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How to Have Your Best Family Visits

It’s that time of year again, you know, the time of increased contact with relatives. That thought puts a smile on some folks’ faces. To others, it brings a frown or an eye roll. In truth, managing family visits (you to them or them to you), is all about expectations and accepting family members as they are and not who you want them to be.  The first step is to decide how long you want the visit to last and how much time you want to spend with family during the visit. If you have a terrific relationship with relatives, then the sky’s the limit time-wise. Maybe a month wouldn’t be long enough! At the other extreme, when you’re visiting out of obligation, a day may be too much time to spend with your highly dysfunctional tribe. In between are families in which you adore and can’t wait to see some...

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Surround Yourself with Emotionally Healthy People

Too often when clients describe their friends, lovers or mates, I shudder. Not outwardly, of course, but inwardly because I sense the relationship is not beneficial for my client long-term. Am I psychic? Of course not. I simply know from personal and professional experience what makes for healthy associations—and, moreover, what doesn’t. My beliefs were reinforced reading Brad Stulberg’s article on how unconsciously picking up on people’s moods can make us feel better or worse. And it got me thinking about my own history. Most of my friends throughout life have been topnotch, not that they all came from highly functional families. The keepers worked hard on getting whole-self healthier, while I had to leave other friends behind as I got more together.  I read Stulberg’s article after a week of listening to clients complain about relationships. So many of them sought friends or lovers who suffered similar horrors to theirs...

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Equal and Easy Relationships Are the Best

Talking about making new friends, a client and I determined that the best relationships are “equal and easy.” Of course, there are many other qualities you may look for, but these two are essential for any kind of meaningful, ongoing connection. Think of folks you’ve known—not just friends, family, lovers, or co-workers, but everyone you’ve ever had even a brief relationship with. Which people stand out in your mind as easy-going? Those who are comfortable with themselves don’t leave their opinions and differences at home when they’re with others, but often put them aside and tone them down. Wanting to get along with people, they go out of their way to do so without losing their sense of identity or conviction, are respectful even when disagreeing with you, and value you as much as you value them. How about folks you’ve met who are looking for an equal relationship, as in...

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Why We Push Others to Do Things We Don’t Do Ourselves

Clients often tell me about conversations they have with friends, relatives and co-workers in which they encourage them to leave abusive partners, stand up to bosses and bossy colleagues, and say goodbye to people who hurt them. They become angry when they hear someone is being mistreated and are generally spot on about the healthy actions someone needs to take to get out of unhealthy situations. However, these same advice-givers are often in similar situations. They’re mistreated by their partners, let friends take advantage of them, and continue to tolerate behavior from parents or other relatives that belittles and hurts them. Are you one of these people who make waves on behalf of others, but fears rocking your own boat? Why this happens is an excellent question and I don’t know that I have all the answers, but I’ll give you a few. This reaction of doing on behalf of others...

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Are You an Enabler (and Don’t Know It)?

In therapy, I talk with clients about enabling—how they enable others and how others enable them. Many are shocked to discover they’re involved in enabling patterns they weren’t aware of. According to the American Psychological Association, these are “patterns within close relationships that support any harmful or problematic behavior and make it easier for that behavior to continue.” If this describes your actions toward anyone, it’s time to face the music. Understand first that enablers often mean well. They want to help, can’t stand to see someone suffer, and believe people will change given time and support. Almost always, however, those who enable others to continue harmful behavior also are avoiding facing painful feelings of their own. They don’t want to believe their son is addicted to heroin or their sister is cutting herself. They don’t want to hurt Mom and tell her that Dad lost his job last month or...

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Do You Have Enough Emotional Intimacy in Your Life?

Talking about her marriage, a client said her couple’s therapist told her she and her husband lacked emotional intimacy. My client told me how they worked well together in their real estate business and how much fun they had when they went on vacation, with or without the kids. I responded that they seemed to have “work” and “play” intimacy but not the emotional kind the therapist was talking about. She reluctantly agreed. Emotional intimacy is something you never may have thought about or maybe it’s something you crave and long for, but never feel you have with anyone. It’s “a feeling of closeness and connection with someone . . . a sense of being deeply seen, known, and understood. It requires vulnerability, empathy, a high level of trust, and finely-attuned communication skills.” Sadly, many of my clients have never found or enjoyed true emotional intimacy. Some consistently choose friends or...

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What Do You Really Want from Your Parents?

As an adult, what exactly are you looking for from your parents? I don’t ask this question idly, as not a day goes by without at least one client lamenting problems they’re having with Mom or Dad (or both). Occasionally clients know just what they want from them, but much of the time, they’re kind of vague. So, here are some possibilities. You want: Attention: Mom and/or Dad never seem to want to spend quality time with you. She only calls you when she’s driving and he makes dinner plans with you but cancels about half the time because “something’s come up.”Approval: You want them to value what you do and to support your efforts. Say, you’re an adventure-seeker and your widowed mom is a homebody who can’t fathom why you’re dying to see New Zealand. Or you dropped out of business school because you want to be a school teacher,...

