relationships

Why Group Therapy Works, Part 3

 by Sam Bearer, PLPC

Group therapy is a great way to help individuals make changes in their lives.  There are several aspects of group work that help make these changes possible. The first two I’ve talked about focus on the client’s investment in the group process. The first is for each group member to choose to be radically vulnerable with the other group members. The second is for each member to foster in himself or herself an outlook of unconditional positive regard in which it is safe to share, feel, learn, and empathize within the group setting.

The next piece focuses more on how the group can invest and intervene in the individual member’s life. Following the individual work of being open, the group now has the opportunity to disrupt radically the emotional foundations underlying each member’s coping behaviors that got him or her into therapy. This is one of the most difficult parts of group work, but as is usually the case with therapy, it is essential for change.

Each member must allow the very personal, negative feelings about himself/herself or others to be shared and eventually challenged by the other group members.

These negative feelings are both bound up in and displayed by each person’s style of relating.  Almost without fail, these negative feelings have been activated within the first few sessions of group work because of conflicting expectations, styles of relating, radical vulnerability of some members but not others, etc.  However, they most likely have not been fully expressed.

This is so difficult for many reasons. The most common roadblock is that the learned responses to emotional stressors, also known as styles of relating or coping patterns, are so ingrained and automatic that slowing the process down into separate phases or component parts can be daunting.

Individuals often identify themselves as inseparable from their comfortable style of relating.

In our next blog, we will conclude this series on why group therapy works.

Why Group Therapy Works: Part 1 

by Sam Bearer, PLPC

There is a lot of research out there evaluating the efficacy of group work to address lots of different issues. The evidence is clear that group work is tremendously effective in helping individuals make positive changes in their lives.  But why?  For the past two years, I have volunteered with a local ministry that runs men’s groups to address sexual addiction and acting out.  I have had the chance to observe and think about what makes these groups work.  This experience has helped me identify several different components that I believe are key to unlocking positive change in our group members’ lives.

The first is choosing to be vulnerable.  Every man that has come to our group has felt ashamed, isolated, and singled out by the experience of feeling trapped in his addiction or by being exposed in it.  The terrible discomfort of this experience may be enough to get him through the door and into therapy, but it doesn’t mean that the therapy will be effective.  The work each person has to do is to risk being totally open about his struggle in therapy.

Within a therapy group context, there is little room to shade the truth or hide parts of it.

One of the easiest and most prevalent ways of avoiding vulnerability is to share only the parts of the struggle that we have shared before, or can be framed as something that we used to struggle with or happened in the past.  So often, these past struggles are also very much present ones, but by placing it in the past, it puts convenient barriers up which it is easy to hide behind.  We have all tried to hide our struggles at one time or another.

At some point in our story, we learned it wasn’t safe to share and be vulnerable because someone close to us would exploit our weakness.

Group therapy is intentionally confronting this emotional reality and seeking to do the opposite.  Again and again, I have seen group members gently confront each other about whether or not individuals are sharing all of the impact of the story or just the safe parts.  When a group member deliberately and consistently chooses not to hide in this or other ways, it becomes possible for the other group members to empathize, connect with, and enter that individual’s experience in the present.  This willing vulnerability is a sign that change is already taking place in the group member as well as opening the door to the possibility of deeper, positive change.

Survival Tips for the Holidays

by Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

Here are a few small tips for changing the ways you engage with your relatives around the holidays. It isn’t easy to change the ways we relate to people we’ve known most or all of our lives, but it is often worth the work. This list is by no means conclusive, but a good place to start.

Take people at their word.

Try to notice how often you are attempting to read between the lines of others’ words or times when you feel expected to know what someone else feels or wants without them actually saying anything. Reading between the lines or finding the hidden meeting is common in family systems that operate more passive aggressively. Taking people at their word forces others to speak up on their own behalf, say what they really mean, and address one another with respect.

Mean your words.

The reverse of taking people at their words is true as well. If you are frequently not saying what you truly mean, then feel upset when others are not doing as you want, odds are you were not meaning your words. Speak directly and kindly, and you can avoid many of the passive-aggressive communication games that conflict avoidant families tend to get bogged down in.

Check your expectations.

Holidays are filled with expectations and typically time with family is also, therefore holidays with family members can be a double whammy. It can become the perfect traffic jam of various expectations.

Know your limits.

