relationships

Empathy Requires Vulnerability

“Yes, empathy requires some vulnerability, and we risk getting back a ‘mind your own damn business’ look, but it’s worth it.”  – page 100, Daring Greatly

 

I’ve been slowly making may way through Brene’ Brown’s book, Daring Greatly.  It’s a great book.  It even made #1 on the New York Times bestseller list!  I honestly haven’t read a book written by her that I haven’t fully enjoyed and learned from yet, but if I ever do I’ll let you know.

empathy

After having read the quote I opened this post with, I stopped reading.  I had to think more about what she was saying.  I thought to myself, “Empathy requires vulnerability?  Really…hmmm, why?”

When we choose to empathize with another in their suffering and/or emotion we are choosing to say, “I will not ignore your pain, your emotion, or your needs, and I am here for you.”  Saying something like this absolutely requires us to be vulnerable!

Choosing to empathize with another requires things from us, doesn’t it?  Showing empathy requires that we be vulnerable.  Vulnerable with our time, emotional and mental energy, our personal comfort (or rather discomfort that can come when we become involved in another’s situation), sometimes it requires that we speak into their pain and sometimes we sit in silence with our friend.  In your friendships do you think its “worth” all of the things it may cost you to show empathy?  Sometimes I have found that the very thing keeping people from experiencing healthy  and intimate friendships is their lack of willingness to “step into” their friends lives.  To show empathy.

If we choose to not show empathy to those we claim are our friends, spouse, family, etc., then we can never hope to have relational intimacy.  As Brene’ talks about in her book – We need to move about our relationships with COURAGE.  Courage is what we need be vulnerable, which leads to our willingness to choose and risk showing empathy to another.

Courage is the first step….once we have courage nothing can stop us!

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

Different Isn’t Bad, It’s Just Not the Same

By: Andy Gear

A trip my wife and I took to Massachusetts reminded me of something I had learned as a kid from a man who had lived in Sierra Leone: “Different isn’t bad, it’s just not the same.”

 

Recently, my wife and I visited the town in Massachusetts where we spent our honeymoon. It’s just a little fisherman’s village, but it brought back so many memories of our first year together. One might assume that it made me nostalgic for that “honeymoon period” when we had no kids, no problems, and our whole life ahead of us. And it did.  But I also remembered how difficult that first year was.

No one ever told me that learning to live with another person would be so difficult. And if they did I ignored them, because we were young and in love. Why would we ever argue? We’re soul mates.

Different Isn't Bad

So I was surprised to learn during that first year that my wife is very different than me. We have different interests, different values, different ways of thinking, feeling, communicating, different views of money and conflict, and different ways of eating cereal.  Because she was different than what I grew up with, I assumed that her differences were wrong, bad, or illogical.  I remember going for walks with her in some of the old neighborhoods in U. City, talking about the things a young seminarian thinks important. I’d be in the middle of what I thought a life-changing idea, when she would stop me and make me observe a bed of flowers, an idyllic home, or the sun descending with the most beautiful shade of orange. I was so frustrated. Why didn’t she think like me? What was wrong with her? I tried to convince her to be more like me. That did not go over well at all. Then I remembered the saying I shared with you earlier, “Different isn’t bad, it’s just not the same.” I dwelt on this thought.

What if the things that are different about my wife are not only acceptable but are very good? What if my wife and I are custom made for each other and our individual qualities are meant to shape us into more whole, balanced, and fully functioning human beings?

I developed a new assumption: who my wife is now is very good.

With this new assumption in mind, I began to act upon it. I slowly began to receive my wife’s differences not as trials to bear but as gifts to be enjoyed. I tried to allow that person to shine through, to learn from her.

The result has been life changing.

I’m not convinced that I’m any better at marriage, but I appreciate who my wife is.  And in a small way I am becoming a more balanced, whole, and fully functioning human being. I believe that learning to embrace the beauty of who she is right now helped make my second trip to Massachusetts even better than the first.

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.

