Tag Archives: communication

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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You’re not Crazy!

frustrated-woman

Ever been around someone who makes you question your sanity because there’s no working things out? Every attempt to reason with them fails miserably . . . nothing works. Presenting facts doesn’t work. Even staying composed doesn’t work.

Those hair-pulling moments can reduce a person to a pitiful pile of frustration and self-doubt in a flash.

That’s a fairly typical response, according to Dr. Alan Godwin, author of How to Solve Your People Problems. In a seminar I attended, he pointed out that the world is populated by two groups of people—those who can be reasoned with and those who can’t . . . or won’t.

Those who can be reasoned with, he says, possess three psychologically healthy traits. They self-observe, self-monitor and self-correct.

That means they’re willing to take an honest look at themselves. They want to know their flaws and they want to monitor them. They admit to being wrong, and readily take responsibility for their actions and shortcomings. Then they go that next step—they make things right.

Godwin says that when such people see their wrongness, they cringe.  Call it a healthy dose of feeling ashamed of oneself. It’s a response rooted in a fully developed conscience. When they violate their own standards of character—how they want to be—they cringe.  ( I like that word 🙂 )

The opposite of cringing, he says, is shrugging. Shrugging is an expression of no conscience. In other words, they couldn’t care less.

Godwin states loud and clear: “If personal wrongness doesn’t bother us, we’ll do nothing to correct it.”

So true. In fact, we may deny its existence, gloss it over with elaborate excuses, or simply shrug it off.

It’s clear to me that shruggers don’t care about the quality of the footprint they leave on the landscape of humanity.

So here we are. We find ourselves living among cringers and shruggers—reasonable and unreasonable people. It’s good to know the difference, especially for those who believe they will be understood if they just exert enough effort. Those same people are certain that reasoning will inevitably transform any feud or misunderstanding into a harmonious state of connection, compromise and appreciation.

That’s all true . . . if you’re dealing with a reasonable person. But, according to Godwin, “You can’t reason with unreasonable people.”

It’s also helpful to know that unreasonable people are chronologically older than their developmental age. That is, you may be trying to communicate with a twelve-year-old who’s walking around in a forty-year old body. So your attempts to reason can only go so far. Have realistic expectations.

How to know if you’re in the presence of a reasonable versus an unreasonable person?  You’ll know them by their willingness to hear contrary opinions. They welcome feedback and are open to changing how they see and do things.

In contrast, if you try to talk to an unreasonable person, they’re likely to distort the meaning of your words and not allow you to correct any misinterpretation. They hear what they want to hear.

Reasonable people embrace truth. They don’t deny or distort it in order to avoid their own wrongness. That’s not the case with unreasonable people. Being right and winning is all they care about. Enhancing a climate of mutual cooperation, problem-solving and goodwill isn’t even on the radar.

Blaming is a characteristic of unreasonable people. When they argue, Godwin says, “They play the ‘blame game,’ absolving themselves of responsibility and attributing exclusive blame to the other side.”

What to do about these people? Godwin suggests we avoid them when we can and if that’s not possible, establish firm boundaries. This includes guarding our buttons and accepting the fact that our relationship with them will be limited—lacking depth and a level of intimacy that accompanies open and honest sharing between two people.

Godwin sums it up in a nice package:

“Superficial and light is better than bitterness and strife.”

One of my clients decided to do just that with her difficult sister. “There’s no point in trying to reason with her. I might as well save my breath because she’ll twist things to fit her world anyway.”

Needless to say, my client is feeling much freer and more peaceful these days. Her hair-pulling moments are a thing of the past.

If you’re in her shoes, take comfort: you’re not crazy. It’s probably just the company you keep.

 

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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The Unhappy Chameleon

chameleon2

Doug wowed me with this in one of our sessions:

“I always wanted to blend in . . . like a chameleon.” Then looking away reflectively, he added, “You know, it takes a hell of a lot of energy to change my colors.”

