How to Get Unstuck: Changing Your Mindset

You’ve heard the terms: Negative Nancy. Debbie Downer. And you know the sayings: “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have none at all.” “If it can go wrong, it will.” None of us like being around this person, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that they are indeed this person.

Those used to be my mottos before I went to grad school and learned how, and why, to be more optimistic. A professor of mine taught us how to do “positive thinking,” in which you counter every 1 negative thought with 3 positive ones. It changed my life. I wrote a whole blog on that, if you would like more details about that practice, but here are some other tips I’ve picked up on along the way.

Think about the words you use and how it effects your actions and beliefs. Be aware of when you say “I can’t” do something. If you say that to yourself long enough, you’ll start to believe it. Also be conscious of when you say words like “always” and “never.” I heard this statement today from a transgender client: “People ‘always’ react badly when I come out to them.” I find that hard to believe since I know hundreds of trans people and they’ve had mostly good reactions. Another example is: “My husband ‘never’ takes out the trash.” Realize that what you’re saying is your husband has literally never taken out the trash a single day in his life.

Notice what you’re noticing. I heard about a seminar in which the speaker had everyone look around the room and look for how many brown things they see. Most noticed about 10. Then the audience was asked to close their eyes and make a list of how many red things they had seen. On average, people could only list 1-2 things whereas the speaker had purposely placed 15 red things in the room that were very noticeable.

You get what you’re looking for and you get what you expect. If you expect that your next date is going to suck, you’ll probably make sure that comes true. If you expect that a visit from your in-laws this weekend is going to go differently and everyone will have fun, you’ll feel more motivated to make that happen. The good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful – it’s all there. Your reality is no more than what you expect and notice about it.

I use the example of green traffic lights. No one ever notices them. But the red one, the one that stops us from getting where we need to go, is the one most of us focus on. I used to go through 7 traffic lights on the way to work and I made it a point to count the green ones and, most days, it was 4-5 out of 7. But I was looking for green lights and, sure enough, I found them. Hmmm. Go figure.

Hope this helps!

Trust in Relationships

As a couples’ counselor, trust is a topic that comes up daily in my world. Often, the subject of trust is brought up in response to a betrayal in the current relationship, and sometimes it’s an unresolved issue left over from a previous relationship. Regardless, trusting one’s partner is imperative to a healthy relationship.

When you’re in an intimate relationship with someone, in order for love to grow, trust has to grow as well. The trust that you have in the beginning of a relationship is different from the trust that you have after ten or twenty years. The relationship evolves and grows and so does the trust. In the beginning, trust is a choice: you choose to trust the other person because you want to build something with them. They haven’t done anything to show you that your trust is misplaced. But no one is perfect and it is inevitable that at some point, someone will do something that causes their partner to feel betrayed in some way. Sometimes it’s small betrayals over time, like a partner who often says they are going to do things but doesn’t follow through. Others, it’s one big event, like infidelity, that calls everything you believed to be true about your relationship into question. How can you possibly trust someone who has gone back on their word to such an extent?

Couples come to therapy because the efforts they’ve made to rebuild trust aren’t working, and they need help getting back on track. Zack Brittle, LMHC and Certified Gottman Therapist says that it’s very difficult to establish trust on a conditional basis. The best example of this that I can give you is one that I’ve seen over and over again: there is an affair. The betrayed partner chooses to forgive the other partner, but only on the condition that the partner who cheated makes their phone, email and social networking available to the betrayed partner for monitoring for the foreseeable future. Trust cannot possibly thrive in these circumstances.

The answer to how to rebuild trust is simple: you do it all day every day in every action that promotes connection and understanding in your relationship. According to John Gottman, trust is built in small incremental moments over time. It really boils down to whether or not you believe your partner is there for you, and vice versa. Choosing to give them your attention when it’s clear they need it, acting in the best interest of your partner rather than choosing self-interest, putting their bad day ahead of your own, etc. Gottman calls this “turning toward,” and says that trust is an action, not an idea or belief. We trust our partners because of what they do, not what they say, thus enforcing the idea, “Actions speak louder than words.” When you sacrifice your wants or needs to focus on theirs, you promote trust and they in turn can do the same.

