Learning From Royalty

Prince Harry recently shared about the grief he experienced when his mother, Princess Diana, tragically passed away. He participated in a refreshing interview conducted by Bryony Gordon for her podcast, Mad World, in which he confessed, “losing my mum at the age of 12 and, therefore, shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but also my work as well.” His confession was in part to promote the Heads Together campaign, created to fight the stigma associated with mental health. Prince Harry’s primary message is that while he did not seek professional help for anxiety and aggression until he was on the verge of a breakdown, there are millions that could learn from his mistakes and walk through healing much more quickly.

This isn’t the first time public figures have come out regarding their personal challenges with mental health. Lady Gaga has shared about her battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) through an open letter posted on her Born this Way Foundation website, and her declaration gave permission to all her fans to express their struggles with PTSD and/or other mental health issues. When high profile individuals expose their personal challenges with mental health, it normalizes the experience for all who look up to them and encourages those who are suffering in silence to speak up and choose to stop suffering alone.

Why are we afraid to talk about our painful emotions?

We all experience them. We are bombarded by disappointment, fear, hopelessness, doubt, insecurity, and the list goes on and on. But many of us refuse to speak up, largely because this is what has been modeled for us either growing up or in the society around us. This way of coping leads to a false hope that depression; anxiety or grief will erode away over time. We may fear merely talking about our emotions or facing them because they could get out of control. And when they don’t go away, we may resort to self-medicating with food, drugs or relationships. For a moment, we may feel confident that we have our emotions under control, but, once we realize this approach isn’t helping, we might choose to talk to someone about it or to continue to suffer in secret until the situation becomes worse. In reality, the avoidance of emotions can only last so long, and as counselors, we often receive phone calls of desperation, when a person is fed up with their life course and truly believe their sole option is ending it all. Avoidance is merely a temporary fix, and true healing requires a deeper and more intentional approach.

So What Do I Do Now?

Family and friends are not always equipped to help with mental health concerns, although that’s a great first step. Sometimes talking about personal struggles with a trustworthy friend is all we need to feel relief. Other times, professional help is necessary to tackle more debilitating concerns.

We might believe that professional help for mental health is only for severe cases. The truth is, counseling is for anyone experiencing any mental distress, which can include: life transitions (good or bad), loss of a loved one or a job, difficulty making decisions, feeling overall dissatisfied with life or unhappy in a relationship or alone. I’ve had clients express concern that they’re not sure they even need counseling and others who call and ask questions about the counseling process but aren’t yet ready to schedule an appointment. This information gathering process is very healthy, and once they feel ready, they call and schedule their first appointment.

The initial step to get help is always uncomfortable and feels unnatural. Finding a counselor, with whom you can share, your deepest most personal concerns with can be daunting. If you’re not totally sure about what you need, it could help to find someone who could point you in the right direction, like a primary care physician. They usually have referrals available for their patients. Be honest about the symptoms you are experiencing, and if you are having suicidal thoughts, share it with your doctor or call 911 if you fear you’re in danger of hurting yourself. If you need to call or email a counselor to ask questions about counseling before meeting with them in person, do it. Psychotherapists are aware of the fear and hesitation that most clients experience before they make their appointment. If the counselor you meet doesn’t seem like a right fit, that’s okay too. Find someone who works for you.

Prince Harry and Lady Gaga are human just like us, but because of their very public lifestyle, it’s hard to imagine that they have hard days or that they struggle with their mental health. In reality, we all struggle, and now it’s our turn to break the cycle of avoidance in our own lives and choose healthy living.

Communication Styles that Kill Relationships

Recently a friend shared that she noticed a shift in her relationship with a good friend. She expressed concern that their once fulfilling friendship has become draining. She noticed that she feels on guard during their time together and no longer feels comfortable sharing her thoughts and feelings. She hates that the dynamic of the friendship has changed drastically but feels it would be too difficult to address. She decides to avoid her friend for a while until the awkwardness dies down.