He’s right. So why do we do it? It’s all about making sure we’re liked and loved. If we don’t make ourselves acceptable, we fear rejection. And rejection is a very lonely place.

We all do our share of adapting and approval-seeking. It only becomes problematic when we lose sight of our true selves. In the book, The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner describes that condition as being “submerged” or “de-selfed.”

Here’s one of Doug’s examples: In the midst of ordering chicken from a menu, his wife interrupted, “You don’t like chicken—you like roast beef!”

He remembers his meek, defeated response at the time: “I guess you’re right. I don’t like chicken.”

Sadly, Doug didn’t really know what he liked. He was used to being defined by the outside world.

When I first met Doug, he described himself as unhappy most the time. That makes sense because de-selfed people can’t be happy. They live a compromised existence which includes spending endless amounts of energy pleasing and accommodating others. The end result is often depression, a depleted interest in life, and hidden anger forever percolating just below the surface.

Adrian was a card-carrying member of the de-selfed club when I started seeing her. Her comments echoed Doug’s:

“I’ve spent most of my life adapting to others,” she said, “disguising and burying myself to get approval. I’ve done it so well for so long, I now have difficulty grasping who I really am.”

“Who is the real me?”

“I’m a chameleon and I don’t know my real color.”

Adrian started submerging her true self at an early age. “My mom’s love would turn off if I didn’t say and do what she wanted,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to have a self.”

Adrian’s habit of self-denying followed her directly into her marriage … beginning, actually, on her wedding day. Her father handed the newlyweds $500 with special instructions. “He insisted we use the money for having a good time on our honeymoon—and nothing else,” she said.

“Well . . . that didn’t happen,” Adrian said with a defeated sigh.

That incident was a snapshot of things to come. Adrian listed off a series of comparable incidents that took place throughout the 23 years of their marriage. She then lowered her head solemnly and said, “I think my mantra has always been: ‘Yes dear, anything you say.'”

Adrian so needs to speak up in this relationship. She needs to share the person she really is with her husband—not just with me. How else can she relieve her depression and resurrect her actual self? And how else can the relationship possibly change if she doesn’t change?

When Adrian first started therapy, she thought her problem narrowed down to two people, her mother and her husband. Her thinking: If only they would change. But she has moved beyond that and is realizing it’s not what others have done to her, but what she’s been allowing. Until she realized that, she was powerless to change things for the better.

Something very interesting happens when we communicate directly from the depth of our natural being. Our total person comes forward. Call it our true self.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) 2016 Salee Reese

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It’s a Ducking Habit

 

duck

Tish shines when she’s with her friends and coworkers, but around her boss she loses that shine.

“I go small the minute I step into her office!” she said. “I’m just like someone who’s been physically abused—I duck!”

Tish’s boss and her parents have some things in common.  Her parents didn’t invite or make it safe for her to express her views. It appears her boss is the same way.

Tish grew up in a home where working through problems—talking things over—just wasn’t done. Instead, powder-keg overreactions were the norm. Tish found shelter in laying low . . . or by ‘ducking.’ It became her coping mechanism.

Ducking can be more than a physical response. It can also be a psychological one. Whenever we walk on eggshells or cater to someone’s moods, we’re ducking. When we’re anxious about someone’s reaction and it causes us to stifle ourselves, we’re ducking. Keeping our mouth shut when something ought to be said is a form of ducking.

Being direct, honest and straightforward can seem just too risky and threatening. But the alternative doesn’t serve us very well, either.  When we make a habit of ducking, we desert ourselves. Our true self gets buried. Call it a recipe for life dissatisfaction and depression.

For example, ducking is hurting Tish’s chances of moving up in the company. It inhibits her from getting her needs met and her concerns heard and resolved.

By ducking, she’s guaranteeing she won’t be listened to.