Ascribing Intention: Assumption’s Ugly Cousin

Last month, I discussed the dangers of assumption. This month, I want to take it a step further. Assumption’s ugly cousin is ascribing intention, or taking something someone says and infusing meaning into it based on your perception of what they’re saying instead of what is actually coming out of their mouth. Perception is colored by a lot of things: your mood, the other person’s tone of voice, your personal opinions and views on the subject at hand, and personal insecurities. Any of these things can affect how you hear what someone else says, so when you find yourself assigning a specific negative intention to what someone is saying, the best course of action is to ask, rather than assume. By asking, you’re giving them the opportunity to explain their thought process and clue you in to what’s going on with them, which can help you to understand where their perspective. You’re also preventing unnecessary conflict and negative emotion, which are the natural byproducts of assumption and ascribing intention. In the event that you can’t ask them, then ask yourself this question- why are you automatically going to the worst possible scenario? That indicates that there may be a deeper issue, that your internal radar for other peoples’ intentions towards you is automatically set to “negative,” and you may need to consider where that is coming from and why.

Experts call this behavior “hypervigilance for negativity.” It has very little to do with what is being said, and everything to do with how you’re filtering what is being said. If you are looking for negativity, you’re inevitably going to find it. I am not expecting everyone to go through life ignoring every negative thing they come across, but as an expert on mental health, I’ll tell you this- progress and growth does not come from focusing on negativity. It comes from finding a silver lining whenever possible and reframing what could potentially be seen as negative into the most realistic positive perspective.

Ascribing intention through hypervigilance for negativity is a recipe for complete disaster. People often fall into this when they’re at their worst: if they’re depressed, when they’ve had a bad day, when they aren’t getting what they want from their partner, etc. This occasional behavior can easily develop into a pattern, and it’s a hard one to break because it goes hand in hand with feeling victimized and like the world is out to get you. If you fail to recognize your role and accept responsibility, you get caught up in the idea that you have no control and things just “happen” to you. This is rarely the case. You have more power than you realize. By simply asking instead of assuming and ascribing intention, you are taking control of the situation by admitting that you don’t know everything and allowing the other person to provide you with the information you need to reframe the situation and look at it from a more positive perspective.

Setting Positive Boundaries

It never fails to amaze me how people don’t understand boundaries. It comes up in sessions all the time: an overbearing mother using guilt, a significant other being co-dependent, or a pushy friend who’s involved more than you want them to be. These are just some examples of poor boundaries.

In order to create healthy boundaries, you first have to determine if you do too much for the person in question. When they ask you to do something, you have to ask 3 questions: Would they do it for me? How motivated am I do this? How much does it put me out?

I use this example: A friend asks me to take her to the airport at 5 in the morning on a weekday.

  • Would she do it for me?

Maybe, if there was no such thing as Uber and it were something important like a death in the family.

  • How motivated am I to do this?

Not at all! I’m not a morning person and this time doesn’t fit my schedule.

  • How much will it put me out?

Very much! My work day starts at 11 so this would have me out of bed 6-7 hours earlier than normal. Once I wake up I can’t go back to sleep. So, I would then be tired the rest of the day and that’s not good for me or my clients.

Two out of three “no’s” gives me my answer. This is not something I’m going to be doing for that friend.

Also, we train people how to treat us. I often amaze people when I tell them that I can’t remember the last time someone yelled at me, cursed at me, called me a name, or even raised their voice to me. It’s because I don’t allow it.

Any time I’m interacting with another person it’s coming from a place of love. I’m either trying to help that person or understand them better. I don’t get into “Who’s right?” conversations. If it starts to become that, I simply say, “This is getting heated. We’re just going to have to agree to disagree.” I’ve yet to encounter anyone having an issue with that.

If someone comes at me sideways with a raised voice or a threatening tone, I point that out to them. It is completely possible that the person is not aware. I might say,“You sound like you’re getting upset. What’s wrong?” This gives them an opportunity to manage their tone and/or be aware that’s how they’re coming across.

If the situation continues to escalate, I disengage in it. That doesn’t mean I walk away without an explanation, I let the person know that they are clearly upset and that’s not a good time to have a conversation. And then I give a general time when it can be revisited.

Following these simple rules will help you build better boundaries with the people in your life. Trust me. This will make your life a lot better, easier, and calmer.

Hope this helps!

