4 Tips for Dealing with Anger

angry man

Anger has gotten a bad reputation.  As I always tell my patients who have trouble acknowledging their anger or expressing it in a healthy way, “Anger is a healthy response to being disrespected.”  By suggesting tips to help you understand and handle your anger, I’m not at all saying that feeling anger is a bad thing.  But acting out of anger often turns into a bad thing.  These tips are to help you deal with anger in a healthier way, not to eliminate the feeling from your emotional repertoire.  Anger about injustice has given birth to many a good cause.  I’m sure Martin Luther King Jr. felt anger, but he didn’t act out of anger.  As a peace-promoting man, he likely used any anger he felt over injustice to fuel his efforts.  But I suspect his actual actions were guided more by conviction, a desire for peace and justice, and the knowledge that anger-fueled action often becomes violence.  So please feel your anger and recognize that it is telling you something, namely, “There’s something going on here that I don’t like.”  But don’t let anger rule your actions.  Let your actions come from a more centered place.

1.  Accept that you can’t control others

Plainly and simply put: Anger is your response to someone not being or doing as you want them to be or do.  You feel angry when others don’t behave or respond as you want them to.  But if we can’t control others, then fortunately for us, they can’t control us either.  Trying to control another adult is so utterly disrespectful.  Do you remember how you felt when someone tried to control you?  I bet you were angry.    Other people are as free to make their own choices as you are, even if their choices hurt you or don’t make sense to you.  All you can do is feel your anger but let your response, whether it involves verbal or physical action, come from a clearer, more centered place.  This is what Martin Luther King did when he responded to violence with non-violence.

2.  Realize that it’s not personal

This one can save you from feeling anger over a lot of the silly, everyday nonsense.  The best explanation of this comes from Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements.  He states that he can see someone one day who says, “Miguel you are so wonderful!,” and he knows that the person is in a good mood.  The next day the same person can say, “Miguel you are horrible!,” and he knows that the person is in a bad mood.  Miguel hasn’t changed who he is overnight; the other person’s mood has changed overnight.

When you feel angry in response to someone’s actions, realize that their actions usually have nothing to do with you.  If you think the customer service representative on the phone isn’t being helpful, then know that he is likely the same with everyone.  It’s not personal.  Is it frustrating?  Yes.  But is it personal?  No.  The person who is kind to you is kind to most people and the person who is rude to you is rude to most people.  Even if a colleague does something that is deliberately aimed at you to make you look bad and him look good, let’s say to position himself for a promotion.  Know that he would have done it to anyone whom he deemed a threat.  That still doesn’t make it fair, but it does make it not personal.

3.  Take a beat

It’s an important lesson to learn in life that things that are said can’t be taken back.  Couples often tell me that they have said things in anger that they immediately regretted and even apologized for, but their partners never forgot it.  In the heat of anger, you might verbally throw your partner’s weaknesses at him or her or threaten to leave.  Those kinds of remarks are not forgotten and the more it happens the less safe your partner feels about you.

Take a moment before you respond, even if that moment lasts much longer than a beat.  You can say something like, “I need a minute to think so that I say this clearly.”  If you are so angry that you know you won’t be able to think clearly in a minute, say something like, “I have to clear my head a little.  I’ll be back in ‘x amount of time’ when I’m calmer and we can talk about this more then.”  But don’t leave without an explanation or just stomp out.  To just walk out on someone is also disrespectful and then nothing gets solved.  So do your best to calm down with the intention to get back to the topic a.s.a.p.

4.  Learn what calms you down

You need to try different things to see what calms you down when you’re angry.  Again, that doesn’t mean ignore your anger.  It means feel it and then manage it so that it doesn’t overwhelm you.  Maybe taking a few deep breaths, going for a quick walk, thinking of what you could potentially lose, or meditating will work for you.  It may be that you already do or think certain things when you are anxious, such as, “Everything is going to be okay,” or “Things always work out well in the end.”  Perhaps those same thoughts could help you with anger too.  You need to be willing to try different things to see what works for you.

People say that they can’t control themselves in those moments of anger.  But that is not true.  You always have a choice; you always can take a beat.  A split second before you say it, you know that what you are about to say will hurt your partner.  If you think that you can’t control yourself in those moments, then that’s precisely what you have to learn and why you need to practice.  Keep practicing; it will make you more mature and it will teach you self control.  So if you do blurt something out, then try to do better the next time you’re angry.  If you do stomp out, then apologize when you get back and pick up the discussion.  Just keep trying to do better because we seldom get things perfect the first time around and life will certainly give you plenty of opportunities to get angry and practice some more.


4 Tips for Getting through Divorce

Divorce is painful.  Tbroken ringshere’s no getting around it.  Whether you were the one who initiated it or not, it is still likely be one of the most painful periods in your life.  These tips are for getting through the first month or two after it’s decided that you’re getting divorced.

