Friday, December 31, 2010

A Secret To Success

            All week Nan has been handing out “homework assignments” to clients as an end of the year exercise. It consists of writing a letter to God detailing all the things that one is thankful for in 2010 and prayer requests for 2011. The purpose is to be able to look back sometime in the new year and see which prayers have been answered as a way to build faith.

            But I was thinking that for some the thankful list is a lot shorter than the prayer list. 2010 was not a joyous year – and neither was 2009, perhaps not even 2008. After a while hope begins to fade and cynicism begins to creep in. What then?

            The temptation here is to fold up and withdraw, to slide into a pessimistic stupor and surrender to a soul-killing negativity. And I would by lying if I was to tell you that I have never gone down that path. In some ways it is very appealing. But I can assure you that it is not very helpful.

            At these times I have to remind myself of some solid research that produced this conclusion: Pessimists see the world more realistically, but optimists have better lives and are usually more successful. Why is that? Well, who would you rather spend time with? People tend to isolate from those who are pessimistic by nature (or choice). It’s as if somehow the condition is contagious. And, actually it is. But so is optimism.

            Those who can stay positive, even in the midst of difficulty, are most likely to draw people towards them who will often be part of the solution and become cheerleaders for their success. For example, if unemployed, optimists are more likely to be recommended for a job – and they are more likely to attract people willing to help them in the task of searching.

            So how do I stay positive? It is mainly an act of the will – feeding my inner thought life with hopeful, but truthful messages. I have to remember to be aware of my body language, my facial expressions, looking outward instead of inward and limiting my complaining, even when I’m feeling otherwise.

            The beginning of a new year is a time marker for many of us – we are much more apt to spend time reflecting on the past and projecting for the future. Even if you wish your circumstances were massively different, you can still choose your attitude as you move through the challenges that face you, holding on to hope, because the story of your life isn’t over yet.

Happy New Year


Friday, December 24, 2010

Meaningful Rituals

             I have always thought it interesting that places of worship see increased attendance during holidays. Do people suddenly “get religious”? I don’t think so. But people obviously see a value in making time to be present at these gatherings.

            For some it is simply tradition. In some fashion it connects us to our history, our culture, family, and childhood. It has no more meaning than that – perhaps a vague hope that there is something bigger than us controlling things. But for others, there is a deeper significance, specifically spiritual. It signifies that there is a semblance of stability in the world and it gives them comfort to know that God is watching over them. And then of course, there are the devout, always in attendance (most of the readers of this blog).

            Regardless of where you might fall in the spectrum of belief, one thing stands out: rituals add value to our lives. They build a sense of connectedness with others and therefore we feel less alone. I think that is why there is an increase in joy for so many of us during the Christmas season. We are reminded that we are part of something greater than just our individual journeys as we celebrate together.

For some, this time of the year reminds us of losses past and present – but even in the midst of the sadness there is opportunity to form new bonds as a way of moving beyond the grief. If we intentionally do not isolate, but remain open to the community around us, this season in particular offers more prospects for connection. People are more likely to gather, to invite, to notice us as they turn their attention outwards. Although we may not always feel like participating, our willingness to both initiate and respond opens up possibilities.

            2000 years ago God initiated in a way that has changed the course of humanity forever – and wise people are still responding. It is our joy that we are a part of that response, and our prayers are for all the broken people, just like us, past, present and future that join to celebrate His birth. Merry Christmas!  

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sleep Deprived – Joy Challenged

 Until just recently I have been suffering from a lack of sleep. I tried to do all the right things to correct the problem, but somehow it just never seemed to work. So what changed for me? I have no idea, I just thank God that I am now able to fall asleep in a timely manner. For those of us (and there are many) that are sleep challenged, we truly understand what a gift a good night’s rest is.

The sleep studies I have seen all agree that a minimum of 7 hours of sleep is required to function properly – and 8 hours is better.

The mental impairment from four hours or less sleep is just like having no sleep at all.

Can we oversleep? Well, yes, but usually that is a sign of depression unless we are engaged in ‘catch-up’ sleep. Most clinicians agree that we have one week to catch up on lost sleep before the effects take its toll.

What are the effects of being sleep deprived? Aside from the obvious tiredness, we are much more likely to get into car accidents, relational squabbles, make bad decisions at work and at home and generally have reduced productivity.

But from an emotional and spiritual standpoint, the worst part is that we are going to be joy challenged. Life will feel like a heavy burden instead of a great adventure. I will have an attitude of ‘just getting through the day’ rather than looking forward to what the day will bring.

Many people I have encountered have bragged about how little sleep they get and wear it as a badge of honor or strength. I feel sorry for them because I know that they are tearing their bodies down slowly. They will eventually pay the price.

For some, the solution may just be changing lifestyle habits to make room for and begin to value sleep differently. We dumped our TV cable and gained hours of our life back every day. For others it may require being intentional in other ways – like talking to a doctor to determine if the problem is physical or a counselor if anxiety related.

For all of us we can adjust some things in our lives to increase the joy factor. I suggest the following:

  • Decrease your negative or controversial news intake.
  • Connect with people who care about you.
  • Listen to uplifting (worship) music.
  • Limit time with emotionally draining people.
  • Increase time with optimistic and life-giving people.
  • Volunteer for something that matters.
  • Guard your quiet time if you have any, if not make room for it.

And get some sleep if you need it!  

Friday, December 10, 2010

For Leaders (and others)

So the other day I heard, once again, an exasperated leader talking about counseling people in their care.

“I don’t get it. It’s should be so easy. You listen to their story, tell them what they need to do, and then check back with them to make sure they did it. That, along with getting more into the Word and being transparent with a small group for ongoing accountability.”

Of course, then I ask how it’s working for them. And you can guess the answer. Not so very well. So I ask what they think the problem might be.