 

 

 

Raising a Superhero

by: Andy Gear, PLPC

“Since teaching college I’ve been amazed at two things: (1) how deeply young adults want their parents to be proud of them, and (2) just how deeply parents communicate, directly or indirectly, that their kids are not good enough. . . . I may invest in a dry/wet vac for my office. They believe their parents love them but don’t believe their parents are proud of them.” –Dr. Anthony Bradley

My wife and I are having our first child in less than a month, and we are very excited to meet her! Awaiting her birth has stirred up all sorts of emotions in me. I have so many hopes, so many fears, and so many desires for this little person.

I want to have a happy and healthy baby, as all parents do. But I have other hopes and desires as well. My wife and I often lie in bed at night and dream about what our little girl will one day be. We dream of her being a special person: smart, funny, sensitive, doing something we think important (becoming a doctor, a professor, or the President of the United States).

But where do these desires come from and are they good for our developing child? We think she should do special things because she is special to us but also because of our own unfulfilled desires. If we are disappointed with how our life turned out we might desire that our child do what we were unable to accomplish or be the person we wish we were.

The problem is that this completely ignores the humanity and uniqueness of our child. Shouldn’t she have a say in this? This may not be who our child is. She is a little person, not a vessel through which to meet all our unfulfilled desires. It is normal to have dreams, but it can be harmful to have goals or expectations for another human being.

The professor (quoted at the beginning) made the point that well-meaning parents place too much weight on their child’s performance. We put subtle pressure on our children to be an academic, spiritual, athletic, social, or financial success. We make our child’s performance part of our own identity. So we send subtle messages to our children about the conditions for their acceptability.

Our children begin to sense that we are only proud of them when they meet the expectations or goals that we have for them. So they often try to become what we want them to be—to varying degrees of success. But this is done at the expense their own identity and happiness. When they don’t fit the mold we set for them, they feel as though they are failures and are not free to pursue who they truly are.

Just because our child is special to us, doesn’t mean that it is not acceptable for them to be ‘ordinary.’ Not everyone has to be a doctor, a CEO, or the President of the United States. It is enough for them to be themselves. Of course we want to nurture them and provide an environment where they can flourish. But we must be ok with them being who they are. If we are not, they probably won’t be either. They will go through life believing that they are not good enough, don’t have what it takes, or are defective. They may suffer from low self-esteem or anxiety about their performance. Our expectations may rob them of the joy of enjoying who they are.

The messages we send our children, as parents, are extremely powerful. Our words and actions can send the message that they are acceptable because of who they are, not what they do. Or we can subtly poison them with the message that they are only acceptable if their performance matches our expectations. 

Though I may not dream of my daughter being an emotionally reserved janitor, what if that is who she is and chooses to be? Would I celebrate who she is? Or would I subtly communicate that she needs to change in order to make me proud? When I expect her to be someone else I am doing violence against her own unique humanity. She is her own person, and I want to help that person flourish.

I don’t want to create an environment for my daughter that leads to her crying in her professor’s office because she doesn’t think she is living up to my expectations. Though I have hopes and dreams, it is unfair for me to have expectations or goals for another human. She gets to decide who she wants to be, and I have the privilege of helping foster her unique self. I want her to flourish, but I don’t get to decide how she flourishes. She doesn’t have to be the best at anything to make me proud. She will make me proud by just being who she is.  

The Holidays are Coming

by Jonathan Hart

If this phrase fills you with a sense of foreboding, you’re not alone. For many, the holidays can be a time of guilt and frustration in which the traditional family gatherings are fraught with conflict, tension, and heartache. Family gatherings can be confusing. “Why is this so hard?  Is it supposed to be like this?  That’s just how they are, I need to get over it… but I can’t!”

Families are rarely perfect.  We often feel pressures and expectations when we are among our closest relatives that we don’t feel anywhere else or at any other time of year.  I’ve heard more than one person complain, “Mom (or Dad) treats me like I’m still twelve years old!  They don’t seem to understand that I’m an adult now,” or “I just go along with it!  I can’t seem to stand my ground with them.”

While these pressures and conflicts are not unusual, they are painful and difficult to handle for many people.  We feel the power of these relationships and expectations deeply, and we aren’t sure what we have the right to challenge and what we don’t.  All too often we avoid confronting what is painful because the consequences are just too great.  “I can’t say that to my Mother!  It would crush her! It would ruin the whole trip!”