Ducking behaviors served Tish as a child. They protected her. But today, such behaviors are a mere habit—a conditioned response—and do more harm than good.  She can change, and she must, if she wants to cultivate a better scenario for herself at work and elsewhere.

I explained that the first step is to realize that there are people out there who welcome open dialogue. They don’t mind being disagreed with, and they don’t blow up or make people walk on eggshells. They care about the points of view of others, and they respect the fact that problems will crop up.

“And they look forward to jointly resolving them with you,” I said.

The next step is to stand tall. “Be the strong person you really are, Tish!”

It’s in her. She listed off plenty of examples of being her bold and bigger self. In fact, when Tish isn’t ducking, her strength, wisdom and drive are forces to be reckoned with!

Her boss needed to see that. As it was, Tish was selling herself as a pushover. Her boss couldn’t respect her because Tish wasn’t respecting herself.

Shortly after that session, Tish told me how she successfully confronted her boss about a problem—one that her boss had been refusing to address for a long time. It’s getting resolved.

Yes!

 

(c) Salee Reese 2016

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

 

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The New Normal?

tigers fight

The spectacle we call the debates has me in a constant state of revulsion and bewilderment. What happened? What has gone awry?

We all have our theories and there’s probably an element of truth to most, but what concerns me is our apparent collective departure from courtesy and kindness. Call it good old-fashioned respect. Instead, what we’re witnessing among our presidential candidates is quite probably—and alarmingly—the new normal. Blasting and bludgeoning others, verbally or physically, seems to be our newest sport.

It’s prevalent in the movies, the social media, and on television, including the nightly news.  We’re not apologetic about it, either. Instead, there’s an almost haughty pride that accompanies such acts.

My concern raises many questions, such as: How are we influencing future generations and shaping our national character? We teach children how to treat each other, including how to tame their automatic—animalistic—reactions, but the “grown-ups” model the exact opposite.

Do the children in our country witness mature ways of handling disagreements? Are they observing tolerance for differences . . . including differing opinions? Are they seeing alternative ways of handling disputes, healthy ways of reacting when provoked? Are they witnessing what anger management looks like? No. They’re witnessing people who are out of control and wholeheartedly engaged in attacking.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t call this civilization–I call it living in the jungle. Self-restraint and respect may be lacking there, but I do expect to see it between human beings.

 

 

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Call it Parent Power!

colorful explosion2

Laura’s petrified that her teenage daughter may be headed down a dangerous path.

While she and Kaitlyn sat across from each other in my office, Laura rattled off her string of concerns. Among her worries were slipping grades, Kaitlin’s recent choice of friends—some have been in trouble with the law—and a controlling boyfriend who habitually puts Kaitlyn down.

As her mother talked, Kaitlyn made every attempt—frantically—to disagree and voice her opinion. Understandably so. None of us likes to be cast as a loser, and in Kaitlyn’s eyes that was exactly what was happening. To Kaitlyn, her mother wasn’t listing concerns, she was listing failings. This same scenario was often played out at home, and with even more intensity.

I explained to Laura that during those times, Kaitlyn was defending her self-image. “She must resist your impression of her, because she has to believe in herself,” I said. “If she doesn’t, she’s wide open to all those things you’re worrying about.”

“Your influence as a parent skyrockets as you believe in your child.”

In fact, there’s no better way to arm a child for the challenges of daily life.

As parents, we have little control over what happens after our children become teenagers. A smaller child is much easier to influence. As they head for some danger zone, such as a stairwell, we swiftly reach out and grab them. We can’t do that with teenagers. But we can convey that we have confidence in their ability to master life’s risky stairwells on their own.

Laura won’t be able to dictate Kaitlyn’s choice of friends, and criticizing them will only backfire. Like all of us, Kaitlyn needs to feel valued and accepted, so if her friends are the only ones providing that fundamental need, she will lap it up like a starved kitten. And, let’s face it, when we’re starving, we’re not picky about what the food is and where it’s coming from.

