Raw Truth from Teens

 

Let’s dispel a common myth about teenagers. They actually yearn to communicate with their parents, despite evidence to the contrary.

But communication must be a two-way street, and for a vast number of teenagers, that isn’t happening. It’s not so much a refusal to open up—instead, their silence is often rooted in discouragement because of something the parent is doing or not doing.

Nell, a 17- year-old client, put it succinctly as she expressed the frustration that many teenagers experience: “Parents think that just because they’re older, their opinions are always right. Many times, when my mom is talking to me, she’ll accuse me of not listening. That’s not true at all. I am listening, but I just keep my thoughts to myself. I don’t bother to share my opinions or disagree with her because she thinks she’s always right.”

Apparently, her mother feels she’s right about Nell’s emotions as well: “My mom will ask me how I feel, and when I tell her, she says, ‘No, you don’t.”

Allison and Tara provide another example of a communication shut-down.  In one counseling session, 14-year-old Allison opened up to her mom, Tara, saying, “I’ve always felt you liked [my brother] Mark more than me . . . .” Before Allison could even finish her sentence, Tara interrupted defensively, “That’s not true! I have always cared for you kids the same!”  The desire for any further discussion was effectively squashed.

Because Allison became quiet, Tara mistakenly believed that the problem was resolved. It wasn’t. That’s because the problem is rooted in the heart, not the head. Allison doesn’t need words to straighten out her thinking—the remedy must be aimed directly at the heart.

Allison may have her facts wrong—her mother may truly love her children the same—but her personal experience says otherwise, and that’s where Tara needs to go.

Here is the advice I gave Tara: Get control of that knee-jerk need to defend yourself. Instead, strive to understand why your daughter feels that way so you can tackle the problem at its roots. Be receptive to her perspective as she reveals why she feels the way she does. Comfort her and apologize for any pain you may have unintentionally caused.

Tara was game to give it another try. She warmly invited Allison to explain why she felt her mom was favoring her brother.

Allison tearfully responded: “Because you never get mad at him. You’re always yelling at me. I can’t do anything right! You think I’m a terrible kid.”

Again, Tara went on the defense.  “No I don’t!” she argued, giving examples to the contrary. The brief argument that followed ended with Allison’s silence once again. Tara didn’t win the argument. In fact, she lost. She forfeited communication with her daughter and reinforced Allison’s reluctance to share her thoughts and feelings.

Sixteen-year-old Justin’s parents complain that he never talks to them. The reason became obvious in a family session about Justin’s grades. Justin’s parents grilled him like police officers. Their interrogating, warning, shaming and lecturing tactics virtually guaranteed a shut-down. With his arms folded, Justin said nothing as he gazed at the floor. If Justin’s parents want productive dialogue with their son, their manner must invite that.

What makes teenagers comfortable enough to open up to their parents?  For the answer, we adults need only to look at what works for us. What entices us to open up and talk?  The answer is simple: We feel safe, and we feel convinced that the other person is truly interested in what we have to say.

We want to be heard, they want to be heard . . . no difference.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2017 Salee Reese

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Latest Wow: Goodbye to Insane Guilt

I remember when Vanessa wowed me with this one:

“I’ve spent 30 years hating myself, and I’m tired of it. I need to learn how to love myself.”

Self-loathing wasn’t something Vanessa was born with.  It was learned.

When we were babies, we had no innate sense of disgust with ourselves. If our rattle fell to the ground, we didn’t berate or despise ourselves. We didn’t suffer shame over it—shame isn’t even a reality to babies. So the incident didn’t become an indictment against our character and we weren’t left with the sense of being a bad baby . . . or bad person.

Clearly, we have a lot to learn from babies! 

Yet as adults, many of us lug around a truck-load of accumulated guilt and shame—the irrational kind. It’s overkill. Yes, self-scrutiny can be a good thing, and sometimes guilt is warranted, like the guilt for being nasty to a store clerk, or breaking something we borrowed. But we shouldn’t agonize over those things.

Guilt’s function is to awaken us so that we do some healthy soul-searching, correct our behavior and make amends. But guilt shouldn’t be a weapon we use against ourselves.