If you are among those who need help sorting out the expectations and learning how to relate in a healthier way when you’re at home, I’d encourage you to sign up for the “Surviving the Holidays” seminar that we are presenting at Rooftop Church in Affton on Friday, November 9th from 5:30-9:00 PM.  We will discuss how relationships are designed to function, how they get off track, and how to change the pattern in a healthy direction.  For details on how to register for this event CLICK HERE!

The Intimacy Feedback Loop

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

When a breach has occurred in relationship, one of the hardest pieces to rebuild is trust.  There has been hurt, maybe lashing out in both directions, recrimination, guilt, and shame.

One basic tool for understanding how trust is rebuilt is what I refer to as the Intimacy feedback loop.

The first step is “Risking Vulnerability”.  This is a hard one.  It means choosing to tell, reveal, or do something that makes you feel vulnerable, risking that the other person will have the power to use it to hurt you (again). The challenge is in not risking unwisely.  If your counterpart has not shown evidence of being willing to work on things or to be vulnerable in their own turn, you might not be ready to engage in this process.  But if both of you are on the same page about building trust and being trust-worthy, then it is time to risk.  Start small, be careful and cautious, but risk being vulnerable about something.

The next step is “Connection and Safety”.  When one person risks becoming vulnerable and shares something sensitive or fearful, the other has two choices: to receive and hold gently, or to reject and misuse the information.  When what is risked is received, heard, and validated, both partners feel closer to each other, and trust begins to grow.  When what is risked is rejected or misused, the emotional distance is increased and trust is destroyed exponentially more.

Risk that results in safe connection (trust) leads to Intimacy.  Intimacy leads to an increased capacity to risk, and so on around the circle.  The building of trust happens incrementally, never all at once.  This is especially true when damage has been done within the relationship.  The one who has been hurt is rightly cautious of trusting the one who has hurt them.  To expect anyone to “get over it”  quickly is unreasonable, no matter what “it” is.

The hard task of the one who had done the harm is to receive and absorb this distrust, and to allow for it to be present, even after much has been amended.  Acknowledging the hurt, behaving in a way contrary to the hurtful behavior, and to remain patient for healing is all a part of remaining trustworthy, and contributes to the rebuilding of trust.  And it will take time.

Trust operates on a fader, not on an “on/off” switch.  Sometimes you’ll trust at 40%, and sometimes at 10%.  It will slide back and forth.  Just because trust is lower today than it was yesterday does not mean it isn’t growing.  It may just mean you’re having a bad day and that the pain is closer to the surface.  It takes a great deal to totally destroy trust, just as total “100%” trust is impossible to achieve (and is unwarranted, given that we are all fallible human beings!).

Try to hold to the long view of this as a growth process; that with all the ups and downs, as long as you are continuing to hold each other gently and honor each others’ risks, trust will continue to grow between you.  Give it the time it needs. Keep on walking the circle.

7 tips for a healthier marriage

by: Andy Gear, PLPC
1. Avoid blaming

In our consumer culture it is tempting to look for ways to change the other person. We often look at the people in our relationships as we would products and want them to perform to our liking (Doherty). However, it is ineffective and destructive to try to change someone else. Instead it is much more effective to initiate change in your own behavior. In most cases changing how you approach the relationship will have a positive effect on the marriage, regardless of your partner’s intention to change. This is a countercultural way of living, but one that will improve relationships immensely if lived consistently.

2. Take time to reflect

Changing the way you act in relationships requires a great deal of self-reflection. We must think about who we truly are and how we want to live. It is vital to see beyond our surface frustrations to the softer emotions that are driving our fears and longings. If we do not reflect, we will see our marriage issues as merely frustrations with the other person’s behavior. In order to communicate with your spouse effectively you must know what is going on inside you.

3. Determine true needs

Reject the consumer mentality that your partner must meet your each and every desire. Spouses cannot meet every one of our needs and that is ok. We can distinguish between our needs and desires. We all have hopes and desires, but it is unfair to establish goals for another person. Determine what you truly need from your spouse, and what are simply desires or qualities that can be met by a friend.

4. Communicate your needs directly

Communicate to your spouse what you truly need in the relationship honestly and directly. Though it may be terrifying, we must have the courage to communicate our honest feelings to our spouse instead of someone else. If we do not communicate what we most long for in the relationship, our partner is unable to respond to our deepest needs.  But if we communicate our deepest feelings we open ourselves up to the possibility of closer intimacy.

