Overreacting


Overreacting


So, what if I started with something a little provocative? (What’s new, Ellis?) But really, I have a thought that…

…there is no such thing as overreaction.

What’s your reaction to THAT? 🙂

What I mean when I say this, or how I follow it up with clients, is that if you think you (or your partner) are “overreacting,” let me suggest that you are simply not aware of what you are REACTING TO. 

Really, this is just simply CBT. There’s something that happens, or a stimulus of some kind. There is a perception of that stimulus and likely a thought about that stimulus, and there’s an emotional reaction to that thought/perception (not to the stimulus, precisely). And maybe that emotional reaction is “out of proportion” to the stimulus (or at least as far you’re concerned, your partner is overreacting to the stimulus – it’s just spilled milk, it’s just being a little late, he’s just a friend). And maybe that emotional reaction is even “out of proportion” to the thought that you are aware of thinking about it. 

But the emotional tone and intensity can be the information that prompts us to look deeper…

  • perception of stimulus (milk, the clock, the text message with heart eyes)
  • thought (spilled milk is inconvenient, my boss might see me come in late and fire me, that’s a weird emoji for a friend to use)
  • schema (being inconvenience is intolerable and shouldn’t happen to me, I have to overperform people will find out I’m an imposter, I am always at risk for losing my partner)
  • core belief (I won’t ever by happy or comfortable, I am not good enough, I will end up alone)

If you’re really reacting to the fear of dying alone, that’s a BIG DAMN STIMULUS and the emotional reaction is perfectly reasonable. I’ve had clients really do well with this idea, and feel both quite validated in their own experience as well opening a door to be more curious (and less quickly and globally judgmental) about their partner’s experience. 

Comment below: What are some of the ways you talk to clients about emotions, emotion regulation, and so forth? 

 

 

 

 

Deranged, Inhuman, Disgusting


Deranged, Disgusting, or Inhuman


In other words, deserving of your contempt.

(If you haven’t read Crazy, Stupid, or Awful, you might want to read that one first. Crazy, Stupid, Awful means you probably are thinking of your partner as a “Them” instead of thinking about the two of you as a “We” or an “Us,” but some careful, attentive, open listening might suffice. Like in They Might Be An Alien)

But contempt is something a little different.

 

The Gottmans (e.g., Gottman, 1993) really brought the idea of contempt onto the couples’ therapy scene, a kind of relational filter that says “I’m better than you, and you don’t deserve my basic respect.” Sometimes, it looks like sarcasm or condescension (speaking as if your partner really is stupid, or worse). Sometimes, it’s withdrawal (because you believe that your partner really is disgusting and you can’t stand to be around them). Sometimes, it sounds like demeaning put-downs (because you think your partner is just a real piece of shit). It’s dehumanizing (e.g., Kteily et al., 2022). And that’s a much bigger problem than thinking they’re a decent human being who you just really don’t understand or agree with. 

 

The impacts of contempt are probably quite a bit broader than just in couples’ relationships, too. As therapists, we need to be on the lookout for contempt of partners, but also of kids and bosses, among others. And there are some pragmatic things we need to think about – when parents are using sarcasm, condescension, demeaning put downs, and/or withdrawal/neglect with their children… we need to intervene strongly and quickly to help them make changes. Eye-rolling, name-calling, and that pinched-face look of disgust need to be taken with plenty of seriousness. When it’s someone talking about a coworker, boss, friend, etc., the easiest solution might be to simply get out of that situation or relationship… contempt (like real burnout) is pretty damn hard to come back from.

 

But then, we also need to look at the underlying cognitive structures that support contempt… Contempt “implies sense of superiority over [other people], pessimistic feelings about their possibility of betterment, detachment from them, and avoidance driven by detachment (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2018). So, I’m going to go ahead and say (maybe outrageously?!) that contempt is never rational. So, to be clear, I’m not saying that anyone should stay in contact with someone they feel contempt toward. Maybe the contempt goes along with other thoughts/feelings that are quite reasonable and dictate that the appropriate behavior is detachment (e.g., an actually abusive partner, an actually unfair and unpleasant working environment). But that sense of down-to-the-ground superiority of one (aggrieved) person over another? Mmmm… that’s a tough sell for me. Dehumanizing a human being doesn’t fit the logic I understand. 