“People just don’t listen very well” is usually the answer.

Now, I agree with the above synopsis in principle. It’s the distillation of the process down to a neat package that has me shaking my head. I’m afraid people are just a lot more complex than that.  

I really don’t think that people aren’t listening so much as not trusting. It takes time to establish a bond strong enough for someone to be willing to take your advice. And leaders that are exhorters by nature may be operating in that blind spot – underestimating what is required. Sometimes it takes a great deal of investment in a person before their ‘hearing’ improves. Leaders must ask themselves whether they are operating outside of their spiritual gifts when offering counsel.

Romans 5:8 says this: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

It is this establishment of love that draws others towards us and gives us credibility when attempting to speak into their lives. We have another saying that closely relates to the scripture.

“People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Some people are harder to love and care for than others. It may seem like not worth the effort. But as Christ demonstrated, it is the job of a true leader to be sacrificial. However, the scope of the sacrifice has to be carefully considered. We can only have a limited amount of people drawing on our strength at any one time. Overestimating our emotional capacity can be another blind spot.

I don’t want to discourage leaders. You provide vision and security. Your abilities are a gift to us. Whether you lead solely in your family, or on a much broader platform, you are needed. So don't give up if you find yourself struggling in this endeavor -- but do check for blind spots.   

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Scrapbooks & The Thanksgiving List

“Grateful, Grateful, Grateful” sung by our Generations Choir stuck in the hearts and heads of so many of those who attended our Thanksgiving services. That phrase was posted over and over again on Facebook the next day.

There is something so powerful about maintaining this attitude that it became a foundational principle of the 12 steps of AA and other recovery programs. Being spared a life of permanent bondage is certainly a reason to rejoice.

“As a man thinks, so is he” is a well known Proverb. Keeping our minds focused on the good and positive in our lives is a way to maintain our balance even during tough times. It is a potent tool to use for staving off depression and bitterness and finding our equilibrium when challenged by life’s uncertainties.

So how do we sustain this thanksgiving attitude all year long?

One way I have found very helpful is keeping a ‘gratitude journal’. It is an exercise that I often assign to clients that are struggling with life’s challenges. When we are going through hardships it is particularly hard to hold on to the good things that are part of our lives.

It seems most helpful for me to keep an ongoing list of the good things in my life rather than looking to find them when things are not as I wish they would be. My journal is a way of having tangible evidence of those realities when I am not feeling them. In my journals I do not shy away from recording the anxieties and stressors that I face, but I do not let them have all the real estate.

One other tool I use that is similar is an affirmation scrapbook. Nan has made up a couple of them for me on my birthdays, but I also have assembled one on my own. It contains prayers, cards, emails, letters, pictures and other indications that my life has meaning and purpose. I pull it out and read through it when I am feeling discouraged because of a current situation I might be facing. It is particularly needed when the circumstances are beyond my control.     

I have found the secret of a joyful life and it is this: Being grateful for what I have rather than angry or bitter for what I do not.

I am not talking about killing our desires, for within them are contained our hopes and dreams. I am just saying that the fulfillment of those desires should not be the determinant of our happiness.

So start a journal, or get out paper and pencil (if you still have them) or create an electronic list and post the results in a prominent place. Then read it and add to it often. It will make a difference – I promise. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Being A Safe Person

In one of my earlier posts I ended by saying we must become a safe and trustworthy person. In reflection I realized that it might not be clear to everyone how that concept plays out in our lives.

A few days ago I was having an emotional conversation with someone (imagine) and I said something that I wish I hadn’t. It probably went unnoticed, but I was instantly aware that given the opportunity to turn back the clock, I would have kept it to myself. 

That is one instance of not being a safe person – not fully controlling our tongue.

To expand on that, not controlling our words is first cousin to not controlling our emotions, our reactions, and our angry outbursts. If we are given to that kind of behavior, people will naturally distance from us. Drama is interesting on TV, not so much in our day-to-day lives.

Keeping confidences, even when difficult is another sign of a trustworthy person. Have you ever experienced toxic prayer, when someone reveals a confidence in a group prayer “to lay it before the Lord”? Not safe.

  • Do you honor people’s time by being on time? If you don’t, you become less trustworthy.
  • Do you over commit, but under deliver and then make excuses about how busy you are?
  • Do you say things you really don’t mean? (As in “Let’s do lunch” or “I’ll pay you back”)
  • Do you treat people the same when you are in a group as you do when you are alone? 
  • Do you say the same things about a person while in their presence as you do when they are absent? 

Really, what we are talking about here is the attitude of your heart.

Luke 6:45 says: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

Husbands and wives take note: these things are especially important for you and your relationship. And people are watching how you treat each other to determine your level of safety. I was told recently by someone that before they were willing to approach me, they intently watched how I treated Nan and how she treated/responded to me. I had no idea it was happening.

So rate yourself and the people around you that you associate with. Are you safe? Are the people you keep company with trustworthy? If you need to make adjustments, be courageous and reap the benefits.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Safety & Intimacy

Last weekend was our church’s young adult retreat and the fourth time we have had the privilege to participate as team members during a time of individual focused prayer at this event. The process is simple – individuals who wish to be prayed for sign up for an appointment and teams of two people listen to their requests and then pray with them.

What has become evident to me over the past four years is the similarity of the progression that takes place during these times of connection. There is a specific prayer request (presenting problem) that usually morphs into an underlying deeper issue. Although the content changes from individual to individual, what is common to most is a deep desire for intimacy and safety, both in the moment and in life overall.

This need to be both known and safe is universal – and it is why many seek counseling. It is also a primary motive for many to join together in small community groups, such as our ‘life groups’ at our church. We need to know that we matter, that our pain and our successes do not go unnoticed. We need to know that our failings are not a reason for rejection and ostracism – but rather that we can be cheered on to do better. In short we need an environment that fosters growth because we are secure in the belief that we are accepted.

