How to Take Care of Yourself… in a Conflict with Your Partner

Accepting conflict

Every intimate relationship has to find its balance of harmony, conflict, calm, and passion if it is going to bring those involved mostly benefit.  “Mostly benefit” may not sound so thrilling, yet it is a worthwhile goal. Every partnership has its low moments. Every human connection has some form of conflict at some point.  Every relationship has its own complex actions and reactions based on the partners involved. To get through the difficult parts with a sense of safety and intact love and benevolence toward each other is a win.  This is what I would describe as “mostly benefit”: even with some conflict, there is a foundation of love and goodwill that you share.

Truck Couple
Seeing the process underneath the content

I am passionate about working with couples because studying these interactions and identifying ways that conflict can be minimized and love can be amplified is fulfilling and inspiring.  What feels so catastrophic to intimate partners during a serious conflict doesn’t frighten me as the therapist in the room, because from the outside I can see the intensity of the love between the partners… and also the subtext of the conflict.  I can help to slow down the interaction and untangle the words describing the content of the argument- the topic being discussed- from the tone of voice, the body language, and the emotion expressed that all comprise the process of how the disagreement is being conducted.

If we’re going to get to the root of the discussion in a conflict, we need to focus on the process.  The content that couples arrive to discuss is short-lived in the therapy room, because pretty quickly we get underneath it.  What are the emotional needs that are really being negotiated here? (To feel heard? To know you are trusted… or your partner is trustworthy?)  What resentments are not being spoken directly, but are being broadcast in tone and posture? (The affair that was swept under the rug? The time she brushed off your grief when you needed support?)

 

 

Introductory skills for uncovering process

It is very helpful to have a marriage and family therapist in the room when you are having these conversations, but if you feel safe and stable enough in your relationship and your communication skills, you can support each other to do the same thing when a conflict arises at home.  

Here are some tips that will subtly shift focus to the process of your disagreement, rather than the content.

  1. Slow your conversation down.  Instead of thinking about what you will say in response to your partner, listen to your partner.
  2. When your partner finishes speaking to a point, repeat, in your own words, what he or she just shared with you.  
  3. Look for the feeling or the emotional need under your partner’s words.  If your partner hasn’t explicitly stated a feeling or need, you can elicit his or her help in identifying it.
  4. Above all else, be kind.  This is not a war. You are on the same team.

Here is an example with just one person trying these strategies, still with beneficial outcome:

“I asked you to pick up my sister on your way across town, but you just arrived without her.  I swear that you never listen to what I’m saying.”

“You asked me to pick up your sister and I forgot.  You feel like I never listen to you.”

“That’s right.  And now my sister’s waiting for you and our family meal is ruined.”

“You went to all this trouble to plan a family meal and now it’s ruined because I forgot part of the family!”

“You’re an asshole.”

“You’re angry.”

“YES, I’m angry!”

“You need me to be better at keeping my commitments.”

“Yeah, it would be nice to be able to depend on you now and then.”

“You need me to be dependable.”

“Obviously.”

“I’m sorry that I let you down today.  I don’t want you to feel like this. Can we have a small snack now and put dinner in the oven while I go get your sister?  Is it too late for a do-over tonight?”

“We’ll be eating after 8pm… but I would prefer that than not having dinner together at all.”

“Okay, can you text her that I’m on my way?”

“Okay.”

 

Notice that the partner who is trying to make peace here is not engaging in a dialogue about the content their partner is introducing.  Yes, they are repeating the content to let their partner know they heard it… but they aren’t evaluating the legitimacy of the content nor offering alternative perspectives.  This person reflected back to their partner what they heard (“You feel like I never listen to you,”) rather than answering the statement (“I never listen to you?? What about yesterday, when I made those two phone calls you asked me to make??”)

 

Reaching out for extra help

This type of communicating is a lot easier if both parties are on board, and even easier when working with a therapist.  But it’s never “easy” at first. This is because the vast, vast majority of us are in the habit of ignoring the process of our communicating and simply addressing the content.  It feels very unnatural to not respond to the content and to instead address the feelings underneath the words. It feels unnatural to step up into a role of support for our partner to express their emotions and needs, even when that partner may be stuck in blaming or negative communication patterns.  This is actually a skill that parents can use to help their children learn language that identifies their feelings and helps them to get their needs met. Since many of us did not have parents who taught us these skills, we have the task of learning them as adults.

In addition to being in the habit of only looking at a conversation’s content, most of us become defensive when the person to whom we are closest brings up criticisms about us.  It takes repeated experiences of safety with our partner to trust that a critique today is just that… not a sign that our partner thinks we are permanently defective or would rather be with someone else.

