Category Archives: Parenting

Love Me Tender

 

Some people believe they’re detestable. In fact, the thought of being worthy of love and accepted–even cherished!–for who they are at the root level seems unfathomable to them. 

That’s not how it’s supposed to be. We’re supposed to be content with ourselves.

So where do low self-opinions come from? Children internalize or see themselves as mirrored in their parents’ eyes. If that reflection is a positive one, then they carry around a positive attitude toward themselves. If that reflection is negative, then they acquire a negative impression of themselves that can last throughout their lives.

Two former clients, Mike and Lori, come to mind.

“My mother hated me,” Mike said in one of our sessions. “It’s oppressive to be hated by your mom. It takes the color out of everything.”

He’s right.

Mike’s mother never came right out and said she hated him. She conveyed it in subtle ways–through looks and in her overall attitude toward him. It wasn’t warm, caring, forgiving and understanding. Not at all. When he got in trouble–even for little things–she came down hard. She also seemed to never want him around. “Go away, don’t bother me,” was one of her favorite expressions.

Mike grew up hating himself and hating his life. No surprise.

Lori was raised under similar conditions. She and her siblings paid dearly–physically and emotionally–if they failed to toe the line.

That early conditioning resulted in anxious perfectionism, and when she would fall short of that unrealistic expectation, she would spiral down into a grimy pit of shame and self-loathing.

Lori would spend days immobilized, unable to socialize and unable to leave her home. It was a pattern spawned in early childhood–one she couldn’t shake until she sought help.

Both Mike and Lori were afflicted with shame.

Shame and guilt go hand in hand, but there’s a fine distinction. Guilt is what we feel when we break the rules, laws or violate parental or societal expectations. With guilt, we feel it’s possible to clean up our mistakes, learn from our misdeeds and move on. But shame is different–mistakes and wrongs are unpardonable.

In John Bradshaw’s book, Bradshaw On: The Family, he writes: “Guilt says I’ve done something wrong; shame says there is something wrong with me. Guilt says I’ve made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not good; shame says I am no good.”

When we’re exposed to a steady diet of humiliating messages, those messages end up defining our being. Our pure sense of self gets lost in the contaminating process we call shaming.

Where’s the line between discipline and shaming? Healthy discipline guides and instructs. Shaming undercuts self-esteem. At an extreme degree it crushes the spirit.

Shaming communicates to children that they’re bad. How words are expressed is as important as the words themselves. For example, it’s possible to say: “You didn’t put the milk away,” but convey an attitude and tone that says, You’re bad!

I remember explaining to another client, Ethan’s father, that his son needed mentoring—not shaming. When 6-year-old Ethan kicked a cat, his father became furious. Among the nasty labels he shot at him was “cruel.” Instead of coming down hard on him, he should have viewed the situation as an opportunity to provide a lesson on kindness.

A non-shaming approach communicates that the action is wrong, not the child. It was appropriate that Ethan learned that it’s wrong to hurt animals. But he also needed his sense of self-worth to remain intact.

Ethan is but a tadpole–he’s just beginning to learn how to function appropriately on planet Earth. So the situation called for patient leadership, conveying: I’m at your side, son, ready to show you the ropes.

After all, it’s tender love that turns tadpoles into contented frogs.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2019

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Planting the Seeds

In passing, I overheard a heart-sinking exchange between a father and son. “Hey, Dad, what’s Grandpa’s phone number?” His father frowned. “What’s the matter with you? You know the number—you call it all the time! Are you a retard?”

If it pained me to bear witness to such harshness, I can only imagine its impact on his son.

I remember how strongly I felt the urge to ask the father how he would like his son to feel about himself in the years to come. Like most fathers, he would undoubtedly convey that he wanted his son to have a positive impression of himself.

I would then ask: Do you think your current treatment of him is planting those seeds?

As parents, whenever we lead, correct, discipline, teach or talk to our children, we need to be asking ourselves: Is my child’s spine bent or a little straighter as a result of this interaction?

Does my child hold his head up high or does it hang low?

A heart-opening exercise for the father would be to take a moment and imagine his boss standing over him making derogatory comments just as he had done to his son. Possibly—hopefully so!—it would activate some healthy soul-searching and trigger some serious renovation work on his part.

How could this scenario have played out differently? How could the father have been a force for self-esteem enhancement versus the opposite?

I visualize the father putting his hand reassuringly on his son’s shoulder, looking warmly into his eyes and saying: You know the number…I know you do.

