Joe Miller is a hardworking man who did what he thought was right. He never asked too much of others and expected to be treated the same. He believed himself to be a good provider for his wife and teenage kids and was shocked to learn that his wife was unhappy. Joe had a bit of a temper but that was only when others didn’t do what they should—especially his 19-year-old son Brian whose only activity in life seemed staying in his room all day to play video games.
Genie, Joe’s wife, is a homemaker who spent years making sure the house was the way it should be. She found great purpose in taking care of her family and now that the kids were close to moving out, she was scared that she would be left with nothing to do. She often felt disappointed in herself and others but did not know why. Joe never seemed to be aware of what she needed, and it seemed like he didn’t care.
Brian is the oldest of Joe and Genie’s three children. He graduated last year by the skin of his teeth and is not sure which direction to take in life. He really doesn’t like conflict so tries to avoid his dad because there seems to always be tension there. When Brian thinks about what he is going to do with his life he gets anxiety. For Brian, video games are the only sure thing he has going for himself.
Believe it or not, Joe, Genie, and Brian are more alike than they realize, they all mean well in the course they have chosen in life, but something underneath has been eating away for some time and they have yet to put their respective fingers on it. Joe often found himself angry and having difficulty letting things go. Genie found herself hurt by other’s lack of care and concern for what she needed—after all, she was so busy taking care of others, wouldn’t someone take care of her? Brian doesn’t know what to do so is set adrift. Like many transitioning adults, the leap from dependent to independent is wrought with anxiety and confusion.
One of the biggest patterns I see in my office has to do with individuals not advocating for themselves. When I say advocate, I do not mean making sure our voice is the loudest or that we are first among others. In fact, I would argue such actions are a result of not advocating for ourselves sooner. Self-advocacy has to do with knowing what we want and need and having the ability to articulate it with ourselves and others. To be more precise, self-advocacy has four main criteria:
What is Self-Advocacy?
· Growing in self-understanding.
· Having a voice and asking for what we need.
· Empowering ourselves through action.
· Recognizing we are safe in who we are.
What Self-Advocacy is NOT:
· Waiting until we are desperate or in a rage to express ourselves.
· Dismissing our needs and wants as selfish or frivolous.
· Desperately trying to grab for our needs above all else (Acting out in inappropriate ways).
· Expecting others or the situation to deliver us (which is very dis-empowering).
In the case of the Miller’s, they may have waited many years before realizing their anger, disappointment, and anxiety may be, in part, because they have not recognized their own wants and needs let alone expressed it to those closest to them. The pattern for Joe is that he works hard and expects others to do as he does (after all, it’s only common sense!). Many nights he will come home and the garbage will not be taken out or a few chores not done to his liking. He gets tired of asking and so takes on the task himself. This then creates a bit of anger which he then tells himself not to feel, but then is so fed up, he explodes. His wife and kids then label Joe as a hot head and lay low for a bit until things go back to “normal”—which means continued stuffing down for a later explosion.
For Genie, her desire to be a "good wife” has instilled in her the idea that she should not see to her own inner world but be wholly caught up in what everyone else around her is doing. Ask her what she would do if she had a weekend to herself and she would genuinely have no answer. In this case, the idea of being with herself is totally foreign to the point that, unless there is a child to attend to, she is at a loss of what to do with herself. This emptiness then catches up with her when the kids move out, bringing an unhappiness she will have trouble shaking.
Brian, who may have had many things done for him over the years. Now does not know how to act for himself. He then escapes in a world that he has grown accustomed to—one that does not judge or challenge. Brian too gets angry and disappointed, like his parents, because he has a hard time making a distinction between what the environment or others provide for him and what he must provide for himself. This lack of self-advocating empowerment then builds more fear and anxiety thereby getting him all the more stuck.
To be clear, each person in this story may have layers of what they need to work on, but one of the first steps in meeting such needs is the concept of self-advocacy. Without it, we may end up desperate, angry, abusive, fearful, anxious, depressed, and confused—to name a few. Self-advocacy, as stated above, involves being aware of what we need and moving toward meeting said need, before survival mode kicks in! Remember, self-advocacy is not rolling over others, it is a timely awareness of what we need coupled with action to go about meeting those needs. It respects the self as it respects others. Keep in mind I use the term “become” because we are all in the process of becoming and must distinguish from the term “be”—there is a difference (see #4). Here are five ways we can become an advocate for ourselves:
1. Become Attuned to You:
Our first and primary relationship is with ourselves: our emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical selves. If we are not able to sit and be with ourselves, we will more heavily rely on others or our environment (things) to meet our needs. For Joe, his anger may be more a feeling of helplessness and disappointment. Becoming attuned to his true feelings will enable him to express sincere emotion to his wife and kids thereby displaying less hot-head and more human. Clearing our head, becoming aware of our emotions, meaning in our lives, our thoughts and our bodies can take work if we are not used to such practice. If you are having a difficult time advocating for yourself this may be a good place to start. More will be written on this in blogs to come.
