The path forward starts with parents
When I started practicing therapy ten years ago, I knew that I wanted to work with families. I think that desire came from a few places: experiencing the pain of my parents’ divorce, the pressure of portraying a “perfect family” façade, and the disappointment of having that almost-but-not-quite connection with my parents. I thought that if I could play any sort of role in parents and children experiencing something different than I had in my family, then that would be worth it for me.
The path to getting un-stuck may surprise you
Yesterday, I heard about a couple that is thinking of ending their relationship after close to thirty years of doing life together. Thirty years of adventures, kids, jobs, travel, successes and failures. And while we hear stories like this and sort of shake our heads with, “Wow, that’s awful,” how many times have we also felt so stuck that the only way out, is out?
from The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie
"A helpful tool in our recovery, especially in the behavior we call detachment, is learning to identify who owns what. Then we let each person own and possess his or her rightful property.
And When They Might Not
My husband and I spend a lot of time outside in our backyard. For an urban yard, we’ve found a way to grow quite a lot: fruit trees and herbs and tomatoes and pumpkins and leafy greens and squash. I never really imagined that I would enjoy yard work so much, and I always thought that gardeners were exaggerating when they talked about a love of things that grow. But I am constantly drawn back to the soil and the mulch and the seeds, like there’s some source of truth there that I have to uncover.
What I Did + Didn't Think This Would Be About
Several months ago, I decided on this particular blog theme and topic and now that I sit here writing it, I am at an unexpected loss for words.
My plan wasto share all about the damaging effects that other people’s expectations can have upon you, especially if you ingest those as gospel truth. My plan was to offer a few relevant, insightful suggestions about how to shrug off and let go of living according to someone else’s “shoulds” and standards for what life is supposed to be about.
My plan wasn’tto share all about the ways that other people’s expectations still plague me like gnats that buzz around your ears. My plan wasn’t to admit that I am as much in need of those relevant, insightful suggestions as I think others might be.
My plan wasn’tto acknowledge that I doubt myself, my work, my abilities or my importance, on a nearly daily basis. My plan wasn’t to say that I often succumb to believing that how others live and structure their lives must inform my own, and that if I dare do something different, then somehow there’s something wrong with me.
I guess I had my own expectations for myself, in how I would share with you about the triumph of letting go of expectations.
But somehow the honesty might be exactly what we need to let go of what we think we should be doing, and actually live into what we know is genuine, meaningful and important.
In this with you,
And why you might be too
I think the last thing I want to do in this blog is to tell you how to live. I know that this is one of those cardinal rules of being a therapist – don’t give advice. However, when I see something over and over again that is killing relationships and ruining families and sabotaging lives, I think I need to say something.
I believe that mediocrity is one of the most dangerous things in our world today. And here’s why:
1. The very definition of mediocrity says it all: “not very good,” “average,” “uninspired,” “indifferent,” “forgettable.” Mediocrity is the pull to settle for what is good enough – what isn’t bad enough to be a real problem, but what isn’t great and excellent (which often require a lot of hard work and effort).
Mediocre says that the relationship you’re in is “ok” or “tolerable” or “better than being alone.” Mediocre is the family that survives a busy schedule and a jam-packed day, just to wake up and do it all over again. Mediocre is the person who waits around for the good things in life and finds enough distraction to pass the time.
2. Mediocrity doesn’t alert us to do anything different; it lulls us to sleep. When we find ourselves in a crisis or a really difficult place in life, oftentimes that’s when we take action. When we feel fulfilled and inspired and challenged and affirmed, oftentimes that’s when we desire to keep heading in that direction.
But mediocrity is the powerful lullaby that tells us life won’t get any better, can’t get any better, so just settle in for the ride and find a way to get by day to day.
I want something more than that: for myself, my family, my clients, my friends. Want to come along with me?
But does that mean we just give up trying?
I have a horrible confession to make:
I have been watching Hallmark Channel Christmas movies for the last few weeks. I know, I know- they are incredibly predictable, horrifically staged and completely pointless.
But I keep watching. Like they're a train wreck.
I think the holidays create some sort of expectation that our families should be magical, drama-free, and full of fun traditions and laughter. I also think that we all know (to varying degrees) that no family is perfect, regardless of how much we love each other or celebrate together.