Try to realistically assess your limits on various planes prior to making your holiday plans. Are there certain family members you have a lower tolerance for spending time around? Is your social/extroversion threshold depleted more quickly at family gatherings? Are there certain relatives’ houses where you become a worse version of yourself longer you stay? Does being around babies and toddlers bring out the worst in you? Is your alcohol tolerance lowered in family settings? Assessing your limits prior to making your plans can help you make a more informed choice, and perhaps plan action steps toward self-care when you can’t predict that your limits will be tested and or pushed.

Know your triggers.

This one is similar to knowing your limits, in that it can be helpful to do some self-assessment prior to walking into family dynamics that are laden with emotional landmines. Try to think about instances in the past when time spent with family has led to blow-ups, arguments, hurt feelings, or even the silent (or shouted) conclusion that you’ll never go back again. Try to see if there’s a pattern between these various situations. Do you tend to be triggered by your mom’s passive aggressive comments? Do you tend to be triggered by your brother’s constant bragging about his successful career? Do you tend to be triggered by your niece talking all of the toys leaving them for the other cousins? Whatever your triggers, knowing them in advance can help prevent them from being a surprise, or even activated at all.

Make a private game of unavoidable unpleasantries.

Now, this is a little bit nuanced because it needs to be done discreetly and with wisdom, but can be helpful in surviving unavoidable unpleasantries. However, if you and your spouse or sibling share a negative feeling towards a person or behavior, you can make a private game out of how often you have to witness or endure that behavior. For example: does your dad tend to condescendingly correct other peoples grammar? Making bets on how often that will happen during the time that you spend with him. Does your aunt make snide comments under her breath? Rather than fume as you, it can be a survival strategy to find a way to laugh about it. What makes this game nuanced is you certainly don’t want others to find out about it or extend it to the point of being disrespectful.

The Difference between Dangerous and Unsafe

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Whether we are talking about job sites, relationships, or simply walking down the street, we routinely confront the question of safety.  The fact is that we live in a dangerous world, and safety is a real question for all of us.

I have recently struck upon a difference between dangerous and unsafe.  The world is a dangerous place, but it is not always unsafe.  In terms of relationships with other human beings, we are all dangerous to each other: we all have the potential to cause hurt, whether deliberately, by mistake, by ignorance, or by accident.  

What makes a person safe or unsafe is how they handle their dangerousness.  It’s what they do when they have caused hurt that makes the difference.

Driving a car is a dangerous thing in its very nature.  How I handle that responsibility is what makes the difference between being a safe driver and an unsafe (reckless) driver.   The reckless driver des not acknowledge the inherent dangerousness of driving a 2 ton vehicle at 40 miles an hour among dozens of other 2 ton vehicles.  A reckless driver does not consider what the other vehicles might be doing but demands his or her own way, and that everyone else must make way for their vehicle.  People who are reckless in relationship behave similarly, and they act in relationally unsafe ways.

I can get into a wreck whether I am a safe driver or not, but it is more likely and typically more severe when I am reckless.

Let’s talk about relationships.  My responsibility when I speak is ALWAYS to speak the truth and to be respectful. That responsibility never changes and is never removed.   If I speak to you harshly for any reason at all, I owe you an apology, period.  Having said this, I have to acknowledge that there are a lot of reasons I might speak to you harshly.  I might be having a bad day.  I might be in a hurry, or in pain.  You may have done something to offend me.  You might have made a mistake that affected me somehow.  You might have been a jerk toward me and I responded in kind.  In this, I am dangerous: I have a lot of potential to hurt you.  

What makes me safe or unsafe is how I handle that responsibility both before and after I cause hurt.  

I am a safe user of words when I consider the words and tones I am willing to use, when I resist the tendency to speak in anger or harshness.  I can still get into a “wreck” so to speak:  I am still capable of speaking in hurtful ways.  When I am safe, I will do so less often and with less intensity, and I will stop myself sooner.

When I do cross that line, what happens next is important.  If I blame you or say you deserved it, I am creating an unsafe environment.  If I refuse to acknowledge the hurt, I am creating unsafety.  If I tell you you’re too sensitive or that you’re making a big deal out of nothing, I am creating unsafety.   If I say “I’m sorry, but…” I’m actually saying, “This is why I ‘m not sorry,” and I am creating unsafety.

What makes me relationally safe is when I own my responsibility and the fact that I broke my responsibility, and I genuinely apologize for crossing a line.  When I am open and accepting of the fact that I am human and fallible, I am more willing to be called out on misbehavior and better able to resist the defensiveness that naturally arises.  If I can accept my own humanity, I am likely more able to accept your humanity and we can have a human conversation. 

