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 Know You Are Going to Die

The experience of a former client: “I was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and given a 16% chance for survival in five years’ time.  After all the treatment I’ve been through, we haven’t seen remission.  I don’t have much time left.”

I have heard it said that the point of living is to learn how to die.  In other words, we have succeeded in “living” if we live our lives in a way that- should we die this instant, from any of an infinite number of unforeseeable causes- there is nothing of consequence left incomplete.  Sure, we may never finish writing the book we began nor may we compete in the marathon we planned to run: those things are not the ultimate definition of “success.”  In the case of the former client whose dilemma, above, I am referencing for this article, a young child was left fatherless when the client died.  In his last weeks of life, the thought of not being there to “walk his daughter down the aisle” represented his fathomless grief at dying young.  This was heartbreaking for me, a tragedy that doesn’t make sense.  Most adults have faced senseless tragedy in our own lives or the lives of those around us.  While we can’t control the fact that sometimes, our lives are cut much shorter than the average and with fallout that feels cosmically unjust, we can absolutely control the way we live our lives until that unknowable date comes.  Being given a “deadline” is in one way a kind of gift- it can be a wake-up call out of the torpor in which many of us find ourselves floating.

underwater

Time to Wake Up

So, what do we do with the time we have?  Most of the tasks which we must accomplish to survive in this world are only beneficial because they help us succeed “historically”- in the realm of everyday things like career and finances and preserving material possessions.  These tasks seem to matter much, but they “ultimately”- in the realm of ontology- are of little consequence: paying mortgages, submitting paperwork for professional licenses on time, getting vehicles in for regular tune-ups, etc.  If we don’t tend to these things, our lives will be a bit out of control, things will fall apart… but, ultimately, dying individuals do not look back on their lives and think, “I am most grateful I never overdrew my checking account,” nor “I wish I had maintained my car better.”  In an often-publicized look into end-of-life regrets published by a palliative care nurse after eight years working with the dying, a common thread emerges: openness, authenticity, and strong relationships.  The regrets of the dying circle around the themes of not having been open and authentic in their lives, and not having put enough energy into building strong friendships and family connections.    

The consequences of these regrettable oversights are spending valuable life-energy doing things that are not fulfilling and, as the more than 70-year-long Harvard Grant Study has shown, not cultivating the one thing that leads to a longer, happier life: love.  It’s never too early nor too late to live your life fully.  Here are three suggestions that can guide you towards a regret-free life every day- whether you have 1 day, 100 days, or an unknown number of days left on this planet.

Sometimes, the grief of holding the prognosis that you are probably going to die soon is all you can do.  In those moments, all you can expect of yourself is to receive these three qualities of Amends, Appreciation, and Gratitude from others- and to give them to yourself, when you can.

 

Amends

We’ve all heard the term “to make amends,” but not many of us have an actual practice of regularly making amends.  In short, to “make amends” is to take responsibility for your part of a conflict and to share your regret at having played that part with the other parties involved.  This is a big part of 12-step recovery (step 10, “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”)  

You might be thinking, “But, but, SHE said X and SHE did Y, why should I be the one to apologize?”  You should be the one to take responsibility for your actions- regardless of whether the other person is blameless or is truly the source of most of the conflict- because they are YOUR actions.  You can only control your actions and your words, not those of others.  This is the meaning of another 12-step phrase, “Keeping your side of the street clean.”  Is waiting for the other person to wise up and admit their wrongdoing worth dying with a family conflict over a car that was totaled or a Christmas card that wasn’t sent?  When we remember that death is imminent, it is easier to openly, authentically- courageously- acknowledge our wrongdoing.

