Saturday, November 30, 2013

Missed It By That Much!

The uphill stretch of road eventually ended and after a short respite began to descend again. My poor old Honda CRV was in it’s element – downhill. In it’s glee to not have to work so hard it forgot about the 55 MPH speed limit and soon attracted a follower – a shiny CHP cruiser.

“Do you know what I clocked you at?” said the cruiser’s driver.

“Um… 65 or 70?” I answered.

“How about 74 MPH.” Gulp.

“Can I see your driver’s license, registration and insurance card, please.”

Its been many years since I heard those words, but I guess its inevitable that you can’t escape forever if you drive as much as I do.

Handing me back my three documents the officer said, “Remember, that other pedal is for braking. Use it on the downhill. Have a nice day.”

What? No expensive ticket? Wow! I don’t know if it was because it was Thanksgiving weekend, or because he felt sorry for us having to drive a 14 year old car or whatever. Or maybe it was the ratty looking bathrobes hanging from the backseat handholds. I didn’t care – we were off the hook. The officer was gracious. And I (and Nan) was filled with gratitude. I fully deserved a ticket. No question about it. 

That’s grace.

In our daily exchanges with people are we this generous? Do we extend grace to others or are we more about justice? In case you need definitions, justice is getting what you deserve, whereas grace is getting what you don’t deserve: a reprieve or pardon.

Particularly with the people closest to us there is a tendency to take offense and want to “even up the score.” How sad that we are often not willing to turn the other cheek. For me the hardest thing to do is keep my mouth closed. Grace is not saying what I want to say. It feels like suffering – and maybe it is in a way.

Can you imagine how much better marriages would be if spouses’ first response would be to offer grace to each other? Kids need structure and correction, but they also need a lot of grace from parents. I can’t tell you how many adults we see suffer from leftover childhood pain, the result of harsh parenting.

Yes, there are limits to grace. We must hold boundaries as well – and speak the truth when needed. But grace might be speaking the truth without harshness or anger. It might be surrendering our “right” to retaliate. Or grace might be speaking up for someone that has a “weak voice” and struggles to be heard, not requiring them to suffer through a tough exchange with someone.   

When have you been on the receiving end of grace? Where have you been a grace giver? Is your sense of justice so strong that this is one of those areas where you need to improve dramatically? If so, draw your strength from the ultimate Giver of grace. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Your First Time at Bat

Having been in the counseling room for quite a while now, I sometimes forget how awkward the first encounter with a new therapist must feel to a client. I really do my best to put them at ease, but it’s still usually an adjustment.

I think what often makes the first meeting particularly uncomfortable is when the client is carrying a lot of shame and doesn’t want to talk about it directly. That is really understandable. They may be testing the water for safety. “Can I trust this counselor person? Will he understand me? Will she judge me? Is it really going to help?”

Forming a trust bond is the first important step of good counseling. The clinical term for this bond is the “therapeutic alliance”.  Without a strong therapeutic alliance, no real transparency is likely to occur. And without transparency, any healing will be superficial. 

It’s hard to talk honestly about our failures, frustrations, fears, insecurities, and especially our outright deliberate sins. Most people have spent a lot of their life pursuing “image management.” I know I have. As a matter of fact I probably spent the first several of my own personal counseling sessions trying to look better than I was. It wasn’t until I felt genuine care from my counselor and knew that I was safe, that I could become more vulnerable. But image management can also be a form of denial or deliberate deceit that needs to be broken – especially important with couples counseling.    

I have noticed that for some, it is easier to write about the hard stuff. That is why we use a pretty comprehensive history and intake form. Their outward appearance may not match the pain that is revealed in their intake form or their personal journals. I encourage clients to bring their written thoughts into session when this is the case for them. There is a lot of power released or surrendered in reading one’s private thoughts in front of another person.

As a counselor, I am grateful for the trust that is placed in me and do not take it for granted. For some people it is the first time that they have shared deep wounds, long buried and frightening in intensity. Although often painful to hear, it is an honor to be able to take the journey with a client for the first time. I am proud of them and the courage that it takes to be truthful in sharing the unlovely or horrific.

As we get closer to a new year, I pray for all the people that will step forward and make that first call next year. For some it will be dealing with hurts from the past. For others it will be admitting powerlessness over an addiction or behavior. And for many it will be marital or other relationship issues, both positive (pre-married counseling) or troublesome. 

Regardless, I am hoping that our clients current and future will see Christ as the true healer, and not us. We are simply facilitators – imperfect co-workers in the business of wholeness. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hard and Soft Boundaries

I heard a true story of a rural elementary school that was built on a large piece of real estate. When it was built there was no need to fence it in because there were no safety dangers. The teachers on yard duty just had to keep an eye on the group as they played during recess. As time went on, the adjacent area grew busier and the rural streets were paved and car traffic came closer to the school. The teachers had to set an imaginary boundary for the kids quite a distance from the street for safety. But now the kids’ play area was greatly curtailed. The balls would often roll into the “forbidden zone”, but the kids couldn’t fetch them without adult assistance.

Eventually a high fence was constructed around the play area close to the street that included the formerly off-limits part. The kids could once again use the entire playground because it was safe. Where the imaginary line had been mostly adequate, it had still carried some limitations and risk.

This is a great example of soft vs. hard boundaries.

Whether hard or soft, they are both designed to protect. In relationships they either protect us or others, or both. In abusive relationships, hard boundaries are usually set (“Do that one more time and I leave.”) A soft boundary I might set is to avoid talking about a particular subject (like politics) with certain people. I do not want to cut off the relationship, but I do want to avoid the danger zone.