When I began working with Vanessa, shaming herself was a constant occurrence. The house was never clean enough, she didn’t exercise or diet enough, she wasn’t a good enough wife, and she didn’t give Carson—her baby—enough of her time.

To make matters worse, her “internal shamer” followed her wherever she went. After hanging out with friends, heckling thoughts like,  Maybe I wasn’t nice enough, or Maybe I talked too much, would torment her for hours.

Vanessa was convinced she was bad to the core. But I believed otherwise. In one of our sessions, she showed me a photo she had taken of Carson gazing at her with loving, happy eyes. That told me volumes. I couldn’t resist commenting, “Well, you’re certainly doing something right!”

Bad to the core? Hmmm. Vanessa’s negative self-appraisal just wasn’t adding up. She was just too warm-hearted, too caring, too sensitive to be a member of that club. She clearly didn’t meet the criteria.

So where did the self-loathing and irrational guilt originate? Her childhood. A steady diet of severe punishments, along with a constant barrage of critical and condemning messages took a toll. Feeling guilty and bad about herself became her normal.

In therapy, Vanessa came to see that she had been needlessly suffering all those years due to a burdensome, oppressive mental habit.

That realization is the crucial first step to freedom!

Motivation is another important factor, and Vanessa had plenty of that because of Carson. Her strong desire to raise him to feel good about himself was what nudged her into therapy in the first place.

The crux of Vanessa’s problem was her conditioning—and buying into it.  She bought into a lie. The good news: if she could buy into a lie, she could buy into the truth.

The truth was found by removing the obstacles that blocked her from loving herself and by disbelieving the internal shamer.

Vanessa got there and in the process she realized that Carson’s perception of her was the simple, beautiful truth!

Love and irrational guilt cannot coexist. One cancels out the other. When we’re in a space of loving ourselves, such guilt cannot get a foothold.

 

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2017 Salee Reese

 

 

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Will it Last?

 

“If only I could see into the future. I keep wondering if we’ll be together.”

Abby has a new love in her life. He treats her well, they laugh, play and enjoy many of the same things. Secretly though, she’s consumed by fears of it not lasting.

“Right now your relationship with Tyler is only a tiny sprout,” I explained. “So at this point it’s impossible to know if that sprout is a weed or a flower.”

I also pointed out that she’s not a mere passive observer—powerless—waiting for the future to unfold. She’s an active participant in creating it.

The nature and the quality of the future are under construction today.

Day-to-day interactions serve as the building blocks affecting the quality and fate of our relationships. Invariably, we shape tomorrow by how we choose to relate and operate in the present.

Abby freely admits that her recent treatment of Tyler hasn’t been the greatest. Instead of being positive and light, she’s frequently snippy and impatient with him. She says it’s because he’s reluctant to commit. He tells her it’s too early since they’ve only been together for a matter of months.

Her obsession over tomorrow robs her of any enjoyment that the moment offers. So how can he enjoy the relationship if she isn’t?  And how appealing is a partner who comes off prickly?  One could say that Abby’s outlook is self-defeating—creating the very reality she fears.

For those in Abby’s shoes, I offer the following advice: Don’t focus on getting a commitment. Let the quality of the relationship be your goal. When the experience of being together is gratifying on a multitude of levels, for both parties, a commitment naturally follows.

Abby’s trying to control her insecurities by controlling the situation. To gain assurance about the future, she’s counting on external cues from Tyler.

That never works. Not only does it pressure others, causing them to pull back, it also fails to provide real guarantees. That’s because life is about changes—unpredictable changes. What exists today can change abruptly.

The only certainty we have is the present moment where we all dwell. Therefore, we must relish that moment and make the best of it.

Abby’s desire for a committed relationship is understandable. She just doesn’t have a right to ask someone to meet her expectations. Love accepts the position of the other person, and it accepts his or her need to be true to themselves.

Abby emphasized that she’s hesitant to stay in a relationship that lacks a commitment. “In case it doesn’t work out between us, I don’t want to get too attached to him.”

I responded, “Your downcast demeanor tells me it’s too late—you’re already attached.”