If this concept is entirely new to you, this article breaks it down pretty well.  I especially like the article’s focus on not just identifying the action for which you are apologizing, but the character defect of yours that allowed it to happen.  It’s also always powerful to identify the negative impact you believe this had on the other party, and your plan for fixing any damage caused and for preventing future lapses on your part.  For example, “Joe, I’m sorry that I cut you off in the staff meeting yesterday- you were making a point, and I was acting out of impatience and self-centeredness.  It must have felt insulting when I did that.  If it’s okay with you, I’d like to apologize for it at the beginning of next week’s meeting, to clear the air among all the staff so they know that what I did wasn’t right and that I am working on being more patient and kind.”

It’s important for us to always remember- whether veteran amend-makers or those new to making amends- that, similar to forgiveness, we are doing this work not only to be kind to others, but to free ourselves of the psychic, spiritual, and emotional binds of conflict and resentment.  We can only have deep and loving relationships if we are committed to this kind of open and communicative integrity.  What sounds most fulfilling: hiding behind self-righteousness and having shallow relationships, or vulnerably admitting when wrong and having deep relationships built on trust?

While it takes time to build trust between people, it is never too late to make amends.  The other party in the conflict may have written you off and may refuse to respond to what you have to say- but knowing that you faced your shortcomings and courageously sought reconciliation will free you from the burden of that guilt and shame.  When making amends, we make them with zero expectation from the recipient.  We are taking responsibility for our own actions, not taking inventory of others’ actions.  In fact, it is critical to only address our actions and not the actions of the other person during the course of our amends.  This is why it is important to have a script, so that we don’t regress mid-conversation to defensively trying to explain our actions based on the others’ actions.

If there is nothing else you have time to do before dying, it is worthwhile to identify all the outstanding conflicts in your life and investigating your part in them, writing a succinct but full script hitting all the key points (your role, your character defect, your regret at causing the other person pain, your plan for rectifying the problem) and delivering that script- whether in person, on the telephone, or in a written letter.  Do it promptly.

If you are unsure, find a friend or spiritual teacher who is willing to look at your amends with you and see if they seem right.  Always consider the recipient when making amends.  Does the other person fear you / your history of violence?  In that case, stick to a phone call or letter and clearly state that you only have one thing to say, that you do not intend to write or call again, and that you expect nothing in return from him or her.  Do you have reason to fear the potential violence of the other person?  Write your script in your own journal and do not deliver it.  Just.  Get.  Clear.  And then move on.  

Beyond people, there are other instances that call for making amends.  If you have a “Creator” concept in your spiritual views- particularly the Christian belief that you will go to hell unless you have humbled yourself before God and asked for salvation- this would be an important time to make sure you do that.

Moving forward, make daily amends- every night, look at your day and determine if you have anyone to whom you need to make an amend, and then do it promptly.  

         

Appreciate

In tandem with making amends, appreciating is the best way to strengthen relationships.  It also happens that spending time thinking about what we appreciate lifts our mood.  Every day, dozens of people we can name and thousands of unknown people contribute to our lives.  While it is beneficial just to think of and silently appreciate all this support coming our way, outwardly expressing this appreciation is the more “open, authentic” avenue.  The more you are able to express your appreciation to the people around you, the happier everyone will be.  Would you rather leave a neutral / critical legacy, or a grateful legacy?

If you are generally thoughtful, you probably already thank the people in service positions that you come across- checkout clerks, waiters, receptionists.  It’s always nice to say “thank you” when someone helps you.  It’s a delight to be able to share even more appreciation, with a specific gratitude.  For example, “Thank you for your patience as I unloaded my cart,” or “I appreciated the reminder call yesterday, I had actually forgotten to put the appointment on my calendar.”  Something sweet to do if you have several errands is to buy / snip a bouquet of fragrant, seasonal flowers and give one or two stems to the people in service positions that day that you come across, along with a verbal “thank you!”

As for people who occupy more time in your life, like colleagues or family members, making a point to catch them doing something you appreciate or admire and telling them is a joyful practice.  Small and beautiful / practical gifts, like flowers, coffee, or lunch, are easy and yet impactful.  If you have little time left on this planet (read: any of us,) spread appreciation in all directions.  Make it a goal to tell 1, 2, or 5 people each day what you appreciate about them.   