And after patiently waiting, if his son is still unable to recall the number, his father would respectfully and kindly provide it.

Isn’t this the way we all wish to be treated?

Such treatment can’t help but cultivate healthy plants…everywhere!

 

(c) Salee Reese 2019

 

 

 

 

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Shared Tears Heal

               One day, Heather’s parents discovered a suicide note          among her things.

Terrified and stunned, they sought help. It wasn’t long before their teenage daughter was admitted to a hospital. Looking back on that day, Heather recalls how hard she fought and argued with her parents when they said they were taking her to the hospital. “I soooo didn’t want to go!” she told me emphatically.

But Heather’s resistance didn’t carry any weight. Taking her by the hand, her dad promptly ushered her to the car, and off they went. The journey to the hospital seemed like an eternity for her. Far from being a casual trip, she was plagued with intense emotions, including raw fear. For the most part, the memory of that car ride is a blur. However, she clearly recalls tears streaming down her dad’s face throughout the ride. More than once, he told her, “I hate doing this, sweetie, but I have to.” His anguish was as great as hers.

Interestingly, she felt comforted by his emotions, interpreting them as caring.

Both parents visited Heather every day in the hospital, but the parent who had the greatest impact was her dad. On each visit, both parents told her how important she was to them. But words alone would not have made much of a dent for this girl who was at such a low point. Her dad cried with her on several occasions. That was the magic.

Emotions are the invisible medium by which we feel oh-so-connected with another human being. For those in pain, this simple remedy—connecting at the heart level—vitally assists the healing process.

Unwittingly, Heather’s father rescued his daughter from feeling isolated—from being all alone in her pain. Who among us would not feel cherished in the presence of such heart power?

What Heather received from her dad, she also desperately craved from her mother, Kate. But according to Heather, “My mother is usually matter-of-fact when it comes to my pain and troubles.”

Far from being cold-hearted, Kate has abundant love for all her children, and like most parents, when they hurt, she hurts. It’s just that she has trouble showing it. During the crisis, her own pain was immense, but she kept it all inside. Kate actually believed she was doing the right thing for her daughter. “I really felt that Heather needed for me to be strong . . . not to fall apart and be weak,” she recalled.

But her daughter didn’t need that. I asked Heather: “When you’re hurting, what do you need most from your mom? Do you need for her to be strong?”

Without any hesitation, she replied: “No! I need to see her feelings. Showing feelings isn’t being weak—it’s being close.”

Heather continued by tearfully expressing years of sorrow over her mother being emotionally detached, including this most recent example.

Kate suddenly burst into tears. It pained her that her daughter felt that way. “Heather, I felt I was going to lose you. I was terrified!” she said between sobs.

A wave of relief passed over Heather’s face. It was clear she felt consoled.

I said to Heather: “Your mom’s crying. Do you see her as weak right now?” Looking tenderly at her mom, she said,

“No, I see her as strong! Only strong people allow themselves to feel pain.”

I so savor the fresh and clearly spoken wisdom of young people. I had no more questions. Stepping back, I let mother and daughter embrace uninterrupted for as long as they needed.

There is a clear distinction between crying with our children and leaning on them for emotional support. The latter is just too heavy for them to bear. Feeling responsible for a parent’s well-being is an enormous burden for their young hearts.

But crying with our children doesn’t rock their foundation. In fact, children learn an invaluable lesson when we model the strength of facing and moving through the depths of our emotional pain. Instead of being overwhelmed by the strong current of their own emotions, they feel powerful and capable of dealing with them head-on.

While in the hospital, Heather was diagnosed with depression and prescribed antidepressants. Today, she’s happily married with two children of her own.

Helping in that recovery, I’m sure, were two parents—not just one—who knew how to cry with her.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

© Salee Reese 2019

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Silence Your Inner Bully

Negative self-talk arises from a ruthless internal bully.

“Everything I touch fails. I suck at everything!”

Those words were uttered by 35-year-old Brady who can’t seem to shake a pattern of failed jobs and relationships.

Is it a matter of bad luck? Definitely not. It has to do with how he was programmed.

“In my father’s eyes, I was a loser . . . couldn’t do anything right,” Brady said. He recalls his one goal in life as a boy: “To make my dad proud of me . . . to hear him praise me for a job well done—just once!” But that never happened. “Instead, he kept reminding me of how worthless I was.”