We are always dangerous to each other, but it is never a foregone conclusion that because we are dangerous, we are unsafe.  As we pay attention to the dangerousness of living and interacting with other human beings, take up our responsibility for conducting ourselves appropriately, and own our mistakes and limitations, we engage in “safe driving”.  So… buckle up, it’s dangerous out there.

Seven Desires of Every Heart

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

In their book, The Seven Desires of Every Heart, Mark and Debra Laaser outline the following seven universal desires that every person has – regardless of age, gender, culture, or religious background:  

  • To be heard and understood  

This includes thoughts, feelings, needs, struggles, and opinions.

  • To be affirmed (specific and concrete acknowledgement of someone’s strengths)

This includes specific and concrete acknowledgement of one’s strengths.

  • To be blessed

Not only being affirmed for specific strengths and things we do well, but knowing that we are worthy and loved just for being who you are (not what you do).

  • To be safe

This includes physical, mental, emotional, and sexual safety.  

  • To be touched

We never outgrow the need for non-sexual touch and particularly a lack of confusion between sexual and non-sexual touch.  

  • To be chosen

  • To be included (more of a community aspect than “to be chosen”)

This is more of a community aspect than “to be chosen” above.

When you think about your own life and experience, how have these needs been met or left unfulfilled for you?  Perhaps it would be helpful to read that list again.  Often, when needs are met, we are not even explicitly aware that we had the need because it was inherently satisfied.  However, when our needs are not met, it can be overwhelming and stir within us very strong emotions.  We can become angry with the person not meeting our needs. We can become angry with ourselves for having the need.  Or think there must be something wrong with us for having the need in the first place. Unmet needs, particularly in childhood, can shape us deeply.

If you can identify one or more needs above that have been left unfulfilled in childhood, in a previous stage of life, or currently, I would encourage you to consider – what does it look like to grieve that unmet need?  Perhaps it looks like naming what has been left unfulfilled and allowing yourself space to sit in the sadness of the fact that you, as a human being, have a fundamental need that has not been met.  Can you give yourself permission to do that?

The motivation for considering these unmet needs in your life is not to point a finger of blame for pain you have experienced, but rather to grow in awareness of how your heart and mind have been shaped and how that impacts the way you engage in relationship with yourself and others.  And to consider where there is cause for rejoicing…and where there is a need to grieve.  Doing so ultimately allows us to live whole-heartedly and connect more fully with others.

What Not to Say to Someone Struggling

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Sitting with someone else in their pain can be hard.  We don’t know quite what to say. We want to fix it. Make them happy. Change their perspective so it doesn’t seem as bad. Keep them from wallowing in their pain. Or maybe we just don’t want them to bring us down. Feel their pain. Or for something to be required of us due to their struggle.  

This blog is for myself as much as it is anyone else, because sometimes – when someone else is struggling – we say things without even realizing how hurtful or unhelpful they might be.  In hopes of reducing the number of times this happens for all of us, I offer this list of “what not to say to someone who is struggling”:

  • “Just wait until…”

“You’re struggling with being single?  Just wait until you’re married, then life gets hard…”
“You’re struggling with being a new parent? Just wait until you have three kids…”
“You’re stressed out working part-time?  Just wait until you’re working full-time…”

Just wait until.  It can be hard not to compare our struggles to those of others, can’t it?  When someone else expresses a difficulty and we feel that our current position has more challenges, more pain, more stress, it’s difficult to meet that person where they are and offer empathy.  It is easy to diminish the pain of others when we don’t fully know what it is like being in their shoes.  We are all different. We have different strengths and weaknesses; different personalities that make certain things harder for some than others; different support networks; and we’ve had parents and teachers who have equipped us differently to handle life’s challenges.  If we are farther along in a particular life situation (relationships, parenting, working, etc.), it is easy to forget that the first time at something is often the hardest.  There are lessons you learn along the way that lead and guide for future increased responsibility, depth of relationship, etc.  If we had more supportive, loving, present parents than others, we forget that that makes a profound difference in our ability to handle stressors.

If you find yourself saying “just wait until” …what keeps you from being able to step out of the place of comparison, see the other’s struggle where they are, and offer a response of empathy?

  • “At least…”

“You’re struggling with paying your bills on your current income? At least you have a job…”
“You’re struggling with pain your parents caused you? At least your parents are still alive…”
“You’re struggling with being a parent?  At least you were able to have kids… “

At least. I find myself saying this to a friend when I want to point to what is still good or what didn’t happen that could have made their situation even worse.  At times, this can be helpful. Putting situations in perspective and finding things to be grateful for is not bad.  But when I consider my motivation for saying “at least”, it is often because I am afraid of feeling the other’s pain or “giving them permission” to sit in the pain of what is happening.  When I say “at least”, I am indirectly saying – “you can’t be sad/disappointed/angry/etc. about ____, because it could have been worse.”  Instead of validating their emotion in response to a bad situation and being with them in it, I basically said “you just need to be grateful it wasn’t worse.”  