 

Generosity    

Yet another pro-social action that has strong positive impacts on the doer is generosity.  Whether gifts to people you see often or donations of time or resources to causes you appreciate, practicing generosity not only leaves a positive impact in your physical absence, but also helps you thrive while you are here, with feelings of purpose and connection.  I am most fond of acts of generosity that are experiential- where I can directly interact with those receiving my offering.  For example, if you donate money to a homeless shelter, can you also sign up to serve a meal there?  If you donate supplies to a youth program, can you also attend their open-house event and meet some of the families that benefit from the program?  How about making 15 sack lunches and taking a bike ride to pass them out at a homeless encampment?  Offering to carry bags when you see someone struggling?  Spending your Saturday helping at a public tree-planting event or an athletic event?  Doing a chore around the house that someone else normally does?  The possibilities are infinite.

It’s easy to be blind to the ways we can be generous, but if you commit to finding one way each day to practice generosity, the small but important actions will be easier to identify and do.  The more you can work generosity into your daily experience, the more beautiful your life and your legacy.   

 

            

     Important skills you are strengthening:

Amends

Communication

Personal Responsibility

Gratitude

Appreciating

Generosity

 

Share Your Experience

How do you live your life fully, every day?  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… Your Own Mind is Your Worst Enemy

In the words of a former client: “When I finally looked into all of my most painful moments, I saw that it was my own thinking about the situations that made them so bad.”

Some people seem to be born with a positive disposition, with optimism at their core.  It doesn’t matter if they had saint-like parents nurturing them in all the right ways or came from the most challenging of childhoods, marked by poverty or abuse- they see the silver lining, and their joy is contagious!  Others of us struggle with negative, defeating thinking- even if things have always worked out reasonably well for us.  The mind is a powerful indicator of our ability to enjoy our time on this planet and to make a positive impact while we’re at it.  Have you found that your biggest obstacle to happiness or reaching your potential is your own mind?  Count yourself among the majority of humanity!  We all have struggled with the fact that our own thoughts in reaction to difficult situations can make the situations much worse.

The good news is that we can work with our own minds.  We can leverage our thinking mind in ways that- over time- develop a positivity bias in our brains.  As Rick Hanson says in his book Hardwiring Happiness, “All mental activity—sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes—is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/ neural activity—especially if it is conscious— will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.”  

We can use this powerful information in two directions- limiting the negative and cultivating the positive, both discussed below.             

 

Respectfully Set Boundaries With the Negative Mind

Negative thoughts come and go, just like positive thoughts.  Negative and positive experiences come and go, alike.  It has been said that our minds evolved to take special note of negative experiences, in order to protect us from future negative experiences.  For other species, and for our pre-homo sapiens ancestors, a “negative” experience would be something like encountering a predator and narrowly escaping alive, or experimenting with eating an unfamiliar plant and becoming violently ill.  

We no longer have close calls with such life-threatening experiences in the mainstream modern lifestyle, yet most of us still have the same strong internal reactions to common, but unpleasant experiences.  A supervisor at work gives us a less-than-glowing yearly review or a friend neglects to include us in group plans, and it can fill our minds as if it were a life-threatening encounter.  We might have anxiety around encountering the supervisor or the friend the next day, or we might ruminate over what imminent problems the event portends, such as being fired or being told your friends no longer find you interesting.  Nevermind that 80% of the work review was positive, or that the event you weren’t invited to was a musical jam and you’re not a musician… our minds have a way of running away with shreds of negative experience and drawing a picture much worse than it actually is.  

Along the same lines, we may find ourselves repeating difficult conversations / conflicts in our minds, practicing the statements we wished we had made in order to maintain our dignity / demonstrate the inferiority of the other party.  