2. Become Contained (Keep the Boundaries):
Containing ourselves does not mean we must be by ourselves or do things wholly on our own. Containment is about knowing where we stop and others (or the environment) start. Both Joe and Brian have some confusion about who is responsible for their feelings (or even what their feelings are for that matter). Genie knows she is disappointed, but her feeling is about what she expects from others and is unable (or unwilling?) to ask. Genie has gone about guessing at what others may need and trying to be good enough to meet them—then expecting others to do the same for her. Our boundaries include our personal, relational, and environmental boundaries which will be spoken of in further blogs. For now, here is a brief rundown:
How we are to be contained in our emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical selves (four parts). As mentioned above, this requires knowing what emotions we are having and why; What meaning life has for us including our values and purpose (spiritual); What thoughts we are having and whether or not we need to challenge or accept them; How our physical selves react including body sensations, physical needs, and awareness. As adults, we must develop a certain degree of containment for ourselves if we are to interact in a healthy way with others.
This includes our emotional, spiritual, mental and physical selves in interaction with those around us. What other’s emotional experience is and what we expect of them; understanding the meaning, purpose and values of others; relating to and discovering other’s thoughts and internal processes; respecting others physically. Again, all of our relational boundaries require that we know what is ours vs. other’s and respecting them wholly as other people and not just extensions of ourselves—which requires healthy communication.
This refers to our interaction with our environment: all things outside of ourselves and other people. To be wholly involved in the world around us while at the same time understanding ourselves and others is very important to our mental health. If we are not connected to who we are but chase after things, we run the risk of relying on them to deliver our happiness; conversely, if we do not interact with the world around us and get stuck in our head or lean on others to be okay, we go too far in the other unhealthy direction.
3. Become Honest: with Ourselves Before Others:
When it comes to self-advocacy, the role of self-honesty cannot be overstated. Having said that I will not go so far as saying we are lying to ourselves, instead I frame it as being disconnected (or numbed) to ourselves out of confusion and desperation. Joe, Genie, and Brian are having a very difficult time being honest with themselves yet very much want to be “honest” with those round them. To be honest within oneself can bring up some very difficult emotions we have spent a great deal of time and effort avoiding. That’s okay! Such emotions are trying to tell us something about who we are. The Miller family, in a desperate effort to avoid such pain, looks to most everything (or everyone) else to change before they do. Honesty requires connection as we dig into what we feel and why. In being honest and not running we empower ourselves to grow in new ways—remember, there is no growth without some discomfort or pain. This then can generate a humility and understanding toward others which then allows us to approach them in true love and not one-upmanship. If Joe were to be honest with himself about his true feelings of powerlessness and disappointment, he can then approach his family in true connection rather than a “me versus you” arrangement.
4. Become Goal and Process Oriented:
Keeping in mind that in all these steps we are not simply being (as in already there) we are becoming, or in the process of. To be both goal and process-oriented hits on this very point. The goals we set for ourselves create a picture of being, the process is becoming. The Millers, just like all of us, have found themselves stuck in a daily cycle of action and reaction which will carry on indefinitely until they spend some time reflecting on who or what they want to be, and then move in those directions to become. This, again, requires attunement to self and proper boundaries. What often takes place is that we have goals for other’s behavior but not our own. We will readily say, “If you didn’t do this, I wouldn’t do that!” and wait for the other to change. If Genie wants to stop being hurt and disappointed in everyone else’s behavior, then she needs to find alternative mindsets and actions she can take in order to make this possible—which may mean changing her responses toward other’s behavior. For example, if she wants her son and husband to step up around the house she can ask with a loving boundary and then go about living her life, not dependent on them doing what she asks to be happy. If in the past she has asked, they have not responded, and then she does it herself only to grow in resentment, a change in her behavior could mean she stops doing it and lets them live with their own consequences. This would mean she would need to measure her own internal responses to letting them go through the hardship of their lack of action. The goal is to say, “I will not swoop in and do it anyway” the process is “what happens to me when I let the chores not get done?” Understand this is a simplified version and there are many nuances to be sure, but the idea remains. We must set goals for ourselves and appreciate and embrace the process that we go through to get there—being and becoming.