How many times have we experienced a disagreement or a misunderstanding with a friend? If you have friends you have known for a while, you know this can often happen. When problems arise, communication is vital to reaching a solution. The ways we use communication reflect our goal in a relationship. Our goal could either be to foster connection or disconnection. Connection is developed through vulnerability. Disconnection is maintained through avoidance of vulnerability.

Deep down we all long for others to accept us, to choose us and to desire our friendship. Memories of rejection or manipulation by others could lead us to create strategies to protect ourselves from future pain. If we grew up in an environment in which others validated our thoughts and feelings or experiences, we are more likely to develop confidence that our view matters and that we are valued as individuals. This confidence allows us to be vulnerable with others and still feel secure in who we are. On the other hand, if we grew up in an environment in which our thoughts and feelings were invalidated or ignored, we are more likely to believe that our view does not matter and that we do not have value as individuals. If we believe that our thoughts and feelings are not important, we probably won’t value the opinions, thoughts, beliefs or feelings of others.

A critical environment creates a sense of fear of judgment and shame for who we are. We don’t feel secure to speak our mind and share what we think and feel. Fear and shame begins to motivate unhealthy communication styles such as: passive communication, aggressive communication and passive aggressive communication.

Passive Communicators keep their real thoughts and feelings to themselves. These communicators are extremely agreeable in an effort to avoid judgment. They can be described as people pleasers. They never allow others to see them upset and they may discount their own desires for the sake of others. They want to matter, but to risk trusting someone else with their thoughts and feelings is so scary that they choose to avoid it all together. It does not take long until this communicator begins to resent the other person for the one sided relationship they have created.

Aggressive Communicators desire to have all the power in a relationship. They maintain control by intimidating the other person and invalidating their thoughts and feelings. Any time they perceive their power is threatened, they become more aggressive. If a disagreement arises, aggressive communicators refuse to gain understanding but instead focus on getting the other person to agree with them.

Passive Aggressive Communicators avoid being vulnerable in relationships but still hold people accountable for any offense they perceive. They may withhold attention, affection, forgiveness or love in order to punish the other person for hurting them. The other person may sense something is wrong but because the passive aggressive communicator refuses to admit any hurt the other person has no opportunity to make amends.

The healthy approach to communication is Assertive Communication. Assertive communicators speak to gain understanding. They value others opinions and are not threatened by different points of view. They don’t tell people what to think, they ask people what they think and genuinely desire to know. A power struggle does not exist in this style of communicating since both individuals are secure in their worth as individuals.

As you read the descriptions of unhealthy communication styles, you may have had a few people come to mind. Maybe you thought about a friend or your parents that are unhealthy communicators. It’s easy to recognize these styles in other people, but I want to challenge you to see if you, intentionally or unintentionally, use one of these styles in your relationships. We cannot change other people but we can absolutely change the way we communicate.  If you notice that you are a passive aggressive communicator and your goal in relationships is to connect, something needs to change. The first step to change is to explore the ways that your communication style keeps you from intimacy in your relationships.

The Trap of Powerlessness

My mind is racing. I can’t focus on anything. I’m exhausted. I can’t handle what I have on my plate right now. I can’t even start or finish anything. My relationships are being affected. I’m anxious about everything. I cry. I’m not myself anymore. I need help.

Maybe you can relate to these thoughts. If you have ever experienced this type of despair, feeling as if your life and emotions are out of your control, you know how powerless it makes you feel. Persistent stress can lead to this sense of powerlessness. All you want to do is avoid the tasks before you because of the fear you will fail or become overwhelmed in the process.

What could you do if you feel powerless?

Powerlessness is a belief that you do not have the authority to act or that you lack power to change. When you have a stressful work environment, family situation or health problem, it’s normal to feel and believe that you do not have the power to act. You may not have control over your work situation, family issues or health problems. That reality can be very overwhelming. That is why the first step towards regaining a sense of power is to accept the things you cannot control and the negative feelings that come with that reality.