When we step back from these thought patterns, we can see that they are useless.  In the vast majority of cases, it is useless to fret over whether something more drastic is coming down the line after we’ve had an unpleasant experience.  It is useless to repeatedly play back challenging interactions and to build up our own sense of superiority or righteous indignation.  In fact, it’s not only useless: it’s harmful!  If there is anything to be worried about in this area, it is our own negative thought process.  As Dr. Hanson says, the repeated thought patterns we follow develop and strengthen neural pathways- whether the thought patterns are damning, angry thoughts or are loving, joyful thoughts.  I would posit that the pathways we develop in our brains lead to not only further thoughts along the same lines, but further actions, and, hence experiences.  This is the degree to which I can get behind “The Secret”- type thinking.  Yes, our thoughts create our reality: they manipulate our physical brain and sway our future thoughts and actions.  The future starts with the thoughts you are thinking right now.  Is it going to be a limiting, afflicted reality… or an expansive, liberated reality?  The choice is ours!

Luckily, we are not the victims of our thoughts.  Maybe your thoughts are way more negative than you would prefer.  The most important thing is that you see this, and determine to work with your mind.  The only way to make change is with respect and compassion.  When you see the negativity, take note, pause, and gently embrace your fighting, negative mind.  You can journal or even say a silent mantra to yourself, “Everything is okay.”  “I don’t need to fight.”  “I’m here for myself,” “I love and respect myself.”  Just like a meditation practice, you can decide to drop the negative line of thinking and pick up a positive line of thinking.  For example, dropping the argument re-hash and deciding to pay attention to the beautiful flowers on the path you are walking.  Or thinking about someone you love and appreciate.  You may have to re-direct your mind a dozen times in as many minutes, but this boundary-setting around negative thought processes is making a difference.  You are employing your pre-frontal cortex in the enterprise of minimizing negative thought-pathways in your brain stemming from the amygdala.  Your brain has its reasons for being focused on the negative, yet you have the ability to guide it towards patterns that serve you best.

 

Cultivate the Positive

Going a step further, you can choose to turn your attention towards the positive at any time.  

Flower Garden

We are responsible for growing the flowers of compassion and joy in our own hearts.

It can be a part of your meditation practice, it can be something you do once an hour with a bell chime you set up on your cell phone, it can be something you do, as mentioned above, in response to a negative thought-stream you’ve just found yourself following.  Here are just a small sample of countless potential practices to try:

A quick and calming practice is to contemplate a source of support you’ve known in your life- a person, a pet, an organization, a tree.  Allow your mind to rest on that source of support and how the feeling of being supported feels in your body.  Stay with that awareness for a full minute or two, relaxing into the soft feeling of being cared for.  

Another example is gratitude-listing.  Take 3 minutes to get out a pen and paper and write, stream-of-consciousness-style, everything that comes to mind for which you are grateful.  Some people do this every day.  I do it many mornings.

An alternative is to write down one thing for which you are grateful and the several (positive) ways you feel because of it.  For example, I am grateful for the internet because it allows me to feel more connected when others can see what I have written and respond to it.  The internet helps me feel abundant because it allows part of my livelihood to exist.  The internet helps me feel more efficient when I can use it quickly to find information as I’m making plans or writing.  The internet brings me a sense of being in community when I see that others around the world share my political and spiritual perspectives.   

The loving-kindness meditation practice is powerful, and also requires more time than the other practices just listed.  It is a heart-opening concentration practice of developing genuine goodwill for yourself and all others.  Here is a description of loving-kindness meditation by teacher Jack Kornfield, and a 40 minute talk / guided loving-kindness meditation by teacher Tara Brach.  One of the most powerful meditation retreats I have attended was a week-long silent retreat on the topic of loving-kindness.  Out of that came a commitment to practice in this way on one specific day of the week (at the least.)  I am grateful to have the regular opportunity to make a little more space in my heart.  Similar to forgiveness meditation, loving-kindness can be triggering when we bring to mind those who have presented challenges in our lives.  I believe this confrontation with our mental formations around challenging people is a direct line to freedom.  When we work with our minds, we can break ourselves free of hatred by growing forgiveness and free of judgement by growing compassion.