And there are personality structures, too. It’s possible to have a contemptuous “personality” (or long term attributional style, maybe?). Sometimes, that goes along with narcissistic and antisocial stuff (esp when the dispositional contempt is typically outwards), but sometimes the contempt is directed inwardly at the self, as well! (see Schriber et al., 2017). 

 

I’m sure how you choose to work on this depends on your theoretical orientation… I just wanted to take a minute to bring it to the forefront and make sure we’re not letting some important signs pass us by! 

 

Comment below: What other markers of disgust do you see in clients? Do you ever find it easy to blow those off? How do you work with clients on these deep cognitive structures? 

 

Gottman, J. M. (1993). A theory of marital dissolution and stability. Journal of family psychology, 7(1), 57.

Kteily, N. S., & Landry, A. P. (2022). Dehumanization: Trendsinsights, and challengesTrends in Cognitive Sciences, 26(3), 222–240. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2021.12.003

Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2018). Contempt and disgust: The emotions of disrespect. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 48(2), 205-229. https://doi.org/10.1111/jtsb.12159 

Schriber, R. A., Chung, J. M., Sorensen, K. S., & Robins, R. W. (2017). Dispositional contempt: A first look at the contemptuous person. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(2), 280-309. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000101. 

 

 

 

They might be an alien…


They might be an alien…


If you haven’t read the Crazy, Stupid, Awful blog, go ahead and do that first. 

. . . . . . 

For fun, to help a couple who has a deeply difficult time understanding the other’s internal logic, I gave them an assignment to watch a sci-fi or fantasy movie for a date night, or even a family movie night. I requested that it be something neither of them had seen, and that they let me know what it was, so that I could make sure I watched it before we met again.

I suppose this could work with any kind of movie, but I thought the extra distance element might help. 

So, when we got back together, we spent several minutes talking about what makes sense in the movie that would NOT make sense in Real Life? And then taking it to the character level (which is why it might work with any kind of movie). When this heroine does this amazing thing at the end of the movie – does it make sense? (Yes, if the movie’s any good.) And would it make sense if any other character did that amazing thing at the end? (No, if the movie’s any good.)

And then we go through what we learn (that is, what the movie writers, directors, and editors teach us) about each character so that their behavior makes sense. In a well-done story of any kind, the writer has to give you certain pieces of information so that the characters’ actions are understandable. And because writers try to give readers/watchers at least a few different main characters (with different background, motivations, etc.), most stories will work for this exercise. 

Now, if your partner is an alien, you need them to teach you what things are like “on their planet” or “with their species.” You need them to teach you, as if they are the writer/director/editor of a movie about them, what you need to know about their biology/neurology/history/experiences/culture in order to understand why they – as a character in this story – do not behave in the same way you do. And you need to simultaneously realize – YOU are not the earthling. You are not the holder of all reality, and that’s where the sci-fi/fantasy thing helps more, I think. 

I don’t think this is specifically a lot different than any kind of empathy or phenomenological understanding or perspective taking work, but it was helpful with these clients who really struggle. And now they have a language to say to each other, “That’s not really how it works with my species” or “How is that different on your planet?” that is giving them a little more space to talk about their differences in a friendly way.

And they had a fun date night. 🙂 

Comment below: How do you help clients who really struggle with this?!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alfred Adler and Taylor Swift


What do Alfred Adler and Taylor Swift have in common?


Shockingly, in this case, the answer might be…. relational wisdom?

Adler, describing the psychotherapy relationship says, “A tactless truth can never be the whole truth; it shows that our understanding was not sufficient.” 

And Swift, describing one of many terrible breakups calls her lover’s communications “casually cruel in the name of being honest.” 

I think – and this might be controversial, though I wish it wouldn’t be – that the culture has a thought brewing that authenticity means doing exactly what you want and saying exactly what you think without regard for the audience. But, you know what? It doesn’t really work. 

The clearest, most honest communication you can make with yourself still has to cross at least 2 barriers – the experience, history, filters, schemas, current nervous system functioning, etc. of the listener and everything that fills the space between you and the listener, which might contain the larger culture, personal history between you, effects of the time and location, and more. Without considering those factors, your ultra clear and honest communication is going to get all distorted. You can communicate MORE truth by taking the other person and the situation into account than by tapping into this new (problematic) kind of “authenticity.” 