And then we stop there. It's almost like saying, "Well, my family isn't anywhere close to a Hallmark movie. So that's that."
Why does the pendulum have to swing from trying to have the perfect family, to giving up any intention or effort to create a healthy family? While we may not expect to have a "perfect" family, I see that too often we resign ourselves to the family life that we have in front of us and allow our families to be pushed and pulled by busyness and culture and societal pressures and demands from others. I often hear that "this is just how life is right now," assuming that one day life will decide it's ready to stop making you run around from one activity to the next, neglecting time with your kids or settling for family relationships that are strained or disconnected.
Once again, we have a choice about the space we create as a family - the values we hold, the way we spend our time, how we spend our money, the ways we interact with one another. It won't ever be perfect, but it certainly deserves (and requires) our choice and our action.
What will you and yours choose this holiday?
With you and for you,
What would happen if I treated my partner the way I want to be treated?
I'm currently sitting at home, waiting for the dishwasher repair technician to show up and fix the magical appliance that cuts down my kitchen work (and why we think that giving "windows of time" makes the waiting easier, I have no idea, but that's a different topic). If I had the tools and the knowledge to fix my own machines, I would do that in a second as opposed to putting myself at the mercy of someone I don't know from the hours of 12-5pm.
As a clinician in private practice, I have often found myself in a very similar place: waiting for that next magic training or webinar or conference or coach, to come to me and "fix" my practice. Sometimes I even have the tools and the knowledge I need, but I set them on the figurative (or even literal) shelf and let my practice go on in a less-than-ideal way.
But that is how our world operates today, especially when we see ads like this one:
I think that the real work of building, growing and sustaining a thriving practice is not how many certificates you can get your hands on, how many hours you see clients or how many referrals you get each year. Quite the opposite, I think the real work is learning about what gets in the way of doing what you know you need to do, and choosing something different.
What keeps you from charging your full fee?
What is difficult about setting limits on how many hours you work each week?
What gets in the way of allowing yourself to be fully present with your clients?
What would you have to give up to ask colleagues for support and consultation?
What do you fear would happen if you named your own insecurities as a clinician?
I believe that we expect more tools and knowledge to save our practices, and then even once we get them, we may think that just by having them, they will somehow engage in a kind of osmosis and magically show up in our practices.
But unless we are aware of why we resist and deny and avoid, and then choose something different, we may be waiting for the dishwasher technician for a long time.
In this with you,
** A great next step could be to join me for the Corner Co-op: A Year in Review!
A: I really do appreciate this question, and I'm sure many other parents can relate to your situation. First, I want to point out how asking this question is a great first step to caring for your children because it shows your heart of love and concern, as well as your attentiveness to your children's needs.
Our reality is such that children do hear and see and witness and learn so much about the world around them - the good, the bad, the scary and the confusing. We do them a disservice to either minimize or amplify the reality of what they experience around them. However, we do need to be very wise and thoughtful in how we respond to their questions. I want to look at some different ways that we can care for and support our children in the midst of our world's tragedies and losses. As you decide how you want to answer your child's questions, here are a few considerations:
Name and validate the emotion. Children feel a wide range of emotions, yet they may not know how to name and express them. In hearing their questions about crises or tragedies, you can help give language to their feelings. "It's really confusing when these things happen and you want to know why." "This feels scary and you want to know that you're safe." "I know, I feel really angry too when awful things happen and people are hurt."
Share what is age-appropriate, not what is easy to say. For younger kids, parents often want to cushion the hard truth of a situation. However, this can lead to greater confusion down the road and it does not model how to have difficult conversations or deal with pain. At the same time, you also want to monitor the amount and kind of information you share with children of different ages. Consider these disclosures for younger children: "There was a [name the tragedy] and some/many/a few people died. A lot of other people were hurt, and so doctors and nurses and police are all trying to help." "A man/woman/group of people did some very bad things- they hurt/killed/robbed/burned/destroyed/etc. and a lot of people are working together to make sure things like this don't happen again."
Let’s continue with our example from the last blog post and take some time to dive a little deeper into this pattern.