Another heart-opening (and more lengthy) practice I enjoy is sympathetic joy.  This is an excellent antidote to envy.  In the meditation, you contemplate the blessings and good fortune of others, and grow your sense of joy for them that things are going so well.  Here is an article describing the practice, by teacher Sharon Salzberg.  Here is also a 1-hour talk and guided meditation of the practice, by teacher Joseph Goldstein.          

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Awareness

Loving-kindness

Sympathetic Joy

Gratitude

Goodwill

Compassion

 

Share Your Experience
What have you learned about nurturing your own positive mental states?  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 Ill or Injured

“I’ve had a recurring sinus infection for months, and it’s sapping my energy.  I’m ready to be done with it!”

Our bodies are of the nature to become ill and injured, at times.  Everyone’s been there, but some of us certainly go there a lot more than others.  We all say we want to be healthy, yet we may struggle with staying healthy.  Many factors go into this- our environment, our socio-economic status, our access to nutritious food and medical care.  Ultimately, the daily choices we are able to make- and we all have choices to make- can sway our health.  Are you making choices that lead to health and healing?

 

Temple or Trashcan?

When you get right down to it, self-care is a spiritual enterprise.  It is the attitude of reverence and respect for our bodies and minds that allows us to prioritize caring for ourselves- the same kind of reverence and respect for the body that various religious traditions speak of when describing the blessing of being born human.  When you recognize the great responsibility that has been given to us by our ancestors, Great Spirit, the Earth- or however else you identify your reason for being- it becomes clear that great care must be given to your body.  When you consider how dependent you are on your body to get around and do all the things you do every day, it becomes even more clear that great care must be given to your body.

Juicing Veg

Green Juice in the Making

When we are making choices throughout the day, we all need to ask ourselves, “Is this the choice for a Temple, or a Trashcan?”  For example, am I putting whole, nutritious foods (temple) or processed, high-sugar foods (trashcan) into my body?  Am I training my muscles to become more flexible and strong (temple) or ignoring them (trashcan?)  Do I allow my body regular deep rest (temple) or do I run myself into the ground (trashcan?)  Am I putting toxins like alcohol (trashcan) or nutritiously-dense green juice (temple) into my body?  This 1977 quote from Swami Muktananda frames our options pretty well:

“If God made heaven, he also made hell. Remember both. Don’t go by what God has created but by what is good for you. Who created poison if not the same God who also made honey? What shall we eat, poison or honey?”

In my words: our experience is a mirror of our consciousness- it all comes from the same Source, but what are we choosing to cultivate?  Heaven, or hell?  This is the same question as temple, or trashcan?  Awareness of the quality of your choices is the first step towards lifting up your overall quality of choices.  The second step is interpreting the drives underneath your choices.  Most of us have some drives for treating our body like a trashcan rather than a temple, though the further along in your self-care practice you become, the less and less desirable the trashcan-choices will become and the more and more desirable the temple-choices will become.  When you deeply believe you are a manifestation of the Divine, you treat yourself that way.  Our choices are a reflection of our mental and spiritual state.  If you are recognizing repeated, unhealthy choices, it’s time to acknowledge that you are suffering with sickness at the level of the heart.  Your malady may be self-hatred, from internalized misogyny or homophobia or racism.  It may be addiction to food or sugar or alcohol or another substance / behavior that you use to soothe anxiety or depression.  We have access to nearly unlimited ways to briefly escape our suffering.  