5. Become Empowered:
After we are able to communicate properly with ourselves and others, take on honest look, set reasonable personal goals and be aware of our process, we must step forward in action. Empowering ourselves means not depriving ourselves. Oftentimes, when we deprive our own needs we end up acting out in inappropriate ways. Take Brian for example, his stagnation is more than likely a distraction from the discomfort he is feeling. By distracting himself he takes away his power and can spiral further into depression—which he then wants to distract from. If he moves forward in digging into his emotions and asking why they are there he could discover that he is scared. What Brian really needs is to move, in some way, forward—in self-examination, getting off the couch, or asking for help. He may not have all the answers as he steps out, but by advocating for himself in getting what he might need, he doesn’t continue to starve (deprive) himself of finding meaning and purpose. No doubt this step for him may involve support from loved ones or a good counselor as he navigates all of his issues.
Another area that comes to mind in empowering oneself involves the importance of having fun. Believe it or not, there are many out there who have a very difficult time taking in God’s blessings and experiencing the joy therein. Those with a desire to control the environment (see boundaries) or others very often do not let themselves experience the world around them. They may forgo having a nice meal because they are budget focused, or not play on the monkey bars because it’s not very “adult”. By depriving ourselves these small things we can become consumed with avoiding discomfort and managing everyone and everything around us—which leads to more discomfort. The direction then is to let go, allow ourselves some joy, and stop our dis-empowering control (of others and the environment) and take more empowering control (of our direction and decisions).
When we move toward self-advocacy, we can discover that we need not rely on others to be safe or happy. This self-containment then allows us to have healthy connection toward others and our environment, not leaning on them too heavily to deliver us. For the Miller’s, they may come together as a family and decide they need some help, or one of them may stop the pattern by getting help by themselves—a true example of self-advocacy. It may help to keep in mind we need not wait for others around us to move with us, change can come in the system when one person makes the leap. Such change can be clunky at first but, with enough time, the effort will pay off—in changed attitudes and minds. If you have any questions about self-advocacy, shoot us an email at email@example.com or leave a comment below.
During this time of uncertainty, it’s important to make sure we are staying safe and sane. As many of us have our work and life routines disrupted, we may find ourselves struggling with confusion, uncertainty and even despair. Whereas we may not be able to change where we can go, we can change how we respond. Here are a few things to keep in mind as we weather the days ahead.
1. Develop a routine:
One of the areas of greatest difficulty with the “new normal” is that our life routines have been thrown off kilter. This cannot be underestimated! Our routines help bring structure and certainty to everyday life. When that routine is gone (however potentially monotonous it may have seemed) we can feel unsettled leading to mild anxiety and even depression—this is true of both kids and adults.
So, even though it can be our habit to drift into doing nothing we do best to place rails on ourselves. This means developing a new routine: Get up, shower, get dressed and plan to do what you can around the house or yard. A simple routine for ourselves and family can be vital in adding necessary structure. Sit down, jot down a schedule, and do your best to stick with it. Start with sleep and wake up times, time with the family, and with yourself, and expand from there.
2. Limit the news:
When we say limit the news we do not mean sticking our head in the sand; however, it can be a habit to try and find as much information as we can to relieve our anxiety—be careful of this! More information often does not limit anxiety, it stokes it. With conflicting reports and media hype, more information can leave us confused and panicked. The same can be said of social media. Set a time for your news watching or reading as well as social media (say 20 minutes) and end it there—go and do something productive.
3. Be objective: Stay away from “if only” and “what if…”.
Along with limiting the news it’s important to remain objective. Keep in mind that there are actually many things out there that can cause us harm that don’t get the media focus of COVID-19; in fact, as many as 600,000 people die each year in the United States from diseases which a diet change can prevent—that’s 50,000 a month or over 1,600 a day! Imagine if the news media had daily stories of such a death toll and then informed us on how to keep from dying! Whereas the Coronavirus is not harmless, it’s also yet another thing behavior change can ward off.
Going along with keeping an objective head means not engaging in the “what if” and “if only” mindset. Remember these two statements are actually fantasies of our mind and haven’t actually happened yet; so, if you are constricted with fear over the idea of “What if my family gets sick?” Take the common-sense and necessary precautions and then live your life—not focusing on what hasn’t happened but taking active steps toward what has. Remember, if our mental real estate is caught up on the “what if’s” then we will have little capacity to make the best of what is.
4. Be careful of the phone:
Our smartphones are useful and powerful tools, but they can also be tremendous time killers—sucking up moments we can use to add to our lives. Many of us use our phones to unwind and blank out from a day of constantly trying to solve problems. Whereas its good to take a break from trying to solve everything, the phone can actually keep us in the part of our brains (the frontal lobe) that we are trying to get a break from. One of the primary questions I ask those suffering from anxiety is, “How much time do you spend on your phone?” Most often those who are burning out and anxious tend to spend goodly chunks of time playing phone games or scrolling through social media. Set a time for your phone habit, replace it with mindfulness or ideas you can come up with to be productive, even put the phone away from you when there is no specific need. If its difficult to do this at first, take heart, the muscle will build itself.