1.   Be kind to yourself and don’t overdo

You’re getting divorced and it feels like a shock.  It seems like life is moving on, carrying your body along with it, but your brain and heart are stuck in limbo.  You’re still in shock over the realization that your marriage is over and the future you had imagined with your spouse will never happen.  Don’t make yourself do too much, i.e. work or social activities.  You may have to take some time off from work, ranging from days to weeks.  Each day you’ve accomplished something if you can get one thing done, whether it’s the grocery shopping or getting to one appointment, and that’s great.

2.  Lean on your support system

If they don’t already know, then tell your closest friends and relatives that you are getting a divorce and let them help you by taking care of some things that you can’t quite handle yet.  Get a therapist, or contact one you saw in the past.  Family can be wonderful, but the fact that they knew your soon-to-be ex can make them less than impartial and unfortunately some “helpful” remarks may even blame you.  Get a therapist in place, who can help you get through this in a non-judgmental way at the pace that you need.

3.  Stay in the present

It’s inevitable that you’ll be sad, after all you’re grieving over the end of your relationship.  There’s no pretending that it isn’t over or that you’re not devastated.  But try not to add anxiety to the mix.  There is nothing that causes anxiety more than jumping into the far-off future with thoughts like, “Will anyone ever love me?”, “Will I ever get married again?”, or “What’s my life going to look like?”  As soon as you start thinking like that you’re going to feel that tight vice-grip around your stomach and be overwhelmed by anxiety.   Stay in the present.  That means get yourself through the day.  Take things a day at a time and at the most, a week at a time.

All of those questions will get answered in the future.  There’s no use torturing yourself with them now when you can’t possibly answer them.  Just stick to the present day with questions like, “What am I going to have for dinner?” (By the way, almost everyone I’ve worked with in this situation has lost their appetite and had a period of barely eating.  This is completely normal as deep sadness tends to rob people of their appetites.  But this will most likely pass within a month.)

4.  Accept current reality but have goals

People often balk at the Buddhist tenet of practicing acceptance.  They mistakenly think it means to not have goals or want to achieve anything.  What it really means is that we have no choice but to accept what currently is, i.e. you are getting divorced.  But you can accept the present while still having goals for the future.  They are not incompatible.

Give some thought to what dreams you’ve had about your life and what you’ve wanted to achieve, even if they seem far-fetched.  Now is the time to start thinking of them seriously.  Your life is about to have a lot of space in it, which was once filled with a spouse, marital obligations, and possibly a home to maintain.  What are you going to fill that space with?  Don’t fill it with mediocrity or things that you are expected to do but feel uninspiring.

I’ve worked with people who have created entirely new and more fulfilling lives after divorce.  It usually helps to fill the emptiness with something creative.  Do you love to write, dance, or paint?  What have you always wanted to be or do or learn?  Perhaps you’ve wanted to learn to speak Italian or to cook French cuisine?  It’s your choice.  You’re at a point where life is giving you both the burden and the opportunity of recreating your life.

So these are a few points about how to survive divorce, which I hope will help you.  There is a lot more that I could add, but these are some basics to get you through that initial, “Oh my God, I’m getting divorced,” period.  You’re in a lot of pain and probably think it will never end.  But you’ll notice after a few weeks that you’ll feel a little better, then in a few weeks you’ll feel a little better still.  It happens little by little and it takes time.  There are no shortcuts, but you’ll get through it.  Then one day you’ll find that you’ve gotten through most of the day and you’ll realize, “Wow, I haven’t thought of him/her all day.”  You may even feel a little sad at this realization that the person who was once so important in your life is no longer in your thoughts, but that’s what will happen.  Life goes on and so will you.

How to Prevent Recurrent Depression

Close up of young couple fightingSome people have certain susceptibilities, such as getting depressed or overly anxious, and rather than denying these susceptibilities, it’s best to accept them and learn to manage them better.  Take depression, for instance.  Studies show that people, who have experienced a Major Depressive Episode (MDE), have a 50% likelihood of reoccurrence.  So if you have gone through depression in your life, then chances are that you will go through a similar episode at some point again.  While you don’t need to be nervous about it all of the time, which would only add anxiety to the mix, you can accept the likelihood and do your best to recognize and manage the precursors to a MDE.

If the best predictor of the future is the past, then take a careful and honest look at your previous depressive episode(s).  What thoughts, feelings, and behaviors preceded them?  For example, did you wake up hours before your alarm and have trouble falling back asleep?  Did you start taking longer to return people’s calls?  Did you let your home get messier?  Did you start ruminating about how you were a “failure, hopeless, single forever,” etc.?  Were you feeling overwhelmed or stressed in at least two key areas of your life, such as relationship, career, or health?

Take note of what preceded the last time you became depressed so that you can take preemptive measures while you are still near the top of that slippery slope, before you slide fully downhill and land in a Major Depressive Episode.  You know how hard it is to pull yourself out of there.  Thankfully, studies also show that MDE’s can end within 6 to 9 months without any kind of treatment.  However, no one wants to feel depressed for months, and no one wants to see a loved one depressed for months.