Brady’s no longer a child living at home, but he’s taking over where his father left off. The only difference is that his attacker now hangs out in his head. Call it his inner bully.

Inner bullies don’t just spring out of nowhere. They’re the byproduct of daily exposure to a demeaning or verbally abusive parent.

“Are you really the way your father sees you?” I asked. “Does he really know you?” Brady lowered his head. “I—I couldn’t say that he does.”

I smiled. “Then quit living as if it were true . . . as though he’s right,” I said.  “You’re the authority on you, he’s not.”

I offered the same advice to Ellie, another client raised by a toxic parent—her mother.

Among other things, Ellie wants to start her own business, but she’s paralyzed by a constant barrage of self-belittling thoughts.

I remember her asking: “What’s wrong with me? Why is my mother so nasty to me?” I answered her with a question of my own. “What’s wrong with your mother? Why can’t she see your value?” Ellie couldn’t answer that. She just did a lot of crying instead.

Brady and Ellie can’t control how their parents view them, but they can control what they accept as fact and what they tell themselves.

Unfortunately, that can’t happen with a simple snap of the finger. It requires learning a new habit. The old automatic thinking has to go. I recommended the book You are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. and Rebecca Gladding, M.D.  The book shows readers how to rewire their brain and it offers steps for ending deceptive brain messages.

Inner bullies are fairly common. Why? Because there’s no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect childhood. Like sponges, we absorb any negativity our parents and others dish out. We also absorb the positive, but it takes an abundance of feeling cared for, cherished and valued to override the not-so-good stuff.

We’re not at the mercy of our programming. As children we couldn’t avoid being programmed, but as adults we have the advantage of wisdom. We can out-think our inner bully.

That’s how we silence it. 🙂

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2019

 

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You Really Do Know What’s True

 

Proceeding wisely through life requires a sharply focused awareness of our emotions. Being blind to them handicaps our ability to take effective action in any given situation.

Let’s say, as a small child, you hear a loud noise. Instinctively, you place your hands over your ears. Then you’re told, “It’s not too loud.”

Let’s say you fall down and get hurt and your parents tell you, “You’re not hurt.”

Let’s say you tell your parents you saw two lizards in the backyard and they respond by saying, “No, you didn’t!”

If this happens often enough, you may—understandably—begin to distrust your own experience of reality. The same goes for emotions. If our emotions are continuously discounted instead of being validated, we stop relying on them for useful information. Unfortunately, we learn to rely on how we’ve been programmed to think and feel.

Cheri was raised to doubt her own emotions. Consequently, she second-guesses herself whenever someone treats her disrespectfully. Nate, her 22-year-old son, is no exception. He has been doing it for years.

But Cheri’s waking up. “Enough is enough,” she said in our counseling session. She had reached that point after returning home from a short business trip and discovering that her house had been trashed. Without her knowledge, much less her approval, Nate had thrown a party while she was gone. It really wasn’t out of character for him to ignore his messes. And it wasn’t unusual for him to erupt in a rage when confronted.  He can be cooperative, but only when he wants something, and it’s at those times he pleads for a second chance. Up until now, Cheri has obliged him.

“What can I do?” Cheri asked. “I feel used.”

Merely teaching Cheri better methods for dealing with her adult son would prove futile. That’s because the source of the problem—her major stumbling block—resides in how she dismisses her own feelings.

Like her parents, Cheri tells herself how she should feel and think instead of listening to the wisdom of her emotions and using her better judgment.

Her actual emotional response toward her son’s blatant disrespect is a combination of pain, outrage and disgust. She may love him as a son, but she honestly doesn’t like the person he’s become. According to Cheri, he treats people poorly in all arenas, not just at home. And on several occasions, his troublesome behavior has led to problems with the law and with employers. It distresses her that his sole focus seems to be on self-gratification. Displays of sensitivity toward others or demonstrations of a social conscience are virtually nonexistent.

But Cheri’s criticism of her son—realistic as it may be—immediately activates strong feelings of guilt. She believes she would be mean and selfish if she stopped giving him chances, lending him money, doing his laundry and other such favors.

Ironically, she feels okay about judging herself, but feels wrong about judging her son.

When I pointed that out to Cheri, she said, “I was brought up to believe that it was wrong to judge others.”

I explained that there is a difference between open-eyed clarity and being judgmental. We possess discerning minds. That ability, along with our values and emotions, tells us when someone’s actions are just plain wrong. Emotions alert us to discomfort and repulsion—our mind tells us why. Both provide valuable feedback so we can respond appropriately.

