hide behind.  It was enough to deflect most of the hail, but not all.  Both of us took a few hits. That had to have been the longest ten minutes of the whole trip, when dime-to-quarter sized chunks of ice were falling around and on us, lightning blasting overhead followed by deafening thunder and torrential rain. I seriously considered getting out our cooking gear and wearing the pots on our heads.

I knew that hail typically lasts only about 10 to 15 minutes, if that.  I did not know if we could expect larger hail than that which was currently pelting us. I didn’t know if there was a tornado in the vicinity.  My son was crying and starting to seriously freak out.  I was well on my to “Really Frightened” myself.  One of my most immediate thoughts was, “REALLY, God?  This couldn’t wait another hour or two?”  And then I thought, “What have I done to my son?”

I had been praying since the rain began.  Finally, faith kicked in.  I had a “Theology Now” moment.  I took my son’s face in my hands, looked into his eyes, and said (speaking as much to myself as to him), “As much as I love you, and would do everything I could to protect you and keep bad things from happening to you, God loves you more than I ever could.  He doesn’t always keep us from getting hurt, but he Always, Always loves and protects his children.  He is looking out for us right now, even though it might not seem like it.”

The hail stopped a few minutes later, as I knew it probably would.  The storm continued for another two and a half hours.  We survived, though we were thoroughly soaked and very, very tired of rain and lightning.

Theology Now is when the rubber meets the road in faith-land.  It is when what you say you believe meets up with what you really believe deep down.  It is the moment when the truth of doctrine pushes on and stretches our limitations and grows our capacity for real, honest-to-goodness trust.

The funny thing is that these moments don’t usually happen in the sunshine.  They usually happen right in the middle of an obnoxious storm.  We must be challenged, stretched, and tested painfully in order to grow our faith.  In this way, God often allows storms and painful times into our lives because he loves us. We must come to the end of our own strength in order to find and believe in His strength on our behalf.

–JH