The kind of conversation I’m describing will not be successful for some couples.  If the baseline sense of safety is not there, or if both partners are not invested in moving past your habitual conflict patterns, this will likely fall flat.  In that case, I really do recommend considering a couples’ counselor. When you discuss the counselor’s style before becoming his or her client, look for someone who can articulate using this type of dialogue.  It is sometimes called emotionally-focused therapy.

Whether you are ready to jump in at home and try what I’m suggesting, or you are ready to find the help of a marriage and family therapist who can guide this type of communication, I wish you the best!

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Communication

Listening

Clarity

Partnership

Looking Deeply

Pausing

Habit-creating

Non-violent Communication

Self Awareness

Personal responsibility

 

 

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Are Being Bullied

Something I have heard from more than one client: “I spent so many years being told I was worthless… even though the abuser is finally out of my life, his voice is still in my head every day, cutting me down.”

 

You are enough

I wish I could face every child, teenager, and adult who has ever been verbally abused or bullied and say, “You are enough, just the way you are.  Whoever told you you were less than that is the one who is lacking.”

 

It might not be about you

The way a person makes other people feel is mostly a reflection on that person, not the people they are affecting.  If you are a relatively sensitive / observant person, try this sometime: pay attention to how you feel when you are around someone.  Later, in a quiet moment, reflect on whether that person is someone you would describe as how you felt with them. Very often, an anxious person can trigger anxiety in others.  A depressed person can lower the mood of those around them. A jovial person can make you smile. And a self-loathing person can make you feel bad about yourself.

 

Hurt people hurt people

In addition to the energy and tone of a person, there is how they treat us- the things they say to and about us.  Anyone who goes out of their way to hurt another person is a miserable person. That miserable person may appear to be the most popular girl in school or your boss who keeps getting promotions, but the fact is that they are miserable.  You see, a person who tries to hurt another is consumed with their own insecurity. They may even hate themselves. On the other hand, a happy person lifts up other people. A content, confident person walks into a room and makes everyone in the room feel seen and appreciated.  A worthwhile associate is someone who is generous in their perspective and looks for the best in others.

It’s sad: anyone who needs to pull others down was probably verbally or otherwise abused at some point, and that cruel voice of their abuser is constantly in their heads, giving them low self-esteem.  Don’t let that person who is stuck in their suffering pull you into the same boat. See them for the broken person they are, offer them healing, and then keep your distance. Hopefully, they’ll find a way to be happy and stop hurting other people.  In the meantime, surround yourself with a tribe that will see your wonderful qualities and appreciate them.

In the practice of forgiveness, there is an adage: “hurt people hurt people.” In other words, in order for someone to intentionally hurt another person, he must be in pain.  Happy people don’t hurt other people. When it comes to cultivating compassion and forgiveness for those who have hurt us, it is helpful to remember this. It is easier to forgive someone when we can see them not just as the person who hurt us, but as the person who has been hurt and carries that hurt around.

 

Take your distance

Whether someone you just met has attempted to bring you down once or you have lived for years with a verbally abusive person, it’s your right to set a boundary and not let that person speak to you like that.  For a lot more about setting boundaries, this past article of mine addresses things to consider when setting a boundary and ways to speak to make your expectations clear.

josh-boot-177342-unsplash

Heal

It’s possible you are living with the voice of the long-term abuser in your mind, holding you back with insults every day.  Another article I wrote on this exact topic explores daily practices you can incorporate as a response to that voice.

Remember: you are enough, just the way you are.  If any past or current voices are telling you otherwise, it’s up to you to refuse their narrative and make your own.

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Healing

Looking deeply

Reframing

Assertiveness

Setting boundaries

Self-advocacy

Awareness

Clarity

Congruence

Compassion

Communication

How to Take Care of Yourself When… There is Suffering Everywhere

In the words of one of my clients: “The state of the world makes it hard for me to feel joy.  Even though things are going alright in my life, I feel overwhelmed by the daily news of violence, environmental degradation, poverty…”

 

It is undeniable that there is great suffering on this planet.  The main news outlets are mostly filled with accounts of both local and international suffering.  Of course, logically we know that beautiful, joyful events are also happening everyday- and yet it can be a challenge to even find information about these examples of progress, generosity, kindness, and hope.

So, how do we cope with the pain of the awareness of the great quantity and depth of suffering impacting people and ecosystems all over the planet?  Like all pain that we experience, the best response is twofold: acknowledging the pain and then proactively addressing its source.  

