Honoring Parents

At this time of year, we celebrate within 1 month of each other the roles of two family members pivotal to our entire society’s functioning; mom and dad. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are days devoted to celebrating how these individuals in our lives influence us and support us. Unfortunately, as is the case with any family relationship, having such a myopic view of how mothers and fathers influence us eliminates all of the other types of feelings we may hold on holidays such as these. Influences on how we function as children and as adults vary dramatically from both genetic and environmental triggers, but one thing is for certain – we all owe a lot to who we are based on our parents.

There continues to be more and more research on how this is exactly so. This page shows how influential fathers can be, even long before they actually interact with their children. It describes how stressors affecting Dad dating back to his own adolescence and adulthood can influence stress reaction from his children during the process of conception. It made me consider something pretty amazing – we can carry the genetic keys to managing stress from our entire ancestry. As these influences are passed down from one generation to the next, it certainly carries with it how transgenerational stress can be apparent in mental health of each generation. But moreso, I wondered if the positive traits are passed down as well. If your father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and so on were able to build healthy modalities of managing stress in their lives, does that give you a leg up on others when faced with the same thing? If that’s the case, our future generations have a tremendous advantage.

The role of therapy in our culture is very different from how it was perceived only a generation ago. Mental health has long been a taboo topic, and for a great portion of human history those with mental health issues used to be removed from society and tortured in various ways, depending on the culture. However, today it is viewed in a different lens, where speaking to someone about developing healthy ways of coping with stress does not carry with it the same stigma it once did. And so, our roles as parents today can influence the future in many more ways given this article. We can help to shape the future with positive ways of managing all types of stressors.

I sincerely doubt that one celebratory days such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, there can be a better way of honoring and respecting all of the generations which preceded us by taking all of their genetic contributions and using the tools which today’s world offers to us to expand and improve upon them. So thank you, mothers and fathers of decades and centuries gone by, mothers and fathers of today, and the mothers and fathers of tomorrow. You help to shape our world in more ways than you know, and deserve every bit of celebratory acknowledgment we can muster.

Role Definition

Who runs your family? Often there are many pre-conceived notions of what roles everyone plays. There are also many cultural definitions on who “should” play each role, including for men, women, children, and grandparents as well. In today’s society, these roles get blurred more than ever, and often we find ourselves fighting for leadership within the family or support from others, without being able to define who, what, and how these behaviors should be shown. Instead, we fight over them, creating a dysfunctional interaction that becomes the deciding factor in how our families operate.

So, who gets what role? Which arrangement is best? Well, to answer that question generally depends on the family. It depends on personality types and expectations from all of those involved. Should a father “rule his roost”, or should the mother “run the house”, as in traditional cultural expectations. What happens when both parents work, and the children become “latch-key” kids? Answers to these types of issues can best be discussed with your therapist, but some rules do tend to cross all family systems.

  • Let kids be kids. This is not to say that children should not have responsibilities to the other members of the household, but having a child be parentified and accepting responsibilities beyond their age or ability level can lead to resentment and acting out behavior. Often, these can be viewed as pleas to re-arrange the family structure, especially as children proceed from young childhood to pre-teen and teenage years. These roles can be fluid as the child ages and amasses more responsibilities, but must also address the overall hierarchy within the family.
  • Parents on top. Regardless if Mom or Dad occupies the leadership role, a lot of dysfunction originates when others perform this duty. Major decisions for family plans, discipline and reward for children and the organizing factor of family meetings must rely on this subgroup to lead others. For some parents, this may not be a comfortable position, and may need to seek guidance from outside the family system on effective ways of being a leader, and managing family dynamics.
  • Divorces: Nothing can wreak more havoc on family dynamics than separation of a couple, which is a reality many (according to recent statistics, most) families must face. How decisions are made on where to move, financial contributions, and parenting styles are still a factor post split-up, and acrimonious feelings and hatred only compound the problem, especially if children are placed in the middle as a go-between. Just because you’ve split up as a couple does not mean parenting duties do not still hold true.
  • Support Systems: Just like on a sports team, it is not the stars on the team that determine champions – it is the role of the supporting cast in filling in a role that can still hold value while not dominating the performance. Examples of these roles in families can include any aspect of a support system: extended family members, friends, step-parents, community members, clergy and therapists are all examples of individuals who can mean a great deal to successful family relationships while not overstepping their roles and allow the family to capitalize on their abilities and their roles in healthy and productive ways.