I emphasized to Cheri the importance of listening to her soul’s indigestion.

“It’s telling you something.” I urged her to pay attention to that sick feeling in her gut. “We shouldn’t ignore what we find disturbing,” I said.

“I can’t differentiate between judging and what’s distasteful to my soul,” Cheri said. “In my mind, choosing what’s right for me is equivalent to judging.”

“Where did this idea come from?” I asked.

“I was constantly told as a child that I shouldn’t feel what I feel…that the way I felt was wrong. Any feelings, anger or tears were considered wrong. I wasn’t allowed to say what didn’t work for me. So I don’t feel I have the right to complain or to even expect my son to be different.”

I felt optimistic when Cheri left my office that day because awareness is the first step in re-programming ourselves. Hopefully, she will begin to override her guilt and start validating her emotions. And as a result, she will effectively respond to her son’s disrespectful behaviors.

He just may be in for a bit of a surprise. Hope so.

 

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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Thank You, Daddy

daddy-kiss

Whether you’re a grown-up or a young child, your father probably occupies a special place in your heart. 

Over the years, my clients have shared many thoughts about their fathers with me. One client made me smile with this one: “I remember Sunday mornings listening to records and Dad dancing the polka in stocking feet on the linoleum floor in the family room!”

Can’t you just picture that?

Annette recalls: “I treasure the simple memory of Dad tucking us in bed each night and kissing us goodnight. And he was the one to get us up in the mornings and make us breakfast.” He cooked the evening meal, as well. She was especially touched by how he went out of his way to make their favorite meals.

Chad told me of his father’s endless patience: “Whether Dad was showing me how to throw a ball, helping me with my homework, or teaching me how to drive, he was always patient.  And when I got in trouble, or failed at something, Dad wasn’t the type to blow up. I can still hear him say: ‘Well son, what did you learn?’”

Claire loves that she can go to her dad for reliable advice: “What stands out about my father is how well he listens. I can talk to him about anything and I know I’ll get his undivided attention. I remember one time when I had been offered a new job and was debating whether to keep my present job—which I really liked—or take the new one. So when I shared my dilemma with my dad, he asked me questions about both jobs—what I liked about my present job and how different the new job would be. In essence he was causing me to weigh the pros and cons of each. He didn’t actually tell me what to do, but prodded me to examine all aspects so I could figure it out for myself. It fills me with a sense of security to know I can always turn to my dad and he’ll listen to every word.”

My own father never had much to say, yet somehow his love for his three girls infused the air with an ever-present soft glow. When he did share his thoughts, I could tell he was in the habit of doing some deep thinking when off by himself.

Dad was the playful one. I have precious memories of him playing hide-and-seek with us. He taught us how to swim, how to fish, how to plant a garden, how to dance and how to go after what we yearned to achieve. Like Annette’s father, he did the cooking.  When we came downstairs in the morning, a smiling dad and a breakfast of poached eggs awaited us. There were no exceptions. Even on Christmas morning, Dad made it mandatory that we eat breakfast before all else. Our presents would just have to wait. Seemed like hours! 🙂

Jan, another client, was moved to write about her late father.

“As I sit here anticipating my first Father’s Day without my dad, I wonder: Does everyone who has lost their father feel the same emotions I’m feeling?

“Before he passed on, Father’s Day meant worrying about purchasing the right gift and hoping it was something Dad would enjoy. It was trying to get everyone together and accommodating schedules. With five other siblings, this wasn’t always an easy task.

“My father was a man of few words. He had minimal education and worked construction his whole life. He worked many hours to provide for a family of eight. There weren’t many heart-to heart talks with my dad or one-on-one moments. Sometimes—I’m embarrassed to admit—I even wondered if my dad really loved me.

“But as I sit and ponder, I realize it wasn’t really about the gift I had to buy or the time it took from my busy schedule. Father’s Day represented the man in my life who was always there. He wasn’t going to divorce me or leave me. He was there for every holiday, every marriage, every divorce. Basically, Dad was there for every event.

“Although we didn’t spend a lot of time together and never talked about the latest topics, he was present and always watching over all of his children. More and more I realize there’s something comforting and important about the feeling of being watched over.

“Recently we buried my father, and as all six siblings stood watching over him in his final days, I realized there was no animosity between us. We were in total agreement in his last hours about how we would make him as comfortable as possible.