 

Comments below: What do you think? Do you see this in therapy, especially with couples? But also in your communications with clients? Or not? If this feels controversial to you, talk about that, too! 

 

 

 

 

 

“Untangling” Couples/Family Dynamics


“Untangling” Couples/Family Dynamics


I just love it when a metaphor shows up in real life in all its glory – slaps me in the face or lands in the palm of my hand…

Untangling these actual, real-life necklaces, the metaphor of “untangling” family dynamics in session just couldn’t be ignored:

 

  • Too much stress on the system locks everything up!
  • Sometimes you can see the problem knot right from the start, often you can’t
  • Work on whichever place is most ready to move
  • Be patient, and willing to pause and come back fresh
  • Opening up space takes a gentle “massage” of the whole system
  • Focus on all the strands, but know that the change usually happens in one small spot at a time
  • The main work is a lot of observing the same territory over and over, with gentle optimism
  • Consider small pushes along with pulls, movement can happen in more than one direction
  • Don’t drop it in the middle of the work! haha!
  • Small progress can feel like no progress, or moving backward, but it’s not
  • Anything that promotes space and movement is progress, even if you can’t see the end yet
  • Once things are moving, don’t go too fast – hold the spaces open and go gently
  • A misstep isn’t the end of the world – what gets tangled can get untangled
  • Every once in a awhile, loosen the tension on the whole mess
  • Continually look at the whole system from different angles
  • Be aware…pulling on one strand can cause tightness in others
  • When things are moving, keep an eye on every strand to see what’s happening, or new snarls might pop up in seemingly untangled areas
  • Be close enough to work, but keep your distance – you can’t untangle if you become a strand! Or even if you get too stressed while working on it.

Comment below: Can you flesh out that metaphor even more? What therapy metaphors have “jumped out” at you in the past?

 

 

 

 

 

More than Five Love Languages


There are More than Five Love Languages


I don’t love the “five love languages.” I don’t love the book because it stresses me out when books about mental and relational health aren’t grounded in research. I don’t love the concept, because I find it very limiting and prescriptive. There are clearly more than five love languages! (Although when couples have already read it/heard about it, I won’t put it down, I’ll just try to “stretch it out.”)

I do like that the idea that couples are made of two people who are different from each other, and I do like the idea of shared vocabulary for shared understanding. One of the most important things for couples to learn in this kind of empathy work is understanding that the other person might experience something differently than you do – maybe even oppositely! 

That being said, here’s a slightly more comprehensive list of ways that one person might feel loved/validated, that the other person might not understand well – or might understand in a completely opposite way! (Note especially the blank bullet points at the bottom. I like the visual assumption that clients will add their own!) 

 

  • Being helped (my partner assumes I’m worth helping/ they assume I’m not capable)
  • Being asked for help (my partner needs me because I’m worthwhile / they don’t want to do their fair share)
  • Being complimented (my partner thinks nice things about me / they’re flattering and they want something)
  • Being given gifts/money (I’m valued / they think they can just buy my love)
  • Being sexually pursued (I’m desirable / they’re just using me for their own gratification)
  • Hugs/cuddling (they love to be near me / they’re clingy and smothering)
  • Doing things together (they like spending time with me / they can’t stand being alone)
  • Introducing to friends (they think others will like me / I’m too much for them to handle alone)
  • Giving advice (they care and want to help me / they think I’m stupid)
  • Monitoring behavior (they care and want me to be safe / they’re invading my privacy and autonomy)
  • Inviting to share interests (they think I’ll also enjoy that / they don’t care what I like)
  • Letting me make decisions (they trust me / they don’t want any responsibility )
  • Making me part of their FOO (wants to include me deeply in their lives / wants to take away my individuality)
  • Encouraging me to grow in xyz way (wants me to be my best self / thinks I’m garbage and wants to change me)
  • Emoting strongly (I’m a safe place for them / they can’t handle their anger, etc)
  •  
  •  
  •  

This kind of thing can help couples do that work of perspective taking and empathy, like when they realize they didn’t marry someone Crazy, Stupid, or Awful.