5. Engage in activity:
With all this extra time we have on our hands (with schedule in hand and limits to the news and social media) we can now open up our creativity and pursue activities that truly add to our lives. Many of us will struggle with this given our work, eat, sleep, work again routines that are now in flux. Use this time to discover things you might like: go on walks, pick up a hobby, work in the yard, set up family time or time with your significant other. I’ve been amazed at how many more people I have seen outside these past few weeks. Engaging activity helps us build into ourselves instead of relying on others or things we may be dependent on. Taking time to reflect on who we are and what we can do instead of what we can’t do empowers us to press on no matter what.
If we keep in mind a few simple yet effective ways to turn this uncertain time into a blessing, we will have much greater resilience for any change to come. Simply spending time avoiding what we consider troubling will eventually cause us more trouble in the long run. By meeting the challenge and moving forward in what we can do we will become less aware of what we cannot do. If you are still having trouble snapping out of the funk, remember, Downey Park Counseling Associates is open for in-office and video sessions for your convenience.
Chris Oneth LMFT
Downey Park Counseling Associates
I was stressed! I had ten minutes to take a shower, shave, and get dressed before leaving to take my son to school. Without getting into too much detail, I probably could have started earlier before my walk and workout. Now, I was under the gun and wanted to blame someone. Thoughts in my head strung a racing narrative that confirmed the piling responsibilities and deadlines I had to meet if my day were to be a success. As a result, the interaction with my wife and son was…tense, strained and…my doing. When my wife reminded me that I should have started earlier (or not take so long with breakfast, or shorten the walk, etc.)—I balked. “Okay, I know, but that isn’t going to help me now!”
Many of us know this story: we do something, it causes us (and others) some pain and discomfort, we may (or may not be) confronted, and finally, we just want it to go away. We are always want to avoid any type of stress, pain, bad feelings or discomfort; but the truth is: sometimes, its gotta hurt.
How it Hurts:
Whether we are rushed for time, agonizing over a poor decision we have made, running into hardship after hardship, the stress of being financially tight, the frustration over a protracted argument with a spouse, the loss of a job: “pain” comes in a variety of forms—the same is true in therapy. I often compare my time with clients to the cleaning out an infected or improperly healed-over wound. In order to begin the healing process, we have to do some cleaning—which can be painful, even excruciating.
The pain can be both subtle and overt. It’s easy to feel hurt, saddened and frustrated at some relational difficulties that we cannot avoid, what is most difficult is to accept discomfort, uneasiness, and even avoidance as a type of pain. In the workplace, if we get tense and rigid at the anticipation of teaming up with a coworker, it may help to realize that what we might want to call “frustration” is really a type of pain.
If we are continually being offended or slighted by so many people around us—which can be ever prevalent in a society that takes personal offense at a premium. In our “offense culture” we can easily find things to be upset over—so much so that real tragedy gets drowned out. Not to say that being bothered is not legitimate but its full weight may be found in the reaction, not the initial action.
Personal pain can come in the form we feel and in a form we give. The oft used expression “hurt people, hurt people” may seem cheesy but it holds vital truth. We may not stop and realize how challenging our situation is but we can take a good look at our behaviors (and no, avoiding them does not help!). Therapists will often check those who continually express anger at others for depression. The angry young man isn’t just a cultural catch phrase, it can point to deeper rumblings.
Pain also comes in the form of improperly translated shame. Remember, guilt can be repaid, shame can never be repaid and so it keeps pressing—over and over again. Shame can keep us from change and so has a tendency to be avoided at all costs. The shame cycle goes like this: someone points out an area in which we need change, we feel the sting of shame (usually with the “I’m flawed” narrative), we take offense or feel even worse, which brings more shame—and avoidance—thus continuing our unhealthy behavior.
Why it Hurts:
1). Fear and Avoidance:
When asking the question, “why” we really must be prepared for the answer. The reason I say this is because many of us ask why so that we can point to a situation or a person outside of ourselves. The why question can also help us avoid doing anything about anything. If we continue to ask why then we can sit and rub our chin instead of getting out of our chair. Besides, maybe the reason something is hurting is because we haven’t done anything about it. Avoidance may feel comfortable as we kick the can down the road but it also feeds our shame and does not deal with the problem.
It’s true that we can find ourselves in situations that are painful: a destructive relationship, a harsh work environment, even discrimination, but what we may not be able to change in others we need not accept in ourselves. Take a harsh work environment: Whereas it’s true that snapping up another job can be scary and difficult, it’s also true that we may not be as trapped as we think we are. We are not prohibited from seeking a different line of work, modifying our behavior, or seeking counsel in our situation. I have worked with many who have changed their tack and found encouraging results.