When this primary need for intimacy and security has been unmet, or worse yet, violated by people that are supposed to protect us, it may become difficult for us to form a trust bond. And forming that bond is a foundational requirement for close relationships.

How are we able to get past old wounds and begin to trust again in the wake of ruptures?

The best way I know to restore these broken places is to form new bonds with safe people. This means taking some relational risks, and cautiously opening up with a few new people. Don’t be in a hurry to go too deep too soon. Ask God to reveal to you who might be a safe person and listen intently for His response. Sometimes it is necessary to begin even more carefully, with an individual person or counselor.

Most importantly, become a safe and trustworthy person for others, and be aware of those around you who might need the comfort of your friendship. 

Friday, November 12, 2010


Every once in a while I am accused of being selfish with my time. And I struggle within myself, trying to decide if it’s true. Usually the accuser is someone who is unhappy with a boundary I have set. For example I usually let my telephone message services pick up calls rather than keep my cell phone turned on. I struggle because I want to act with maturity and love. 

But there is a distinct difference between being selfish and choosing to exercise good self-care. The purpose of self-care is to sustain and nourish myself so that I am able to go the distance in my availability to others. Selfishness would restrict my accessibility only to those that serve my purposes and my desires.

The opposite of selfish is selfless. It might be defined as overly available for others.

It sounds very noble and charitable. But is it really?

Sometimes my selflessness is just a lack of an ability to say no. Sometimes it is an attempt to gain affirmation from others to feel significant. And if I don’t get it I end up feeling resentful (the martyr).

But there are times when I must legitimately operate in a selfless manner – for example during occasions of crisis. During these times I am needed in a full capacity. But then what must follow is a period of recuperation with adequate self-care.    

What does self-care look like?

Adequate rest (sleep and Sabbath). Exercise. Recreation. Solitude. Two-way friendships. Vacations. Regular medical and dental check-ups.

Are these a normal part of your life? If they are not, then why not? Do you feel guilty when you pay attention to your own needs? Why? 

If you are like me, you probably want a balanced life – sold out to the right things and cautious about the rest. Achieving that balance is a great goal, but a difficult task. So how are you doing?     

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Is It My Fault?

Two ways we can define mental health is by the degree with which are living in reality, no matter how painful, and by the degree that we take responsibility for our own lives, no matter how difficult.

The challenge in this is that first we must be able to recognize reality through the cloud of messages that we have received starting early in our childhood, and the database of assumptions (perhaps inaccurate) that we have formed as a result.

Most everyone has heard of ‘survivor’s guilt’  -- where a person who has been through a traumatic experience feels bad when they have not suffered to the same depth as others going through the same experience, or have been spared death when others haven’t. Well-known examples would be an automobile accident, war, natural disaster, etc. But there are many other circumstances that also produce what we would define as false guilt. 

If I could define guilt as “I did something wrong” – then I would define false guilt as “I feel like I did something wrong, but I didn’t.”

The problem is that the effect on our emotional wellbeing is the same in either case. It’s what I believe about something, even more than what is accurate, that will determine its influence over my life. What then becomes important is seeking the truth and allowing it to heal the broken places.

Many kids grow up thinking that they were responsible for their parent’s divorces.

“If I had only been a better behaved child”
“If I only had intervened when my parents were fighting”
“If only I hadn’t gotten sick or been born with a challenging physical condition.”

In relationships we can do the same thing when there is conflict and turmoil.

“If only I had chosen my words more carefully” (when dealing with an abusive partner)
“If only I had taken a second job” (when dealing with a spouse who is under responsible with money.)
“If only I had tried harder” (when dealing with an impossibly negative person).

You can see that these lists can go on and on.

Do you have a list of false guilts in your own life? Are you suffering needlessly from incorrect assumptions? You need to share these painful places with others so that they can help you see reality better.

We do need to take responsibility for our shortcomings and seek forgiveness when we are wrong. But emotional health comes when we live in the light of truth.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

It's The Little Things That Matter

The reason I post every weekend is the same reason I do my best as a salesman (these days called account representatives) to show up on the same day at nearly the same time week after week, month after month, year after year. It is based on my well-known axiom (at least to my clients).

Consistency over time = Trust

I want you, as a reader, to trust that if you visit this page there will be a new post every week.

How much more true this is for relationships, whether personal or business.

Do you know someone who seems to be consistently late? Do you feel anxious, doubtful or frustrated when having to depend on their promptness? It may seem like a little thing most of the time – but these little breaks in trust translate to uncertainty in other areas of a person’s life.

“If I can’t trust her in the little things, how can I trust her in the big things?”

As I have referenced in a previous post, this becomes especially critical when there has been a major rift in a relationship. The only way to repair a serious trust break is to become rigorously consistent in all areas of life.

I would like to pass these smaller inconsistencies off as nothing more than personality quirks or eccentricities – but in reality they are character traits. We say:

People who keep their word have good character.

Sometimes big decisions are made on this issue alone. When deciding which employees to promote, managers look at many factors – but high on the list are consistency in attendance, promptness and the ability to regularly come through for the company. All these factors add up to trust. The same is true for an employer. Are promises made to workers that are not kept? Do paychecks come on time and as agreed upon?

The word the Bible uses for this concept is “faithful”.

Luke 16:10 "If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won't be honest with greater responsibilities."

Just something to think about when making ‘little’ decisions. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Who’s In Charge?

There is this cat that has been coming around our house recently that we have semi-adopted. Well, actually, the most honest version of this story is that the cat is training us to feed him. The cat will now come and jump on my lap and “allow” me to pet him in anticipation of a food reward.