5. Respond to each other’s needs

Respond to your partner’s feelings, reassuring them that you are there for them (Johnson). Be emotionally responsive to each other’s deepest fears and needs. It is not about agreeing with the other person’s view but trying to understand where the other person is coming from. Our problems often have more to do with the hurt and the disconnection than about the disagreements. Seeing one’s partner respond empathetically to their deepest needs has a deeply bonding effect. This does not imply that we solve them, but that we show that we understand. Showing your partner that they matter to you helps create a safe and secure relationship where one can be less defensive (Johnson).

6. Clarify your commitment

Knowing that you are both committed to the marriage can help lower the emotional intensity of your conflict. It helps to understand that the frustrations you are pointing out in your partner are not deal breakers. Agree that you do not want divorce to be a part of the conversation (Doherty). With this commitment, you can take the time to improve the marriage at its root, rather than frantically trying to rescue the marriage from the brink. Of course not all couples will be able to tell each other that divorce is not an option, but for those who can, this can reduce tension and improve your ability to work on your marriage.

7. Fight for the relationship

Relationships naturally weaken when they are neglected. Resist the urge to simply fight for your own needs, instead fight for the needs of the relationship (Doherty). Take responsibility for the relationship and be intentional about it.  Work together to look for creative and practical ways to continue to connect in your daily lives. Make it a priority. Staying together even through a difficult marriage (except in extreme cases) is rewarding, both for you and for your entire family. But keeping that close connection requires work, commitment, and making the relationship a priority.  


Start at the Bottom… And Stay There.

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

I work with a lot of couples, and one thing I notice a lot of is Expectations.  I think this is a simple fact of being human.  We place a lot of expectations in the people around us.  The closer they are, the more we expect of them.  Most of the arguments I hear (and honestly, most of the arguments I start myself) begin the same way:  “You always…” or “You never…”.  Loosely translated, what this usually works out to is something like this: “You don’t do what I want/hope/expect you to do.   I have the right to expect that you will do this. My expectations are disappointed.”

Naturally when someone hears a statement like this, the human response is a defensive counterattack.  “Oh Yeah?  Well, YOU always…” and it only goes down hill from there.   A good rule of thumb is to listen for the words “Always” and “Never”.  Often, those words are code for the expectations that we have, and that we feel our partner is not meeting.

It is a natural pattern to look at everything our partner is supposed to be doing and highlight where they are dropping the ball. But what if we turned this pattern on its head?  What if we were able to shift our focus away from the places our partner is disappointing us and look instead at how we can help them be everything they were made to be?  To organize our efforts at encouraging and building them up instead of encouraging them to build us up?

I am not suggesting that we should simply try to do everything our partner tells us to do.  That would be about as much fun as boot camp.  That only feeds the conflict monster.  I am suggesting that we work toward helping them be more emphatically themselves, rather than trying to shape them into who we want them to be.  

This requires listening to and learning about who they are, who they want to be, their hopes and dreams, desires and fears.  It requires starting at the bottom, working to understand what makes them tick and why they do things the way they do rather than trying to convince them that the way they are doing it is wrong. It requires placing yourself in the position of learner rather than expert.  We are asking the question, “How can I help you reach your dreams and goals?” rather than “What have you done for me lately?”

This is not mindless subservience.  Sometimes helping someone be better at being themselves can include challenge. It can include confronting hurtful and destructive patterns. It can include stretching and pushing someone we care about outside their customary limits.  And again, these things must be done in a spirit, not of reshaping them into our own image of what they should be, but of helping them sharpen and explore their own potential.  I am talking about placing yourself at the service of your partner.

There is a lot more to this idea than there is space to explore it here.  Consider this a teaser, food for thought. I am asking you to simply consider what it might be like to “through love, serve one another”.

Guilt or Shame?

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Guilt and shame are powerful feelings.  Many people experience them on a daily basis.  For some, they are feelings to be avoided as “inappropriate” in our current society. For some, they are tools or weapons used consciously or unconsciously to get children or adults to behave the way we want them to. For some, they are  ever-present and smothering.