Listening Skillz

“You never understand what the hell I’m actually yelling at you for!” This was the opening statement a recent wife had in our couple session, moments after sitting down in my office. Each person sat on opposite sides of my wrap-around couch, creating a physical distance that mirrored the frustration and anger apparent in their relationship. She clearly had been waiting a week to say these very words, and effectively created the dialogue of the session before anyone (including myself) had a chance to intervene.

Which of course got me thinking and reflecting; isn’t listening the whole point of therapy? I know therapists pay attention to the value of listening a lot. Let me re-iterate: A LOT. A great blog I check out occasionally talks about how the therapist-client relationship is impacted so incredibly by the therapist’s skill to accurately listen to what clients are talking about without any preconceived notions.

However, doesn’t this really reflect what goes on in the relationships back home? Listening is not innate – it is a specific skill. One that typically does not get taught, at least not formally. I recall many things from school, but my classwork seemed rather devoid of “English-language arts, followed by some math, some practice doing listening homework, and finally that big science project.” I have not made a working volcano since, but I do practice listening daily, ironically enough. Still, I consider myself barely above a novice at actually setting my thoughts aside and fully, completely, listening to someone else. Not hearing what they say, but actually LISTENING.

Have you tried doing this with your partner? Ever? This is not meant sarcastically, I mean deeply, intentionally, listening to them. No judgments, no interpretations, and possibly no feedback even. Just listening to them. I don’t mean for content. “How was your day” can be an opening question to the trivial or to the in-depth. When a therapist asks this question in session, we usually are listening intently for an answer, but not one that is verbally stated. Possible responses may include “oh, everything is fine” or “same old, same old”. Real responses include the nonverbal: tensing of muscles, blinking, increased heart rate, and other signatures that are part of our internal biological system that indicates we are in a “fight or flight mode”. Then, as much as we may be hearing “everything is fine”, we can be listening to “everything is NOT FINE”. Some of these types of listening skills may help when your spouse sits down on the couch and says “You never understand what the hell I’m yelling at you for!”, and you actually pay attention to what the hell they’re talking about…


March Madness

As much of the sports world revolves around “March Madness”, or the collegiate NCAA tournament for men’s and women’s basketball, I consider the far more pervasive march madness that many of us face daily. We try to get through the grind of the winter, only to look for brighter horizons in the upcoming months of spring and summer. We hope that with sunnier weather comes sunnier attitudes and a fresh, new approach can come from some of the harsher interactions we’ve shared.

However, what happens when the spring of our lives continues on like a lion rather than a lamb? What happens if in the tournament of our lives, we are not exactly a 1 or 2 seed, but rather a 16-seed? Everyone anticipates our failure and expresses at least a covert expectation that we may not prevail in our goals. This can be one of the truly best lessons learned from the sports arena, and applied to our lives. It becomes the magic and enthralling nature of this tournament to watch, view, and become emotionally invested in upsets.

By upset, I mean those teams which are anticipated to fail, but do not. They refuse. They gather all of the courage and resiliency that they can muster, and despite all odds stacked against them, they unite together as one. Similar analogies can be seen in archetypes throughout human history, ranging from myths and legends, biblical verse, and stories prevailing the value of David vs. Goliath, and an ultimate rooting for the underdog.

Perhaps it has been my work with those struggling with addiction who have shown me the truly awesome nature of resiliency. They are a population who suffer from a stigma that they are the dregs of society, are worthless, lying, cheating individuals who threaten the safety and happiness of others. All due to a choice to use substances, categorically choosing them above all other aspects of life including family, friends, work, and love. And despite the fallacies involved of ‘choosing’ this type of life, many do indeed suffer great hardships including homelessness and retribution from loved ones. But it is those who persist that continue to amaze and inspire me. Those who acknowledge that they must lift themselves up from what so often is considered to be “hitting bottom”, and rise up from the ashes to success. They are able to decide not to let this stigma deter them, and it is a lesson I feel we may all benefit from.