Understanding what thoughts and behaviors precipitate a MDE is imperative.  If your memory is a bit hazy regarding this time prior to a depressive episode, then ask your spouse, a close friend, or family members.  I guarantee you that they will remember a change in your behavior that they either took note of were concerned about before they realized that you were depressed.   Then once you can see your pre-depression pattern more clearly, you can fashion some sort of a preemptive plan to halt a downward emotional spiral.  Again, look to your supportive partner, family, and friends, and give them permission to call you on your “pre-depression behavior” as soon as they see it.

If you can remember how terribly you felt while depressed, write it down somewhere.  Write the worst of it, such as how you felt and the painful thoughts you had.  Keep it somewhere as a tool that you or a loved one can use when necessary to remind you of how bad it can get, so that you realize it’s better to head it off at the pass.  People forget the depths of their feelings; they remember in theory but don’t remember exactly how they felt.  It’s a funny phenomenon that we think that whatever we are currently feeling will just go on forever.  If we’re feeling fine, we think we’ll always feel fine, and if we’re depressed, we think it will never end.  So if you’re starting to feel badly and you read about a past difficult time in a diary, it can help you remember how awful it can get and motivate you to do whatever you need to in order to avoid that dark place, for your sake and that of your loved ones.

Then what do you do?  There is no magic “snap out of it” formula for everyone.  You will have to figure out what helped you in the past and be willing to try things that have helped others.  Some suggestions are:

– reconnect emotionally with your partner

– get some aerobic exercise

– see a therapist or revisit a previous one

– take a quick trip to get a change of scenery and perspective

– spend time in nature

– learn something new and creative

– do some charity work and see that your life is not so bad and that you have something to contribute

– spend more time with friends and family so that you can see that people love and appreciate you

Act on these preemptive moves quickly, before the lack of energy and motivation that usually accompany MDE’s hit you.

You don’t have to live in fear of depression, but you need to be realistic.  You survived depression before and you can survive again.  But you may be able to save yourself and your family the pain of you experiencing a depressive episode again if you can put some carefully thought out preventative measures in place beforehand.

If you found this article helpful and know of someone who has experienced a depressive episode, please share this with them.

The Many Faces of Love: Caretaking A Sick Loved One

Tender Care

I talk to my patients about the many faces of love, whether romantic or non-romantic love.  There is the “It’s early on and everything you say is fascinating” love, the “We know each other so well and can finish each other’s sentences” love, the “Wow, you can still surprise me” love, and then sadly, the “You’re really sick and I’m terrified of losing you” love.  I’ve gone through the last one and it was so terribly painful, and yet in the midst of that pain there were moments of joy too.  I was taking care of someone, who was very sick and diagnosed with a serious illness.  (Thankfully he is stabilized now.)  There were days when just the thought of losing him made me tear up.  One day I even had to put on my sunglasses because the tears just started rolling down my face while I was walking outside.  Other days, my fear would turn into anger when he wouldn’t eat despite my best efforts and cajoling.  Yet throughout this, I would experience unexpected moments of profound beauty when he would allow me to take care of him and I realized that caretaking a sick loved one can be an honor and a gift.  I was awed by his vulnerability, trust, and acceptance.  It takes real strength to show your vulnerability to someone.  Then there were moments when I saw that he was trying to survive and my heart felt like it would explode with love, joy, and gratitude at finding him alive for another day.

How did I get through this difficult period and remain sane?  Well I relied on wonderful, supportive friends, who would take my despondent, late night calls.  I contacted my old therapist, who was willing to work with me on an as needed, weekly, or even telephone basis.  I practiced forgiveness with myself when I fell short of my expectations of being “the compassionate, wise, and calm caretaker.”   That meant that when I was unreasonably angry because he was too nauseous to eat and I accused him of reneging on his promise to try, I later forgave myself.  (Of course, I apologized to him too.)  I knew it wasn’t my finest moment, but I knew it was my own fear of losing him that led me to be so childishly angry.  Also, I had to acknowledge that I was doing my best under difficult circumstances.  Even after clumsily giving him shots with trembling hands, I had to be grateful that I had gotten it done and tried to believe that I would get better with every shot.   I tried to take care of myself.   On those days when even I didn’t want to eat, I made sure that I did and tried to get enough rest because it wouldn’t help either of us if I got sick.   And lastly, I was grateful for every day that he stayed alive.  It forced me to stay in the present because looking too far ahead was scary and made me miss out on the joy of having today together.

So if you are caretaking a seriously ill loved one, my heart goes out to you and my advice is: Cut yourself some slack; you’re doing your best under extremely difficult circumstances.   Be sure to:

  1. Have a support system, such as friends, family, and a mental health professional
  2. Be compassionate with yourself and forgive your shortcomings
  3. Take care of yourself also
  4. Be grateful for the time you do have

Thankfully my loved one is stabilized and I wish you and your loved one all the best.