Why a cat story in this posting? Glad you asked.

There are two things that make this cat uncomfortable: when I hug too tightly, or (for a full freak-out) if I try to pick him up. As long as the cat does not feel controlled he is happy to remain in relationship with me. You can see where this is going.

Can we actually control someone? Well, yes and no. I can physically restrain someone, and I can coerce or manipulate someone emotionally to do what I want them to – but I cannot make him or her desire to cooperate with me. That is a choice that belongs solely to the person.  

So what about the illusion of control? I think this one is even more insidious. I attempt to control things that ultimately cannot be controlled in order to curb my anxiousness. It feels impossible to trust that things may go my way if I do not directly control the outcome. But in reality, some things are not controllable and to just accept this truth would cause me to feel empty, lonely and scared. So instead I may become clingy or angry until the full weight of my powerlessness hits and then I become empty, lonely and scared. But by that time I may have lost something.

So what can I control? 

My attitude. My emotions. My actions. My expectations. There’s a theme here. I can control me.

Back to the cat. The result of picking up that cat left me with claw marks on my upper torso and some snagged clothing – and the cat got away. He eventually came back, but I think he was more cautious – and may have even given me the stink-eye for a while.

Seeking the truth helps me to give up my illusions and embrace reality, even when I much prefer my fantasies. But I guess that’s what emotional maturity is all about.

It’s something to consider. There is always help available.  

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Relational Tyranny

I think much of the new technology is marvelous – cell phones, text messages, gps, and so much more. But I am convinced that all technological advances must be examined and evaluated for the impact it will have on our lives. The goal, of course, is to add value to our lives – to facilitate positive changes and/or free us up from negative ones.

What I have seen increasingly in people’s lives, and particularly in couples’s relationships is a kind of soft tyranny. Tyranny can be defined as: a rigorous condition imposed by some outside force.

It is easy to recognize the condition as negative when imposed by an employer or parent or some other authority – as in having to be available 24/7 for the convenience of a boss or manager. But how about when it is your spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend that holds that expectation of anytime availability?

I have seen this kind of pressure being placed on relationships with the inevitable negative results. This is a scenario I have seen more than a few times:

One person texts or calls another with the expectation of an immediate response even though there is no emergency or need for a timely reply. When a response does not come, the initiator becomes angry or offended. As difficult as this might be for some to hear – this is an unreasonable expectation to hold, and a relationship killer.

And this expectation is held even during working hours. 

Statistics show that it takes the average person about 15 minutes to fully get back on track with a task after an interruption. Employers and managers are cautioned to hold interruptions to a minimum for optimum performance -- and we should heed the same advice. 

What I think is most destructive to a relationship is the stress that is imposed on both parties, particularly when there is the aforementioned slow response or inability to answer. For the initiator, the result could be feelings of insecurity – and for the responder feelings of being controlled (or concerned that their partner is too needy).

As I think back over our almost forty years of marriage I can count on one hand the times we have made contact more than once a day during working hours when we were both working separate jobs. Sometimes we would not make contact during the entire week. I think that is probably the result of two things. We are emotionally secure in our relationship and we both have respect for each other’s work-life and need for autonomy.

One exception I see is this: When there has been a break in trust – as in an affair or condition of chronic lying – it may be necessary to be available in order rebuild the ruptured relationship.

I would suggest that all couples/friends make this a topic of discussion to head off relational troubles.  

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Unconscious Secondary Gains

One of the places where we can get emotionally or relationally stuck is when we are unaware of what we call secondary gains. These are benefits that are derived from remaining trapped in a particular situation or mindset.

For example: A relationship has long ended, but we continue to talk about it every chance we get, or we continue to pursue the relationship with telephone calls & emails well past the break-up. What is the gain? It feels like the relationship is still alive at some level, and shields us from having to face the full weight of grief.

Another example: A person who has a fixable problem refuses to deal with it, but continually talks about it. Or someone with a chronic problem (maybe physical or medical) doesn’t come to grips with it and also must persistently make it a topic of conversation. What is the secondary gain here? It is the attention and sympathy that the person may receive by delaying action in the first scenario or not making peace with the reality in the second. I am not being callous of legitimate pain and suffering and our need for support. I am talking about excesses that produce negative results.

Ultimately, secondary gains delay the grief process that we must go through. 

How about this one: We provoke someone into a conflict and although it is unpleasant and maybe even destructive it produces a secondary gain. What is the gain? The person has to interact with us. They can’t ignore us and so we feel closer to them in a weird sort of way.

The reason why secondary gains can be toxic is because people tend to distance themselves from us after a while – and as a result we have less access to resources to meet our legitimate needs for comfort and support. 

I am sure that you can come up with other examples of secondary gain: acting helpless so you can be rescued, etc. But the result will be the same – risking relational disharmony.

Are you living with any unconscious secondary gains? If you need aid recognizing or eliminating them – there is always help.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Fighting About Fighting

Have you ever been in the middle of a fight (or argument) and after awhile forgotten what you were fighting about? I know we have. We've gotten so wrapped up in wanting to be heard that the issue became secondary. And so we really were fighting about the way we were fighting.

This is such a common occurrence that people often end up in counseling precisely for this issue. They cannot even see what is going on and they label it “lack of communication.” And in a sense they are correct in that primary messages are not being acknowledged. But really what is going on is that there is a lack of agreement – and this is what is being labeled a communication problem.

So what can we do about it? 

Have some rules and principles that we adhere to in a conflict.

  • Listen first! Make sure that you understand the other person completely. This does not mean that you are giving tacit approval. You do not have to agree. But you do need to hear them out. Then you can acknowledge their point of view and let them know that you do not agree (assuming that you don’t).