No matter who, what, when, where or why someone is telling you that you deserve misery, you are not obliged to listen. You deserve better, and you are able to achieve more. It will require hard work, perhaps some sacrifice, and putting everything you have into making your lives a success. And, what’s more, you can do it.

How to Love Competitively

During this time of Valentine’s Day cheer, I reflect on questions that so many marriages suffer from. What if the passion and fire from this Valentine’s Day does not equal the ones of years past? Why do we need one day a year to show that we care and love one another, and ignore every other day? Can I really live with that ratio? These and many more questions offer an excellent opportunity for truly healthy competition to transform a slow decay into loving relationships.

For those couples who are stuck in a pattern of arguments, what would it be like to transform the competition into one centering on love? There are tons of chances to do this in a fun and caring way. Instead of trading commercialized gifts or cards on Valentine’s Day, what would it be like to compete with a loved one on who can show the other more signs of affection for one day? One week? Who can best demonstrate to the other the depths of their initial feelings of why they got together? These questions can completely transform a relationship, and accomplish what they holiday is supposed to stand for – remembering the love of the relationship. The less money spent on chocolates and flowers is merely a bonus. And, the competitive emotional aspect changes an approach to the day as something to look forward to, rather than to be simply endured.

There is a considerable amount of research that indicates that successful marriages continue to incorporate a sense of emotional intensity throughout the life cycles, and that the passion that typically occurs toward the beginning “honeymoon” stages must find a way to be continued and morphed as the relationship changes from dating to marriage. However, most other theories are not able to account for healthy ways to do this in long-lasting relationships. Competition allows for all of the rules and guidelines that exist within a couple to be considered and in fact, employed in new ways. It is not the essence of one person losing and the other winning. Quite the opposite – when both members of a couple show each other love, devotion, and attention to the other’s desires, it is precisely why we couple with another person in monogamous relationships to begin with. It’s to feel special.

Competitive Pacifism

In light of the horrendous tragedy occurring in Newtown, CT and others all around the globe, I got to thinking about how violence seems to be the ever-present reality in today’s culture, and has violated whatever remnants have lasted from the innocent perspective that so many of us have had. That is not to say that innocence can or should be lost. But the notion that many people believe all school buildings across the country should have armed police officers in them at all times is a testament to the role that Fear has in our world.

The new laws proposed on gun ownership and legislation preventing unstable individuals from owning and possessing a weapon is a controversial political issue that I will not address here, though I do believe that therapists have a role within the political sphere and can offer a keen insight. I reflect instead on how the opponents of these laws hold the 2nd Amendment as a justifiable defense. I think how these issues affect us, our families, and our communities. If we live in constant fear, isn’t that what contributes greatly to our competitive nature?

When fear is an emotion that is a basic and ubiquitous as it exists in our society today, it seems a natural human reaction to clump together in smaller units and go into survival mode. People have been doing this from an evolutionary perspective far before there was anything like “terrorism”, and grouping into couples and family systems seems to be what we’re programmed to do. So, what happens next when we shrink away from those in our community, and sink deeper into our fear?

People retain the macro-level emotion, and take the large response to societal fear and apply it to our day-to-day relationships. We fight with one another, sometimes even violently, mimicking that which we fear the most. We feel out of control of our fate and our lives, and attack those whom we believe we feel safe to attack without real reprisal, unlike if we attacked outward into the unknown, those who could attack us without knowledge. So, we live lives of fear and violence, in avoidance of what we’re really concerned about.

I suggest a new approach. Utilize the collective fear in a healthy manner. Use the power of joining together both in safety and support and rather than attack those whom we come in contact with, fight fear with its opposing emotion – compassion. How would our worlds change if we cared deeply for one another, both in small units of couples and families and in societies at large? Can fear even exist in that environment? This is a large task, not easily accomplished. Love your neighbor, love yourself, and even love your enemy. Those who commit these atrocities are clearly disturbed, and likely have been this way for a long time.

