Tag Archives: healthy boundaries

Not Guilty!

 

Kara would like to skip getting together with her family over the holidays. But guilt stands in her way.

“I hate to say it but I’d be a whole lot happier spending time with Marc’s family,” she said. Marc is Kara’s husband. “They’re just more pleasant to be around.”

In contrast, Kara’s family gatherings are unbearably stressful. Wounding, in fact. They seem to find it entertaining to make fun of each other, team up, and exchange sarcastic digs.

“And if things get heated up because someone takes offense,” she said, “tempers fly! Why would I want to be around all that?  I always feel judged and anxious . . . mentally beat up!”

So why does she feel so torn?

Kara gave a heavy sigh. “Guilt,” she said. “It’s my mother. She’ll take it as a personal assault if I don’t want to go.” Kara went on to explain that her mom will act hurt while saying something to the effect: “Oh. I see . . . you’d rather be with Marc’s family than with us.”

I understand why Kara feels judged around her family. It happens.

I asked Kara, “Will guilt win or will your preference win?”

She lowered her eyes.

“Hey” I said, “if  you must feel guilty, you might as well feel guilty for doing what you want. Right?” 

She laughed. We both did.

I’m reminded of something my husband, Don, once said.

“One thing is certain, if you fall under the control of guilt, you will end up unhappy.”

Guilt shouldn’t dictate our decisions—reason should. And so should something else . . . our well-being.

Which choice is best for Kara’s overall well-being? The answer is obvious.

Kara made it clear she likes her family. She just doesn’t like it when they’re all congregated under the same roof.

We did some brainstorming and came up with a win-win solution. She will get with each family member on an individual basis. This can happen anytime—around holidays or on any date throughout the year.

Minus the family dynamics, it will be a lot more pleasant.

Kara’s mother and other guilt-manipulators could benefit from thinking about Wayne Dyer’s definition of love:

Love is “the ability and willingness to allow those that you care for to be what they choose for themselves, without any insistence that they satisfy you.”

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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Nope … the Ring Won’t Change Him

 

Steer clear of people who fail to take an honest look at themselves.

Do you really want to be with a person who can’t be reasoned with, who doesn’t take an honest look in the mirror, and who flies into a rage at the mere drop of a hat?

That was the question I asked Brenna, a client contemplating marriage to a man who matches this description. She’s also fairly certain he has a drinking problem. Combine alcohol with his other troublesome traits and we have a person who’s impossible to live with—at least peacefully.

“If you choose to marry this man,” I warned, “you’re in for a difficult ride.”

I explained that the overuse of alcohol impedes a person’s ability to reason, self-manage and grow. Where, then, does self-reflection, self-restraint and accountability come from?

“Are you going to take on that task for him?” I asked.

Brenna does that now—extensively.

“The other day he tripped and blamed the dog for being in the way,” she said. “When I heard him shouting at the dog, I told him he shouldn’t take his frustrations out on an innocent animal.”

His angry outbursts are frequent and they’re usually aimed at her. She gave several examples and pointed out that “he thinks he’s totally justified, and never apologizes.”

“So how do you feel around this guy?” I asked.

“I’m always on edge—nervous about setting him off.”

“Do you really want to live that way?” I asked.

Brenna thinks that by marrying him, he’ll change.

“I feel I should give him a chance,” she said. “After all, everyone has imperfections.”

“This doesn’t fall into the same category as facial warts or accepting a husband’s failure to put the toilet seat down,” I said. “This is about someone being mean to you day in and day out.”

“But he could change,” she said.

“Brenna,” I said, “why would someone be motivated to change if they’re given the reward—in this case, marriage—before they change?”

“… I don’t have an answer for that one,” she said.

Brenna needs a strong dose of reality: People don’t change unless they elect to do so. Getting married won’t magically rectify a preexisting condition.

Valerie, another client, is a good case in point.

Like Brenna, she thought her boyfriend would change for the better after they tied the knot. She thought having a ring on her finger would end his crazed jealously.

But she was in for a rude awakening.

“One day, I was headed out the door to go grocery shopping,” she recalled. “What I had on—how I was dressed—was the farthest thing from my mind. But my husband noticed, and he wasn’t pleased. He was sure that I was meeting someone, so he followed me without my knowledge.”

It wasn’t until she filled her grocery cart that he appeared out of nowhere.

“There he stood glaring at me,” she said. “In front of everybody, he grabbed me and dragged me out to his car. When we got home, he cut up all my clothes and threw them out the window. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone.

“The next day he said he was sorry and swore he would never do it again,” she said. “I bet I heard that same story a hundred times! He would change for a short time, but then it just got worse.”

Periods of remorse don’t qualify as real change, not as long as the bad behavior returns and continues.