  • Calm yourself. You may fear that you are losing power by listening, but you are not. Tell yourself that you are just listening and that you will have a turn. Losing your temper will only prolong the problem and escalate the drama.

  • Stay on task. Even though the other person might try to take the conversation in multiple directions, stay with the original issue and try to be as brief as possible.   

  • Take a break if necessary. But come back to the issue in a timely manner. The goal is to resolve the problem or come to a good compromise (or make peace with it).

  • Above all, do not hurt the people you care about. Don’t use language or make statements that you will later regret.

Job 19:2  “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?”

Saturday, September 25, 2010

People Pleasers

The nicest clients I work with are from the group we call “people pleasers”. They often seek counseling readily, and are very faithful at attending and doing the “homework” that is assigned (after all, they also want to please me, the counselor).

But lasting change for people pleasers is often more difficult. There are many voices in their lives calling out to them to satisfy relational demands – and it becomes hard deciding which voice to heed, especially when there are competing requests.

People pleasers are “feelers” and making balanced decisions becomes a challenge. “Do I lean in the direction of my head or my heart”? Feelers usually lean towards the heart. “Do I honor myself or honor others?” People pleasers usually sacrifice themselves first.

Unfortunately people pleasers make good victims. They often believe the best in others, and as a result others may take advantage of their good nature and willingness to serve. In the extreme they can end up abused employees, wives, husbands and volunteers.

How would you rate yourself as a people pleaser? Ask these questions.

  • “Can I say ‘no’ when I need to?”

  • “Do I feel guilty holding boundaries even when I know I am right?”

  • “Am I afraid that people won’t like me if I don’t agree with them?”

  • “Do I do things for other people that I know they can and need to do for themselves?”

  • “Do I think of myself as a ‘rescuer’ and like to take on people as projects?”

There are many more similar questions you could ask yourself, but you get the gist.

We, as believers, are called to serve one another, but people pleasers often find themselves the only one serving (one-way relationships) or resistant to allowing other people to serve them.

If you are a people pleaser, you will have to learn to go against your feelings and endure the anxiety that will surely follow. It can be a slow process and you may need help. But the result is that you will not ‘burn out’ early and will develop true friendships that are based on mutual care. Those are the relationships that are both deeply satisfying and lasting.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Stuck In Neutral

The other day I was in my car getting ready to drive to work As I pushed down on the accelerator pedal the engine noise increased dramatically – but I didn’t move. Absentmindedly, I had moved the selector lever to “neutral” instead of “drive”.

I think worry is a lot like that. My brain is running, it’s making a lot of noise, (maybe even overheating) but I’m going nowhere. It even feels like I’m doing something, but in reality, nothing is happening of any value. There is no forward momentum. 

I can tell you that I have spent a lot of time stuck in neutral in my lifetime. I’ll bet you have too. There have been situations (and seasons) where fear has gripped me and I have spent a lot of energy going through “what if” and “worst case” scenarios in my head.

I love this quote:

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”  ~Mark Twain

Isn’t that true for you (not the old man part, necessarily)? I know it is for me. So many times I have found that my worry was in vain or at least overblown. As a result I suffered needlessly. I know that some of those times I could have taken some form of action that would not only have eased my fears, but actually minimized or prevented the loss. All I had needed to do was move the lever from neutral to drive and trusted God for the outcome.

Another quote I like is from Corrie ten Boom:

“Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is to small to be made into a burden.”

Sometimes it seems the only action step we can take is prayer. But prayer is powerful, it is primary and it should be a first, not last resort. Often from prayer and meditation comes the next step. Yes, I forget, too.

Is worry inevitable? According to a Chinese proverb:

“That the birds of worry and care fly over you head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.” 

I can’t control what comes at me, but I can control the amount of mental real estate I am willing to allocate to any particular issue. I do this by practicing self-soothing inner dialog and by thought shifting (refocusing) and prayer.

If you are unable to make any progress on your own – reach out!  

Friday, September 10, 2010

Why Counseling Succeeds (or fails)

One of the reasons we try to establish counseling goals in the first session is so that we know that we are in agreement as to what should happen over the course of the counseling. This is particularly important when the client is a couple. Couples mostly hold the same goals (usually increase communication and reduce conflict), but do not necessarily see the solutions as the same. As a counselor, I want to be sure that I can hold the same goals as the client before I enter into the process. 

Sometimes a client’s goal is to just feel better, and is not yet ready to make needed changes. I may encourage these people to get a prayer partner until they are ready to consider making the necessary changes. Being emotionally ready leads to success. The one obvious exception is grief work. Change is not the goal here, but acceptance of the loss.

Counseling succeeds when the client’s goal is to change themselves rather than another person’s behavior.

  • Parents often want to see their children make better choices, and I can usually agree. But for a parent to try to control their children without learning first how to control their own behavior may be a frustrating ordeal for both child and parent. But taking positive charge of the interactions will reduce the drama.
  • Spouses usually want change from their partner, but some resist making changes within themselves. They may acknowledge their part of the problem and say they are willing to work on themselves, but there can be a low commitment. Sometimes even promises made in front of the counselor are ignored. Success comes with humility, optimism, patience and forgiveness.
  • Counseling succeeds when there is a high consistency in attending the sessions. Clients that stay with the process on a consistent basis usually make quicker progress. Sometimes one person in couple’s counseling attends regularly, while their partner only shows up occasionally. There is a risk that only one person may be maturing while the other person remains the same.
  • Counseling has a higher chance of succeeding when the client doesn’t expect the counselor to do the work for them. When the client follows through with “homework” assignments and makes time to practice skills in between sessions the likelihood of success is increased. 
  • Success comes when a client holds reasonable expectations for themselves and others. Real change takes time, is incremental, and takes two steps forward and one step back. Focusing on any positive momentum and keeping the goal in mind is essential.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.  (Hebrews 12:1)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Picking Up The Missing Pieces

Do you ever feel like something’s missing, that you lack something that others seem to have? Do you find yourself devoid of feelings and wonder why? Does it seem like others have a roadmap – they know where they’re going but you don’t? You wonder what’s wrong and more importantly – are you to blame?

