Mirror, Mirror: Healing Our Earliest Reflections

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Our parents are our first mirrors.

As we grow, we look to our primary caregivers to give us feedback and help guide us through a world unknown. What gets reflected back to us is the basis upon which we form our first self-impressions. Based on these reflections, we begin to develop a self-concept as we identify ourselves more with certain attributes, less with others.

This initial self-concept doesn’t take into account that our parents may not be all knowing and that they might have their own filter based on their experiences. Nevertheless, these early reflections can largely influence our self-esteem, as well as being a determining factor in our overall sense of worth and our propensity for resilience.

We believe our mirror to be reliable, the source of greater knowledge, and our compass. If our mirror shows us that we are deeply flawed, it must be so. That’s why if our parents reflect back criticism, disapproval, or ambivalence, we are more likely to feel insecure, unworthy, or ashamed.

On the other hand, if our parents reflect back warmth, encouragement, approval, and acceptance, we learn that we are worthy. We learn that mistakes are inevitable and that they do not determine our significance and self-worth. As life presents its challenges, though we may struggle, we have the fundamental belief in ourselves that we are capable of getting through it. In addition, we are less likely to tolerate mistreatment because we are better equipped to consider the source of the mistreatment, rather than blindly believing it because it parallels the messages we received in childhood.

So, what do you do if your first mirror was less than ideal?

Consider the Source

Keep in mind the environment in which your parent was raised. It is likely that he/she received the same messages. This is not an excuse, but it helps to separate what isn’t really about you, but is instead a product of your parent’s past. The most scarring messages personally attack the other person rather than respectfully addressing the problematic or undesirable behavior. These criticisms can make you believe that there is something profoundly wrong with your character and who you are. De-personalizing messages that have been deeply hurtful can liberate you from a lifetime of faulty beliefs about yourself.

Evaluate Your Relationships

When you believe damaging messages, they color the way you view yourself and what you think you deserve in relationships. This makes you more susceptible to abuse, because you’re more likely to tolerate mistreatment. It’s not a far stretch to enter into and stay in relationships that reinforce those negative early messages, believing that if more than one person says them, they must be right. While constructive self-reflection is healthy, recreating a toxic environment is not.

Give Yourself What You Needed and Didn’t Get

What age were you when you were neglected, criticized, or shamed? What messages did you long to hear? What did you need in order for you to feel safe, accepted, loved and cared for? Write these things down and begin to look at them every day. Recite these words to yourself, over and over again, especially during particularly difficult times when you feel most vulnerable.

It is never too late to examine the messages that were reflected back to us during childhood. Most often, these messages are at the core of what we believe about ourselves. Carrying faulty beliefs about ourselves damages self-esteem, makes us less resilient, and leaves us feeling chronically inadequate.

So, take a close look at what was reflected back to you in childhood and let go of what simply was not yours to take on. By giving yourself what you deeply needed at your core, you can start to see yourself more accurately in your own mirror.

Published in Best Self Magazine, October 18, 2017.

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Setting Boundaries Is an Act of Self-Respect

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Establishing healthy relationships means establishing healthy boundaries and clear and respectful guidelines for how we want to be treated by others.

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If you’ve ever been to therapy or read self-help books, you are likely to have come across the term, “setting boundaries”. In the past, I would skim over those words or nod my head in agreement with my therapist without giving this idea much thought. It wasn’t until I found myself exhausted from pouring so much of myself into everyone else, and resentful when I felt mistreated, that I realized I needed to perk up and learn what I could do to set my own boundaries.

A boundary is a physical or metaphorical line between ourselves and others. Setting a boundary means requiring better treatment by others and not allowing someone else to run us over. A boundary provides a protective parameter around us, allowing us to operate comfortably within it. Depending on our personalities and life experiences, some of us have stronger boundaries than others.