The Dangers of Assumption

One thing I see come up frequently in counseling is assumption. Often, when people are in relationships with one another, they start to think they know what their partner is going to say before they say it, and will sometimes play an entire conversation out in their heads rather than actually having that conversation with their partner. Even worse, sometimes people build resentment towards others based on the imagined outcome of conversations that never actually happened. I like to compare assumption with the ability to read minds. Can you read minds? No? That’s what I thought.

Once you start assuming that you know how a situation is going to play out before it happens, you’re making two major mistakes: you’re saying that you have the ability to predict the future, and you’re not giving the other person the opportunity to have an actual say in a conversation that affects them. I know that if you’ve been with someone for awhile, especially if it is a conversation that you’ve had more than once, it can be easy to fall into the trap of avoiding that topic because it never goes the way you want it. This is inevitable when you attempt to have the same conversation the same way every time; it makes no sense to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. You have to change your approach, which often means empathizing first with the other person’s position and seeing things from their point of view, or as Dr. John Gottman would call it, “accepting influence.”

Accepting influence is a struggle for many because it forces you to not be defensive. When you’re being defensive, you listen to respond rather than listen to understand. When you accept influence, you open yourself to the idea that your way is not the only way, and that the person you’re speaking with has valid opinions and ideas that you need to take into consideration. Assumption is the ultimate manifestation of defensiveness, because you’re literally being defensive about something that hasn’t even happened yet based purely on the notion that you somehow know what the other person is going to say before they have been given the opportunity to say it.

Consider this: have you ever been in a conversation with someone where you felt as if everything you said was being ignored or discarded? This is an example of what it feels like when someone doesn’t accept your influence. Now imagine being in a relationship with someone like that; it’s a recipe for disaster. It leads to assumption because it means that you’ll eventually stop investing your time and energy into them because you know that they are going to ignore what you say and not take your advice. In order to prevent assumption and facilitate accepting influence, both partners have to be willing to find common ground and compromise instead of expecting that they will always get everything 100% their way.

Managing Disappointment and Anger

This subject has been coming up a lot lately so I figured the universe must be compelling me to write about it. A lot of us feel disappointed or angered by others. We often don’t understand that a lot of the disappointment is not on other people, as much as it’s on ourselves.

Managing expectations of others is paramount. I once had a friend who always cancelled plans at the last minute. At one point, I voiced my issue with her. She flippantly apologized and I realized her behavior was not going to change. I then had a decision of whether or not I wanted to keep her as a friend. I weighed all the factors and determined that she was worth keeping as a friend. I then decided that when I made plans with her, to include other people so that if she cancelled I wouldn’t be missing out on anything.

Another piece is not taking it personally. My friend has poor time management and gets overwhelmed easily. She tries to take it all in and do everything. When it comes down to it, having drinks or going to a movie isn’t a priority. It’s not ABOUT me and it’s not JUST me, she does it with everyone.

Something else interesting that I’ve learned about anger is that when I’m angry with someone and start to dissect why, I realize the person I’m really angry at, is myself. Years ago I had an acquaintance with whom I used to work. One night, long after we no longer worked together, she texted me: “Hey, do you want to go to the clubs tonight?” This was very bizarre to me because I’ve never been a “club” person. We barely knew each other. My response was “I’d love to but I have to work tomorrow”. She then began trying to help me come up with excuses to get out of work the next day.

I found myself getting so angry and at some point I asked myself: Why? She’s lonely. She doesn’t have that many friends. She was just trying to connect with me and wanted to go out and have a good time. Why should I be mad about that?

The truth is I was angry at myself because I wasn’t handling the situation well. What I should have said, from the very beginning, was this: “No thank you. That’s not my cup of tea. But I hope you have fun and let’s get together this weekend for a drink”. I’ve told her no, flat and simple. I didn’t make up excuses or lie. And I gave her an alternative to let her know it wasn’t because I didn’t like her. Problem solved.

When either of these emotions creep up in your life, ask these questions:
1) If the person isn’t going to change the behavior, do you still want them in your life?
2) Is this person doing this to anger or disappoint me?
3) At whom am I really angry?

Hope this helps!