Most likely the problem is not something you caused or are responsible for, but there are missing pieces in your life and they can be found. As a kid I loved adventure and treasure hunting stories, like those by Mark Twain or The Hardy Boys. These folks had adventures and found something that would change their lives. I felt that something was missing and if I just found it my life would be complete.

Later on, I found that I was right. Some things had been missing and I found them in relationships with others and with God.

Trust, security, connection, warmth, enjoyment, affirmation, acceptance, understanding and unconditional love: These are some of the treasures I have accumulated along the way with friends, loved ones and God. They were missing, or at best inconsistently provided as I was growing up.

So how do I identify what is missing and find a way to get those needs met?

That is your unique journey. For some the issues are obvious, and the solution is reaching out into unfamiliar, uncertain and maybe frightening territory. For others it takes a lot of soul searching and discovery, both alone and with others. The one thing that is common to both is this: isolation is the enemy of hope and health. 

What’s missing for you?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Have Your Feelings Caught Up With Your Reality?

No, I am not going to start out by discounting feelings. That would mean I would lose at least half of you from the start (both men and women, in case you thought this was a sexist remark). And I would be placing myself at odds with God. The Bible talks about how God also feels (joy, anger, love, etc.). What I am talking about is somewhat different.

Often I ask this question of a client: “Have your feelings caught up with your reality?”

In essence, are the feelings that you are currently experiencing left over from a different time period in your life? Do you need to bring these feelings ‘up to date’?

Trauma can have a profound effect on our ability to regulate feelings – especially fear. It becomes very natural for those of us who have experienced very negative situations to operate on ‘high alert’ even when the danger has passed. The trauma can come from either abandonment or abuse (not getting what you need, or getting what you did not need).

Often the result is what I call “scanning behavior”. I am either looking for threats in my environment, trying to determine if I am safe or I am looking for reassurance of my worth and lovability. Either of these behaviors may make me a relational risk. I could become either emotionally detached or emotionally needy.

The solution? Facing the wounds of the past and letting God and others be part of the healing. You might not even be aware of what those hurts are – or have minimized them to make them manageable. But they are still there waiting to be triggered, often at a most unfortunate moment.

If you feel stuck because of runaway (or seemingly non-existent) feelings – it’s time to get to work. Get involved with a caring community.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Real Change – Real Hard

As anyone who has ever tried to break a habit knows, permanent change is not easy. As much as I would want to stop a particular behavior – the pull towards the familiar habit is strong. As Paul said in Romans:

“I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.”

Does this mean that change is not possible? No, not at all, but it does mean that it takes a lot of effort and patience.

One of the first things that we as counselors try to get new couples in our counseling room to understand is how counter-productive it is to hold their partner’s change as their primary goal. We may well agree that their partner needs to change, but we are all powerless to effect that change. A spouse can influence, plead, cajole and try to manipulate or motivate their mate, but ultimately the transformation must come from within the other person.   

That does not mean that you are powerless. It just means that you are incapable of changing them. What you are able to do, however, is change yourself in relation to the other person. When you do this, your partner will have to deal with the ‘new you’ in this relationship.

For example, if one of your bad habits as a couple is getting into shouting arguments and hurling hurtful words at each other, then you can make a personal commitment to stop shouting back and retaliating. It will not be easy – but the interactions will be different. It’s hard to have a one-way fight.

Jesus said it well: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

Even if the situation is reversed and you are only 20% of the problem, you can still clean up your side of the street.

It is somewhat uncommon that one person in a relationship will change while the other remains the same. It is also risky for the person not willing to grow. They will remain emotionally stuck while their partner continues to mature and the gulf between them will increase, putting the relationship in further jeopardy.

But because change is difficult, you must have patience and consideration for both your partner and yourself. Encouragement and forgiveness must accompany the setting and keeping of healthy boundaries.  

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fear Driven Relationships

Fear is a very powerful motivator. It can prompt us to react like almost nothing else can. It can be a life saver or a life killer. When real danger exists, it gives us the adrenaline boost necessary to get out of harms way. But when the danger is only perceived, it can cause us to do things that might actually put us in riskier situations.

Depending on the situation and our temperament, our response to fear will be to fight, run or freeze.

This is particularly true in relationships:

  • My fear of being alone keeps me in a bad relationship.
  • My fear of not being able to support myself keeps me in an abusive relationship
  • My fear of being rejected causes me to not speak up when necessary.
  • My fear of being ignored causes me to start conflicts to get noticed. 
  • My fear of being controlled keeps me from being emotionally close to my spouse and experiencing mutual love.

Why do I say the danger is only perceived in the above examples? In all the scenarios, the fear is probably untested. It is entirely possible I might find another relationship, job, get a good result from speaking up or asking for what I need, or be loved without feeling trapped by it.

This last scenario is particularly evident in many relationships. My fear of being emotionally abandoned may cause me to try to exert control over my partner, who then reacts by moving farther away from me in an attempt to maintain some kind of autonomy. This of course only amplifies my fear, causing me to try to exert more control by pursuing with more intensity.

My fear of being controlled or engulfed may cause me to interpret legitimate needs or requests from my partner as an attempt to control or manage me and I resist, leaving my partner feeling alone and not cared for. Their repeated attempts to get the need met will only reinforce my belief that I must be very vigilant to maintain distance.