I distinguish between guilt and shame.  Guilt, when internally experienced and heeded, is a productive emotion that leads to a change in negative behavior patterns. It is the “Godly grief” that 2 Corinthians 7:10 describes as leading to the genuine understanding that I have done wrong and hurt myself and others, and that I need to behave differently. Guilt says, “I have done wrong.”

Shame is a feeling that says, “Something is wrong with me”.  It is a statement describing identity rather than behavior.  It cannot lead to a change in behavior because the problem is “all of me”, as the character Hiccup says in the wonderful movie, “How to Train Your Dragon”.  The language of shame says, “What’s wrong with me?”, “Why can’t I …”, “I’m always/never…”, “I am (a screw up, a goof ball, a fool, fill in the blank…)”.

Shame speaks with the language of identity (“I am…”) rather than the language of deeds (“I did…”). As such, it makes change nearly impossible to conceive, much less execute. If the problem is who I am rather than what I did, there is no hope for change.

Think about the language you use on yourself.  Think about the language you use on others, or on your kids.  If you say things like “What’s the matter with you?!”, or “You are such a …” as you correct your child, you are very likely shaming them rather than reproving them productively.  Rather speak to their deeds: “That was inappropriate to do.”, or “You hurt your sister. That was wrong.”  In this way, you help train the child’s moral compass and help them to learn how to define right and wrong accurately.  You also make the problem a fixable one rather than a permanent one; the problem is outside the individual rather than the individual themselves.

We can do this for ourselves as well.  When you hear, “Agh!  Why can’t I ever get this done?”, or “I don’t know what’s wrong with me that I …”, you are using shame language.  Try shifting from statements of identity to statements of action: “I made a mess of that situation.  I will try to do it differently next time.”, or “I’m sorry I hurt you.”, or  “I see what I did, and I don’t want to do it again.”

Shift your language into language of hope rather than hopelessness.  When you describe genuine wrongdoing, make sure you use the language that describes it as wrong-doing, not wrong-being. It can take work to set the oppressive and impossible weight of shame aside, but it is worth the effort.

Microwave Restoration

Relationships and the Culture of Instant Gratification

by Jonathan Hart, LPC
As I write this, I have leftovers from last night’s dinner warming in the oven.  I am doing this because our microwave blew up a few days ago, and we have yet to replace it.  I am struck by how dependent we have become on the speed and convenience of the microwave.  This is going to take half an hour rather than two minutes.

Even trying to figure out how to do something as simple as warming leftovers feels like rubbing two sticks together to make a fire. I can’t put the plastic container in the oven, so what do I use?  Oh, yeah, that shiny metal paper stuff that we used to use all the time forever ago before microwaves!  It takes more planning and foresight this way as well.  I have to start thinking about making lunch earlier in order to have food ready when I am hungry.

As I stood pacing by the stove, I was struck by how this principle of having it done now invades everything from our kitchens to our relationships.  In life and relationships we want problems to be resolved, and quickly.  I see this frequently when I sit with a couple when there has been a breach of trust between the partners; anything from an exposed lie to an affair.  The offending partner, though they are often very sorry and working hard to rebuild trust, can become impatient when that trust is not rebuilt within a few weeks.  Because they are working hard, they begin to take offense when their mate has “bad days” when the hurt flashes back into their minds and the distrust resurfaces.

Our culture, and I think our human nature in general, has little patience for long-haul relationship maintenance. We have a tendency not to allow for the fact that we are all in process.  We expect that when we communicate to someone that they have hurt us, they should immediately be able to rectify their behavior.  We do not often leave room for the idea that the other person may need time to grow into a new way of being.  When they fail, as most people will when they are attempting to change significantly, we brand them as incapable or unwilling, and keep them at a distance.

We especially need this patience when we are helping our children grow up.  The way they learn how to be patient, responsible people is by seeing and living with patient and responsible adults.  They will of course demonstrate poor behavior.  Most often this is not because they are defiant or rebellious, but rather because they are trying to figure out how to manage in that circumstance.  They need a good model to learn a better way than what they can come up with as a child. And they need to see that good model over and over and over again before they can understand and implement it themselves.

Every relationship takes time and effort in order to maintain and grow it, whether with adults or children.  To get a tiny glimpse of what is required, try unplugging the microwave for a week.