 

This Hurts

Contrary to the messages of polite society, there are no emotional nor social benefits to being a robotic automaton without sensitivity to the pains and joys that roll through this life.  On the emotional front, anything pushed out of awareness only comes back in worse form- exaggerated reactions to pain in the future and / or physical illness, for example.  On the social front, others will find you cold and lacking personality- and deep interpersonal connection will be elusive.  An authentic, fully-developed adult recognizes and allows their own pain and processes it- allowing it to transform- in a responsible way.

If you are in pain, hold that pain for as long as you need.  Get intimate with it.  What does it feel like in your chest cavity when you see the city cut down a thriving 80-year old tree because its roots are causing problems with the sidewalk?  Where in your body are you impacted when you hear news of a serious accident in which lives were lost?  Sometimes, we only need 10 seconds to allow painful information to work its way through us.  Other times- especially when the suffering is especially deep or near to us, we need to hold and process our experience of it more deeply.  This can look many ways.  

One form of processing is to strike up a conversation with a loved one about the situation.  Just hearing another person say, “I know- that is really sad!” helps to not feel alone in holding the suffering of the world.  On a similar front, bringing the situation up in your own personal therapy can be helpful.  A therapist will likely direct the conversation towards the personal significance, to you, of this particular situation that is impacting you.  Some people find ceremony helpful.  When I hear about brutality in the world, I find the time to light incense, meditate, and pray for the victims and perpetrators to find freedom from their immense suffering.  

Golden Hour

Coming home to our beautiful planet is the best medicine.

In addition to other people and your source of spiritual life, you can also find support from the Earth.  We all came from and return to the Earth- which is able to create and absorb anything that we humans can imagine, and more.  One of my teachers takes daily walks in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado, a place filled with beautiful geologic formations.  When she sits there, she feels her troubles being held not just by herself, but by the Earth that is reaching up and holding her as she sits.  When we can transcend the illusion of isolation and see the various entities- human and otherwise- that surround and support us, our burdens become much more manageable.

We can also harness the mind-body connection and use physical ways to process our emotional pain.  Take a walk, do yoga, go on a run, surf, swim- do whatever it is that centers you and also increases your literal “flows” in your body, via the many systems (circulatory, digestive, lymphatic, etc.) of the human body.  Another benefit of some of these activities is coming into direct contact with the natural world.  One thing I do when I run through the forest where I live is to become aware of the sweet smell of the ponderosa pine trees, the fragrant earth after a rain, the slightly oceanic smell of the creeks and rivers.  I use my sensitive scent palate to find healing.  When I deeply inhale the exhalations of nature, I take them in as healing agents, filling my body with the life-force of the earth, working their way into every corner- including the places in my heart that hurt.  I’m aware this is a practice in imagination- and also that our minds have much sway in our physical health.  If there is a way you can incorporate positive imagery into your practice, why not try it?

After holding and allowing your pain to transform, one outcome may be a resolve to make a difference in the area of suffering that hit you hard in the first place.  If so, read on.      

 

I Have the Choice to Do Something

There are people working on every issue of injustice and suffering in this world.  Are you already, or are you meant to be, one of them?  This is something only you can decide for yourself.  The key concept here is “I have the choice,” not “do something.”  A friend of mine recently made reference to his “ego-based belief” that he needed to make everything alright.  It can be very empowering to see a need and to address it- you see a homeless and potentially hungry person and you offer the person food.  You visit the beach and pick up the trash you find there.  It is good and feels good to be a force of love and healing in the world.  

The challenge is that if you stopped to address every injustice and every place of hurt that you saw… you would have a hard time functioning in this world that requires that most of us spend most of our waking hours working, usually in careers that are not directly addressing these areas of need.  This is why so many people are actually blind to the great magnitude of suffering everywhere- in our own neighborhoods, schools, homes.  It is overwhelming to be aware and to have the kind of compassion that actively works to alleviate all of the suffering around us.  Unless we are able to let go of our worldly ties and dive headlong into service, like Mother Teresa, we have to choose when to address suffering and when to not address it.  If you are reading this article, chances are that you have the blessing and the curse of clearly seeing much of the suffering in this world, and it can get you down.