What keeps you from giving the other space to feel their emotions before pushing them into a place of gratitude?  

  • “It’s only/You’re just…”

“You’re struggling with your husband being deployed? It’s only 3 months…”
“You’re in 10th grade and sad you just broke up with your girlfriend?  It was just a high school relationship….”
“You say you’re struggling with depression?  You’re just sad…”

“It’s only” and “you’re just”.  These are the phrases of minimization.  Of invalidation.  Communicating there is no reason to feel what is being felt.  Or at least to the extent that they may be currently felt.  Thinking that if they only had my perspective, they would see it’s not that big of a deal.  And again, while it can often be helpful to frame our experiences within the context of a bigger picture or in light of gratitude, I ask us to consider our motivation when inviting another to do so.  Does it help us avoid having to acknowledge that what they are going through is hard for them? Do we view our suffering as greater and therefore need to make sure others know that what they’re going through isn’t that big of a deal?  Can we be humble enough to consider how they, unique as they are, might be feeling this pain?

What keeps you from validating another’s pain rather than minimizing what they are experiencing?

If you read the responses above and a specific interaction with a friend or acquaintance came to mind, know that you are not alone.  Feeling another’s pain is uncomfortable. Often scary. And awkward. It requires something of us in that we have to see life from the other’s perspective and feel things on behalf of someone else.  

What keeps you from being able to step out of comparison, give someone space to feel their emotions, or validate their pain?

Shame and Contempt, Part 3: The Flipside

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

In an earlier blog, I explored Shame and Contempt as unhealthy and unproductive mutations of Guilt and Judgment, respectively, and how we live as though we believe them even though they are profoundly untrue.

Here, I would like to discuss the ground that Shame and Contempt grow from.

Self-Righteousness

The most obvious and familiar feeling that engenders shame or contempt is self-righteousness.  We are most often aware of self-righteousness in others, especially when it is directed at us.  It is identifiable by our reactions to it: “How dare you look down your nose at me!?”  “Little Miss (Mr.) Goody-Two-Shoes” (I know I’m dating myself here.)  “What a stuck-up jerk!”  “Think you’re better than everyone else, do you?”

It seems apparent to me that we would regard self-righteousness as a negative character trait or behavior when we see it or experience it from anyone.

However, most of us actually practice this at some point ourselves. We experience self-righteousness in ourselves when we say or think things like, “I would never…” or “How could you…”.  When we shake our heads and “cluck our tongues” to say “Tsk, tsk, for shame.”  When we say, “THAT person deserves to be…” . It is at its core an internal feeling of being better than the other person.

What makes self-righteousness distinct from contempt?  Self-Righteousness is the soil from which Contempt grows and flourishes.

Contempt is the external expression of the fundamental (and often unquestioned) internal belief in our own goodness (self-righteousness).

The trap of it is that we tend to highlight the things we are good at or things that we think make us look good, and exclude the things we are less good at or embarrass us.  When we operate from self-righteousness, we act as though we have the right to determine the worth of another person.

Other-Righteousness

Other-Righteousness is a term that I am pretty sure I made up.  I use it to describe the sensation that others are by nature better than oneself.  It functions in relationships when we “know” that our significant other is smarter, better, wiser, etc.  We put them on a pedestal that says, “You know more about XYZ than I do, so I will always yield to your opinion on this.” Socially, we experience the sensation that everyone who sees us is judging us or pitying us.  We feel that they are worth more than us.

Not only do we have this feeling, we believe it.  Not only are we judged, but we deserve to be judged.   We automatically believe that others have no real compassion when we make a mistake, that they are laughing at us or scorning us, and that we deserve it.  It is the core belief in our defectiveness and shame.  It is a wearisome way to live.

What makes “other-righteousness” distinct from shame?  The answer is the same as to the similar question above:  Other Righteousness is the soil from which our sense of defectiveness grows.

Shame is the external or surface expression of the core (often unquestioned) belief in others’ superiority.

Also similar is the trap.  When we believe in our own worthlessness, we highlight and expect all the screw ups and shortcomings and exclude examples of our genuine goodness.  When we operate from other-righteousness, we live as though everyone around us has the right to condemn us.

My next blog will look at how to counter these formidable foes.