The solution? I must take a good look backwards, particularly toward my family of origin, and assess whether I am acting out insecurities from my past. If I can identify where these fears came from, I will have a better shot at managing them rationally.

2 Timothy 1:7 -- For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Do We Match?

I have always loved the game “Concentration”. Matched pairs of cards are shuffled and then individually placed face down on a table. The goal is to turn over pairs of cards and see if they match. If they do, then you keep them, if not, you turn them back over and continue turning over pairs of cards. The game is won when all the pairs have been matched.

Sometimes people will come to me and ask if I believe the person they are dating is a good match for them. What they are asking sounds simple, but really is much more complicated.

“I am attracted to you and you are attracted to me.” Match.

But just like the game, a successful relationship is only achieved if all the pairs match.

“My family accepts you and your family accepts me.” Match
“I want to live in So. California and you want to live in So. California.” Match
“I deeply believe in God and you deeply believe in God” Match
“I want to have kids and you don’t want to have kids.” Uh, oh. No match.

Did we just run into a non-negotiable, a ‘deal-breaker’? Or is this an area of potential compromise?

“You are willing to have kids if I am willing to support you as a stay-at-home mom, even though I want a working wife.”  Negotiated match.

We both go into marriage with a picture of marriage in our mind, and a ‘job description’ for the other person. These pictures and job descriptions often don’t match up very well, yet we aren’t aware of the differences because we fail to fully discuss all the issues. Often we don’t even know that we have ‘rules and roles’ for the other person until they break a rule or don’t accept ‘their’ role. And frequently we don’t find this out until we are already married and having difficulties.

This is why entering into a comprehensive process before getting married (or even afterwards) is so helpful. We can often identify potential problems by asking the right questions and determining whether there are any ‘deal-breakers’, or places of compromise that can be worked out in advance so that the relationship can progress without a lot of drama.

All it takes is concentration.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Moving From Me to We

Sometimes one of hardest challenges for a newly married couple is adjusting to the loss of individual status. Prior to the wedding there were still a lot of decisions that could be made without regard to any other input. However, once we say “I DO” we move to another life position. In other words we move from “I and me”, to “we and us”.

Hopefully during the dating and engagement process we have been gradually making that shift as we see the possibility and then the near certainty that we are going to join our lives. By the time we finish wedding planning we should have had a lot of experience in this new “we thinking”.

But sometimes this is a difficult transition. I often hear the phrase “my wedding”, and “my honeymoon” and other similar phrases. In every case it does not mean that there is a problem brewing in this area – but it bears checking out. Will this continue into the marriage with “my car, my money, my house, my kids etc.”?

In a healthy marriage the “me and you” thinking takes a backseat to “us” thinking. Most decisions are now joint decisions. Compromising is the order of the day. Taking turns is gracefully accepted. Reasonable self-sacrifice is expected. This does not mean that we lose ourselves. There is still a part of us that is separate from each other.

What it does mean is that we trade our full independence for partial autonomy.

For less (emotionally) mature individuals, this shift can be especially difficult. There may be some leftover childhood issues to deal with, or some core personality traits that need to be surrendered to God’s authority. When things have been forcibly taken from you, it may be painful to share power.

We want to bring the healthiest possible self to a new relationship and this may require some rigorous self-examination and correction. But the rewards of that process are manifold.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Addicted To What?!

The other day I was waiting at a stoplight. The light turned green but the car in front of me didn’t move, so I gave a tap on the horn. The car began moving very slowly and I managed to pass on the left. I looked over and the driver was texting! Later that day I was in a small parking lot and the same type of thing happened. A car was blocking our lane and our ability to move. The woman in the car – texting! I won’t even mention the amount of times I have almost been run into on foot while someone was texting and not looking where they were going.

New statistics show that the risk of a car accident is equal for driving drunk or texting while driving. Only there is no Breathalyzer test to be administered or an open container to be found.

How about the relational fallout? How many times have you seen people eating a meal, while at least one person is texting, not engaged in the live conversation? We are not fully living in the present circumstances when our mind is engaged elsewhere.

And even the text communication is at risk as well. Only 7% of a complete communication is the actual words we use. The other 93% is composed of our tone and our body language – the greater percentage being our body language. That is why we try to only counsel people via Skype video (as an alternative to in-office), rather than telephone. The risk of a miscommunication is greater in voice communication only, and greatest in a text only message.

I believe that for some people, dependence on their cell phone has reached the level of a full-blown addiction. Try taking away someone’s cell phone and you may experience the same kind of rage that you would encounter from separating an alcoholic from his/her bottle. This is particularly evident with adolescents.

Try taking this little quiz. If you can answer yes to all these questions, you are probably OK.

1. I do not text while driving.
2. I can put my cell phone on silent while spending face-time with people.
3. I turn off my cell phone during church
4. I don’t text while engaged in a live conversation with others.
5. I can wait until later to read texts received while spending time with friends and family.

I hope you did well!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Healing A Hurt

Forgiveness is a word that conjures up a lot of different emotions for most people – particularly depending whether you are on the giving side or the receiving side of the equation. We are told that God requires us to forgive one another, but are there conditions that must be present?

We say that holding on to un-forgiveness or resentments is like swallowing poison but expecting the other person to die. Perhaps in His mercy, God does not want us to suffer the pain of this condition -- and that is why He requires forgiveness. When the forgiveness needed is for oneself, it is particularly meaningful.

Does forgiveness require reconciliation? 

The answer is emphatically NO! Reconciliation is a choice and certain conditions need to be met in order to be reconciled.

First of all we need a sincere apology – we need to know that the person is truly sorry and does not intend to hurt us in this way again. Then there is making amends. Is the offending person willing to make things right in any way possible? Can we be confident that the person will make both the attitude and behavioral changes necessary? If so then reconciliation might be possible.