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When People Lie to You

Like most therapists, I’ve had many clients come to harm because they believed someone else’s lies over what they knew to be the truth. The term for when someone intentionally tries to invalidate or undermine our beliefs or feelings is gaslighting. This subtle power grab to make us mistrust ourselves is manipulation meant to convince us we don’t or shouldn’t think or feel a certain way and are wrong about our facts. Here’s an example. My client Dawson was planning to take his family to visit his parents in another state. Dawson had a strained relationship with them and hadn’t seen them in a long time, but his children were excited to see their grandparents. Speaking to his mother the day before their journey, she confessed she and his father felt “a little sick,” but she swore they’d tested negative for Covid so it was safe for the visit to proceed....

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How to Act Like An Adult Around Your Parents

Day in and day out I explain to clients that, as adults, they have the ability (and duty to self) to live without their parents’ love and approval. And day in and day out they have difficulty internalizing this truth. Granted that yearning for parental approbation and attention is different than yearning for these things from anyone else. However, adulthood means detaching from believing you need parents emotionally and interacting with them in a way that serves you. For example, my client Bella’s widowed mother constantly wants to spend time with her, ignoring the fact that her daughter is married, works full-time and has a toddler. When Bella declines invitations to get together, her mother either cries or gives her the cold shoulder and won’t speak to her for weeks. Now, please stop and consider what you think and feel about her mom. My thoughts (in no particular order) are as...

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Someone Else’s Anxiety Is Not Your Problem

My client Benito, a successful businessman and only child, wouldn’t stand up to his mom, shrunk to feeling like a little boy around her. Domineering and fretful, her anxiety had skyrocketed after the death of Benito’s father and she lived in terror of something happening to Benito which would leave her alone. He even hid the little dating he did from her because she always told him his dates weren’t good enough for him.  Benito, too, suffered from anxiety. How could he not? His mother tried to make him feel responsible for her happiness and guilt-tripped him at every turn. Fearing to upset her, he cut short business trips and rarely shared his true feelings with her about anything but trivial subjects. He entered therapy when his mother broke her hip and refused home health care, which he offered to pay for, after she left rehab. Another client, Cammy, a seasoned...

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From an Unhealthy to a Healthy Relationship

Having a healthy relationship doesn’t mean that both people are poster children for perfect emotional health. It means that how you respond in the relationship is appropriate and functional. So, the good news is that you often can have a healthy relationship with someone who’s still in the process of getting it together—just like you. In my blog Stages of Relationship Health, I explore how to go from being abused in a relationship to having anger about your mistreatment to leaving the relationship altogether. What I’m blogging about here is a different take on that situation: how to go from being passive about being abused to becoming angry to learning how to detach.  So many of my clients who come from dysfunctional family backgrounds took the mistreatment for far too long because they were dependent on their parents. Although some children do run away from egregious abuse, most remain in the...

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Why We View Parents Differently Than Other People

I had an interesting discussion with my client Alexandria about how she often allows her mother to mistreat her. She’s been changing her thinking about their relationship lately, though, because she’s finally decided that she doesn’t want to be intentionally hurt repeatedly by anyone. Then again, if we felt the same way toward parents as we do toward others, there’d be no need to discuss the issue in therapy or elsewhere. A shift in thinking is natural as we grow older. Remember that our brains only fully form in our late twenties, so our emotional response to parents is based on a brain lacking adequate executive functioning: we don’t understand ourselves, others, or the world because we don’t have the cognitive ability to do so.  By the time we’re teens and making friends, we have a stronger (yet still incomplete) capacity to assess how we’re treated and decide if it’s acceptable....

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Quit Making People Projects

Do you make fixing others your life’s work? Do you find folks with problems—the more the merrier—and feel such immense pressure to make things better for them that they become your “pet project”? While people are teaching English as a second language, refinishing a table or learning to meditate, are you spending your time fixing others? This behavior stems from co-dependence, your need for others to be okay for you to be okay. Learned in childhood, this dysfunctional dynamic makes you ignore your needs and problems and focus instead on fixing troubled and troubling people. Take Sarah-Jean who almost lost her rental apartment because she was treating it like an Air B&B. She was a magnet for people who’d been evicted or kicked out of their living quarters and swore they only needed a bed for a night or two. Never mind that they ran the gamut from substance abusers to...