4 Tips for Handling Pre-Wedding Stress

I’m happy to know and work with some people who are now engaged and looking forward to being wed within the year.  You would think that this engagement period, leading up to the realities of marriage, would be such a happy, idyllic time.  That big question mark about who you’ll be sharing your life with has been answered and you can relax in the knowledge that you’ve found “The One” for you.  Unfortunately, this is far from the truth for most couples because engagements periods tend to be very stressful.

At this time, people who are already busy and already have a full-time job take on what can feel like the second job of planning a wedding.  There are engagement parties, bridal showers, rehearsal dinners, and lots of vendors – all looking to get the most money from you – to deal with.  This is definitely a time when you see who, whether friends or family, steps up to help you with details from large, such as finding a dress or helping with expenses, to small, such as picking place settings and bridal party gifts.  Just as important, it’s a time to see how you and your fiancé handle problems together.  Adding to this mix are parents who may be acting out their own issues regarding your wedding.


So here are some tips to help you keep sane during your engagement:


1.  Focus on the meaning of your wedding.


The real meaning of your wedding is that you are declaring your love for this person and that you intend to walk through life together.  You are inviting those people who are most important to you and most supportive of you to witness and share in this joyous event.  That is the meaning that you have to hang on to when family, friends, and vendors are pulling you in different directions.  Nothing else is as important as the fact that you have made this decision, and colors and flowers and seating arrangements pale in comparison to the grand scheme of this underlying message, which you can’t lose sight of.  In those moments of pre-wedding stress, when you feel exhausted, anxious, or frustrated remember what you have in the person you are marrying and that you are lucky indeed to have found this person.  Put into your own words what the deeper meaning of your wedding is to you and let it guide your way like a bright light on what can be the gray days of wedding planning.


2.  Be clear about your vision for the wedding


Perhaps you are someone who has been dreaming about your wedding since you were a child.  Or, perhaps you’re someone who figured it would happen someday but never really thought about the details.  Well the time has come to envision what you want your ceremony and reception to be like.  (I’m going to write as if your format will be a separate ceremony and reception as this is the most common.)  Your vision is unique and may include colors and seasons, such as a fall wedding with yellow and burnt orange hues.  Or, it may include the feeling that you’d like everyone to experience, such as joy and celebration through fun music and decadent food.  Or it may have to do with a place that you enjoy, such asVenice, and having food and wine that evokes that location.  Or, it may have a theme built around an activity that you and your fiancé enjoy, such as sailing.  You don’t have to become a certified wedding planner, you just have to remember the underlying message of your wedding and think of how you would like to present it.  Part of what makes weddings so difficult to plan is that there is no limit to your options.   That’s why it’s important to have a clear vision before you start dealing with vendors or planners, because you won’t be so easily swayed to have the large extravagant and formal wedding when what you really envisioned and wanted to share with your loved ones was a huge outdoor picnic with relaxed food and a great band.  Your budget must also be incorporated into your vision; you could say it’s the reality check on your vision.  To begin with just let yourself freely imagine what you would like for your wedding, and then be prepared to make adjustments as your see how much things cost.  Keep your budget realistic because going over budget will only increase your stress and keep in mind that you’re planning to have a life together, not just one big party together.  There’s a great quote by Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Remember that people won’t necessarily remember the wine vintage or the cake filling or any other small details.  What they will remember is how they felt at the event, hopefully happy and having a fun time celebrating.


3.  Communicate with family and maintain firm boundaries


Ah parents, no matter how old you get they still see you as a 10-year old.  The fact that you are getting married and there is going to be a ceremony that says in essence, “These two people love each other and are now going to be their own family,”  can be hard for a parent to bear.  It usually boils down to an issue of control.  You are no longer someone’s little girl or the son for whom no one is good enough.  One way of hanging on to you is for a parent to act out their feelings – often around wedding planning details.  It’s almost shocking to hear the stunts that some parents pull.  So instead of making wedding planning easier for you they are adding to the stress.  If you are receiving financial help from your parents for the wedding, then you may be in a tougher spot as you try to make decisions to please them and yourself.


As in all relationships, the situation can be helped by honest and straightforward communication.  If you have a good relationship with a parent or parents, you can speak to them about the stress that you are feeling.  Let them know if what they are doing, even though well-intentioned, is making your feel more stressed, anxious, tense, or whatever you are feeling.  You can ask for their help, whether it’s helping you with planning or relaxing about what it is that they want incorporated into the wedding.  You can address the underlying issue directly by letting them know that you love them and always will.  Acknowledge that although marriage is bound to change some things that your love for them will never change and they will always be in your life.  Even though they are your parents they can still regress to childlike states due to fear that they are losing you and they just need some reassurance that they will still be in your life and aren’t losing you.  If you suspect there is another issue going on, such as disapproval of your fiancé or problems in their own relationship, then you can also address that directly and clear the air so that the issue is not being acted out within your wedding process.