Lastly, an authentic apology is not an account or an appeasement.

  • An account is just admitting what we did – anyone will do that especially if we have been “caught”.

  • Appeasement is reciting what we know the other person wants to hear in an effort to stop them from being mad at us or taking punitive steps.

  • An apology is heartfelt (they understand the depth of wound they inflicted), and as stated above carries with it the intention of change.

The good news is that real healing can take place when sincere apologies are met with an attitude of forgiveness. So where do you stand? Is there an action step that you need to take?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Crisis or Chronic?

It is very typical for someone to come to counseling when in a crisis situation. That is the time when a person has the most ‘felt need’ to seek some relief from pain or fear or loss.
But the other condition under which people will seek help is when stuck in a chronic situation.

A crisis is defined as: a dramatic emotional or circumstantial upheaval in a person's life. It usually has the condition of being immediate and time limited.

On the other hand a chronic condition is defined as: continuing a long time or recurring frequently.

Both of these situations have the potential to cause great pain in a person’s life. And both of them have an additional risk of generating feelings of hopelessness.

When a crisis is not handled well it could turn into a chronic situation. This might occur if we do not face a situation head on, and allow it to get worse over time. That is why it is important to grieve losses, and to refrain from burying feelings, except as a temporary protection until we have enough strength to process the loss.

We can even have both conditions present at the same time, when a chronic condition erupts into periodic crises. For example, I can be chronically late, but when I miss an essential airline flight it might become a crisis.

  • Not all crises turn into losses, but all crises generate anxiety and fear and can cause secondary problems. In a relationship a secondary problem might be having to deal with the hurt feelings I caused because I got angry and impatient in my anxiety. In my personal life I might deal with a particular crisis by throwing money at it, only to have to face the resulting financial stress when the bills become due.

  • Of the two situations, a chronic situation is usually much more difficult to deal with. Behavior patterns may have become deeply embedded  Anger may have had plenty of time to develop into hardened resentment. Hopelessness may have raised its ugly head, obscuring our belief in the promises and comfort of God. And above all it might require a great deal more time and effort to break free of its grip.

We sometimes have the ability to hold off or prepare for a crisis – but more often we have the opportunity to avoid chronic problems by dealing with them as they come and before they become large.

Just something to think about.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


When we think about grief and grieving, we often think of the death of someone close to us. But that is not the only kind of grief that we experience. As a matter of fact we can go through grief when we experience any kind of loss – and the more significant the loss, the deeper the grief.

Some of the losses are tangible, as in the death of a person or pet or the loss of a job or relationship. But other losses are less tangible, like the loss of security, or our youth, or our mental sharpness. All of these losses matter, and if not dealt with, they can build up in us and take their toll.

Sometimes we think we shouldn’t feel these losses as deeply as we do, or feel them at all. But this is not a helpful attitude. Neither minimizing nor denying their existence will offer release. Only in admitting the pain and moving through it will you be able to be free of the hold it may have over your life.   

Grief must be shared. It cannot be released in isolation. You must seek a safe, compassionate person or group of persons who are willing to walk with you through the pain. Walking with a person means doing more listening and less talking. It takes maturity to do that well, but what a gift it is. James 1:19 says to be quick to listen and slow to speak (and slow to anger). How appropriate that is when applied to grief.

The traditional steps of grief are: Denial(of the loss), Anger(at the loss), Bargaining(to restore the loss), Depression(at the weight of the loss) and Acceptance(of the loss) – mostly in that order and mostly applicable to all forms of loss. Hence, the acronym DABDA. 

I have found that many people will often cycle between anger and depression. The cycle goes something like this: the inability to reverse the loss leads to anger which leads to a feeling of powerlessness that results in depression. Then a person may become angry at the depression until the powerlessness over the loss once again overtakes them and returns them to a state of depression. 

If we grieve in a healthy way, we eventually accept the loss and move on. If we do not, we may find ourselves stuck. At this point it might be wise to seek additional help.

All of us experience losses of different magnitudes. If we haven’t yet experienced a significant loss, rest assured it will happen if we live long enough. The goal is to be prepared to accept and give comfort as needed, and to develop resiliency by grieving well. 

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Become A Good Dancer - (with a sandwich thrown in)

You might be familiar with the saying “Just because you think it, doesn’t mean you have to say it.” And it’s good advice.

James 1:19,20 says: So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

But the phrase ‘slow to speak’ does not mean ‘do not speak’. Those of us who tend to shy away from conflict (Avoidants) may actually increase the potential for conflict by not speaking up when appropriate.

At times early in our marriage both Nan and I did not want to risk a confrontation by bringing up unpleasant subjects and so we just kept quiet. Although it is appropriate to choose our battles well, sometimes avoiding is really just postponing the confrontation until it has escalated into a much bigger problem.

Song of Solomon 2:15:  Catch the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.

What is implied here is that relationships are tender, and dealing with problems while they are still small is preferable to waiting until they ‘grow up into bigger foxes’.

If you are a ‘stuffer’, you run the risk of collecting resentments, watching them grow until you reach your limit. Then you either become a ‘volcano’, spewing toxic material or a ‘runner’, detaching from the relationship, perhaps permanently.

Speaking the truth in love is a delicate dance. We can either dance around the truth (still avoiding) or forget the love part, stepping on our partner's tender feet (hostile). 

I recommend the ‘sandwich technique’.

Affirmation (I know you didn’t intend to)
Complaint and request (but I felt hurt when you…. and what I’d like is….)
Affirmation (Thanks for listening, I know it isn’t easy to hear this…..)

Statistics shows that two “Avoidants” paired up in a marriage are the most likely to divorce. They slowly drift farther and farther apart by not dealing with hurts, and then separate.

Prov. 27:6 Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.

Let’s try to be a good friend.