Another soft boundary might be with time issues. With someone who is constantly late, I might be flexible to a certain degree – but when they are excessively late I may confront them or cancel an appointment or date. In this case I extend some grace but protect them from my anger or resentment when they push my limit.

When interventions are done with addicts, the family and friends always set a “bottom line”. This is a classic hard boundary – and it is absolutely necessary. It is usually very difficult for the family, but love for the addict compels them to suffer the pain of setting and following through no matter what. But if they waffle on the hard boundary in any way the intervention will be a failure. Softer boundaries can be set when the addict completes treatment.

I hate to set boundaries. I don’t like conflict. I hate for people to be displeased with me. But when we set boundaries, people will be angry or disappointed with us. It is unavoidable. I have had family members voice this to me directly. But I am willing to endure the discomfort in favor of emotional health.

Sometimes we set hard boundaries because we are unwilling to navigate the uncertain waters of softer ones. This is a mistake because it often wrecks or ends relationships. We have to be very careful not to set limits with anger or hostility. The goal is not to punish, but protect.

How about you? Do you struggle with this issue? Do you have a hard time settings limits, perhaps because of codependency? Are you harsh in the way you handle disappointments with people? Are you in denial about the need for certain limits in your life? Are you suffering because you are afraid to make a healthy choice, even when you know it must be done?

Those who are in abusive relationships often struggle the most with this issue. If this is you, get some help. Strengthen yourself by enlisting a support team and experiencing the kind of freedom that God would want for you. You might start by reading the book “Boundaries” by Cloud & Townsend.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What Men Want

The older I get, the more I seem to crave peacefulness. I love quiet most of the time. No TV, no telephones ringing and no neighbors screaming at each other. I know that not everyone is like me. Some people prefer excitement. Perhaps it is just my temperament, but I suspect that I am not alone in this.

Drama. Not for me, please.

Actually, I think it’s the same for a good number of us married guys in particular. We are pretty simple creatures most of the time. It doesn’t take a lot to keep us happy. So what is on our list of things that make life worth living?

Meaningful work
A few good friends
Hopefully, a robust spiritual life

But for most of us what tops the list – peace at home.

I have checked this out with a lot of my guy friends. Peace at home is not the first thing that they mention, but eventually they come around to it. They don’t always describe it that way. They talk about being accepted or respected or that home is their castle. But it all seems to point in the same direction. They feel emotionally safe when their home is not chaotic, angry, or stressful.

I remember listening to a talk radio psychologist a number of years back. Dr. Toni Grant was speaking with a young lady who had been through a series of bad relationships and was asking Dr. Grant what she was doing wrong. As the conversation progressed, it was revealed that the young woman always pursued exciting guys – guys that were a bit edgy. For her it was constantly a wild, but short relational ride. I will always remember Dr. Grant’s reply. She said:

“Well, you know dear, all good men are a little bit boring.” 

I think what she was saying was that stability is somewhat boring – in other words, peaceful. But stable guys are the ones that tend to settle down, get married and raise families.

Notice I did not say dead boring. No woman wants that – she wants a little life in her man.

It’s the same with women, too. The girl dancing on a table at a party is not likely to become wife and mother of the year. She may attract attention, but not necessarily a good husband. The guys that go after that kind of woman probably end up in the same kind of relational chaos as Dr. Grant’s caller.   

If you are married, what kind of environment are you creating at home?

If not, what type of relational partner are you pursuing?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Hurting The Ones You Love

Last week at our premarrieds class we invited guest speakers to address our hopefuls. The couple shared their story which involved long standing emotional abuse – and subsequent recovery from almost certain divorce. It is easy to identify physical abuse because it is so obvious, but not necessarily so with other forms.

We all probably know the cycle of abuse.

The perpetrator acts out and alienates the victim. The victim withdraws, and perhaps threatens to leave. Then the perpetrator may blame and threaten the victim for causing the problem, but eventually “repents” and asks forgiveness and swears to never hurt them again. There may be true intentions to change, but at some point they lose it, and the cycle repeats. I have seen this, and probably so have you.

In this scenario the abuser knows that they have a problem, but feels unable to fully control themselves. Getting help is hard because it involves a lot of shame. Usually they get help when the victim finally holds a boundary, or they cross paths with the legal system and are required to deal with it. Often the abuse is accompanied by alcohol or drug problems. 

What makes it doubly hard is when the abuser is in denial of his/her problem. They may be continuing a family pattern, so it feels normal to them. Sometimes what is less clear is what really constitutes abuse.

Is raising your voice in an argument abuse? Is stubbornness to act or make changes abuse? Is not listening to your partner abuse? Is refusing to cook or do housework abuse?

Both Nan and I have heard women claiming emotional abuse simply because their partner does not agree with them. Would you classify that as abuse? We don't.

We have discovered that abuse is not gender specific – it can come from either men or women. And what is unopposed is the truth that it destroys relationships and families. Although anger is the most obvious indicator, that is not always the case. Sometimes it is rigid control. At the root is usually unresolved childhood or adolescent issues. 

Do not allow this relationship destroyer to continue -- it is not God honoring. Face it and get help.   

If you are unsure if you or someone else you know is being abused, or unsure if you are being abusive, go over the following list of the several faces of abuse.  It is quite extensive and covers, physical, spiritual, sexual, financial, emotional and immigrant abuse.