To recap: we looked at a couple’s negative pattern and how they get stuck going around and around with the same argument. One partner feels and thinks and then reacts, and the other partner sees that reaction, feels and thinks and reacts, and thus we go another turn on this merry-go-round. Or as my husband calls it, the “crazy-go-round.”
So how do we stop? I want to show you the crux of this pattern and to do so, we have to wade into some vulnerable and possibly uncomfortable territory.
When couples are stuck in this pattern, there are three really significant things happening
I think one of the worst parts about feeling “stuck” in our relationships is when we can’t make sense out of why we’re at a standstill. I hear phrases like, “I just don’t know what to do when she blames me,” or “I am so confused about why he doesn’t understand what I’m saying,” or “I don’t know where we go from here.” In fact, I hear these about every day, and the stuck-ness is agonizing.
From my experience, in order to get un-stuck, we need to understand just how we got into this place anyways. Why does this nasty pattern keep taking over our relationship? Sure, I could give you ten tips on “how to resolve conflict,” but I don’t think that will be sustainable. It’s the difference between giving fish and teaching fishing lessons.
So let’s start unpacking these patterns. To do so, I like to imagine an iceberg and for today, we’re only going to examine the part of the iceberg that is above water. Really, we’re looking at the part of the pattern that we “see” on the outside through words and actions.
Research shows that one of the best predictors of a child’s overall health and well-being, is the relationship between that child’s parents. This is true regardless of whether parents are married, separated, divorced or have some other kind of relationship. I have worked with many children and teens who feel anxious, depressed, angry, traumatized or scared because their parents argue in front of them, tell them to keep secrets, unload emotional burdens onto them or make transitions from one house to the other just plain miserable.
I understand that marriages and romantic relationships can hold a lot of hurt, pain and strife. Your co-parent may have done, said or caused serious damage, or perhaps you made decisions that you regret. To me, it makes perfect sense why parents have such a hard time trusting one another, communicating with each other and making decisions together.
However, the stakes are high here; the ability to co-parent well is for the sake of your child.
As always, I hope the questions from the last blog post were thought-provoking, helpful and an encouraging step toward getting on the same parenting page.
Over the next two weeks, I want to look at why it can be so difficult to feel unified with your co-parent (regardless of whether you are in a romantic relationship with that person or not). There are two parts that make up this struggle: the “parent” side, and the “partner” side. Let’s take a look at the “parent” side today.
In her book Raising Parents, Patricia McKinsey Crittenden writes, “Parents are children’s primary attachment figures and, as such, they function to promote children’s survival and well-being as well as to prepare children to become attachment figures to their own children. As with any primary attachment figure, they are irreplaceable…and more dedicated to their children than are any substitutes” (p. 3).
I believe that 99.99% of parents care deeply and fiercely about protecting, preserving and caring for their children’s well-being. These parents desperately want their children to grow up into mature, responsible, rational and thriving adults. They inherently know the weight of being a parent and the love they hold for their children.
And I also believe that when 99.99% of parents see their children misbehave, act inappropriately or do dangerous things, their care for their children turns into a frantic fear that can cover up our best intentions.
“If my child keeps acting this way, will s/he end up homeless and using drugs?”
“If my child doesn’t learn that being aggressive is wrong, I’m so afraid s/he will turn out to be some horrible person who winds up in jail.”
“If my child hangs out with these people, what will s/he become? How will other people see her/him?”
Thank you so much for asking such an honest and difficult question, and a question that is asked about twice a week in my office. I work with a lot of kids and families; in fact, more than half of my practice is made up of parents and their children. And even though the kids and teens come in with a wide range of struggles, the number one consistent complaint I hear from parents is that they find it nearly impossible to be on the same “parenting page.”
It becomes a nasty cycle: child/teen is having a particular problem and hasn’t learned how to manage in healthy and appropriate ways, so parents have to step in. Parents don’t agree on what/how to step in, so they start arguing more. That conflict exacerbates child/teen’s struggles so that behavior gets worse, which of course means parents have to step in again and have yet another opportunity to fight against one another.
I want to offer some simple, helpful tools to support you as you rebuild your home.