Comment below: Any others you can think of or that have come up in session? How have you used the “love languages” concept to good effect in couples’ work? 

 

 

 

 

Obviously…


Obviously… (the false consensus effect)


This is a pretty awful word. 

The false consensus effect is a cognitive bias – it’s our tendency to see our own choices and judgments as  common and appropriate to existing circumstances. And that means, almost all the time, that we think other people really ought to be thinking, perceiving, believing, valuing, and choosing the same way that we are … obviously. 

Because we’re therapists, our job is to accept and understand the different ways that other people are thinking, perceiving, believing, valuing, and choosing. (And we don’t do this perfectly, by any stretch!)

But for a lot of people, if you aren’t thinking what’s obvious to them, you’re obviously crazy, stupid, or awful. 🙂

So, where are the places we can eliminate this word, as a way of beginning to unchain ourselves from this bias? 

 

  • We can stop using it in session, for a start. When is there a time that this word is beneficial in session? I’m guessing pretty much never. 
  • We can teach this in session, to clients. It comes up a lot in couples’ work, especially. 
  • We can work to take it out of our conversations in our non-work lives, too. 
  • And we can watch for sneaky synonyms like “of course!” 

 

 

Comment below: Now you’ll be catching yourself using this word! Post a comment about your situation! (Including if you think there ARE useful times to use it!)

 

Crazy, Stupid, or Awful?!

 


Crazy, Stupid, or Awful?!


The foundation of couples’ work is often training them to listen. And of course, listening is actually incredibly difficult and relatively complex. For example, it involves all those difficult skills like self-soothing, holding difficult emotions, making space for the other person, accurate empathy, maximizing the use of working memory, tolerance for ambiguity, etc. And that seems overwhelming even here on this therapy blog, and it’s certainly overwhelming in session. But here’s an idea I sometimes put out in session when things start spiraling: 

You aren’t crazy, stupid, or awful and you probably didn’t marry someone who is crazy, stupid, or awful. So, there might be a misunderstanding in here somewhere. Let’s find it, shall we? 

Clients are more than likely to agree with the idea that they themselves are not crazy, stupid, or awful (and it’s nice to  validate them first, before going on to “defend” their partner). They also usually aren’t willing to say in therapy that their partner is one of those things. They at least don’t want to be married to (or in a relationship with) someone who is crazy, stupid, or awful.

This pause on our end often lets them pause on their end and create a little bit of space to hear their partner’s content differently. Yay! 

Occasionally, they will say their partner is crazy, stupid, or awful. Ok, no problem – now we know we’re in a contempt-place (in the Gottman way), and we can change gears to a process-rather-than-content level. 

 

Comment below: How do get couples to pause and refocus in session? Also, “QuotesFromSession” is a new tag – do you have any go-to session quotes that you often find useful? 

 

 

 

Why do we yell? (Just a theory!)


Why do we yell? (Just a theory!) 


Specifically, this idea came to me during some couples’ work. Why do people yell at each other (and this probably goes for parents/kids, too…) 

Here’s a theory I have. 

Animals vocalize in lots of ways. But when do they “raise their voices”? What does the animal research say about this? (e.g., Seyfarth & Cheney, 2003) First, there are two issues here with my reading of the literature – one is that I’m not super familiar with the comparative (i.e., animal) psyc research and the other is that animal research is always observational and about making inferences – can’t ask them any questions! Just bear that in mind. But from what I can glean, animals probably get loud in three circumstances/for three reasons:

 

  • To demonstrate aggression, especially when they feel underpowered (i.e., actual predators who are about to eat prey are sneaky and quiet, but an animal that is afraid it’s about to get killed or eaten may get loud to try to discourage a predator)
  • To sound an alarm, either to warn others of their kind that there is a danger approaching or to call for assistance
  • As part of display meant to push another animal of its kind down the social hierarchy, in a competitive way 

So, whether or not this is precisely accurate, it has been an interesting topic of conversation with my couples. I explain this idea and then make it a little human…

“Is it possible that when people raise their voices, it’s because they’re feeling underpowered and they need a show a vocal strength because their argument isn’t strong enough on it’s merit? Might they get loud because they feel like they’re in danger and actually crying for help from their partners? Or sometimes maybe they just want to diminish their partner – try to shut them down by proving they’re more important, stronger, or otherwise farther up in the hierarchy?”