If you don’t have a good relationship with one or both of your patents, then you still have to communicate clearly by words and actions and maintain firm boundaries about what behavior you’ll tolerate.  If you’ve tried talking with them in the past only to find that it makes no difference and only leaves you feeling hurt, disappointed, and unheard, then go ahead and make your decisions based on what you think is best and what your vision for the wedding is.  If it seems necessary to give an explanation, keep it brief.  It can be given before, or even better, after the decision is made.  Like the saying, “It’s easier to apologize than to ask for permission.”  You have a lot to do and have limited energy and patience to deal with nonsense.  If your parents are very controlling and throw their own version of a tantrum, then realize that this is likely always their reaction to not getting their way, i.e. you’ve seen them do this before, and you’re not going to change them at this late date.  You can still try to talk to them about how they will always be in your life, but it’s not necessary to set yourself up for disappointment if you know how the conversation will go because you’ve already tried this before.


4.  Always consider your fiancé your ally


These wedding preparations are just the first in many stressful events that will occur during your marriage.  It’s good practice to start dealing with problems as a team rather than turning against each other.  Right now you’re in love and the wedding is of your own choosing, but life is going to send you unexpected problems that you are going to have to handle.  If you want your marriage to last, you had better start learning to handle them together.  When huge problems or tragedies strike couples either turn toward each other for strength or turn away from each other; there’s just no in between in times of crisis.  Planning a wedding certainly isn’t a time of crisis, but it is stressful and I see how couples in love begin to make small, seemingly innocent, disparaging remarks about each other, which they think are harmless.  Such as, “He doesn’t know how to handle his mother,” or “She freaks out when she has one too many things on her plate.”  These remarks do not build an attitude of “Thank goodness it’s you and me in this together.”  They instead demonstrate an attitude of, “I now have more work because I have to handle you too.”  If you have opinions about how he handles his mother and some suggestions, then voice them because otherwise this irritating situation will continue into your marriage.  If you think she gets anxious easily, then speak to her about it and how the two of your can best handle things together when things are stressful.  Through openly discussing these issues with each other, rather than making small snide remarks to others, you can figure out better ways to handle these situations.  I’m not saying that you can change who they are, if he’s someone who really values his mother’s opinion or if she gets anxious when under stress then this isn’t likely to change, but their behavior can change.  He can refrain from immediately saying yes to his mother’s suggestions and she can learn to ask for help when she begins to feel overwhelmed by too many tasks.  You hopefully love and accept your fiancé just as he or she is on the inside, but behavior on the outside can be changed if it’s beneficial for your relationship.


So congratulations to all of you engaged couples!  I hope that these tips help you to avoid being overwhelmed by pre-wedding stress and keep you focused on the joy of finding that wonderful person with whom you’re going to share your life.


Insight Alone Isn’t Enough – How the Best Therapy Works

There’s a longstanding debate in psychology between analytic (insight-oriented) therapy and behavioral-based therapy.  Back in the early days of psychoanalysis, it was believed that insight was enough to “cure” a person of their ills.  It was thought that if a person realized what was the fear or traumatic incident that first initiated the problem, then this new knowledge alone would enable the person to feel and behave differently.  Not to knock the brilliance of Freud, but insight alone isn’t enough to effect real change in your life.  Insight, or what Oprah would nowadays call an “aha” moment has to be coupled with behavioral change.  Then the behavioral psychologists, who would focus mainly on changing behavior without gaining understanding about the underlying issues being addressed, left out the important insight component.  Why is insight important?  Because the things that we do make sense to us.  Even if they seem crazy or self destructive or prevent us from reaching our goals, on some level – consciously or unconsciously – they make sense.  And, until you figure out why, you’ll be hard-pressed to give the behavior up.

Here’s a case example to illustrate this point:  Natalie* grew up with an angry, volatile father.  He was not physically abusive toward her, but he was verbally abusive.  She never knew what would set him off and tried very hard to be both perfect and invisible, the former so that she wouldn’t give him any reason to be angry and the latter in the hopes of his just not seeing her at all (if he didn’t see her he couldn’t yell at her).  Smart as her little girl strategy was, Natalie couldn’t totally avoid her father and the fact was that he didn’t need any reason to get angry.  Her father was an angry man and it was never really anything imperfect about Natalie that made him angry; he just came that way and anything and anyone could set him off.  Well when he did catch her and began his tirade Natalie quickly learned that any back talk or expression of anger on her part enraged him all the more.  He wanted her to take it and not say a word back.  In fact, if she cried, he also became angrier.  She learned that it was safest to show no reaction at all and that his tirade would end quicker if she was stoic and had no visible reaction.  On the inside she was scared, hurt, and angry, but she learned not to show it.  Afterwards she would run to her room and cry alone.  This was the pattern the entire time she lived with her father.

Well in her romantic relationships as a adult, Natalie had a hard time ever saying anything that a partner might not like for fear of getting him angry.  She continued to try to be Miss Perfect in her own way.  She avoided obviously angry and volatile men, but certainly more even-tempered men are allowed to get angry from time to time and to voice it.  Even when Natalie was with a calm man, she could never respond to anything that she perceived as anger, criticism, or displeasure with her coming her way.  She had no idea how to respond or even defend herself; suddenly she would be a child again and she would freeze and show no reaction at all.  Clearly it was standing in the way of her having a healthy relationship because disagreements can’t be resolved when one person is too scared and frozen to participate.