Proposing legislation to lock them away may help the overall good, but only after an atrocity has been committed. Instead, if  we offer help, compassion, treatment, and aid to those identified as disturbed as early prevention measures, we fight the notion of fear directly. If you’re sick, we want to help you. That is a way that competition utilizes the overall society as one system, one unit. To fight not between one another, but fight for one another. Fight against a life of fear.

Breaking the Habit

As the season gets colder and time rolls into entering New Year’s, I began to think of the notion of new beginnings, resolutions, and changing how we do things from our past, even starting a new present reality. I am forced consider an important question; How do we change? It is perhaps the most critical issue in therapy, where no matter what issues are presented, an underlying assumption that all therapists make is that whoever enters our office is there primarily to desire a change in how they do things, how they relate to others, or improvements on how they cope with their lives.

So, due to my model of competition, I think how change is done by other competitive systems who have become stuck in old habits. There are a myriad of failing sports teams to look at, where there is discord from top to bottom, a lack of leadership and a failure in established goals. However, my focus is not on these teams; rather, I focus on the teams that have an established record of failure and have managed to turn it around. Coaches refer to this as a change of culture around the team, and a change to a “winning attitude”, whatever that means.

How can we apply this to our own lives, though? How do we change our own culture to that of a winning one, where everyone becomes  oriented around success? Some of these may be difficult questions. It involves looking at the values and beliefs that have helped us to create our lives with one another. This is especially true in couples and families, where two people coming together in a relationship inherently bring their own values and belief systems to the table, and must find a way to consolidate them in a family. This is hard enough to begin with, but what happens when there is a failure to do so from the start? Starting fresh is difficult when there is a backdrop of fighting and a sense of failure, and the process toward improving relationships can be agonizingly slow for many of us.

I suggest a novel approach for these couples. During this time of the new year, I like to consider for myself what I have done that I feel contented that it as improved my life, both in the recent past and long term. If I can think of some things that I don’t wish to pursue for myself, when I speak to my spouse about it, I am much more willing to consider changes that they propose. Sometimes getting the feedback first will trigger issues of defensiveness, rather than an honest look at what works and what does not. However, after self-reflection, I do consult my partner. We’re in this together, and it is not only my beliefs that contribute to our difficulties and successes, but rather both in a relationship. If this is your first time trying to do this and are having a rough time, it may be an optimal situation to enter into counseling, for the aid of a mediator in structuring this kind of conversation in a healthy way.

That said, have a wonderful New Year, with all of the excitement that new beginnings and new potential that go with a brand new future, and a new way of living your lives in 2013 and beyond.

Healthy Competitive Communication

Hello all loyal readers. It has come to my attention that I have not spoken with you in quite a while. The business of the summertime and beginning of the fall has both the energizing quality of refreshmenst and the start of school, along with  the holiday season. And throughout it all, I must confess, that I missed a key ingredient to keeping our ongoing relationship as a bloggist and therapist to my readers – continual posting. In this unique format, posting is our dominant form of communication, and without it, we all remain isolated and bereft of the most primitive aspect of human connection.

Which of course got me thinking – how is communicating related to our competitive drives and instincts? This can mean traditional competitive banter as it appears in most sporting events, or “Smack Talk” as it is called by the players. This is a unique type of communication which is both expected on the field of play, and also a way for competitors to “psyche out” their opponents and psychologically manipulate them into performing poorly. We, of course, do the same thing in families and in our other relationships. We lay down seeds in our relational process to try to gain the upper-hand in dysfunctional relationships, in an effort to perhaps not win in that moment but rather set ourselves up for an advantageous position later on.

Why on earth do we do this? Do we really want our loved ones to fail? Can we succeed only by them failing in their aims or missing out on their own successes? If so, isn’t that just as isolating as a lack of communication in the first place, and perhaps moreso? We co-create with our loved ones a relationship that is more defined by ‘smack talk’ than by cooperative discussion.

Have you ever seen teammates smack talk with each other? If so, note their successes and failures as a team. How do each of the roles crucial on a team handle this type of intra-communication? I find that leaders on teams step in and re-direct negative talk on teams. Coaches limit this talk as well, but not to the extent that it is so forbidden that a reprimand is in order. On the contrary, it indicates a passion, energy, and motivation that is helpful. But only when it is directed outwards, away from teammates, to an opposition.