Easier said than done. To feel powerless or out of control can be very difficult to accept. But start there and do not allow your thoughts to lead you to shame. When you recognize the things you cannot control, you may feel a sense of shame because of the expectation that you “should” be able to handle everything that comes your way. A person with a perfectionistic view of themselves and the world may struggle with this step. But allow yourself to sit with the thought that there are things you cannot control and refrain from any attempt to get away from it. Mindfulness meditation is a great practice to help get into this mindset (refer to my previous post, The Beauty of Mindfulness). Observe the thoughts that arise and write them down. This step can be very powerful if you have never acknowledged your limitations.

The next step is to observe the feeling of powerlessness as a feeling that you are experiencing. Powerlessness is not who you are, rather it’s how you feel. When you view your feelings as something you are experiencing, you are able to defuse from that emotion. But if you are fused to powerlessness, you will see your life from that perspective. This fusing can lead to lower confidence in your ability to cope with stressors you may face in the future. This step helps you answer the question: how true is your powerlessness? Are you really devoid of any power to act? Allow the reality of your limitations to fuel you to be proactive with what you can control – yourself!

Start by assessing what is important in your life. What have you avoided that is actually important to you? What do you value most? Family? Spirituality? Health? Career? Relationships?

Now explore how you can live out these values to feel more like yourself again. Make small goals and follow the SMART goals model. Specific-Measurable-Attainable-Realistic-Time bound. Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting vague or unrealistic goals. How would you know you accomplished the goal? Examples of SMART goals are:

  • Call a friend to get coffee this week.
  • Go to church.
  • Pray for 5 minutes.
  • Make a list of things you’re grateful for.
  • Sit in silence for 5 minutes.
  • Practice Mindfulness for 5 minutes.
  • Read one chapter of an enjoyable book.
  • Disconnect from your phone for 1 hour.
  • Go to the doctor.
  • Go for a 30-minute walk once a week.

Try to accomplish one item from your goal list each week. As you live out your values, you will feel like you regained the power you believed you lost. If you can’t even get out of bed to begin regaining your strength and power, then seek support from friends or family. Pick up the phone and ask for help or schedule an appointment with a therapist. Don’t dwell on the things that are out of your control. The way to get out of a powerless mindset is to make small, healthy choices towards a healthier more fulfilling life, despite your circumstances.

The Beauty of Mindfulness

What do you think about when you hear the word mindfulness? Not losing your mind, being quiet, being attuned to social cues, or staying in the present?

Mindfulness as defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is the “quality or state of being conscious or aware of something; or the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis”.

Why would someone exercise this practice at all?

In a person’s average day, thoughts and feelings that surface are appraised as either positive or negative. The thoughts and feelings appraised as negative typically are suppressed or avoided, which affirms them as powerful. This affirmation helps the thoughts and feelings develop into a disruptive part of a person’s framework. In the wake, lots of energy is spent on avoiding those negative thoughts and feelings at any cost. That can mean staying home, not engaging in enjoyable activities, or even self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.

This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness does not just help you relax, although that ultimately happens, but it also helps you acknowledge and accept the real time experiences in your mind and body without judging yourself for it. The hope is that as you acknowledge, accept and stop struggling to control every sensation, thought, or feeling, you realize its only a process that will pass on like a leaf floating on a stream. With enough practice, individuals can gain self-compassion and break the cycle of avoiding and self-medicating, which only maintains what could ultimately become anxiety or depression.

If you are calm, mindfulness can be relatively straightforward. And while it can be learned in many different ways, breathing exercises or eating exercises are probably the most common way to start. These exercises help slow down the restless mind and create an opportunity to focus on the simple act itself. During a breathing exercise, for example, individuals may be encouraged to be conscious of how the chest rises at inhale and falls at exhale, the temperature of the breath, the cold air as you breath in, the hot air as you breath out, the feeling of your arms hanging on your shoulders, or your bottom on a chair or on the floor. If thoughts arise during a breathing exercise, individuals are encouraged to look at them as non-judgmental observers, not trying to get rid of them or classifying them as good or bad, but just letting them pass on.