Women, in general, tend to struggle more with setting healthy boundaries. Often there is an underlying fear of rejection or fear of being unloved if a boundary is set, which feels like it could easily threaten closeness. In order to avoid jeopardizing that closeness, many of us will sacrifice our feelings, needs, and wishes.

The problem with foregoing boundaries is that we invariably invite and tolerate mistreatment. We may not understand why we feel irritable, angry, sad, or resentful. Or, we may wonder why we’ve developed depression, insomnia or a shopping addiction. However, if we look more closely, we may see a consistent pattern of neglecting ourselves in an effort to appease others.

This can happen in any type of relationship: spousal, parent-child, between siblings, friends or co-workers. The more we are afraid to say, “No, that’s not okay,” the more permission we give the other person to continue behaving as they are.

If you’re thinking that setting a boundary will make you come across like a mean, selfish witch (like I was) — it won’t.

There are many ways to start commanding respect without losing the softer qualities you like about yourself.

As for the fear of losing closeness with another if you set a boundary, relationships actually tend to improve when clear guidelines are in place. I am not saying that it is easy for the other person to adjust to your new boundary, but as long as you are consistent, he or she will learn to adapt with a little time (unless you are in an abusive or controlling relationship wherein the other person punishes you for speaking up).

If you have a hard time believing me, think of it this way. Although it is a slower process, over time your irritability, anger, sadness and resentment corrode the relationship.

When you actually speak up and set the boundary, you are creating space for your needs to be met.

After all, you’re not giving an alternative. As time passes, your overall happiness increases and you (as well as the other person) experience greater satisfaction with the relationship. Everyone is clear because the standard for treatment has been established.

Often, by the time you’ve realized a boundary needs to be set, you’ve already been the recipient of mistreatment. It’s important for you to know that even though you may feel powerless to make changes in your relationships, you are not.

I am a big proponent of making simple, clear, and respectful statements so that the other person knows a line has been drawn. I am also careful not to put down the person in the process of establishing my boundaries. The fact remains that we cannot change others, nor can we control their behavior. We can, however, control our own behavior. This is all that is necessary for real change to occur.

For example, I cannot control how someone chooses to speak to me. However, I can control whether or not I am going to listen. Making a statement such as, “I will listen when you are ready to speak respectfully,” lets the other person know that I am not going to engage with them until they modify their behavior. They can rise to the occasion or not, but I am not left to feel powerless, having subjected myself to mistreatment.

This may seem insignificant, but I assure you that it is not. In the above example, I have metaphorically held up my hand as if to say, “Stop. You cannot go further unless you can do better.” This sets the precedent for better treatment and healthier relationships. It is also a highly effective method to use with children as it gently teaches them how to behave without engaging in a power struggle.

 

Published in Best Self Magazine, May 2, 2017.

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The Emotionally Polarized Couple: Understanding Her Feelings and His Detachment

life_advice_polo_0117-2Like many couples, Megan and Chris love each other, but they each admit to having communication problems. They recently had a second child and although they are overjoyed with their growing family, they are both handling the stress that accompanies it very differently.

Megan describes feeling overwhelmed by taking care of two small children and all of the household responsibilities. She finds that she is increasingly irritable, she cries more easily than before, and often feels like she is failing to meet the growing demands of her family. Megan is hurt and angry that Chris is more distant than he used to be, but every time she asks him what’s wrong, he insists that everything is fine.

Chris is frustrated that Megan is easily irritated since the birth of their second child and he doesn’t understand why she’s so weepy all of the time. He tries to say as little as possible because he doesn’t know what will “set her off” and make her start crying. When they try to talk, Chris offers suggestions to help Megan, but she only gets madder. He doesn’t want to make things worse, so he stays quiet.