I think of recent events where in Newtown, CT, an individual went on a shooting spree in a elementary school. By all accounts, this is one of the most atrocious crimes imaginable. There is limited explanation available to make sense of senselessness, but I think that it is a wonderful example of how competitive communication might have been applied earlier. The killer was reported to be suffering from depression, isolation, and anger. All of the similar types of emotive responses listed above. However, by repressing these emotions so that only an extreme violent response was an outlet, continued the typically dysfunctional response. We hurt those we love and ought to care for. Instead of developing a way discuss these issues openly and competitively. We need to join as a human race as a unit, in order for our society to be perceived as winners.


Technology’s influence on Families

With all of the stressors which exist in families today, some of the most interesting ones I hear from clients revolve around generational issues and the role of technology in maintaining healthy family interactions. All too often do we see a family who is used to irregularly gathering together, and frequently if they do so, virtually everyone is encapsulated by some type of gadget which dictates attention, including smartphones, ipads, etc. However, unlike many therapists who view this type of interaction as one which indicates a further slide away from traditional family values, I believe that technology can be a powerful tool to reconnect families and bring them together in a new and different way.

I first started to see this as a therapist when several of my clients commended me on incorporating technology into my practice. I try to operate as paperlessly as possible, and so my notes and scheduler are all digital. Even this post is in fact an ode to technology’s role in my practice, as I believe that whomever reads my posts can hopefully gain insight without necessarily having to come across the country or across the globe to schedule an appointment with me. So, due to my comfort with technology, I was somewhat aghast when I client raised up an issue that their child found my professional facebook page while they were searching with their friends. It raised up a complicated, but intriguing issue. What is the role of social media while connecting with your children? I queried with parents if they had ever asked their children what they were interested in on social media or involved themselves in the process, such as “friending” them on facebook. The parents stated that they hadn’t, afraid of being involved in technology and also perceiving that their children would find that to doing so would violate their privacy.

I think that technology can be a tool to reconnect in ways that were never available prior to the incorporation of computers into modern society. However, I also believe that it can carry some real and weighty risks. Especially for children, it is important for parental involvement in social media. This is not like reading your child’s diary. This is something which every post they make is being carried out at large to the world wide web, and can be discovered by literally millions of others if they have not set up appropriate security. Part of a parent’s job is to help children navigate this complex world, and to safeguard themselves. By friending them on facebook, you can get access to their information and their posts, both to supervise them and also connect with them in a way that they feel comfortable. The bond between a parent and child can oddly grow when the child posts a link to an interest that they parent “likes”, as it can transform that term into one that is merely technological and connect it back into the world of actual connection between people and families.

Morality and Competition

There are few things I hear more while working with couples who are post-separation, and pre-divorce, than opinions of their ex-spouses’ moral qualities. Usually they are not exactly pleasant, and words like “horrible”, “incorrigible” and other phrases inciting images that they somehow managed to be coupled with the spawn of Satan. However, I believe that some of these ideas on the tenets of morality can get skewed by perception of the moment. Given my  theory of competition, I considered how some of these skews can originate in the competitive environment of separation.

I saw this particular video and thought of how morality can be applied within the context of environmental aspects of our relationships. How chimps and other animals can exhibit acts of coordination and resolution to conflict inspires both hope and pragmatic examples of how we as humans can use our competitive instincts to their fullest potential. While the act of competition can be fierce and violent, it is the following events of repairing relationships which animals have learned that to bolster their society for future interactions. Can we learn the same?

What would happen if after every time we fought, we learned to comfort ourselves and our partners, so that the next argument would not be tinged with prior resentments and hatred? Perhaps even learned to coordinate our efforts even when it is not our immediate aims at hand? Some may say that this is a pipe dream. I call it reality. We do that in relationships constantly. All the time. In every moment, of every day, we do exactly this type of reformative work in a relationships to make them worthwhile and hopefully do some damage control at times as well. Remembering how we coordinate with one another both on large, macro-levels of interactions: communities, societies, and nations can remind us that we also coordinate these relationships on much smaller levels: families, couples, and even within ourselves.