2). Natural Consequences:
Why may also lead us to realize that we often hurt over our own actions and behaviors—hitting our own hand with a hammer will hurt, bad! Looking back on the work example, what we may want to call discrimination someone else may call just rewards (keeping in mind there are different forms of discrimination). We are all want to minimize our role in causing ourselves hardship, what we must be careful of is missing the real issue lest we get ourselves stuck by routinely pointing at situations and others.
When going through pain, it may seem obvious to many around us why but can be very difficult to see for the person in the fight. I have known many who continue to put themselves through the most difficult of circumstances because they feel they just can’t (or don’t want to) change—which could also tie back to the shame cycle. If circumstances snowball and continue to get worse, which causes us to feel the failure so we avoid, so our situation gets worse as more poor decisions are made (you get the picture). I may not want my hand to hurt as I continue to whack it with a hammer but that’s just the way it goes.
Many who suffer with addiction will confess that they hate their situation and their actions, while others in the same boat will want all to go well for them even though they have burnt bridges, strained relationships, lost jobs and continue to use. This sort of “magical thinking” rests on the idea that circumstances should go well because we want them to, not because we should do something different. These stuck folks have a very hard time seeing the natural consequences of their behaviors. In a sense, such consequences are a gift from God that can help direct and shape us for the better. Those who don’t want to accept them will continue to put themselves through pain—all the while trying desperately to avoid it (a paradox any way we look at it).
3) Poor Boundaries:
For the co-dependent, issues may continue to hurt because of the tendency to take on other’s pain. This happens on two sides of a contract: the one comes from the person who always wants to be rescued and continues to avoid the pain of responsibility; the other comes from the one who rescues and can’t see their loved one go through the pain of responsibility. This creates an undue burden on the person who is always swooping in—feeling like they are taking everything on their shoulders and straining under the weight. In this case boundaries work two ways, what we do to others and what we allow them to do to us (or expect from us). Keeping a firm handle on letting “you be you, and me be me” means that, if I am co-dependent, I don’t keep rescuing your or taking your pain as my own. If I am grandiose then I have to accept my pain and not try to demand you deliver me from it. This takes a lot of work but is well worth it!
Hopefully, we all know what it feels like to regret something we have said or done. I know that can sound strange but regret is, actually, a good thing (in good measure) that can indicate we care. Regret can come from mistakes we have made—which we all do! Some may try to avoid regret by not admitting to ever making mistakes. Running across a person who never admits to a mistake is not a pleasant deal; Usually, such people are obnoxious and draining. Regret can also tie back into the shame cycle, in which case we must be careful to use regret as a vehicle for change and thus, redeem what it is there for. To regret for a moment and not a lifetime allows us to see things in proper balance. Remember, if our regret does not lead to change it has a good chance of becoming shame, which is toxic.
5) Confrontation: Me and You Against You:
Many of us have dealt with that loved one: spouse, sibling, parent, child etc. that does not do confrontation well. Being confronted can cause anger, hurt, and avoidance—and for very good reason. Looking back on the Stages of Acceptance we see that avoidance is a common maneuver as we knee-jerk our way to shirking responsibility. But being confronted hurts in a couple of ways: for one, if you come to me with an issue I may attack you because you are the face of what is causing me pain (me against you), but I will also attack you because deep down I know that I am wrong (me and you against you)—which links again to shame. In this I may feel like I can go toe-to-toe with you and all your flaws, but you and me against me can be way to overwhelming—and painful.
One of the most difficult, and needed, aspects of my job can be confrontation. There are many therapists who out right avoid, and feel there is no place for, confrontation (and think so for good reason), but there may come a time when we confront the behavior that is hurting them. If I tell you that hitting your hand with a hammer is causing you the pain you hate so much and then you get angry at me because I point out something you are doing wrong; well, sometimes its gotta hurt! Confrontation in this way can come in many forms and most certainly not on the first meeting. When rapport is built, trust established, and a good alliance is made a gentle question or observation can be both needed—and painful! I try to be very careful in gauging the situation and even ask “So what would you like to do?” before I just lay it on. Because of the tender nature of the situation I will often wait until I am asked—making every attempt to not gratify my own goals and visions for the client I help.