Then, after there is some buy-in, I bring it to the personal/situational level: “So when you raised your voice just now (or last night, etc.), which of those reasons resonates most with your experience?”

  • Sometimes they reluctantly identify that they lost their cool because they could tell they were losing the argument. That can open the door for looking at the merits of both positions in the less-intense therapy environment. 
  • Sometimes they reluctantly identify it as feeling in danger and crying for help, and that opens a door for softer emotions from them and softer responses from their partners. 
  • Sometimes they reluctantly admit that they wanted to push their partners down, they just wanted to win. And sometimes they try to wiggle out of that by saying “I raised my voice because they just weren’t listening to me!” (Which is a sneaky way of saying the same thing… I deserved to be heard more than they deserved to be heard.) 

Yeah, no one seems to really jump enthusiastically into any of those explanations. But they give clients food for thought, sometimes they come around later or bring it up in a later session. At the very least, it prompts a discussion about the process of the conflicts, and that’s usually a therapy win! 

 

Comment below: Do you happen to know more stuff about animals (esp mammals) vocalizing loudly? I’d love to hear it! (Not including the monkeys that scream for sex – haha!) Or, how do you help couples begin to address the process rather than just the content of their conflicts? 

 

Seyfarth, R. M., & Cheney, D. L. (2003) Meaning and emotion in animal vocalizations. Ann N Y Acad Sci., 1000, 32-55. doi: 10.1196/annals.1280.004. PMID: 14766619.

Photo credit – Joshua Cotten

 

 

 

 

Misophonia


Misophonia


Misophonia, or “hatred of sound,” is characterized by selective sensitivity to specific sounds accompanied by emotional distress, and even anger, as well as behavioral responses such as avoidance.

Or, as my 8 year old says, “Just thinking about the noise makes me die! Not literally. Metaphorically.” (Because yes, we do have ‘speaking accurately’ as a family value. What can I say? I’m a psychologist and a super-nerd.) Note, she says this while holding her ears and writhing. She follows up, “It’s like the sound goes inside my ears and then it gets in my body and makes all my muscles squeeze.” She squeals, like she’s something between angry and afraid. 

Yes, my darling. I hear you. For me, it’s like the sound goes inside my ears and then scrapes down all my nerves through my spinal cord. My teeth clench and my eyes close and my neck twists and my hip flexors tighten involuntarily. My autonomic system starts kicking in, but my brain has trouble turning that into a well-labeled emotional experience – something like completely irrational, slightly panicky anger disgust that’s not quite anger because I can’t quite get the cognitions to line up right.

For my daughter, it’s the sound of rubbing the seatbelt fabric. For me, the sound of a pencil writing on paper. For my husband, the sound of a rubber ball bouncing. 

If you’ve experienced this, you probably know it by now. But you can read more about misophonia here. Though it’s experienced by tons of people, it’s pretty new in terms of research and diagnostics. There is some cool brain data about the experience. It’s difficult to categorize, but if it’s significantly impairing a client’s ability to perform their basic life roles, it could probably be diagnosed at this point as Other Specified Obsessive and Compulsive Related Disorder. Though, I imagine in a decade or so, we’ll have a whole section about sensory issues and it’ll fit better there.  

Treatment is up in the air at the moment, though physicians, audiologists, and mental health folks are working on it. In our world, definitely there’s a place for distress tolerance work and maybe exposure & response prevention. But the place I’ve done the most clinical work on misophonia is couple’s therapy, believe it or not! Oh yes, most people can tolerate the discomfort on their own, but when it’s their partner making the sound, it takes on a whole new life! 

This is an experience that needs to be handled gently and cooperatively. (I mean, like we want everything handled in couples’ therapy, honestly!) The person who does not understand this probably needs to hear some of the science from us and be assured that their partner is not just making up their distress. The distressed partner probably needs to work on their distress tolerance and be sure they aren’t using their distress as a weapon. I will say that I have found that asking for a small behavior change when it’s possible is often easier, and that couples rarely want this to be the main issue. So, if the one partner could just not chew gum, that’d be great. Or throw away all the pencils with no eraser left – they’re just pencils! Consider ways to handle this issue as quickly and pragmatically as possible. Also, use it as an opportunity to talk about legitimate partner differences in experience! 