Forgiveness Follow Up

Last year, I wrote a blog about forgiveness. I wrote about how not forgiving is like carrying around a backpack full of all the things for which you had not forgiven. I want to take that a step further- imagine you’re walking down a path. That path is your life. Imagine that every few steps, you pick up a rock and put it in your backpack. You continue to do this until that backpack becomes so heavy that you cannot take another step. That is what not forgiving does to your life- it stops you in your tracks. How can you move forward if you are carrying around all of that negativity? The only way to move forward on that path is to take the rocks out of the backpack and leave them behind.

There are times, though, that forgiveness is more complicated than that. I think forgiveness is most difficult when it is ourselves we are trying to forgive. I often find that people are more forgiving toward others than they are toward themselves. It is possible they have higher expectations for themselves than they do for others, or hold themselves more personally responsible for the outcome of things. Let’s say you’ve had a really horrible fight with a friend, one where you both have said things that you didn’t mean or shouldn’t have said. Maybe you forgive that friend more readily because you know they’ve had a rough day or a difficult time lately, but you don’t grant yourself that same courtesy. In situations like this, you’re empathizing with your friend- a useful and important skill when it comes to forgiveness, but you have to leave room for forgiving yourself, too.

I’ve heard that staying angry is easier than forgiving. This is absolutely true, at least in the short term. Forgiving someone is a much more difficult process than just being angry, but staying angry takes a lot more energy long-term. Anger is a negative emotion: it pulls you down, makes it impossible to see the good in anything, and pushes people away. Forgiveness, while definitely more difficult at first, is actually quite liberating. It frees you from negativity, and lets you drop those rocks out of that backpack to walk around without weight on your shoulders. Forgiveness allows you to distance yourself from negative emotion and things that hold you back. I believe that in order to effectively forgive anyone, including yourself, you have to practice that most difficult of virtues: patience. Forgiveness doesn’t come easily or quickly; you have to have patience. It’s like the metaphor of seeing the forest through the trees. You may be holding on to something that seems big right now, but overall is quite small and eventually rather inconsequential. Don’t hold on to the little things. Perhaps that is the best way to practice forgiveness: start with small things, and work your way up to bigger things. Start with forgiving yourself first to make it easier to forgive others in the future.

Nature vs. Nurture

Being adopted, I’ve spent my whole life wondering what makes us tick. Do we get more from biological parents (nature) or do we adapt our behavior according to who’s around us (nurture)?All I know about my biological mother is that we eachlove cats, enjoy creative writing, suck at math, and are artistic.

She was 15 years old when I was born and had been hospitalized for depression the year prior. When I was inquiring after her at the age of 20, I learned that she had never married nor had children at 35. I believe that her parents were going through a divorce at the time I was born and was told that her father was an alcoholic.

My adoptive parents were in their 40’s and 50’s when I was born and by that point were financially sound and married for over 20 years. I don’t even want to think about how I might have turned out, had I been raised by a 15 year old girl working through depression in lieu of my parents who gave me everything I needed and enough of what I wanted without being spoiled. I was always quite precarious and a bit of a rebel, especially in my younger years.

While I don’t know my biological mother, I imagine we are similar. My adoptive mother will tell you that one of her favorite things about me is that I’ve always marched to the beat of my own drum. I’m pretty sure I get that from my bio mom. Much like her (nature) I’m 40 years old and have never wanted to have kids. Because I’m not religious, being married has never been that important to me; however, most everyone in my adoptive family got married in their 20’s and have at least 2 kids.

Like my biological mother, I began suffering from depression in my early teens (the early 90’s) and myadoptive parents didn’t understand it. It came from the “nature” side and was something neither of them had ever experienced. It’s something I still deal with, but have learned to manage. I hope she has, too.

Like my adoptive parents, there are many things we share in common. My mom and I both love a glass of red wine (or 2) at the end of the day. I keep boxes of Kleenex in every room, despite the fact that I am seldom sick and rarely cry. I love to laugh at everything, especially myself. My dad and I often have moments when we zone out with our thoughts. We don’t really get mad often but, when either of us do, watch out! These similarities lend strongly to the nurture impact on my life.

I’ve not come to any major epiphanies or conclusions, but I am certain that a person’s development stems from both sides, nature and nurture. It would make perfect sense to me; however, that a person tends to mirror what they see growing up. And, as a therapist, I know for a fact that people are extremely affected by their relationships with their parents, but a little mystery is always nice.