Why it Needs to Hurt:
Bad decisions, poor life choices, uneasiness, confrontation—there seems no end to the list of stuff that hurts. What is important to remember is that we, as people, are want to avoid pain, sometimes at all costs. In this way (and I’ve said it before) we treat pain like a burning building, we go the opposite direction in hopes of having it just go away. The problem is that many of our issues are engulfed in the flames of pain—avoid the flames and the problem never changes. That is why I try to help clients “run into the burning building”, put out the flames and face the problem (and the pain) head on. In doing so it helps to recognize a few of the following:
How to Deal With the Hurt:
Not dealing with the pain is not dealing with the issue. Whether we are confronting ourselves or someone we are close to we have to accept that sometimes its gotta hurt! Simply put, we deal with the hurt by facing it, appreciating it, and allowing it to hurt so we are motivated to do something different. In this we must realize that there is a type of hurt that brings life and another type that brings death. The hurt that brings life is one in which we say “ah, yes, I did that and I am wrong. Thank God I have a chance to know what I have done and to change!” The hurt that brings death is the one we avoid, with the idea that to accept the need to change means we are hopelessly flawed and unable to recover. It is a lie to believe that by accepting and facing responsibility we are somehow irreparably damaged. We also need not wallow in our pain. If it hurts, then look for ways to change it—first ourselves and then our situation. Remember, the support of good friends and an insightful counselor can help. If you or someone you know is in need of extra support, go to our website www.downeyparkcounseling.com or like our Facebook page at Downey Park Counseling Associates.
You’re Not the Boss of ME!: The Five Ways Adults Communicate Like Children and the VOICE That Can Help Fix Them
Children are a wonder: one moment kind and gentle and then pointedly hurtful the next. Go to any elementary school yard and the refrain of “I’m not going to be your friend” can be heard at least a few times. As children, we learn from our families how to navigate the social waters around us: the cues, the facial expressions, and the tones of voice. But we also learn how to work our relational way through the socialization schoolyard. Problems arise when our families lack emotionally mature ways of operating that give us the much needed foundation of how to interact in future relationships. When young, having not developed the parts of our brain that can articulate emotionally laden interpretations, we can take others actions as being an attack and respond by closing off or going ‘big’. As a child we may be able to get away with such behavior, but as adults there is a bit more expected from us. Real trouble comes when we look like adults but still act in childish ways. The following are five ways in which we as adults act like emotional children, they provide a key in how to challenge and combat the dysfunctional ways we tend to operate.
1. Limited Vocabulary:
Research tells us that we have the full range of emotions around the age of five. What we lack, however, is an adequate way of articulating and expressing our emotions (Gail 2016). Walk into any primary or secondary grade classroom and it’s a safe bet that there is a host of vocabulary words posted so the teacher can convey the subject matter to her students. We also understand that any career field and workplace has a lingua franca shared and understood by its employees. Language helps us convey concepts and ideas that would otherwise take drawn out and confusing explanations. I could tell you that when you are driving and come upon a pole that extends out over the street, containing an upright rectangular box with red, green, and yellow lights you must stop at the red light; or I can just say there is a “stop light”—making the lengthy explanation unneeded.
So it is with expressing our emotions. As both children and adults, when we get emotional, trying to explain how we feel can seem like a herculean task. If we have not learned to articulate and express our emotions in mature ways then we can feel trapped by what I call counterfeit emotions—emotions that we feel in the moment but may not be completely accurate. We all have a range of emotions but we do not all know how to pinpoint and name what they are; as such, hurt, sadness, and loneliness can feel like anger; excitement, uncertainty, and curiosity can feel like fear; and compassion, empathy, and understanding can feel like guilt or shame—just to point out a few.
With limited ways to express how we feel we are only left with the emotions of the moment; therefore, If I feel angry I will speak the language of anger and fear, If I only understand shame then I will move, and be moved by, the language of guilt and shame. This then leaves me communicating in a passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive manner—which can be a certain way toward unhealthiness.
The Fix: Developing (V)ocabulary:
When I learn the vocabulary of how I am feeling (by really digging in and examining what first feelings I have) I can develop the words to share what is going on inside and help those across from me hear what I am feeling as well—which is assertive communication (US Federal News Service 2012). Therapists will often give clients lists of feelings and ask them to write down what they are really feeling in the moment vs. how they usually react in the moment—which can lead to a wide spectrum of feelings that may have been long avoided or unarticulated. The vocabulary of emotion gives us a ready way to connect with ourselves and others when tempers flare and we want to act like children.
2. Limited Perspective
Jean Piaget, the famous developmental psychologist, pointed out the stage of maturity he called the preoperational stage in which children tend to operate at a highly egocentric capacity (Breedlove 2015)—and some never move on! Expanding our perspective comes with maturity and practice. Perspective can operate at two levels—one obvious and the other more sophisticated: The first understands where someone else might be coming from. As children, when we lack ways to articulate and communicate how we feel we are left with only our raw emotions to understand others and the world around us. When the emotions are high we can get into that “fight or flight” mode in our head which then leads to self-preservation as the primary directive—which is actually one of the hallmarks of being a child (or immaturity). Whereas it’s true some children can seem very giving and self-sacrificing, even this can be a means of self-protection.