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When and When Not to Care What People Think

A common discussion I have with clients concerns their worries about what people will think of them. It’s a general attitude they carry around, rather than picking and choosing to care about what certain people think about specific certain things. While caring too much can get folks into trouble, you also don’t want to slide over to the other extreme and not care what anyone thinks about you. The goal is to figure out who’s important and why. We care what people think of us because it’s hard-wired into us. If people don’t think well of us when we are young and we can’t fend for ourselves, we might die. Ditto when we’re old or sick. We need people to think well of us if we’re to survive and thrive. So, when we hear people say, “I don’t care what anyone thinks,” assuming they really mean anyone, there’s something gravely wrong....

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What’s the Difference Between a Friend and a Therapist?

Some people say they don’t need a therapist because they have friends, while others rely heavily on family alone. Relatives may be helpful, but we can’t rely on them to support what’s best for us because they’re often invested in themselves, in us as is, and lack distance and perspective to advise what’s in our best interest.  That’s what a therapist is for. I thought about the friend/therapist divide one day talking with an old friend. The friend in me wanted to be empathic, while the therapist in me knew that the healthiest response to what she presented as a problem was to challenge the slanted picture she was painting. Unfortunately, the therapist in me was first out of the gate until I reined her back in and, instead, switched hats (apologies for mixed metaphors) and simply offered compassion for what she was feeling. This is exactly why therapists can do...

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What Makes for a Great Childhood?

I blog a lot about adverse environments in child-rearing, but what makes for a great childhood is equally as important. This blog is as much for those of you who still blame yourselves for your lack of success or happiness as for those thinking about how to parent future generations. According to “Children Are More Likely to Succeed If They Live in this Type of Environment”, parents can go a long way toward ensuring their progeny’s success. The main ingredient, according to the article, is positive connection, based on these categories: care, support, safety, respect and participation. If you’re thinking about your own childhood, how did things measure up? Did you feel physically and emotionally safe and well cared for? Did you receive adequate and age-appropriate support? Were your opinions and needs respected and did family members treat each other respectfully? Was there a strong sense of belonging in spite of...

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Characteristics of Dysfunctional Families

It’s sad when clients don’t know they’re in or grew up in dysfunctional families. It’s often in therapy or through self-help books that they learn how seriously dysfunctional their families are or have been. Here are some characteristics, though I likely left some out.  Addiction kills relationships—alcohol, drugs (recreational or prescription), shopping, pornography, work, etc. When addiction comes first, it leaves family behind and some of these behaviors can change parents’ personalities for the worse.It’s unhealthy when there’s triangulation in a family which involves one member pulling in another member to discuss an issue that’s really between them and someone else. When Dad tells you to tell Mom to clean the house, he’s avoiding conflict by not telling her directly.Keeping secrets is debilitating to a family because children sense there’s something wrong but are told nothing is. I know a family in which an uncle took his own life, but the...

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How to Say Goodbye to Grievances about Your Parents

Usually, Thanksgiving through New Year’s is the time clients grow most anxious about dealing with their parents and freak out about seeing—or not seeing—them. This year, parental panic popped up right before and after Mother’s Day, perhaps because the COVID pandemic prevented in-the-flesh get togethers until then.  So, wherever you are on the continuum of emotional separation from your parents, here are guidelines for growing yourself into having a mature, healthy relationship with them. Accept that your parents were or are anywhere from mildly to tragically flawed. Many of them suffered through rough to horrendous childhoods which left them ill equipped and unprepared to be wise, caring parents. They can’t give what they didn’t get.You deserved far better parents than you got, even if you had pretty good ones. You were an innocent child who was 100% dependent on people who may have had a hard time taking care of themselves, never mind...

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Power Over or With

We all want to feel powerful to greater or lesser extent and there are different ways of achieving that goal. Some people build their inner resources, grow themselves to the best of their ability, and aim to share power with others. Other people try to dominate whoever they’re with to gain power over them.  Graeme Stuart says that power over “is built on force, coercion, domination and control, and motivates largely through fear . . . on a belief that power is a finite resource that can be held by individuals, and that some people have power and some people do not . . . Power with is shared power that grows out of collaboration and relationships. It is built on respect, mutual support, shared power, solidarity, influence, empowerment and collaborative decision making . . . Rather than domination and control, power with leads to collective action and the ability to...

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Why It’s Hard to Reject Unhealthy People

One recurrent issue with clients is helping them in choosing intimates who are more emotionally evolved than they are so they can grow into better versions of themselves. For example, Jarelle works hard in recovery from alcohol, drug abuse and to overcome a childhood of sexual and emotional abuse. He’s thoughtful, insightful, a college graduate, and wants badly to have a happy life though he feels hindered by PTSD and depression. His major problem is choosing people who wind up hurting him and then feeling victimized by them. Freud called this the repetition compulsion: people try to master past traumas by recreating a painful childhood relationship in the present in order to orchestrate a better outcome—which does not happen. Instead, Jarelle picks people similar to his parents, an act we call self-sabotage.    Part of the problem is that Jarelle’s parents (nearly his entire family) weren’t very kind and caring about...

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