How to Heal the Hurt

Part 1: Why Does It Hurt So Bad?

by Isaac Knopp, PLPC

Relationships can be a major source of pain. The following kind of dialogue is common amongst couples.

Him: My wife is always saying hurtful things that make me feel so small. I just get frustrated and feel like whatever I try to do does not make a difference to her. 

Her: Every time I bring up an issue, he just leaves the conversation or says he does not want to argue anymore. I don’t feel like he understands how much his silence is stressing me out.

As a human being, a counselor, and someone who is married myself, I know how easy it is to experience disconnection. Personally, I resonate with the above couple. Especially when attempts at repairing relationships seemingly end up pushing each other away. 

Is it really a mystery why our emotional connection with our partner goes wrong? Can we not simply name it outright?

When couples come to me talking about their hurt feelings saying, “I don’t know why it hurts so bad, I’m an adult, I should be able to handle it.” I am inclined to take these statements literally, it does hurt! Pain is not entirely a metaphor about other unresolved issues we should grow out of. Pain hurts because having a secure emotional bond is vital to the human mind as bread and water are to the body.

As humans and mammals, with highly sophisticated limbic systems, we need secure emotional bonds with our partner as a part of our built in survival code.

The good news is that we do have a road map for relationships like never before!

Why do I speak about this as a breakthrough revelation? Because it is! In only the last fifteen to twenty years, “science is, at last, beginning to address the core mysteries of human relationships” (Berscheid, 1999, p. 206). We now know that when we are even in the proximity of a loved one, their presence alone acts as a tranquilizer to the nervous system (Schore, 1994). On the flip side, when we feel like our partner is not available or responsive to us, our nervous system receives a shock that can put us in a state of distress. 

Further, we also know that the result of a literal shock is pretty predictable. If I were to stick my finger in an electrical socket, I would receive a shock which would more or less incapacitate me. So, when we are not able to make the vital connection we need in love, often we do not realize we have experienced a shock of another kind that sends us reeling. Usually we react out of our sense of distress. The dialogue mentioned above is very predictable. A man trying to manage his own reaction by withdrawing, and the wife trying to manage her reaction by protesting his withdrawal.

If we truly do have a new understanding of love, how with this help the hurting couple?

Simply put, when a couple understands their emotional bond with their partner they have the tools to work through their distress.

Johnson, Susan M. (2012-02-24). Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection (Basic Principles Into Practice Series) (p. 24, p. 26). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Stress During the Holidays

Stress During the Holidays

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

This is a time of year full of stress. We are quickly approaching Christmas, Hanukkah, and the New Year.  This is a season when we spend a lot of time celebrating both with friends and family.  It can also be a time where we experience increased stress and pressure.  Knowing you are soon going to be spending long hours with your family, how do you prepare?

Below are some tips or ideas to help make the holiday celebrations more manageable and enjoyable.

Exercise: Research shows that exercise can help to increase your positive mood and fight against feelings of anxiety and depression.  Exercise while with family can also provide that needed space for quiet or reflection, smaller group conversations, or stress relief, and it can create a personal “time out” from the stressors you are experiencing.

Change your Intake: Limit certain foods and beverages during the holidays.  “Eating your feelings” may help for a short time, but it won’t change once the sugar has worn off or the alcohol is no longer in your system. Also, change your physical and emotional intake.

  • Caffeine can mirror symptoms of anxiety in our bodies.  If you are already feeling anxious about the holidays cut back a little on your intake or switch to decaf.  Increasing alcohol may seem to help in the moment, but it can later impact your sleep and mood.
  • Change up the environment.  If you start to feel overwhelmed, take a short walk outside (even if it is only to the mailbox or to your car).  Listen to some relaxing music or watch a funny video. Create a break in the day to clear your head and check in with your own emotions. Changing the experience around you can help to recalibrate your mood.

Reality Check:  When you get stuck talking to Aunt Mildred, who is telling you how to live your life, graciously break away from the conversation and connect with someone with a more positive attitude. That connection can be via personal contact, a phone call or even a text.  Use your social network to your advantage! Do an internal check of the facts from your conversation or experience.

When our thoughts become misconstrued or faulty it can lead to more negative emotional experiences and more stress in our relationships.

Prayer/Mindfulness/Meditation: Take a few moments each day during your holiday season for reflection.  During this time, take time to notice and observe.  Use your five senses to experience the season by noticing the decorations, the lights, the sounds, the special foods, the activities, clothing.  Be fully present while wrapping gifts, paying attention to the feel and sounds of the paper.  Push all the thoughts from your mind but the present moment.  Take time to give thanks, rejoice and celebrate the kindness you have experienced.

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.