Chris and Megan are experiencing the stress that accompanies having a newborn, but the same breakdown in communication frequently emerges in couples, regardless of the stressor. Many men don’t know what to do with a woman’s heightened emotional response and they fear that if they “feed into” her emotions by offering her reassurance or validation, her emotional response will escalate. Men often mistakenly believe that if they jump in and fix the problem, if they point out the ways in which her feelings are illogical or irrational, or if they leave their partner alone, she will feel better. However, this approach has the opposite effect. She is looking to her partner to listen and to validate her feelings. She sees his suggestions as an insult; a clear indication that he believes she is incapable of handling things herself. She views his opinions of how she’s conducting herself as judgment and criticism. And finally, she views his distance as a rejection of her. All of these lead her to have an even larger emotional response and thus, perpetuate the polarization.

There are some basic differences between the sexes when it comes to communicating. Generally speaking, men tend to turn inward when facing a challenging situation or when going through a difficult time. After he has figured out how to solve his problem or he has moved past his hardship, a man is more likely to discuss his experience. His partner may take this pattern to mean that he doesn’t feel close enough to her to want to confide in her. Sharing and confiding in her is, to her, the ultimate way of achieving closeness. She feels hurt or angry, believing there is a disconnection between them.

Women, on the other hand, tend to have a need to talk about things as they are happening. As she is going through a difficult time, she finds comfort in discussing her thoughts and feelings with her partner. This makes her feel more connected to her partner and therefore, less alone in facing her challenge. For her partner, he may think that she is looking for advice, needs help solving the problem, or if she is emotional, that perhaps she is “falling apart” and things will only get worse.

So, what can be done to bring this polarized couple closer to each other? It is important that both parties are clear about their needs. We tend to have a romanticized notion that our partner can read our minds and can anticipate our needs. After all, this is how true love is portrayed in literature and films. But, this assumption sets both partners up for frustration and disappointment. For example, Megan might say, “I’m really struggling here. I need your reassurance that we are all right and that I am a good mother.” Once Chris knows that Megan is looking for validation, he can give that to her, making her feel closer to him for meeting her needs and leaving him to feel satisfied that he was able to give her what she wanted. For Chris, he might let Megan know that having a baby has changed his life too and that he needs a little time to himself to decompress and adjust to the change, explaining that it is not a rejection of her or their family. Knowing this, she can support his need for some time to himself without taking it as rejection.

Supporting your partner’s feelings by listening without criticism, even if your partner’s feelings seem illogical to you, is a central characteristic in happy relationships. It does not mean you have to agree, but the simple practice of acknowledging that your partner has certain emotions around their experience goes a long way toward building and maintaining closeness. We tend to experience loving feelings and a deeper sense of attachment for those we believe understand us.

Published in Hitched Magazine, January 27, 2017.

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Moving Through Grief

Moving Through Grief

Even though we are all confronted with loss throughout our lives, the grieving process is not something that is commonly discussed or taught in our culture. There is an expectation that we are supposed to stay strong and return to normal within a few days to a few weeks. Many people believe that if they allow themselves to fully give in to their grief, they will never be able to move beyond it and will be stuck in their grief-stricken state forever.

According to one therapist, this is not the case. In fact, quite the opposite is true. “When we give ourselves permission to feel how we feel – sad, hopeless, lost, confused, worried, angry – we actually move through the grieving process, as opposed to simply avoiding it,” said Avery Neal, a practicing psychotherapist at The Women’s Therapy Clinic in The Woodlands, Texas. Grieving is a very healthy response to any type of loss; even life losses such as a divorce, a move, the end of a friendship, illness or any life transition. “We cannot expect ourselves not to have feelings around these types of events.”

According to Neal, there is no magic formula for moving through the grieving process, but there are some things that can help. She offers some points to keep in mind:

• The mind-body connection. “Loss reminds us that life is finite. The stillness that comes from being alone can feel uncomfortable. Rather than drowning out the stillness with noise, try embracing it. Quiet your mind for a few moments and allow yourself to observe the sensations in your own body. This simple practice can help to center you when it feels as if everything around you is falling apart.”

• Get out in nature. “Nature has a way of lending perspective. It nourishes us in a way that nothing else can, while gently reminding us of the cycle of life. In addition, getting exposure to natural light can help our overall mood. Even something as simple as taking a walk or going barefoot in the grass can soothe us during a difficult time.”