As we move into the teenage years, our sense of the world, and it’s orbit around me is compounded with the development of the amygdala—that area of our brain that deals with emotions and relating to others. It is during these adolescent years that a heightened sense and awareness of ourselves goes into overdrive; as such, what those in the psychological community call the “imaginary audience” (that sense that everyone is watching us and actually cares about what we are doing!) can be the main force in how we act as bigger children (Galanaki 2012). Take this perspective into adulthood and we are left with only seeing issues from our point of view. This limited perspective is all about how it makes us feel, and react, and think, and so on. It is for this reason we so often fight to be understood rather than fight to understand (which is a huge hang-up when we are in disagreement with another). What can be difficult is actually getting out of our own moment and getting into the head and heart of another—after all, I’m to worried about me to consider you! In these times it is essential to consider that everyone walking the street has hopes, fears, worries, stresses, heartbreaks and hang-ups that drive their day.
The second level of perspective taking (the more sophisticated side) rests in realizing others make mistakes. As children we judge at face value—seeing someone’s behavior or actions and making up stories about what they meant to do to us (more on that later). I have mentioned this before but a youth pastor of mine once said, “We judge others by their actions and we judge ourselves by our intentions”. Because children’s emotional thermostat can continually run hot, it’s very difficult to think, “hmm, I wonder if they meant that when they said…” At the same time, we as grown children continually want to be let off the hook for the stuff we didn’t mean that resulted in reactions we didn’t expect. If you are involved in any service industry you have seen how grown adults can treat others: they can be demanding, insensitive, selfish and unregulated—all stemming from a lack of understanding, empathy and perspective—which is pretty childish.
The Fix? (O)thers Perspective:
One of the surest ways to gain the perspective of another is to ask questions. Without honest inquiry we are left with making up our own story in our heads (from our perspective!). If we think or feel a certain way we could ask of the other, “I am thinking ________, is that what you meant?” or, “you sound upset, are you okay?” and then be prepared for the answer (not what we assume to be the answer); remember, we know what our perspective is, the question here is: What is theirs?
3. Limited Control
One of the great things about children is the rawness of their emotions. I remember when my daughter was about 18 months old (she is 21 now), she was completely overcome at the passing of a fire truck on a code three run. As the sirens went blaring she watched in frozen consternation with what must have been a holistic fright. After the engine passed she let out a wail and ran into my arms, looking for me to help regulate her. This extreme in emotional reaction is common to those who are young and have not learned to mitigate how intense feelings can be sometimes—and so must look to their parents to help them do so (Kopp 1989). In the same way, adults who are unregulated can ‘blow the doors off the hinges’ in regards to their feelings. In some cases emotions can be a type of drug—often turned to and seldom put aside. In this way we can tend to park on our limited vocabulary and perspective by binging on our hurt, anger, fear etc. Because these emotions can carry a type of intoxication we can find ourselves not wanting to let them go because they feel so right. Think of the angry customer at the checkout line or the bitter divorce’. We may think, “You have wronged me and I will NEVER forgive you”—all emotion and totally extreme.
Another angle to this is how some have responded in the opposite direction to such intensity. Some have grown up with such emotional dysregulation that they chose the opposite tack—cutting themselves off from their feelings—which is why therapists will often see couples who work in such extremes, one unregulated, the other cut off. This does not lessen the fact that there is wrong in this world (which there will always be) but it does say much about how we respond to such wrong—unregulated and extreme, stuffed and cut off, or managed and appropriately directed.
When we operate to such extremes we can find the ‘fixes’ we try and implement just make the problem worse. If I do not regulate myself and immediately fly off the handle, verbally spewing all that is in me in the name of sharing my feelings, I may say things I later come to fully regret. On the other hand, if I am cut-off emotionally and say I am feeling nothing (in order to make the situation ‘go away’) then nothing will get resolved and I may grow to be bitter and resentful (and unable to feel).
The Fix? (I)nternal Regulation:
Emotions are good and needed, but to let them go wild can damage those around you. Once again, emotions are good and needed, but to ignore and stuff them can damage us inside. It is important to ask ourselves, “Why am I getting so angry and emotional” or, “Why am I so numb? “When was the last time I felt something?” Emotional regulation comes in many forms but the first step is healthy internal dialogue. A step outside the immediate intensity of the situation may help to calm us down; or, really digging in to something we know we should have some feeling over can help us to feel again.
4. Limited Challenge
This area of limited challenge can prove tricky. First, per Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, children tend to base who they are on what others say about them, parents and loved ones. Next, they will often take on the language and emotional tenor of the homes of upbringing. But something happens in the adolescent years that shifts the search for identity from “Who do you say I am” to “Who am I, really?” In these years children (adolescent children) now carry around their family messages of who they are but are also forming internal, autonomous, messages of who they are and looking to peers for support (Breedlove 2015). It is for this reason teens can often get an attitude, challenging all around them but not challenging themselves. And this can be paradoxical, for on the one hand they shun the family that has long known them, yet on the other they wholeheartedly adopt every statement and fad from their social set—not bothering to question or critique. So it stands to reason that children this age can have a limited ability to challenge what they are thinking while at the same time regularly challenging those around them. This can prove especially true among teenage males as they act without thinking, often leading to impulsive and dangerous behavior.