When Abby doesn’t let pessimism take the reins, this new relationship is nourishing in many ways, so walking out seems a bit premature. Let’s face it, a complete break from a person who has added brightness to one’s life seems like deprivation. Why do that? It smacks of self-denial.

I suggested she give the relationship time to grow—committing to the process.

And there’s another thought for Abby to chew on: Some of the best relationships don’t have marriage as an endgame.  So Tyler and Abby may not be headed for marriage, but that doesn’t diminish its potential worth.

Among Abby’s many challenges in this current growth lab of hers—and that’s what relationships are!—is conquering that all-or-nothing mindset.

Long-term devotion blossoms where two people are dedicated to the quality of what they build together—in the here and now.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2017 Salee Reese

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Fake Love

“We need in love to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily—we do not need to learn it.”            

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

“If she leaves me, I’ll die—I’ll have nothing to live for. She’s everything to me—she’s my life!”

Jeremy, 27, is panicked over the possibility of losing his girlfriend, Shannon.

Not surprisingly, she isn’t flattered by being the object of such colossal longing and adoration. Instead, she feels an enormous amount of pressure, suffocated by Jeremy’s immense need and weighed down by the gravity of his dependency.

Jeremy’s brand of love doesn’t feel like love to Shannon. Her experience is that of being smothered. The effect on Shannon is understandable. Jeremy is demonstrating neediness, not love.

It’s impossible for neediness and love to coexist.

That’s because love is a two-way circuit, consisting of equal players locked in the dance of mutual give and take. Needy people, though, focus solely on their own needs, creating a draining effect on the other person.

Jeremy’s needy behaviors are driving Shannon away. Instead of looking forward to his calls as she did early in their relationship, she dreads them. Caught up in an exhaustive back-and-forth loop between guilt and repulsion, she craves release.

Being situated at the center of someone’s universe is far from a breeze. On a constant basis, Shannon feels responsible for Jeremy’s well-being—held hostage by a dilemma. “My actions will either make or break this man!” she exclaims.

“When Jeremy says, ‘I love you,’ he’s waiting for me to reciprocate. He’s always wanting me to hug him, too.” And, Shannon added, he does so in a pleading way, saying, “All I want is a hug.”

That’s not love—that’s fishing for reassurance.

Shannon usually gives in because she can’t bear to see him crushed. Instead of referring to herself as Jeremy’s girlfriend, she describes herself as his “obsession.”

In a counseling session, Shannon told Jeremy how she felt. After she made herself clear, she expressed her need by saying, “You’ve worn me down. I need some time apart from you.”

She asked Jeremy for a two-week break, including no phone contact. Her request was precise: “Give me some space—let me miss you!”

Jeremy pouted a bit but reluctantly went along with her wishes.

His compliance, however, was short-lived. Within 24 hours, he sent a text, followed by several more. Each time, he exerted great effort to convince her of his love and try to change her mind.

In a session with Jeremy alone, I asked, “What’s the difference between love and need?”

He shook his head—he didn’t know.

“Your actions,” I explained, “convey that you need her, not that you love her.”

The expression on his face switched from sad to stunned. “I love her!” he insisted.

“If you loved her,” I responded, “ you would take her requests seriously. Her needs would matter.” I pointed out that when Shannon asked for space, he neglected her request.

Jeremy needs to learn that actions speak louder than words. Instead of conveying love, his actions shout, “It’s all about me.” For example, reaching out for hugs is fulfilling his need while ignoring hers.

“When we love someone,” I told Jeremy, “we make sure a hug is what the other person wants, too. That’s love.”

If Jeremy’s feelings were based on love, he would be exercising understanding and caring restraint, instead of working so hard at dismantling the boundaries Shannon had erected for the sake of her well-being.

“Love gives space for the other person to breathe, even though it hurts,” I said.

Jeremy replied somberly, “In other words, I’ve got to let go, right?”

I replied, “We can’t let go of what we don’t own. You never did have her—we never possess anybody. My best advice, is to stop clutching. Cultivate your independence. Only then can the relationship be right.”

For Jeremy, releasing his grip was a frightening thought. “She may never come back!” he declared.

He may be right, but loosening his grip is the only shot he has at saving this relationship. As long as Shannon feels obligated, guilty and repulsed, she won’t be inclined to reverse her direction.