Valerie eventually left her husband.

“I finally woke up and realized he was sick,” she said. “It wasn’t me.”

Sometimes abusive relationships involve more extreme violence.

One client, Holly, told me how her boyfriend became enraged and struck her in the head. A few days later, he called—irritated. “I haven’t heard from you!” he accused.

“Why should I?” she said, “You hit me!”

His recollection about that evening was fuzzy—he had been drinking. But he did recall hitting her.

“There must have been something you did to provoke it,” he countered, immediately deflecting the blame to her.

If Holly’s smart, she’ll get out now. If she chooses to endure it, she can expect more of the same. Her boyfriend shows no motivation to take stock of himself or accept blame. He hit her, but wants to blame her for it.

People are reluctant to end bad relationships, even abusive ones, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because the other person wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t take it well, or he may change someday.

The raw truth is, unless partners display genuine insight into themselves, and show real improvement over their toxic behaviors, they’re not likely to change.

 

Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.

(c) Salee Reese 2017

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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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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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Over It

Holly told me she wasn’t suicidal. I disagreed.
“I guess you’re right,” she said after some thought. “I’ve been killing myself off for years.”

Holly was referring to staying with a man who frequently deflates her spirit—her husband, Lance.

She related the events of an evening they had some friends over. When it was time to call it a night, Holly stood with the front door open while saying good-bye as each guest left. From the living room Lance shouted, “Hey, dummy, close the door!”

I asked, “Could a casual passerby talk to you that way?”

“No,” she said.

“Then why do you take it from someone who supposedly loves you?”

“I’m not so sure I want to anymore,” she said in our counseling session. “I’m afraid to leave him . . . to be on my own. But I’m more afraid of staying. I look in the mirror and wonder who that dismal-looking person is. Where did Holly go?”

For some, contemplating divorce is rooted in valuing oneself, a recognition that greater respect is deserved. One could even say that breaking from someone who is toxic to our well-being is an act of compassion—self-compassion.

It’s typical for people to be drawn to those who treat them as poorly as they treat themselves. If we’re self-harming or self-condemning we automatically feel deserving of harm or condemnation from others. Conversely, those who treat us respectfully are rejected or ignored. Kindness can feel foreign and make us uncomfortable.

But when we begin to cherish ourselves, something interesting happens. We simply cannot tolerate demeaning or abusive treatment anymore. Indigestion is experienced at the core level. Our gut cries “foul” every time we’re subjected to degrading behavior or remarks.

This is what’s happening to Holly.

“His nasty jabs make me boil inside,” she said, “and I cringe every time he puts down the kids.”

That’s understandable. A sense of outrage when treated horribly is not only appropriate but a sign of being mentally healthy. We’re supposed to think protectively of ourselves and of our children.

She recalled an incident in which he tripped over her shoes. He erupted, blasting her for leaving them in his way.

“If it’s not me, it’s the kids,” she said. “I used to fold—letting him get away with being a jerk. But I can’t do that anymore . . . I fight back.”

Abuse should never be permitted or swallowed no matter what form it takes—physical, verbal or emotional. All have a flattening effect on self-esteem.

When I first saw Samantha, another client, she was putting up with physical abuse. “Whenever he would beat me I used to believe it was my fault,” she said. “But I don’t anymore, so what can I do?”

“Why don’t you leave this man?” I asked.

“I’m thinking of the kids,” she answered.

“No you’re not,” I said. “Thinking of the kids includes considering what they’re exposed to day in and day out. Watching mommy get hit isn’t good for children. Period.”

Although Holly isn’t a victim of physical abuse, she’s a constant target of her husband’s verbal and emotional abuse, which is just as devastating. Eventually, I met with Lance, who seemed clueless about his behavior and the effect it was having on his wife.

“Why would she want to divorce me?” he asked. “I love her!” I presented him with the simple truth: “The love in your heart doesn’t count unless it’s translated into actions.”

Instead of feeling loved, I pointed out, she feels like a whipping post.

If Lance wants to save his marriage, he’ll have to make some changes. Real changes. Superficial change—merely going through the motions—won’t cut it. She has to see and feel a changed heart. It’ll show in how he consistently relates to her and the children. Because he seems so blind to his mistreatment, I’m afraid Lance has an uphill battle ahead of him.

While Lance tries to change his side of the equation, Holly is starting to take her life back.

She’s been liberating herself from everything that debilitates or saps her spirit, including him.

She’s growing beyond the belief that she deserves insulting attacks to her dignity. And  she’s realizing that her children need a climate that’s esteem-enriching. She also sees how unhealthy it is for them to observe their father’s cruelty and her mere endurance of it.

Ultimately, if Lance continues in his spirit-deflating ways, she and the kids will be out of there. As they should be.

 

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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