When Kaitlyn feels good about herself, she’s more likely to make choices consistent with that good feeling. Her grades will likely go up, and putdowns will no longer be tolerated.

Laura can help make that happen. I advised her to do the following:

  • Instead of saying: “Be careful,” as Kaitlyn leaves the house, say, “I know you’ll be careful.”
  • Avoid lecturing her about all the dangers out in the real world. She’s heard them a zillion times from you already. Instead, tell her you know she will use good judgement no matter how tough the challenge.
  • Convey that you have confidence in her ability to handle controlling people by saying to her, “I know you’ll stand up for yourself.”
  • When she does well, acknowledge it and praise her. We too easily point out errors.
  • When she falls short, don’t lose confidence in her—she will be less likely to lose confidence in herself.

I also suggested that Laura add the following phrases to her everyday vocabulary:

  • Keep up the good work!
  • You can do it!
  • You must be so proud of yourself.
  • I believe in you.
  • I trust you’ll do the right thing.

By believing in her daughter, seeing her in a positive light, and trusting her ability to navigate life’s various challenges, Laura will indirectly bolster Kaitlyn’s self-image while safeguarding her with the strength of confidence. Consequently, she can’t help but influence Kaitlyn’s life for the better.

I call that extraordinary power!

 

Names are changed to protect client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2016

 

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“How Do I Fix Us?”

stitched_heart (1)

 

“Why am I the last to find out? I didn’t know my wife was unhappy. She never told me!”

I had to tell him the truth. “Yes, she did, Todd. There were clues. You just weren’t seeing them.”

Beth had grown quiet and distant in his presence. In contrast, she was lively and talkative around her friends. Passion and affection were gone. She constantly seemed sad.

She was.

Where did Todd go wrong? Simply put, he didn’t do a good job of listening. Early on, Beth tried to open up and express herself but such attempts were abruptly shot down by his defensiveness. Eventually, she quit trying to be heard. So . . . the slow erosion of a relationship was underway.

Genuine listening is more than mere cerebral activity. Central to listening is the state of the heart and the mind. Are they both open?

Todd treated Beth’s grievances as one would a debate. Determined to defeat her, he aggressively attacked her opinions, concerns and feelings. His goal was to win by convincing her that she was wrong.

Instead, he convinced her that he wasn’t there for her.

When an exchange of thoughts ceases in a relationship, so does the intimate connection.

“You may be a winner when it comes to debates,” I said, “but your style doesn’t keep a marriage intact.” I pointed out that the goal in a relationship is to have two winners.

Downcast, he asked, “How do I get her back?”

“Todd,  you must start by narrowing the emotional distance, and you do that by listening to her . . . truly listening to her.”

Listening with the heart.

When that’s occurring, the listener is sincerely engrossed and curious about what the speaker is saying.  The speaker doesn’t  sense impatience, irritation, judgment or disinterest from the listener. And there’s no fear of being pounced upon.

More than the desire to win her back, I urged Todd to let his love for Beth translate into a yearning to understand her and remove her distresses.

A few sessions later—when I knew Todd was ready—I arranged a session with the two of them. His role was to listen. Leaning forward with warmth emanating from his eyes, he invited her to tell him why she was considering leaving him.

She talked and he listened. She was able to say all that she wanted without being interrupted or attacked. Nervous at first, she steadily began to relax as he remained calm and caring. Beth felt free and safe to express what was on her mind.

I was particularly touched by something Beth said near the end:  “When you listen to me it lets me know I matter, and as a result my heart opens up a little wider.”

Signs of progress don’t automatically usher in a fairy-tale ending. It was going to take time for Beth’s heart to trust and feel safe enough to freely open up. But I knew if Todd sincerely dedicated himself to change—and remained consistent with those changes—there was hope.

In the past, Todd had used his intellect to win. To his amazement, he learned that only the heart knows how to win . . . at love. How nice. 🙂

 

(c) Salee Reese 2016

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

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