The more desperate we are to keep a relationship, the more apt we are to lose it. A relationship must be grounded in free choice, not overpowered by neediness.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2017 Salee Reese

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I Want a Silverback Father!

I’m certain we could learn a lot from silverback gorillas. Not about grooming habits, but about the way they care for their young.

The movie Instinct stars Anthony Hopkins as an anthropologist who lives among a community of gorillas for two years. He starts out as a detached observer, but it isn’t long before they win over his heart. He admires and adores these powerful yet gentle creatures and is especially touched by their undying devotion to their young.

Gradually, he is accepted as one of them.

One day, sitting among the gorillas as they groom themselves and nibble away at leaves, he becomes aware of a constant, attentive gaze that embraces them all. The gaze was coming from the “silverback,” the name given to the chief male—the elder or overseer—of the gorilla clan. His job is to protect and maintain order.

“It’s an amazing experience—the feeling of being watched over,” the anthropologist observed.

The gravity of that simple statement struck me. I wonder . . .  do our children feel “watched over” by their fathers . . . and in this manner?

I think a lot of kids feel “watched,” but not “watched over.” To me there’s a huge difference. To be “watched” implies a suspicious, critical eye. “Watching over” combines guidance with compassion.

Sam Keen, author of Fire in the Belly, has this to say:

In the quiet hours of the night when I add up the accomplishments of my life, those things that rank first, in terms of true success, have to do with my children. To the degree I have loved, nurtured, and enjoyed them, I honor myself. To the degree I have injured them by my obsessive preoccupations with myself, with my profession, I have failed as a father and a man. The health, vitality, and happiness of the family is the yardstick by which a man, a woman, a society should measure success.

To the dismay of many men and their children, that lesson is typically learned in hindsight. One such father put it this way: “Men fall into the trap of believing what their family needs most is a secure financial foundation. This isn’t so. The foundation comes from the heart, not the wallet.”

Turning again to Keen: “We learn to trust in a world that contains evil when we come crying with a skinned knee and are held, hurting, in arms; and the voice that is forever assuring us, ‘Everything is going to be all right.’”

Boys learn how to use their masculinity—in both positive and negative ways—by watching their fathers. Keen says, “A boy naturally learns how to be a man by observing how his father treats women, how he deals with illness, failure, and success, whether he shares in the household chores, whether he cuddles and plays.”

Keen mentions how his priorities as a father have gradually changed. “First time round as a father I had truckloads of rules, oughts, ideals, and explanations—all of which kept me at arm’s length from my children . . . . Lately I have come to believe that the best thing I can give my children is an honest account of what I feel, think, and experience, to invite them into my inner world.”

We frequently hear the term “the absent father.” This doesn’t necessarily refer to the actual physical absence of a father. It can also refer to emotional absence. Children need to feel that there’s a special place in their dad’s heart reserved just for them. They need to see a certain delight in his eyes when they talk to him about their day or when they share their dreams and achievements with him. They hunger for his full attention—chunks of time in which he’s not distracted by schedules or electronic devices.

They need to see their father as powerful, but not “powerful” as in domination or through tough displays of fierceness or force. A father of young children once told me that good fathers are good leaders and that being a good leader requires a delicate balancing act. He said, “I must maintain an air of authority, but I have to be the right type of authority. I’m learning that the best leaders lead without squashing the spirit.

So, good fathering is about a warm and receptive heart. It’s about being involved and interested. It’s attentive to needs and distresses. It nourishes self-worth. It protects, guides and maintains order. It’s about cherishing and listening. It models strength, self-restraint and kindness. It comforts when there are tears. It accepts when there are mistakes and failures.

Being watched over is an amazing experience! The world needs more “silverback” fathers, wouldn’t you say?

© 2017 Salee Reese

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A Mother’s Heart

“Making the decision to have a child—it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”     —Elizabeth Stone

I don’t know about you, but that speaks to me. I have two sons, and although they’re full-fledged adults now, they’re never far from my heart-thoughts.

From the earliest days of changing diapers and changing diapers and changing diapers, I’ve experienced degrees of joy and warmth I never thought possible. But I’ve  experienced degrees of frustration and anguish I never thought possible, too.