Does any of this sound on target?  You may think, “I don’t hate myself!  I have good self-esteem.”  However, you don’t need to love yourself to have self-esteem.  Maybe you know you’re a good realtor and parent, and you have self-esteem around those traits.  You can still have underlying, unprocessed shame that is calling the shots when it comes to making choices about your health.  If you are making unhealthy choices and treating your body like a trashcan, you’ve got work to do.  The work may be deep and uncomfortable, but I’m going to posit that your growth and health are worth the work.  Don’t despair- there are many ways to get started with this work.  Personal therapy, prayer and meditation, group therapy, 12-step programs, and seeking support from elders in your spiritual community are all great choices.

 I begin this exploration looking at daily choices because it is the years of positive choices that build up our health or the years of negative choices that break down our health.  The sooner you start putting clean and nutritious fuel into your body and training your muscles for strength and flexibility, the sooner you will see that you are less likely to become ill or injured.  We can prevent illness or injury just as well as we can respond to it when it happens.    

 

The Ill Body’s Message

First- as described above- illness and injury are potential alarms that the way you have been treating your body may not be the most gentle, caring, and supportive.  Second, illness and injury are telling you exactly how to heal: you are naturally less able to do as much when you are sick as when you are healthy.  Your body is telling you to slow down and take it easy.  Our culture rewards working through illness- we even have over-the-counter drugs meant to clear up congestion and keep us awake!  This has always seemed wrong to me, as congestion is part of our body’s process of defending against pathogens and our need for greater sleep is meant to conserve energy for healing.

We don’t all have sick days at work or the savings to afford the luxury to rest when we are ill or injured- this is one part of how socio-economic status can prevent us from making the decisions that will lead to our greatest health- but if you can, your body is telling you to take it as easy as possible.  Some illnesses require several days in bed or not leaving the house.  Give your body what it needs.  I know many people can’t be still, can’t allow themselves time away from work for healing.  Sometimes these people think that their work is irreplaceable or that they are just that committed to their work.  I’d like to propose that the real challenge is that most of these people simply are uncomfortable sitting still, maybe to the point of being afraid of what they might see in themselves if they simply stop and spend time alone.

Be Still and Heal

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

Very little in the world is so important that it can’t wait a few days.  Let the work sit- undone or delegated- while you are healing.  If you are afraid of appearing weak or somehow incapable at work, I will propose that not tending to your needs now will just make even more incapacitating illness occur down the line.  Just like in so many areas of life, there aren’t shortcuts.  We need to go through the experience of being sick.  If you don’t allow yourself thorough healing- if you don’t stand next to your body and her need to heal- how can you expect your body to stand by you, for the long haul?  This is my favorite recording of a laying-down, body-scan style meditation practice from the Plum Village tradition called “deep relaxation.”   It’s 45 minutes long, so listen when you are truly laying down to do some deep relaxing!

The beauty, radiance, and resilience we wish from our bodies all come from our careful cultivation of these qualities through our own loving choices.

 

Invite the Care of Healers   

Aside from the baseline self-care of good nutrition and exercise and the special effort to get rest when you have fallen ill or injured, it is always good to identify a team of healers in your life.  Medicine women and men are all around us!  These may be friends who can give you consultations when you have health concerns, or professionals you only ever see when you have a formal appointment.  Healers come in many stripes: massage therapists, doctors, nutritionists, nurse practitioners, acupuncturists, herbalists, Reiki practitioners, chiropractors, and so many others.  Who has come into your life?  Your friend-circle is a great place to start; you can ask informational questions to learn about a friend or friend-of-friend’s practice, to see if you’d like to try his or her work.  I recommend getting familiar with the types of healing available in your life at any point- whether you are feeling healthy or ill.  Make appointments to meet with those whom you feel drawn to work.  Money invested in learning about health and healing is wisely invested.  Just like seeing a financial advisor, seeing a health-practitioner can help put your mind at ease about having the tools necessary to make the best decisions for yourself, should you ever be ill or in an actual health crisis.         