Anxiety as a Healthy Response

Anxiety: it’s something everyone deals with at one point or another, whether we all admit it or not. It’s one of the main reasons people seek therapy, and often medication. But what if I told you that anxiety is a completely normal reaction?

Not only is anxiety normal, it’s necessary. Anxiety is our body’s “fight or flight” system kicking into gear. Most anxiety is rooted in fear- fear of the unknown, fear of failure, etc… Without anxiety, we wouldn’t recognize potentially dangerous people or situations. Anxiety can also be a motivator- say you’re anxious about your first day at a new job. That anxiety can help you be more determined to do well and pay attention to what you’re doing.

Obviously, not all anxiety is healthy. If it monopolizes your day because you can’t think about anything else, if you’re losing significant amounts of sleep, if it’s causing stomach or physical reactions, then it can definitely be a bad thing. Those are times when seeking help to control the anxiety, through therapy and sometimes medication, is absolutely warranted and can be quite helpful.

However, I often encounter clients who want help “getting rid” of their anxiety around situations and people that warrant an anxious response. You’re worried about running into an ex-partner at a particular party that you may both be at? That’s a normal response. You’re a bit hypervigilent when walking to your car after getting off of work because it’s dark and you’re in a bad neighborhood? You’re in a new relationship, and you’re unsure of the other person’s feelings and where they stand? All normal. It’s difficult for any therapist to help clients “get rid of” this type of anxiety, because the last thing we want to do is stop you from having a healthy response to what’s going on in your world.

So, how do you tell the difference between “normal” anxiety and anxiety that warrants more concern? If you have a therapist, talk to them about it. If not, then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Am I consistently losing sleep over this?
  2. Where do I feel the anxiety? (stomach, head, jaw, etc.)
  3. Is this interfering with my day-to-day life? (For example, is it affecting your relationship, work, social life?)
  4. If one of my friends told me they were having this problem, what would I say to them?

Losing sleep, physical pain and interference with your daily life are key indicators that there is something more serious. The last question is about determining whether or not this is something you can work through on your own or if you need to ask for help. Asking for help is never wrong and sometimes issues that wouldn’t normally get to us throw us off track because of other things going on in our lives. Regardless of what type of anxiety it is, talking to a therapist can help you work through underlying issues, as well as learn was to self-soothe and lessen anxiety overall.

Who Wears the Pants?

I’ve never really been a “traditional gender roles” person. My father raised my brother and I on his own from the time I was 13. I was taught from a very young age how to run a household, manage a budget and hold a job simultaneously. The 1950’s housewife persona has never appealed to me; I’ve always known that I’m a career woman and the person that I marry will have to accept that I’m never going to be a stay at home mom or actually learn how to iron.

In a society where gender roles are becoming more fluid, people are having to adjust what they may have previously known or believed. Particularly within the LGBTQ community- how can you have “traditional gender roles” when both members of the couple are the same gender? Which begs the question, in a same-sex couple… who wears the pants?

There’s a saying out there that in successful relationships, no one wears the pants. I disagree. As a couples therapist, I believe that in successful relationships, you share the pants. That is to say, there is a healthy balance of power and control; no one person has more than the other, decisions are made jointly and no one feels bombarded or railroaded. One person may make more money than the other, one person may be more of a stay at home parent, but in healthy relationships neither of those things are held over the other person’s head because each person is contributing in their own way. It is normal in any relationship for one person to be better with money and budgeting, or at household chores, or at getting the day to day things done around the house. If one person works more hours or works later, it makes sense that the other one makes dinner most nights or takes on a few extra things around the house. That balance is not difficult to achieve, but it does involve having discussions with your partner about what expectations there are  and what each person is comfortable taking on.

I personally think that same-sex couples have an advantage over heterosexual couples in this regard: they’re already familiar with defying some of the standard hetero-normative stereotypes. It can be difficult to achieve the balance I mentioned earlier in any relationship, but I believe that in same-sex relationships, that balance comes more naturally because there aren’t any expectations set in advance about who does what. As we get further and further away from what used to be “traditional gender roles,” we open ourselves and our families up to a new kind of tradition- one that includes teaching our children that there doesn’t have to be a division between male and female, that gender isn’t necessarily binary, and that they don’t have to exist within a box created by someone else. So share the pants. Talk about the balance in your relationship, look for ways to improve that balance and work every day to maintain it.