So Natalie came to therapy and discovered where her present day reactions originated.  She realized that despite consciously believing that she wanted to make her relationship work, her silence was hurting it.  But on an unconscious level her silence made sense – it was her way of protecting herself by shortening and preventing the escalation of what she expected to be an angry tirade.  So Natalie had this great insight, but she still continued to behave in the same way because knowing what initially caused her reactions wasn’t enough to change them overnight.

So on to the behavioral change efforts.  An important start to help Natalie change her behavior was to share her insights with her partner.  He was happy to be supportive because he didn’t want to hurt or scare her and, being a fairly calm person, he didn’t want to be cast in the role of “angry, volatile man,” which is how Natalie would perceive him when he voiced any displeasure with something she did (and what displeased him most was her way of becoming silent when something important came up.)  His knowing this about her made it easier for him to gently ask what was going on inside her when she became mute.  He knew she was probably feeling scared and would do his best to help her feel safe.

However, his understanding and reassurance also wasn’t enough to effect change.  Natalie had to practice a different behavior, i.e. say something at those moments when she was used to staying silent.  It was very hard for her and very uncomfortable.  She felt all of the same fear, even though this was no longer her father, but a calm person.  What she had to do was actually speak and prove to herself that 1) she could tolerate the discomfort of this new way of behaving, 2) she could survive what would come if she “talked back”, and 3) that this loving man in front of her wasn’t her father and he was not going to react in the same way.

Her initial attempts were incredibly scary and awkward for her, but she practiced and did her best.  She began with just saying things like, “I feel bad,” or at other times, just plain old, “Ouch.”  But she eventually learned how to discuss things with her partner from the position of a grown woman rather than a frightened child.  She discovered, to her surprise, that a man really did want to know what was going on inside of her during these moments, which, sadly, had never occurred to her before.  Not only was Natalie helped by all of her hard work, but her partner was too.  He felt grateful and relieved to be appreciated for the loving partner he was trying his best to be, rather than having some angry father image put onto him.  He also felt heard because all of those times that Natalie would keep silent he would get upset thinking that she wasn’t listening to him.

I hope Natalie’s hard work was helpful in illustrating how the best therapy combines these two very important components of insight and behavioral change.  If you want to really help yourself or a loved one, seek out therapy that fosters both.

* Name and exact circumstances have been changed.

Moving In Together Stirs Up Old Fears

If you’re divorced and have moved on to a new, meaningful relationship, the prospect of moving in together can stir up a lot of fear related to your past marriage and its demise.  Anyone who has gone through a divorce will tell you that it takes some time to get over it and move on (understatement of the year.)  If you didn’t leave in order to be with someone else, then you have to begin dating, and then you hopefully find a new, special person with whom you want to give love another chance.  That sounds pretty healthy and like it’s going in the right direction right?  Then why do you hit a wall of fear when it’s time to take the new relationship to the next, deeper level, such as moving in together?   Suddenly what seemed like a wonderful idea – spending more time with the person you love, sharing your life, and even building a new life together – has become terrifying.  Doubts now creep up everywhere, whereas before you decided to move in there were none.  You start to wonder if you really love this person.  Does he or she really love you?  Are your spending habits compatible?  Are your food habits too different?  What if you run out of things to talk about?   You may begin to act out in small ways that somehow delay moving in or you may get tense about things that should be fun, such as picking out furniture together.  But why?  A week ago, before you decided to move in together, everything was fine and you were thinking that this person was the one you wanted to have in your life for a long time.  “What’s really going on here?” you wonder in confusion and frustration.  Well a lot of fears related to your past marriage and resulting divorce have popped up because moving in together is the first step toward something more serious.  More serious as in may result in marriage again.  And, marriage again could result in divorce again.  Some of your fears may sound like this:  “Will I be able to handle it this time?  What if I screw up again?  Have I actually changed, or am I the same person who couldn’t make marriage work before?  My marriage failed, what makes me think this relationship won’t?”  (BTW, “failure” is not how I see divorce, but I’ve heard enough people use that word to describe their divorce to think that you may see it that way too.)

Well there is no guarantee that this relationship will work out better.  But the best chance you can give yourself and your new partner is to understand what happened in the old relationship.  That past relationship was created by two people and there’s no getting around that reality by thinking that your ex was the only one who made mistakes.  Frankly, most divorced people are able to see the truth in this.  But the effort you’ve made to understand how you contributed to the end of your marriage will only help your new relationship.  How?  Well this new relationship will push your buttons just like the old one did.  Why?  Because they are your buttons and any partner will unknowingly, and hopefully unintentionally, push them from time to time.  But if you know yourself enough and understand where and how you could have handled things differently, then you can feel more confident about not repeating the same mistakes.  That’s where therapy comes in.  Therapy isn’t about beating yourself up for past mistakes, but about understanding why you behaved in the way that you did, gaining some compassion for yourself, and learning how you can handle things differently.  So when it is time to move on to a new meaningful relationship, you may still have fears about your past marriage pop up, but you are able to honestly look at yourself and say that you now know better.  You can comfort and quiet your fears with some compassion and self-forgiveness that say, “I did the best that I knew how at the time, but now I know better.”  As the saying goes, “When you know better you do better.”  Will you go on to make some new mistakes in your new relationship?  Sure.  But they’ll be different because you’re now different.  You’ve learned, and that knowledge alone can calm those “moving in” fears when they come up, allowing you to more confidently enter a new, important stage in your life.

