Tag Archives: compassion

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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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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Love Shouldn’t be a Prison, and True Love Isn’t

love-prison

 

Since this is the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d dust off one of my favorites from several years ago that seemed to resonate with many people. Even if you’ve been following me from the beginning, this one’s worth a second look:

One thing that assures a long-lasting relationship is kindness—each partner treating the other with the same respect, courtesy and gentleness that characterized their mode of relating in the beginning.

Unfortunately, our human tendency after settling in is to relax those standards. We drop those nicer habits. Not good. A relationship should be a place where flowers grow . . . not a place where we’re constantly encountering prickly nettles.

Another crucial element is freedom. Love shouldn’t be a prison, and true love isn’t.

Go to my column titled “The Grander Version of Love” where you can read about Carl and Lynn. I go into more depth about kindness, freedom and two other components that comprise a healthy relationship.

I welcome your views! 

“Making marriage work is like operating a farm. You have to start all over again each morning.”

— Anonymous

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Listen to Your Grumpy Self

grumpy-bird

“I was grumpy when I got up and then I took it out on my kids,” Lori said. “I was just lazy and didn’t want to get up.”

Lori had a good reason for wanting to stay in bed a little bit longer. She had worked late the night before. She needed the rest.

But something tells Lori she “ought to” spring out of bed full of sunshine and butterflies every morning, regardless of what else might be happening in her life.

Sacrificing herself for others is a common theme for Lori in every arena of her life. Saying no—or saying yes to herself—seems selfish to her.  “I can’t let people down,” she says. That mindset leads to exhaustion, and exhaustion is a recipe for guess what? Grumpiness.

Guilt’s the enemy here. It’s the driving force behind Lori’s failure to set boundaries and it’s the basis for her exhaustion and eventual grumpiness. She’s caught in a vicious cycle. Her grumpiness leads to guilt, which leads to overextending herself, which leads to exhaustion, which leads to grumpiness.

Lori needs to learn the language of grumpiness and kick guilt out of the driver’s seat.

Rather than being critical with herself, she needs to listen to what her body is telling her. It’s an unparalleled tool for communicating what we need. Young children don’t seem to have a problem with this. When they’re tired, they take a nap. When they need to play, they play. When they need time by themselves, they take it.

And interestingly, when they’re grumpy, they don’t judge themselves. That comes later . . . after the programming phase of their life is launched. That’s when they’re trained on how they “should” be and what they “should” feel guilty about.

Yes . . . we should be responsive to the needs of others, and oftentimes sacrifice is called for. But wisdom should be the driving force—not guilt. With wisdom at the helm, we take into account the whole picture including what’s best for our well-being. Balance is the key.

I think this quote from the Buddha sums it up perfectly:

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2016

 

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