Nope, motherhood is not for the faint of heart. It exhausts and tests you to the point of wondering why you ever signed up for it in the first place. I could say it challenges you to grow—and that’s true—but it’s more accurate to say it forces you to grow.

There were times—humble times—when I knew that staying stuck in the old me was merely going to make matters worse. I had to change. I simply had to upgrade my way of seeing and doing things.

Yes, my sons have been my teachers in many respects, and I thank them for that. They’ve made me a better person, but most of all, they’ve made my heart grow.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Poke the Tiger

“I pray every night that God will take my life.”

Vince, 56, apparently would rather die than leave a life-sucking relationship. He’s been with his wife, Gail, for eight years. And for the bulk of that time he’s been unhappy, merely enduring his existence instead of living.

In our counseling session, he depicted Gail as having a sharp tongue and a hair-trigger temper.

He recounted several irritating incidents of being nagged and belittled. Instead of objecting to this dignity-squashing treatment, he continues to tolerate it. “Why ignite her wrath?” he said. “I survive by withdrawing.”

“Why do you stay with her?” I asked.

Vince gave a heavy sigh. “I can’t bring myself to hurt her.”

When we protect people from hurting, we may be doing them a disservice. When offenses go unchallenged, we inhibit the soul-searching process.

“You love her, Vince, but maybe she needs to hurt a little,” I said. “The truth may hurt, but it makes us take a good hard look at ourselves and possibly grow. “She’s oblivious to the extent of your misery,” I continued, “including how badly you want out and your reasons why. How can she change for the better if she isn’t given that information?”

“You don’t know Gail,” he said. “She’ll explode!”

“Perhaps,” I said. “And it’s that behavior she needs to open her eyes to. Her temper, along with a few other habits, is chasing you away—and probably everyone else.”

Vince nodded. “It’s true. But how can I possibly tell her that?”

“Come from the caring you naturally have for her,” I said, “a space of compassion, one that’s non-critical and minus blame. In other words, don’t attempt it when you’re gritting your teeth and seething with anger.”

I suggested he write it in a letter because in a face-to-face encounter, defensive reactions are likely to be triggered in both parties.

Vince and I explored what he wanted to say in the letter. He wasn’t inclined to flat-out tell her of his intentions to walk out. That’s because he was no longer certain about that particular course of action.

He has hope—for the first time—that she might change. Vince has also come to understand how he’s been perpetuating the problem by biting his tongue.

His withdrawing behavior sent the wrong message to Gail: “Vince might not like how I’m treating him, but, hey, he still takes it, and he’s still around. It must be working.”

In short, because he continued to cooperate with toxic conditions, she failed to see it as toxic.

Cooperating with an undesirable or toxic system, situation, or person—pretending that all is well—merely reinforces it.

The question is, if he starts to assert himself in a respectful manner, will she change things on her end? Time will tell.

In the meantime, the letter. It needed to be a declaration stating that the status quo has been detrimental to Vince and their relationship. Here’s Vince’s letter:

Dear Gail,

I’m moved to write this letter because I love you and I want to improve our relationship.

Up until now, I have tended to keep my feelings locked deep inside myself. I don’t share them with you and that isn’t good. It isn’t good for either of us, and our relationship has suffered because of it.

I went to a counselor. I told her that I pray each night asking God to take my life. I’m miserable and I don’t communicate that to you. I should have a long time ago.

She helped me see that no one’s at fault here. We’ve fallen into a rut that neither of us can seem to get out of. It seems you’re critical of me almost all the time, and I feel like I can’t make you happy, no matter what I do. I clam up so nothing gets better.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t go on this way, Gail. But I have hope. I want to fix this. I want us both to be happy. I think we can be! I’d like us to go to counseling together.

Your husband, Vince

Along with this letter, Vince needs to stop withdrawing. When he feels nagged or when there’s been an insult to his dignity, he needs to learn to respectfully and immediately object.

Blocking the soul-searching process doesn’t do anyone any favors. Others remain stagnant if we’re not direct and truthful. Waking up someone who is blind to their behavior can be a painful thing, but if we really have the other person’s best interest at heart, the result will be better for everyone.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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