 

 

Comment below: Do you have this experience? For which sounds? Have you had clients bring it up, ever?

Forest Wandering (A Couples’ Metaphor)


Forest Wandering (A Couples’ Metaphor)


In a perfect world, we go through life with our partners sometimes walking hand in hand, and sometimes exploring within earshot, and occasionally going off on our own but easily finding our way back to each other. Totally in sync, perfect partners know each others’ maps perfectly, and keep them continually updated. 

But sometimes, it suddenly seems like our partner is in an entirely different place – they confuse us because they don’t feel the way we expect or don’t respond how we think they will.  Sometimes that comes out like “You’re obviously wrong!” or “Stop being stupid!” or “You hurt me on purpose!” or “You should have known better!”

We entered the forest at the same place, maybe, but they’ve apparently popped out on the other side in a way different place than we have. It’s easy to imagine they’ve teleported, but it’s not true. They walked, same as us. They just walked a different path. Finding out what it was takes courage and openness. But it’s worth it, to know your partner’s landscape! 

When our partners surprise us, first we need to notice we’re surprised – sometimes that can be hard under the hurt or anger, or we’ve let it go on so long that we’re “used to it” by now because “they’re always like that.” But once we realize that they have some wildly different idea than we do, or that they seem to be acting crazy, or that this ostensibly smart/thoughtful/brave/loyal/etc person that we got together with seems to be replaced by an evil clone… we can do the work. And it’s as simple as, “I didn’t expect that [behavior, response, thought]… will you tell me how you got there?”

Simple, but not always easy. 

Rest assured – our partners VERY RARELY get replaced by evil clones. They probably aren’t crazy, malicious, or stupid. We just have to manage our own negative emotions, snap judgments, and other reactionary reactions long enough to hear it.

 

Comment below: Have you experienced this your relationship? How have you taught clients/couples to do this process? 

 

 

 

 

Measuring Sticks


Measuring Sticks


Do you remember Mary Poppins’ measuring tape? When she measures Michael, it reads “Rather Stubborn and Suspicious” and when she measures Jane, it reads “Inclined to Giggle Doesn’t put things away.” And what does it say when she measures herself? “Practically Perfect in Every Way.” 

Clients come in to therapy with their own measuring sticks – and based on their own histories, experiences, biases, fears, hopes, etc. – they have a tendency to believe that their measuring stick is the RIGHT measuring stick. They’re quick to assume that their memory of the last argument, their assumption about their partner’s (or boss’ or kids’) intention, their prediction of the future is practically perfect in every way

One of the biggest and most pervasive challenges in therapy, I think, is getting clients to trade in their rulers. (After all, they’ve been using this trusty ruler since childhood, probably. It must be a good one!) Sometimes, they’ve been using “trick rulers” that just don’t measure the peril or injustice (etc.) in the world in an accurate way. (Yes! Those are real, and I want to buy one for therapy to use in a fun experiential activity, but I can’t bring myself to spend the $25!) Helping clients to recognize that maybe their genetics, physiology, past trauma, or many other factors have distorted their way of measuring may work better in a metacognitive kind of way than just helping them to measure each situation more accurately. 

Sometimes, they’re using their own ruler to judge someone else’s experience instead of using the other person’s ruler. In those cases, even if they have a super “accurate” ruler (which they probably don’t) or they took notes on the last session with their kid, or they recorded the last argument with their partner, or they pull out the email from their boss – they don’t get any close to understand the other person’s experience or intention by judging with their own rulers. 

I think a lot of this dysfunction comes from a generically nice place. When kids are little, they’re often told things like, “Don’t take Cindy’s doll. How would you feel if Cindy took your doll?” Which is probably better than not thinking about Cindy’s feelings or experience at all, but it makes the mistake of assuming that Cindy will have the same or similar experience to us. But what if we have 100 dolls and Cindy only has 2? We may damage Cindy so much, destroy the relationship, and be completely perplexed about why we’ve lost our best friend! What if we love Barbies and would treasure this stolen Barbie in a deeply forbidden, guilty way, but Cindy hates Barbies and wouldn’t really care? Then we miss an opportunity to ask Cindy if we could share or have her Barbie, Cindy misses out on an experience of altruism, we don’t get to enjoy and treasure the Barbie in a shame-free way, and we both miss out on building intimacy. 