Did you experience this kind of fear when you moved on to a new relationship?

Tell Me Who Your Friends Are and I’ll Tell You Who You Are

There’s a great saying in Spanish, “Dime quienes son tus amigos y te diré quien eres,” and it translates into, “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.”  I think that when I was younger the wisdom of this saying would have been lost on me.  I would have thought, “Duh, of course my friends are like me, that’s why we’re friends.”  But now that I’m older (and hopefully a little wiser) I absolutely get it.  When we’re older the people we fill our lives with are by choice, no longer dictated by alphabetized roommate assignments in college or random cubicle set ups at work, but by a common viewpoint in life.

Why do I bring this up in this particular blog, which is geared toward romantic issues?  To urge you to look at whom your potential partner surrounds himself or herself with.  These are people who share a lot of the same values with him.  (I’ll just stick to “him” to make writing and reading this less confusing.)  What they are like reveals a lot about him.  Notice if they have integrity and are mature and behave in a considerate manner toward you and others, because he likely shares their opinions on how to treat other people and how to live life.  Some obvious warning signs are if he mentions that one of his friends cheats on his girlfriend or spouse.  Does your guy laugh at this or mention it with some concern?  Do his friends still go out drinking like college frat boys and get drunk regularly?  And, does he join them?  We’ve all been dumb in our day, but once you’re out of your early 30’s it’s not so cute and forgivable, it becomes sorry and pathetic.  Does he laugh if his friend stiffs the waiter his tip or makes fun of someone’s accent?  Of course, he’s not responsible for his friends’ behavior and he may not even condone it, but by keeping people who are cheaters, liars, or basically just lack integrity in their lives as friends he shows that he accepts such behavior in his life even when he could simply let it go.  We can’t always choose who our bosses, our neighbors, or our office mates are, but we certainly choose who our friends are and who we let stay in our lives.

I’m not saying that our friends have to be perfect – we certainly aren’t.  But in order to keep them as friends we certainly accept them and their behavior.  For example, I might have a friend who smokes even if I don’t or who is a vegetarian even if I’m not.  But I won’t have a friend who uses heroin.  That’s just something I won’t accept in my life, even if it doesn’t affect me directly.  It’s not even necessarily about the behavior but about the fact that it highlights how differently we value life and how we handle life.  Nor would I accept a friend whose business is to hurt people by scamming them out of their money, because my work is all about helping people.  Our viewpoints of life and work are just too different.  That’s why my dating advice is to be watchful and see if he surrounds himself with people with integrity, who have good intentions, or immature people, who are looking to get over, because on a fundamental level he is in agreement with them and you need to know that.  So be watchful, not necessarily judgmental, just watchful and choose the kind of romantic partner that you let into your life. 

Do you agree or disagree?  If you were to cut out friends who lack integrity from your life are you afraid you’d be left with no one?


Break Up Advice: The Best Way To Get Over A Man Is To Get Under One

“The best way to get over a man is to get under one.” I love that line; it makes me laugh every time. I picture Dollie Parton saying it in her fabulous voice. But while it sounds great and empowering, it’s usually a big mistake.

A dear friend of mine recently went through a painful break up. I saw how another man quickly popped up. He had been around before as a friend and had asked her out while she was in the relationship, but then when it ended he came on to her full force. I found it upsetting because it seemed like he was trying to catch her when she was at her most vulnerable emotionally. (Reminded me of those nature shows where the lion hones in on the weakest impala of the herd.) My friend did begin to see him, more out of wanting a diversion than because she wanted him. He kept trying to move things forward, despite her protests of needing more time, which I also thought could have been more forceful. (Just a note that I’m not telling you anything I didn’t say directly to my friend.) At one point, I saw that she was getting more involved than she wanted, or than was good for her. So I pulled her aside and pointed out the similarities between this new man and the ex in the way that they both ignored what she said and “yes”ed her to death while still doing what they wanted. She had told the new man that she needed some time to recover and get over her heartache and he had agreed, but then proceeded to try to quickly move things forward. This was similar to the ex who had said that he agreed with her concerns about different things, but continued to act in the same way as if they had never spoken.