The transition of divorce/separation is monumental, affecting every aspect of life and requiring attention and care to a multitude of details and variables. Custody, visitation schedules, dividing assets, moving, deciding who gets what, sharing the news with family and friends and schools and the random strangers who ask what your family is doing for the holidays or summer break. Any one of those pieces can feel overwhelming and exhausting. With all of the families I’ve supported who are dealing with this transition, I always encourage them to surround themselves with lots of support. We aren’t meant to do this alone.
I hope the questions from the last blog post were helpful in considering how you want your children to hear the news that your relationship is ending/has already ended. I think this is one of the last conversations a parent wants to have with his or her child. However, when children are left to wonder why their parents are moving into separate homes, they can easily become confused, scared, resentful or anxious.
One of the most important tools in discussing divorce with children is a “divorce narrative.” Simply put, this is the story of what happened to your relationship. Children need a way to organize and make sense out of what is happening to their family, and since we as humans are story-telling beings, stories often provide an avenue for understanding complex concepts and ideas.
Here is one example of a divorce narrative (for a heterosexual couple) that could be shared with a younger child:
“Do you remember how Mom and Dad met? [Either child answers or you share a brief version] We met a long time ago and fell in love and decided to get married. And then we had you! That was one of the best parts of us being together. [You may decide to share a few reflections of the day your child was born]
We really, really loved being parents, but we were having a really, really hard time loving each other. We would argue a lot and had a really hard time figuring out how to stop arguing [This is where each partner can take responsibility for certain decisions/behaviors/etc.]
I said some really mean things to Mom/Dad.
And I did some really mean things to Mom/Dad.
We tried to get some help to try and figure out how to stop fighting. But I didn’t want to make things better/we gave up trying to make things better/we decided that being married wasn’t a good idea any more.
So we’ve decided not to be married any more. We’re going to live in separate houses and do things apart now.
BUT [and this part is KEY] we will ALWAYS be your parents. That never stops or changes. Even though Moms and Dads can stop being married, they will NEVER stop being Moms and Dads. We love you so much and know that this is going to be hard to not see Mom and Dad married anymore, but we will always be here for you.”
I’ve worked with quite a few families who are entering (or in the midst of) the process of divorce, and I think this is the first question that parents ask me when we meet. To me, this shows just how much parents care about their kids – they know that a difficult, painful transition is on the horizon and they want to protect their children from any unnecessary hurts or struggles.
However, the reality is this: your family, as you know it, is changing drastically and permanently. And your kids need to meet this new reality.
In essence, you as parents have the challenging task of telling your kids about an upcoming loss that will inevitably affect them, which can feel similar to telling them a loved one was dying or a dear friend was moving or a treasured home was up for sale. The loss is coming, and how we prepare our children is crucial to how they move through this transition.
I want to offer some simple, helpful tools to support you as you rebuild your home.
During my first session with any new client, I always pose this question: “Let’s say we’re at the ‘end’ of our time working together (whenever that end date may be). We look back at our time together in therapy and you say, ‘Wow, that was worth all of the time, money, effort and energy.’ What would we need to have done to make this process worth it?”
I always want to make therapy a worthwhile process for my clients, and I believe that each therapist will have his/her own perspective on how the therapist can help to make therapy as beneficial as possible.
Every month, I want to share a bit of the "blue print" that I use with individuals, couples and families.
One of the more frequent questions I hear from new clients is, “How long do you think therapy will last?” I think this is a perfectly legitimate question: you’re investing a great deal of time, money, energy and effort into this process and (let’s be honest) therapy isn’t meant to last for the rest of your life.
When I respond to this question, I usually say, “Well, that depends; everyone’s process is different.” I know, how cliché. However, that is the most honest, realistic answer I can give. The truth is, we all have different backgrounds, life experiences, desires and defenses, and these will all come into play during your therapy process.
Every month, I want to take some time to respond to a real, honest and authentic question that I have heard in my work with individuals, couples or families. My hope is that reading these questions and responses will give you encouragement for your own situation and reassurance that you are not alone.
Q: I've been in therapy for a long time (or at least what seems like a long time to me). While some things in life feel better, I don't feel quite ready to end therapy. Why does therapy take so long, and how do I make it go faster?