Judging the world, and other people, solely from our own perspectives destines us for failures in empathy. Even if our measuring stick is more accurate than someone else’s. 

Comment below: How have you helped clients to use a different ruler or make theirs more accurate? 

 

 

 

 

Three Rules for Couples Counseling


Rules for Couples Counseling


I have three rules for couples’ counseling. Sometimes, I say them overtly, in the first session, sometimes they come up as we go along. I don’t really think of them as “my” rules, exactly, as much as I think these are pretty well required for couples’ counseling to go well. 

(1) A true, actual, capital-R “Reality” may exist, but neither of you (nor I) actually know it and it is not knowable.

So, we will not be spending much time arguing about how things actually happened or who is Right. We will spend a lot of time talking about how you each experience(d) things and how to effective co-construct your world. (Sometimes this has to be followed up with psychoeducation about perception and memory.)

(2) Relationships aren’t fair and that’s not the goal.

We will not be measuring out love. We will not be counting resentments. You are different people and we will not compare you  (your needs, desires, pains, etc.) to each other. We will absolutely NOT be doing a tit-for-tat scenario. If you want the relationship to improve, you will have to commit to your part of the work regardless of whether the other person does their part. 

(3) Your relationship is Your relationship. 

We will not be comparing it to your parents’ relationship, or the relationships you’ve learned about from romantic comedies, the relationship your growing-up church told you that you must have, or the relationship of your best friend on Facebook. We will focus on building the relationship that works for Y’all. 

 

You’d think they run away, but they usually don’t. 🙂 

 

Comment! What kinds of rules or guidelines do you find useful working with couples?  

 

 

 

Explore Colonize Conquer


Explore, Colonize, Conquer


First, thank you to my clients (M&K) who gave birth to this metaphor with me. It has been so powerful, and not just in your lives.

When you meet another person, you aren’t just meeting another person. You’re meeting another person and all of their territory. By “territory,” I mean all of their thoughts, feelings, and neurophysiological responses that are based in the totality of their history and experiences. All of these are fundamentally different from your territory and fundamentally unknowable without that person’s willing guidance.

There are three ways to approach a new territory.

  • As a conqueror.
    • A conqueror knows what’s right and best. They force or coerce to get their own way. They take over – abolishing what was in favor of what they want. They destroy and replace. They wage war – loudly and quietly.
    • You can tell a conqueror by their actions and their language. They are forceful, uncompromising. They listen poorly (distorting) or not at all. They say things like, “yes, but…” and “But I…”
    • Everyone is a conqueror sometimes, whether you wish to think it about yourself or not. So, drop the pride and take stock. Pay attention to yourself. It’s more subtle than you think and it’s sinister. It feels right when you’re doing it. It feels…righteous. Don’t be what you don’t want to be.
  • As a colonizer.
    • A colonizer is pleased with their own way. They know they can bring good things to the new situation. Manners, refinement, worthy (if different) traditions. Changes…but only good changes (or so they protest)!
    • You can tell a colonizer by their actions and their language. They seem accommodating at first, and then you’re surprised when you’ve acquiesced. They listen, but artfully dismiss. They say things like, “I think we should…” and “how about we…”
    • Everyone is a colonizer sometimes, whether you wish to think it about yourself or not. (Oh! Therapists are SO guilty of this, so often!) So, drop the pride and take stock. Pay attention to yourself. It’s much, much more subtle than conquering. It’s (ostensibly) gentler. It feels more right. Don’t be what you don’t want to be.
  • As an explorer.
    • An explorer wants only to be exposed and educated. They do not have pre-formed opinions. They are completely open, and prepared to handle surprises gently and with curiosity and grace. They simply want to know more, hear more, understand more fully and accurately. They have no desire to change what is.
    • You can also tell an explorer by their actions and words. They make space for what is new. They ask honest questions to clarify what is new or unclear. They go slowly, without encroaching. They listen.
    • As therapists, we hope to be explorers. In relationships (romantic, familial, etc.), exploring is crucial. But it takes a lot of work, and self-management…it’s not anyone’s natural instinct.