“It was the night my dad passed away that I finally realized what he’d taught me. He taught me how to love.

“And as I watched my five siblings gather around his bed that final night, I also realized they were given the exact same gift.

“Most importantly, I realized that with my brothers and sister in my life, my dad would always be there. I can now see him in each and every one of us.

“So here’s to you, Dad: You might not have taught me to put a napkin on my lap or how to write a letter, or to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ but what you did teach me was so much more valuable. Thank you for the gift of love. It outweighs everything else.

“Happy Father’s Day, Dad.”

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality

(c) 2018 Salee Reese

 

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Moving Through Grief

 

It has been two years since her husband, Trent, died. But to Amy it feels like yesterday.

“Why am I grieving?” she lamented. “I thought I was over it.”

I answered her simply: “We’re never over love, Amy.”

After his fatal car accident, she told herself she must be strong for the children. So she stuffed her feelings—locked them up in a steel vault deep within. The truth is, such attempts fail miserably. Denied or submerged feelings slowly creep into our everyday consciousness, so eventually we’re forced to face them. This is what happened to Amy, prompting her to seek help.

In our counseling session, I explained that when tragedy strikes, numbness is a natural response—an automatic defense mechanism—that cushions us from experiencing horrendous and often incapacitating pain. But such numbing is a temporary fix—it doesn’t heal the wound. Healing must occur before we can move forward, before we can be intact as a complete person, and before we can engage in our life wholeheartedly again.

On the emotional level, Amy needs to experience and talk about every aspect of the loss associated with Trent’s death, including the loss of his presence, his companionship and the loss of their dreams.

She needs to let herself miss the sound of his voice, his smiling eyes, his laughter, his scent.

He’s no longer there as a father figure for their children. That’s a loss.

Yes, he had flaws and idiosyncrasies. But she’s surprised at how insignificant they all seem now.

“It’s what made him unique,” she said fondly.

I suggested she set aside time to quietly reflect on Trent, letting her heart call forth countless warming memories.

“And if you feel moved to write, don’t resist doing so. Most likely, your instinctive wisdom is nudging you in the direction of healing,” I said.

To keep it simple, some people write down single trigger words associated with special memories.

“Maybe you’re moved to visit certain places, like favorite vacation spots. Go there again,” I insisted.

“Above all,” I said, “let yourself cry.”

I advised her to take her time—to be patient with the process.

Grief can neither be hurried nor directed. At best, we can only surrender to it.

I asked Amy about her childhood, how her parents dealt with negative emotions.

“Emotions weren’t dealt with,” she replied. “They were ignored—never discussed.”

As a result, when Amy’s dog died, or when she wasn’t invited to the prom, or when her best friend moved away, she felt isolated and alone in her suffering.

“So, do you think your children feel alone in their suffering—even two years later?” I asked.

She nodded.

Amy handled her husband’s death in the only way she knew how. And she believed she was doing the right thing for her children—by being strong.

“Your children need for you to be strong in a different way,” I said.

“Strength isn’t demonstrated by being emotionless, but by one’s willingness to face emotions head-on.”

Healthy coping isn’t exemplified by ignoring or hiding unpleasant emotions, but by going through them. It takes courage to grieve, and children benefit when they witness their parents embracing the process and coming out fully intact on the other side.

In contrast, emotional numbing may force a family to pretend the deceased family member never existed. This was true in Amy’s household. After Trent’s death, he wasn’t mentioned at all. Such silence and avoidance is akin to erasing him from every picture in the family album.

“That doubles the grief, Amy.” I said.

Not only did she lose him, she lost the memory of him as well.

“How can he touch your life—yet today—if his memory is eradicated?”

I went on to explain that a cloud of gloom persists because she’s looking at what went wrong instead of what went right. He showed up in her life. He added a strand to the fabric of  her existence that would not have occurred otherwise. He not only enriched her life but he also enriched the lives of his children. That fact should be celebrated.

I suggested she break the silence and get everyone talking about Trent. She should expect tears and laughter. Both are good. They will express and acknowledge Trent’s powerful impact on their lives.

Amy followed my advice, and now that she is bravely sharing her emotions with her children, things should soon be much better in their world.

An emotional wound is finally being allowed to breathe, and I think Amy will be surprised at how much healing can occur when emotions are allowed to see the light of day instead of being buried in a vault of silence.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2018

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