• Exercise. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. “The brain automatically releases more endorphins during grief to help us get through the initial phase of the loss. After about six weeks or more, the endorphin release wears off and we are left with more depressive symptoms. By exercising, we are tapping into the body’s natural healing system. Exercise can give us a clear focus as we become more in sync with our body. As we feel stronger, we begin to feel less helpless and more capable. A feeling of helplessness is a common experience after a loss.”

According to Neal, grieving is not something that can intellectualized. “In trying to do so, we only set ourselves up for prolonging the process rather than surrendering to it. Trusting the process gives us permission to surrender, which ultimately leads to acceptance.”

This article first appeared in Woodlands Online, The Woodlands/Conroe Bubblelife and The Paper Magazine

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Bashing Others in Public Social Forums

Bashing Others in Public Social Forums

From the political arena to gym showers, it seems it has become sociably acceptable to bash other individuals, especially women. Even with more women in the public eye, this pattern has not changed. Women have always been seen and treated as the weaker sex, and are still fighting for equality at work, in the government and even in the home.

“It is harder for women to be assertive and speak up for themselves because of their desire to accommodate others. Men are conditioned to go after what they want unapologetically, while women who do the same are seen in a negative way,” said Avery Neal, a practicing psychotherapist at The Women’s Therapy Clinic in The Woodlands, Texas.

The rise of narcissism in our culture is becoming more prevalent, as we see technology and social media used in such a way that facilitates a “look at me” attitude.

“This cultural norm where we put ourselves on stage for everyone’s view not only on social media, but also in our daily lives, is giving rise to an epidemic that has spread to the culture as a whole. Some of the key components of narcissism are a preoccupation with appearance, a lack of empathy and respect for the humanity of others, entitlement, and a lack of accountability or responsibility,” said Neal. “Sadly, these attributes describe more and more individuals and our culture at large. Individuals feed culture and culture feeds individuals.”

Like a disease, narcissism has become pervasive in our society. Recognizing the epidemic is the first step toward stopping it. Neal gives some tips on how we might halt the narcissistic epidemic.

·         Be present – Slow down and pay attention. Be present in the moment. Have awareness of what is going on around you, but focus your energy on what you want to achieve. Foster better relationships by turning off the phone or put it away altogether when you are spending time with loved ones. Be mindful of the time you do set aside for technology so that it doesn’t creep into every aspect of your life. Engage in activities that soothe your spirit, like learning to play a musical instrument or planting a garden. Doing things that require attention, skill and nuanced responses can interrupt the routine distancing that has become our habit.

·         Interact with the people around you – With the rise of technology and social media, it has become normal to talk by text, email or chats. We hide behind our screens, only connecting on a superficial level, portraying our “perfect” lives. Instead of joining this societal norm of disrespectful bashing and egocentric thinking, engage in intelligent conversations with the people around you. Remember that relationships are reciprocal. You need to be an active listener instead of just sitting back waiting for your turn to speak. Seek quality relationships.

·         Respect each other and yourself – Make a conscious effort to cultivate relationships with people you respect and who respect you in return. Don’t abandon your integrity just because someone pushes your buttons. Understand that, while other people’s experiences and opinions will differ from yours, they still deserve respect.

·         Practice Gratitude and Empathy – Be grateful for experiences that benefit not just you as an individual, but that increase the happiness of others. Make a contribution to the community instead of constantly striving for personal success. Don’t be immune to other people’s suffering and pain by increasing your receptivity to them and to others.

Adopting these habits can provide a sense of perspective that counterbalance the “me, me, me” mentality of the narcissist. “Ask yourself what is going on in your life that is making you so detached and be aware of the messages you receive through the media that promote a narcissistic view,” said Neal. “Narcissism may be the way things are in America in this moment, but it’s not necessarily the way things have to be, either on a personal or societal level.”

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