 

In theory, you and this other person want (to some extent, at least!) to merge your borders and create “our land.” The ONLY healthy way to do this is as explorers first, then settlers – cultivating the shared land together, harmoniously.

 

 

Comment with thoughts on expanding this metaphor, or your own couples’ metaphor!

 

Slowing Way Down


Slowing Way Down


I really like having couples for double-length sessions, at least 90 minutes. There’s just SO much work to do! And how often does that dream come true? Almost never. Which is one of the reasons I use this technique, even though – I warn you! – it’s going to seem counter-intuitive.

Couples are infinitely complex and unique…except in the beginning. Because in the beginning, they all have some of the same problems. In one of those problems is a basic difficulty with saying what they mean and hearing the other person. I’m sure you had the all too common experience, to; it starts out reasonable, then there speaking over each other, saying the same things over and over, getting louder and louder. When that happens, I quietly stand up, go over to my box of supplies, and pull out a pack of index cards. Then I sit quietly, and wait for their quite confusion.

Next I hand them each one index card and a pen.

Rules are pretty simple: First, take your time – because you get the front of this one index card to save the most important things that you want your partner to hear. (It’s surprising how much event held by the size of fonts they write with during this exercise!) After you’re both done, switch cards. Read the card as many times as you need to. Quietly; no speaking. As best you can, write what your partner told you in your own words on the back. After you’re both done, switch cards.

The next step depends on your intention in using the exercise. You might take both cards, read them both and help them make corrections on their interpretations of what the other person said. You might have each of them read their partner’s interpretation, and then use a new index card to write their initial statement more clearly. If they’ve done well, and the point was mostly just to cool the temperature in the room down a little bit, you might invite them to speak again about what they’ve just written (I use a random number generator to decide who goes first).

Yes, this takes basically an entire 50 minute session. For one note card. And you know what? They usually have communicated more during that session that may have in any session before we used the technique.

Bonus: this is a relatively easy task to then assign for homework!

 

Comment below: What pitfalls can you imagine using this task with a couple you have now? How would you handle them?

 

 

 

 

All Different


We’re All Different


I know, that’s not really news to us. Though you wouldn’t know it if you just listened your couple-clients, would you? It’s wild to me how much they expect the other to have the same personality, likes/dislikes, perspective, neurobiology, history, motives…well, you get the idea. Or rather, it’s not that I think they really expect that, but they just seem not to give it much thought?
I’d like to share an exercise with you that I use with many couples, to good effect. It asks couples to identify their differences – silly ones, serious ones, big and small – and to identify how they tolerate, accept, or celebrate those differences. (And they do at least tolerate them all, or they wouldn’t be in your office!) It gives you an opportunity to talk about how all of those are ok, and how you can even move up from tolerate to accept, or from acceptance to celebration. And it sets the stage for another important part of coupes work – each choosing to accept the other person fully while making efforts to change themselves, accepting influence from the other person and accommodating when more movement doesn’t feel possible.

 

Note: Couples, even ones who do this very well, need to continually revisit and update this information. Just as we’re different from our partners, we’re different from ourselves from last year, or ten years ago.

Bonus: This works with families, too!

Comment below if you have other techniques you’ve used to help couples or families experience each others’ differences in a gentle way.

 

 

 

 

Frog: A Noble Creature


Frog: A Noble Creature


I know. Frogs don’t seem that noble. And whether they are or not, or even if the case could be made that they are (and I believe it could), that’s not even remotely the point.

You see, “Frog: A Noble Creature” is just what I title this image when I give it to one half of a couple. “Horse: A Noble Creature” is just what I title this image when I give it to the other half. See why?

(If not, tilt your head so your right ear touches your right shoulder)

It usually takes just a moment for the two of them to notice that they have the same picture. Which is good, because the point is to show them that they can’t easily see the other person’s picture the way they see it, unless they come around to the other person’s position and look from where they’re sitting.

It’s just a little introductory exercise to empathy and perspective taking, but it really seems to drive the point home better than a lecture. Here are two of my other favorites.

 

 

Comment, please! How do you explain empathy to clients? Do you know of any other optical illusions to share that would help?

Note: I hate posting images without original sourcing, and I don’t know the original source for any of these. If you do, please share!