Friday, April 28, 2017

Feelings can be scary. Intense emotions, like rage or grief, can feel overwhelming or out of of our control. But if we can step back from our experience and look more closely at what we feel, we find that other, more tender emotions lie beneath that intensity, emotions that can teach us more about ourselves and even allow us to connect more authentically with others.



Under the Cover of Darkness

Anger, for example, is a secondary emotion; that is, its appearance masks more vulnerable feelings like fear and hurt. When we have been mistreated, we may feel more powerful tapping into our anger at the slight than if we allow ourselves to feel the pain of our hurt or disappointment. I've often seen clients keep their partners at a distance with bluster and rages, only to dig deeper to discover that the explosive partner is terrified of being hurt, and acts out in order to feel safe from the perceived threat of being abandoned. Uncovering our vulnerabilities is courageous work; to allow someone else access to our hurt, fear and insecurity can feel like we are standing naked in a snowstorm. But the truth about our most vulnerable feelings is that they are universal -- all humans have felt them. Some of us are better skilled at burying our softness, but only when we bring these emotions and yearnings into the light, and toward each other, can we be fully seen and accepted. Our shared hurt and fear, our mirrored sadness and despair, can be bridges that bring us closer together, not keep us apart. The next time you feel enraged at a situation or person, peek beneath the anger. The fear, grief or shame you see there is an opportunity to know yourself more honestly, to accept your vulnerability as gratefully as your strength, and to offer yourself with more truth and wholeness to someone else.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

“My roof is leaking. The roofer is estimating the repair may cost $5,000. Not to mention the
money outlay to fix the stained ceiling. Tuition payments begin in a mere four months, and
despite our creative finagling of loans, grants, savings and begging the college for a few extra
dollars, our budget remains short. My arthritis is causing my hands to ache and throb, and on
top of everything, it's raining!” I was depressing myself with my internal rant of complaints as I
drove to the office. Could things possibly get any worse? I was about to spiral into Olympic-level
catastrophizing when I instinctively turned my head at the stop light to scan the greening forest
preserve I pass every day. And there it was, high above the tree line, wedged between thick
graying branches void of the first bud of spring. A hawk’s nest.



From a hundred yards away, I could faintly make out the curves and juts of the twigs, the weight and size of the nest making it look more precariously housed than it probably was. Centered in the nest was a magnificent hawk, itself scanning the preserve, possibly contemplating the best path for hunting breakfast. The bird’s head was a lighter shade of the ashy brown feathers that covered its body. It's eye flicked in its orbit as I watched. The bird looked to be at least three feet tall, though my
perspective could have skewed my vision. Its beak parted and I thought a caught a flash of
silvery tongue. I noticed my own mouth was hanging open, so in awe was I of this rare
communion with a creature I'd seen this close maybe only once or twice in my life. The beep of
a horn behind me brought me back to the present and reminded me to get the car moving. But
my energy was changed from that moment. Worries about money, stress about what ifs,
irritation at having to live with the drywall dust and hammer-pounding that accompanies home
repairs -- it all seemed like nonsense compared to what I'd just seen. The beauty of nature, the
wondrousness of atoms and energy coming together to create a soaring creature that embodies
majesty, the fortuitousness of being able to see the hawk in its home, perhaps just moments
from its next flight shook me with gratitude. How lucky was I? Being a sheltered suburbanite
who rarely veers from the confines of subdivisions, strip malls and paved streets, I knew I might
never experience the kismet of this meeting again. I blessed that powerful creature, the
Universe who gifted me with this sight, and let me heart expand with joy. Yes, indeed -- how
lucky I am.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Boundaries and Bloodlines

Boundaries are necessary, helpful, even reassuring. But they can be challenging to put in place.
Between family members especially, clients may report feeling guilty or selfish when they set
limits to protect themselves or establish healthier dynamics.


Close...Closer...Enmeshed?

While there are innumerable reasons to set boundaries, people may feel that saying “no” to
family members will damage the relationship or indicates a lack of loyalty. As therapists, we
encourage clients to honor the bonds that are important to them, but not to blindly assume that
a genetic link to another requires the client to sacrifice their time, energy, will or happiness for
the sake of someone else. We don't automatically owe family members our allegiance --
certainly, many clients come to therapy with a history of abusive or unhealthy family
relationships. As in relationships with friends, spouses and coworkers, the most fulfilling and
effective family dynamics are laced with respect, communication and mutual investment. Pulling
the “but we’re related! ” card is, at best, a weak argument for why we should agree/do
for/support a family member, and, at worst, a toxic manipulation that uses guilt and obligation to
get the desired reaction. Accepting less-than-respectful treatment from family members just
because they are family doesn't display loyalty or commitment to the family over self, but
minimizes the inherent value of people on both sides. Respecting our needs as equal to others
-- even the “others” within our family tribe -- can enhance the health of relationships, model
self-respect, even provide a safety net to prevent unequal power distribution. Firm, clear, yet
flexible boundaries can actually provide the structure for family members to deepen their
connections and feel safe within relationships that may be the longest lasting in our lives.

Friday, April 7, 2017

As parents, our instinct is to protect our children from harm, to buffer them from life’s challenges
and hurts. Divorce can be a difficult experience that tests our abilities as parents to provide our
kids with a canopy of safety that keeps at bay the struggles inherent in this major life shift.


Learning from Experience

Parents in intact families may unconsciously run “interference” at times between their child and
the other parent. How many kids know which parent will fork over $10 for a movie, or which one
is likely to overlook missed chores? But in divorced families, where the differences in values,
rules and expectations between parents may be more overt, knowing when to step in and when
to keep out of the way of the other parent/child relationship is crucial to our children's healthy
development and maintaining working boundaries between the now “two” family systems.
Especially when one or both parents is carrying anger or hurt from the ended marriage, it can be
easy to step in to “rescue” a child from what we perceive is unhealthy or damaging behavior on
the part of the other parent. But short of our child experiencing physical or severe emotional
harm from the interaction, we serve both systems best by letting the participants work out the
interaction organically. All children, whether young or older, in intact or divorced families, need
to develop individual relationships with each parent devoid of influence from the other parent.
Children need to learn who each of their parents truly are, and this best happens when
dynamics are shaped by only the child and parent actually involved. I regularly remind clients
that, if their ex is truly a selfish or narcissistic or unreasonable personality (or, conversely,
generous, forgiving and flexible) the client needs to have faith in their child's ability to learn who
the parent is through direct experience. We may think we are protecting our kids from our ex’s
bad habits, but those “habits” are part of who the other parent IS, and our kids need to learn that
their parents are real people, with faults and flaws and sometimes poor choices in their
backgrounds. Seeing their parents as “real” allows kids to give themselves grace when they
falter themselves. And the sooner children can know who their parents are authentically, the
sooner a genuine and mutual relationship can develop. Again, if a parent is physically abusive
or verbally attacking or shaming our child, we need to advocate for the child's safety. But in
most cases, parents need to step back and let the child learn how to navigate the relationship
with the parent in this new incarnation. Our kids need our protection, but they also need us to
believe in their ability to discern who others are, their motivations and quirks and characters.
Sometimes we do need to give them shelter, but much more often, our task as parents is to
encourage our children to fly.