Many years ago I asked a spiritual teacher what I should do when I saw a man hit a dog.  I had been traveling in a developing country the week before, and I had become upset when I saw a man on the street hit a dog.  My teacher gave a long answer, but the first observation he made was, “It sounds like you are attached to the idea that the dog shouldn’t suffer; that all beings should be free of suffering…” This observation was correct.  I was operating on the assumption that a paradise of freedom from suffering for all beings was possible and that I had an obligation to correct unnecessary suffering that I saw… even though I know that suffering is a key piece of life and that there is no freedom from suffering if there is no suffering (non-duality.)  My teacher also spoke to practical approaches in the situation I presented (such as addressing the suffering of a man who would hit a dog,) but my primary take-away was the reminder that there will be suffering, and that it’s not my job to fight that fact.  It turns out that there is great freedom in relinquishing responsibility for the happiness of all beings on the planet!!  

I bring up this story to remind us that, while we can work for freedom from suffering, we must do it without attachment to the idea that we will eradicate suffering.  Like my friend who became aware of his ego-based need to make everything alright, we need to be aware of our actual position in the cosmos.  We are each one being in an infinitude of beings on a tiny planet in one small corner of the universe.  We can only go about making change in the world in a healthy way that preserves our own emotional and spiritual health when we recognize that the journey of other people’s lives, of animals’ lives, of the life of the planet are their own journeys, directed by infinite factors.  No one person’s effort- and maybe not the efforts of every human on the planet- can “fix” a single person’s life challenges or the challenges of the Earth.  In other words: let the weight of the world slide right off your shoulders, because you are not the boss of things.       

With this awareness, is there a way that works for you that you can address the world’s suffering?  You could choose one area of focus and then choose how deeply you want to dive into it.  For example, you may decide that child abuse is something you want to help reduce.  On a small scale, you can bring awareness to Child Abuse Prevention Month via social media.  You could donate to local non-profits that work with at-risk children and parents to prevent child abuse and neglect.  You could become a volunteer court appointed advocate for children in foster care.  You could go to school to become a social worker and work in child welfare.  You could do as Mother Teresa and join a monastic order dedicated to caring for impoverished children!  

Another approach could be to have a rule for yourself regarding how you address the suffering you come directly across.  For example, you could decide that if you cross paths directly with someone suffering- a hungry or homeless or distraught person- you will stop what you are doing and offer help.  You can decide that you will donate money once a month to a specific charity and that you will otherwise not get involved with strangers on the street.  At the same time, you can decide to not follow social media or the news because being aware of the suffering of the world- when you can’t directly change the vast majority of it- is hurting your mental health.

The person whose well-being you have the most ability to support is yourself.  When you make the choice to acknowledge and care for your own pain related to the suffering of the world, you are more able to make a difference through action- in the appropriate, thoughtfully considered way that you choose.        

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Boundaries

Looking Deeply

Generosity

 

Share Your Experience
How do you handle the suffering of the world?  How do you process the deepest suffering?  How do you decide when to act, and when to not act?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  

 

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You are Feeling Carried Away

“I’m in an early relationship that seems to be moving fast.  I’m not sure if this is right for me.  How can I know?”

 

winterroad

“Am I going the right way here?”

 

We all have had the feeling that we are being pulled along by a force outside ourselves.  This could be in any area- career, intimate relationship, a single conversation.  Maybe we wake up one day and realize that we are only climbing the corporate ladder for larger paychecks- that we may have been happiest at work in our entry-level position from years ago.  Or, as in this question, we are carried away by new relationship energy, making an “insta-relationship,” without giving the adequate time to get to know the other person’s personality, in all kinds of circumstances.  Or we keep having the same kind of banter with someone that leaves us feeling… icky.  

In some instances, this action without even having to think much can feel like divine purpose- like we are in contact with some power greater than ourselves, and consciously choosing to go with the flow of that power is sublime.  While lovely, this is not the type of “being pulled along” to which I am referring here.  The feeling I am referring to is a product of being out of touch with that greater power- out of touch with our higher purpose.  It feels over-powering, not just energizing.  Neutral, negative, blind or frantic.  Not joyful and inspired- though it can be hard to really distinguish between these sensations, if we do not give ourselves the space and time to discern, for ourselves.

If you find yourself in a moment- or several years- of following a path that doesn’t feel right, it’s time to take care of yourself.  Here are some steps to take to look into this apparent dissonance between your actions and your heart.

 

Pause

Take some time and space away from the activity.  For a career question, maybe it’s clearing a weekend or even tacking on an extra mental-health day to the weekend so you have time to look into your own heart.  In an intimate relationship, let your partner know that you need to take a span of time for yourself (this looks different, depending on the nature of the relationship- casual dating means just not going on a date for a week, a spouse that you live with might mean taking a weekend vacation by yourself.)  In a conversation, it would mean ending the conversation, “Anyway- it has been good to catch up with you, and I need to stop now and take care of some other things.”  