When we as adults do not challenge our own thoughts and beliefs we can respond in emotionally unhealthy ways. So it is with communication, when we fully rely on our own interpretations, not questioning our scripts and beliefs about our internal, relational, or global dialogue, then we can leap to some pretty outrageous assumptions. Even if we are the type to take on the blame for other’s behaviors around us we are not challenging our own thoughts in the matter as to why we feel we are always to blame.
The Fix? (C)hallenging Our Beliefs:
We all have beliefs we carry around with us that inform the way we interact with ourselves, others, and the world in general. These beliefs can have both strengths and weaknesses. If we march about never questioning the weaknesses of such beliefs then we are in for some communication frustration. One example of a personal belief is operating in ideals. Ideals carry with them, “What if?”, “If only”, and “Should” scripts—these are great for dreaming (a strength!) but can be destructive for communication when our expectations are not met. In my practice I assess for the top personal, relational and external beliefs with the PRE Beliefs Inventory so awareness can lead to healthy challenging.
5. Limited Boundaries:
As children, we really don’t have very fixed boundaries, and for good reason—we need people to take care of us. As we grow we learn how to act from our parents—often watching for their reactions to certain situations which further cement our relying on others to inform our mood and take care of us. As time passes we eventually achieve some skill in operating on our own. As we continue to grow older we become increasingly more autonomous leading to eventual separation sometime in late adolescence. A healthy family dynamic allows for the change in parent/child relationship to move from dependent to independent; however, many families grow up either not recognizing and/or not accepting this long and gradual transition. Families that operate on an economy of emotional manipulation, fear, anger, and shame have a difficult time producing children that understand the value of where they stop and others start. This can range from overt to covert: For example, the mother with fear and control issues may, in subtle ways, use emotional pleas to get her children to do what she asks. The children may then grow to be adults that use language such as, “If you really loved me you would…” Many recognized co-dependents often take part in unhealthy communications and behaviors as a means of assuaging long held fears and functions. As authors John Townsend and Henry Cloud state in their book, Boundaries In Marriage, there are issues such as cause and effect, responsibility, power, and respect that surround our behaviors and communication toward others (Cloud & Townsend 1999). If we are unaware of our own boundaries and others (as children tend to be) then we are in for some violations that can have us acting like children.
The Fix? (E)stablishing Boundaries:
Recognize that others are not responsible for our feelings and cannot deliver us from them. Accepting that people do and say hurtful things and we cannot control them, we can only control ourselves. We can also be aware of where we stop and others start. We may want to talk over or shout down another because we don’t like what they say. In this case we must practice internal and external boundaries—internal being our internal regulation and external relating to not allowing others to coerce or control us. Remember, this does not mean saying whatever hurtful thing that comes to mind (Remember the first four steps) but it can mean either standing up for ourselves by not letting others run us or recognizing how we may tend to try and run others. Also be aware of the coercion, manipulation, and emotional arm twisting we may employ and look to avoid such means. Remember not to assume what others need and want but ask and be open to the answers you receive.
Changing the way we have long communicated (either in our heads or toward others) takes hard and persistent work—after all, we have grown skilled in our childish behaviors. A good question to ask ourselves may be, “Is this way really helping me?” or, “Is there a better way to communicate.” Remembering to use our VOICE can be the start of a better operating system. If you want a change and hope to move forward, finding a good therapist can help you do just that. If you would like to contact me you can leave a comment on my facebook page Chris Oneth LMFT or, to see my other posts visit my blog at www.chrisoneth.net.
Chris Oneth LMFT
Downey Park Counseling Associates
ASSERTIVE COMMUNICATION LEADS TO STRONGER RELATIONSHIPS. (2012, Nov 14). US Fed News Service, Including US State News Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1151544838?accountid=40702
Breedlove, S. Marc, (2015) Principles of Psychology, New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Cloud, Henry, J. Townsend, (1999) Boundaries in Marriage: Understanding the Choices That Make or Break Loving Relationships, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan
Gail E. Joseph, Ph.D. Philip S. Strain, Ph.D. Enhancing Emotional Vocabulary in Young Children Center for Evidenced Based Practices for Early Learning, Accessed February 27, 2016 http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/resources/training_preschool.html#mod2
Galanaki, Evangelia P. (2012) The Imaginary Audience and the Personal Fable: A Test of Elkind’s Theory of Adolescent Egocentrism. Psychology Vol 3, No 6 457—466.
Kopp, Claire B. (1989) Regulation of distress and negative emotions: A developmental view. Developmental Psychology, Vol 25(3), May 1989, 343-354.