Mindfulness may not be as easy when you are not in a peaceful state of mind. Whether you are dealing with an overall feeling of anxiety, a specific trigger, or a fear of losing control, for example, mindfulness can require a great amount of discipline. And in the same vein, if negative thoughts arise during the actual mindfulness exercise, it’s easy for the person to become defensive and lose the intent of the exercise. However, it is these times that are arguably the most important to stay dedicated and re-center on the exercise itself and be a non-judgmental observer.

 

Blue Vs. Pink

I recently attended the Love & Respect conference by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs, who has his doctorate in Child and Family Ecology. His book, Love & Respect, introduces the idea that in a marriage, women are motivated by love and men are motivated by respect. This idea, he explained during the conference, is based on the biblical command in Ephesians 5:33 that says “However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (ESV).” Dr. Eggerichs explains that by disobeying this command we activate the Crazy Cycle in our marriage: “without love she reacts without respect and without respect he reacts without love”. He elaborated that although we all need love and respect in our relationships, the primary need for men is respect and for women is love. He presented differences in perspectives using colors: men see the relationship through blue lenses and women through pink lenses…”neither is wrong, just different” he says.

It’s a simple enough idea, and assuming you agree with it and you and your partner are on the same page, the question arises, how do we practically apply it? Shouldn’t he start loving me more and then I’ll respond with respect? After reading some reviews on the book, I realized that a few men and women were offended by his simplistic explanation of what makes marriage work. Their interpretation of his idea became, “I’m supposed to respect my husband even though he doesn’t deserve it so then I can get the love I’m yearning for?” or “I’m supposed to love my wife even though she doesn’t deserve it to get the respect I’m yearning for?” Dr. Eggerichs was very strategic during the conference addressing the possible skeptics in the audience, wondering how this could be applied to their marriage. He explained that it takes one mature person to step up and break the crazy cycle. Mature people understand that they are in control of their reactions and responses to others. They can choose to be kind, loving and respectful. I could already imagine the skeptics challenging that statement with, “but he or she makes me be unloving or disrespectful!” According to Dr. Eggerichs, that would be a response coming from an immature person. To be honest, I understand the skeptics. It’s nice to read an idea on paper about how fulfilling our roles in marriage will create this Energizing Cycle described by Dr. Eggerichs as “His Love motivates Her Respect,” but reality is much more complex. Individuals who lack boundaries or present with maladaptive ways of relating to others (in a dysfunctional or abusive marriage, for example) may need to address other primary issues before venturing into this love and respect journey. It’s important to be wise and to know when enough is enough. Clearly, Dr. Eggerichs is not encouraging a woman being abused to respect her husband in the midst of it and to merely be a doormat for more abuse. His strategies should be applied once the abusive or maladaptive behaviors has been dealt with.

For those couples who are ready to apply his methods, the obstacles that keep this type of intervention from working could be a past hurt that hasn’t been healed, trust that has been broken, a heart that is too tired to try again or even hope for change. It takes faith to decide to expose oneself and show love and respect to the other person without knowing what will result. It also requires a forgiving heart to give someone something they haven’t earned or deserve. Throughout the conference I felt like a pendulum, agreeing on one end and disagreeing on another. It was as if the worldview and the Godly view were at war within me.  Wanting to believe that God’s plan for marriage is a perfect one but knowing that even in this perfect plan there are challenges. Is it all worth it? I truly believe that God has placed our spouses in our lives to re-create or redeem us into the versions of ourselves that God intended…in other words, to become more like Christ.

It’s very difficult to address all marriages because they are all different and complex. We can’t assign the same formula to every marriage and expect the same result. There are couples that are ready to start trying something new to better their marriages, and there are those who have already given up hope. Are you struggling but still wanting to work things out, or are you so wounded that you have no energy to even consider things could get better? Although reading books on marriage can be extremely helpful, it can be even more beneficial to have a counselor look into your relationship and facilitate a healthy dialogue to help begin the healing process in both of you. Once healing comes, you both will be strengthened and encouraged to show one another the forgiveness, love and respect that marriage was designed to display.