Have you ever seen the 1980’s TV show “Out of This World?”  I’ve always wished I had the same superpower as Evie, to freeze time so I can do all the things I want to do in the course of an already busy day.  We may not be able to freeze time, but we can clearly set aside time for the things we want- need– to do.  If gaining clarity for yourself is important to you, set the boundary with the people and tasks in your life around this exercise.  Take the time and space you need, where nothing else can intrude.

 

Set the Stage for Inquiry

Maybe this means finding a chair for yourself and your journal in a quiet corner and letting others in the house know that you will be unavailable for anything but medical emergencies for the next half-hour.  Maybe it means spending several hours in a day or over a weekend in a room of your home with candles and incense burning.  You don’t need to book a cabin in nearby mountains, or a spot on a weekend meditation retreat that allows space for personal practice.  However, if you have the means and wish to, please do that!  Do whatever it is that you believe is going to be most conducive to this self-inquiry.  

 

Look Deeply and Embrace

Now that you have paused the activity in question, and have set the stage for your inquiry, it’s time to check in with yourself and embrace what you see.  Go slow.  Before you begin your inquiry, give thanks to yourself for seeking clarity and alignment in your life.  Give thanks to all of the teachers, ancestors, and conditions that have allowed you to be in this exact position in your life, able to take stock and grow.  If you pray and/or believe in a higher power, ask for guidance.  This can be silent or out loud.  

 

Next, sit quietly and gradually scan your body- head (including mind,) neck, shoulders, torso (including heart and gut,) arms, hands, hips and reproductive organs, legs, feet.  Notice the qualities of energy, weight, and heat you feel in these parts of your body.  If you are completely new to the idea of a body-scan meditation, here is a short (5 minutes) video online to get the idea: Body-scan meditation.  

 

Now that you have settled and have a sense of what’s happening in your body, bring to mind the activity in question- your career path, the relationship, the uncomfortable conversation you were having earlier.  Rest your mind and heart gently on this topic- not tearing into it with intellect, but allowing its essence to seep into your body.  It may not take long (a few seconds?) before you begin to feel what is changing in your physical sensations, when exposed to the activity in question.  Once you feel you have settled enough into your physical inquiry, allow the physical sensations to speak to you.  

 

Is the constriction in the chest saying things are going too fast for you?  Is the fog in the mind saying that there is confusion about the topic?  Are the sweaty palms spelling out anxiety?  Let the flavor define itself- note that we are not using intellect here.  This is a corporal way of knowing, different from what most of us do every day.  Many of us have spent lifetimes building our intellect, and we obsessively ruminate about everything under the sun.  In this investigation, we are setting rumination aside and listening to other sources of information- this is an aspect of intuition.  

 

When the mind naturally returns to thinking, we re-direct our attention back to the physical sensations that are arising, and the feeling-words that may appear with them.  Do this for as long as you need.  Take breaks for tea or stretching, if your inquiry is taking a lot of time and you need to break it up.  If you are approaching the limit of the time you have for this exercise, and no insight has occurred, this is okay.  Move to the next step.

 

Write it Down

Whether you have gotten some guidance just yet or not, it is time to journal.  Record your question (“Am I on the right career path?”  “Is this relationship building me up, or bringing me down?” “Are these conversations good for me?”) and what your body told you.  If there is not a clear answer from your corporal knowing, write your intention to receive clarity- from the passage of time, or from a higher power.  Setting the intention for clarity, now that you are aware of this prominent question, may be all the progress you will make at this time.   

Now is also when- if you are giving yourself plenty of time for a larger life-question- you can allow the intellect to look at facts about your area of question and to evaluate them.  This is much better done in writing, as thinking tends to be repetitive and is slower to insight than writing.   This could be simple journaling (writing whatever comes to mind,) or a “pro” and “con” list in response to the question of keeping the status quo or changing things up.  It could be an “evidence for” and “evidence against” list in response to some belief you may be circling back onto, but which feels a bit sticky, maybe skewed.

 

Closure

If you have established that your activity in question must change, you can continue with making a plan to initiate change- see next week’s post about that.  Whether you are making a plan for change right now or not, make sure you close your self-inquiry with a few moments of repeated gratitude: to yourself, your teachers, ancestors, and other conditions that have led to your existence, on the path you are walking.  Finally, make a commitment to yourself to continue to listen to and care for your own deepest truths. 

     

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Setting boundaries

Gratitude

Listening

Journaling

Meditating

Intuition