Tag Archives: communication

She Wasn’t Being Silly

 

Paralyzed with fear, Kathleen stopped suddenly in her tracks. The trail she was hiking with her husband, Zach, had come to an unexpected fork. They were assured, back at the visitors center, that all trails would be clearly marked. For the most part, that proved to be true, but definitely not now.

Zach motioned to the right. “Let’s go this way,” he pressed.

Kathleen didn’t budge. “I just want to go back,” she said meekly.

“No, let’s keep going,” Zach insisted. “It’ll be alright.”

Kathleen—reduced to the emotional age of a six-year-old—started crying.  “I felt he wasn’t listening to me,” she said in our counseling session.

In truth, Zach was baffled. The intensity of her fear didn’t seem to match the circumstances. He tried to get her to snap out of it. “I told her she was being silly,” he said.

That tactic backfired. Her state of distress didn’t subside. In fact, it worsened.

What Kathleen really needed at that point was supportive understanding—empathy. The same soothing attention a six-year-old would need.

Kathleen’s reaction isn’t all that unusual. It can happen to all of us when we venture too far from our comfort zone. Any significant threat to our sense of security can trigger our  automatic fight-or-flight response. Instinctively, our bodies prepare us to do battle or run.

Kathleen’s automatic response was to flee. She turned to go. Zach went with her.

“I felt myself calming down,” she said, “even before we got back to the car.”

Unfortunately, Zach’s inner six-year-old wasn’t happy. “Living in Indiana, we don’t get a chance to hike in the mountains very often,” he said. “I felt it was a rare opportunity and that we should take advantage of it.”

Because Zach is adventuresome, he felt the thrill of a challenge when they came to the fork–the exact opposite of Kathleen’s experience.

In their therapy session, Kathleen was critical of Zach for taking risks, and Zach was critical of Kathleen for being too cautious and rigid.

For the sake of their relationship, they need to stop the criticism and appreciate how the other is different. Kathleen seeks security and predictability, while Zach seeks adventure and spontaneity. Neither is wrong—they’re just different.

In fact these differences attracted them to each other in the first place. She liked his daring adventurous spirit along with his optimistic, confident and light-hearted nature.

He was drawn to Kathleen’s practical, down-to-earth side. She’s an avid planner, and she likes structure. He appreciates how those very qualities keep him grounded and focused.

I’d say they’re well-matched. All they have to do is learn how to collaborate. It’s a skill they could have used on the mountain, and who knows, the final outcome may have been a win-win instead of a joint loss.

For starters, Zach could have utilized a more effective approach in helping Kathleen “snap out of it.” He would have used empathy.

People who are in a near-panicked state, cannot engage in an objective, problem-solving discussion. Their brain and their emotions must be calmed first. They can do that for themselves by walking away for a few minutes or by being comforted by another person.

Empathy naturally comforts. It entails stepping out of the brain and moving into the heart. An empathic ear seeks to understand someone at the emotional level. If I feel empathy for you, it means my heart goes out to you. I’m not detached from your pain—I’m with you in your pain.

At the foundation of empathy is listening. Looking warmly into Kathleen’s eyes, Zach could have asked, “What’s wrong?”

As she explained her fear, he wouldn’t interrupt, he wouldn’t downplay, he wouldn’t advise, lecture, attempt to fix, insult or criticize. He would simply listen attentively. He might not understand her fear of unmarked trails, but he does understand fear. That’s where he can connect with her experience and express understanding.

In their counseling session, Zach listened and in so doing learned the underlying cause of Kathleen’s intense reaction: Her sheltering mom never let her venture far from sight.

“She was always warning me,” she said, “telling me what awful things could happen to me.”

Kathleen also conveyed a painful incident when she was a young child involving a Ferris wheel. “I didn’t want to go on,” she said, “but my family made me.” She remembers being petrified and seeking refuge by lying face down on the floor while her stepfather shook the car and laughed at her. Her mother did nothing.

Her feelings weren’t listened to. She wasn’t comforted.

By the end of our session, Zach was able to do what Kathleen’s mother couldn’t.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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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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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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