Well this article isn’t about my friend’s break up in particular, but about the fact that you need to take some time after the end of a relationship to figure out what happened before jumping into a new one, i.e. seeing as clearly as possible how you behaved and how you contributed to the problems. And, if you don’t take the time to do this kind of introspective and honest work, you will begin to date someone just like your ex in important and problematic ways. Why? Because you haven’t changed in any way and you haven’t learned your lesson. So if you don’t change in some way, and I don’t necessarily mean a behavioral change, but some kind of inner change that is sparked by honesty and insight into how you co-created the problematic situation, then you will just pull in the same kind of man that you pulled in last time.

This is not the time to play victim.  It’s time to be totally honest with yourself about how you were a full participant in the relationship. It’s fine to get some empathy and sympathy from your girlfriends – topped off with a few “good riddance to that jerk” toasts. But then you have to get really honest with yourself about everything that you brought to that relationship – the good, the bad, and the ugly. This also isn’t time to play martyr and blame absolutely everything that went awry on yourself. Try your best to be objective and see when, maybe like my friend, you spoke but pretended to ignore that you weren’t heard. Or, maybe just the opposite, you were too forceful and aggressive and didn’t give him the space or safety to speak. Obviously everyone has their own circumstances to look at and they will play out in ways that are specific to you. But take my break up advice and give yourself the gift of time to look at the relationship before jumping into something else where you may just repeat the same issue or pattern because you didn’t take the time to figure out how it occurred in the first place.

If you think you have a hard time being objective about the relationship or have a hard time not feeling like a victim, then maybe you can talk with a straight shooting friend – after you’ve made it clear that you’ll do your best to be open and not to get angry or defensive. You can also talk to a therapist. If you’re worried about the cost, then check out your insurance benefits regarding therapy or check out a college health center where therapists-in-training offer a lower fee because they have less experience. If you’re in the NYC area or would like to work via telephone or Skype, feel free contact me for an appointment.

Have you ever used a breakup to spark some inner change or insight? Or to at least inspire a new haircut? Let me know, I’d love to hear!

If He Ain’t Married You Yet, He Ain’t Gonna – Sorry But It’s True

Someone recently told me of a friend of hers, who has been with a man and trying to get him to marry her for 5 years. Yikes. I feel so much compassion for this woman, who has been wasting her time and living in denial land for so long. I’m not making fun of her. In fact, I wish I could talk some sense into her because I know what she’s doing and what she’s going through. What she’s doing is hoping that someone is going to change, and really the one who has to change is her, and what she’s going through is a lot of self-inflicted emotional pain. Her boyfriend has shown her loud and clear with his actions (year after year!) that he is not going to marry her.

How she rationalizes his actions in their particular situation I don’t know, but here are some popular excuses: “He just needs more time.” Time to continue doing nothing differently? Haven’t the 6 months, 1 year, or 5 years been enough?

“He’s under a lot of pressure and stress right now.” Well yes, that’s because he’s human and the majority of us don’t handle stress and pressure so well, but it’s a part of life that doesn’t necessarily have to be exterminated in order to get engaged. You’ve got stress in your life don’t you? Yet you still want to get engaged and married. In fact, you see marriage as something to help with the stress of life, and studies have shown that you are correct.

“He’s worried about finances,” and it’s close relative, “He’s not comfortable getting married until he’s financially set.” Well I think the former is a worry that the majority of us have had over the past few years. The latter is a worthy goal, but there has to be a limit. I understand the pressure that men feel about having to be the provider or else they don’t feel like a real man. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, just that I understand it. But there has to be a time limit set, one that is agreed upon by both of you. And, I suggest that the longest limit you set is 1 year, meaning 1 year until the engagement and then an agreed upon length of engagement.

Then there’s the saddest rationalization of all, “If I just wait long enough and am patient he’ll come around.” Sorry hon, but he’s not coming anywhere. You are trying to hide your lack of pride, self-esteem, and hope of being really loved in a way that you want under the guise of being moral and good, i.e., the “good girl” who is patient and doesn’t object. Well in these cases, she also doesn’t get married. Your so-called patience is a surface level, society-approved cover for your anger at someone not doing what you want him to do, anger at yourself for putting up with this situation, and sadness at what you think is the hopelessness of the situation. But there is hope. Walk away! Don’t even issue an ultimatum first. Ultimatums completely leave the choice up to him. And, haven’t his actions already shown you what his decision is? Will an ultimatum make him realize that he wants to be with you forever? If he hasn’t realized that and been man enough to act on it yet, then an ultimatum won’t convince him. Either a person wants to get married, and do everything that that entails, or he doesn’t.

If you want to get married and he won’t marry you, then leave and build a better life without him in it and hold out for the man who does love you enough to show it with his actions, i.e., marry you. Yes, there are men like this! How do you know? Well look at all the married couples out there. Not all of those men where lassoed by a woman and dragged to the altar. So hold your head up ladies and don’t throw good years after bad. Walk away and learn the lesson that this relationship was meant to teach you: If you don’t have respect for your own needs and desires then no one else will. Why? Because no one is going to treat you better than you treat yourself. So hold out for the man who offers you what you want and what you truly deserve.

Have you or any of your friends ever experienced waiting around for a proposal that never came?