Am I Okay?

Am I okay? Is this feeling normal? Am I just too sensitive? Am I weak? What’s wrong with me? These questions are very common in my counseling sessions. Men and women, equally, ask if their feelings are reasonable considering their circumstances. How many of you have felt that way? Attempting to replay a scenario with a friend, describing word for word what was said and done to see if your friend reacts the same way. It is the best feeling in the world when a friend validates your story, subsequently confirming that you’re not overreacting.

But what about those circumstances with which you feel no one else could possibly relate:

A difficult marriage, for example, no matter how descriptive you are about a common scenario in your marriage, they don’t seem to get why you are struggling with your spouse and why it’s hurting you so much.

You may be battling with social anxiety, it intensifies when you’re out with friends and they don’t understand why you get so anxious.

Grief after losing a loved one is hard to talk about, those who knew him/her may understand, but it’s been months, you should feel better by now, but you don’t. Is something wrong?

A broken heart after a breakup, your friends seem tired of consoling you, it has been a couple of months now and you still don’t feel like yourself again.

Parenting can be very challenging, but all the other parents around the neighborhood seem to have it all together. This may be your first child, and you don’t really have a way of gauging whether this is harder than it should be.

Should be?

Who designates how you should feel about any given situation? You might encourage yourself to push through a tough new job, or tough first year of marriage, or that pit of anxiety in your stomach that doesn’t go away, or the grief of losing a loved one. But when is it too much to handle on your own? When is it time to seek help? And what if the difficulty in your life is external, meaning its not coming from you? What if the stress is coming from caring for a family member facing an addiction, terminal illness or mental illness?

Research has shown that consistent stress, depression or anxiety can lead to physical ailments such as back pain, headaches and even gastrointestinal issues. Your immune system can be compromised if stress is not dealt with properly. Is this catastrophizing? Not at all, the body and mind is connected, the emotional pain you feel has the potential to affect your health.

What if you’re all about pushing through, not letting things get to you? You’re tough! You may call it suffering well, what does that mean exactly? Suffering well is important, since disappointment or loss can be experienced in almost every area of life. The sweetest things in life require some suffering through sacrifice and hard work. But there is a difference between suffering well and denying your suffering. Suffering well requires acknowledging the feelings and struggle. It requires vulnerability. Inviting someone into your life to say “sounds like you need to take a break,” or “let me help you with that”. Suffering well does not mean ignoring the feelings of disappointment and pain. Ephesians 4:26 says “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” This biblical verse mentions a feeling that most people would describe as unhealthy. Most would say, it’s not good for you to be angry, but the Bible says, “Be angry and do not sin.” You are allowed to feel (fill in the blank with an emotion). But you must do something with that emotion. Suppressing that emotion is not the answer.

Once you are vulnerable, the next step is to learn healthy coping skills. Healthy coping does not make the suffering go away, but it helps you get stronger, emotionally and physically to see that difficult situation with new eyes. It helps you stay grounded in the truth that you will get through that difficulty. Healthy coping may look like counseling, exercising, getting a massage, or all of the above. De-stressing yourself with either one of these healthy coping options helps your mind and body relax so you can think logically about your circumstances and make wise decisions.

Why don’t we give ourselves a break? Why do we need to be validated by others to then admit, “I’m struggling”? Life transitions like marriage, a new job, becoming a parent, losing a loved one, losing a job, a break up, family issues, the list goes on and on, all of these situations can be difficult. The only difference is how you face them.

I’ve wondered why it is so easy for us to pay as much as $50-$200 to get our car checked for that weird sound it keeps making, but we don’t put that much significance on the pain within that won’t go away. The condition of our heart, body and soul is so important. How could we be our best selves to everyone around us if we’re not doing well?

Galatians 6:7-9 says:

“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. “

Don’t give up. Take care of yourself. You’re worth it!