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Looking Deeply

Personal Responsibility

Seeking Healers

Rest

Healing

 

Share Your Experience
What have you learned about self-care from illness or injury?  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 Have Illegal Compulsions

“I’ve been arrested for exposing myself in public… more than once… and I struggle regularly with my compulsion to do it again.”

 

Humans have compulsions to engage in all kinds of behavior.  Some people compulsively eat snacks when watching TV, other people have compulsions to smoke a cigarette every hour, and some others have compulsions to expose themselves to non-consenting strangers.  There is a wide range of social, cultural, ethical, and legal acceptability among human compulsions.  Addictions are a type of compulsion.  I would argue that every one of us has one or more addictions and / or compulsions.  Even people who are substance-free and live lives above-board legally may need to decompress in front of the computer or television as a matter of habit… and compulsion.  It’s just what they feel they need to do, and they do it without really thinking about it.  

If you look deeply, you might realize you have a compulsion to overeat, to surf the internet, to spend money, or to gamble.  Maybe you have been aware of your own compulsion for some time, because you try to keep it a secret or risk potential ridicule or judgment from your romantic partner or family.  Cross-dressing, hoarding, self-injury, and consuming pornography can be such compulsions.  Some compulsions are shared by much of the US population, some are shared by few… some can cause you to lose romantic partners, others can cause you to lose your last penny- and still others can cause you to seriously harm others, become imprisoned, and prevent you from ever finding secure employment. 

Peeking Out

There is healing on the other side

Some compulsions are not especially distressing to the person who has them.  Others cause the person distress, as they do not fit into the person’s view of his or her ideal self.  These compulsions are called ego dystonic.  It’s a matter of perspective: one person’s “distressing compulsion” could be another’s “harmless habit.”  You already know you have a compulsion if it’s an illegal one, because you’ve had to make the choice of whether to pursue it and face serious consequences… or not.  Most people with illegal compulsions also find them ego dystonic.  The illegal compulsions I’m aware of include paraphilias– abnormal sexual desires- that involve partners unwilling or unable to give consent, such as strangers rubbed up against in frotteurism, or minors exploited in pedophilia.  Other illegal compulsions would be to murder people (as in: serial murderers,) addiction to scheduled substances (such as heroin or prescription medications for which you do not have a prescription,) and kleptomania (in which items are taken from non-consenting individuals or stores.)

The most negative consequences of any compulsion only comes to those who act on their compulsions- and not all people do.  In researching for this article, I read a piece written by a celibate pedophile called, “I’m a Pedophile But Not a Monster.”  The author bravely and vulnerably shares what it is like to have a compulsion that goes against his own wishes for himself, and causes him to be reviled by complete strangers… even though he has chosen to never act on his pedophilic compulsion.  Those of us who are not afflicted with illegal or self-harming compulsions often don’t and choose not to understand them nor to have compassion for those who suffer with them.  The important thing to realize is that most people who have such compulsions would rather not have them.  As a society, we push away the things we don’t want to understand… which only makes those situations worse.  The societal and individual habit-energy is the same: push away what makes us uncomfortable.  Push it into the recesses of consciousness and pretend it doesn’t exist.  Every time, those dark places decay into a major problem.  We need to shine a light on all sides of ourselves as individuals and as a society in order to understand and heal.  

If you have illegal compulsions, you can take care of yourself.  As of now, the wider culture will not support you in this and seems almost complicit in your committing a crime by ignoring you until you have committed that crime.  This is not an excuse to not care for yourself.  Some of us have a harder road than most to realizing self-care, and those of us who are likely to have experienced trauma as a child (as have most people in the “illegal compulsion” category) and who are criminalized by the wider society (all people with illegal compulsions) and who are misunderstood and villainized by most people (again: most people with illegal compulsions) have the hardest time of all.  Here are some concrete steps any of us can take- and those of us with illegal compulsions most need to take- towards self-care:

 

Take a Look

Very few of us turn our awareness onto our behaviors to look deeply and understand what compels us to do what we do, and to take responsibility for our choices.  And fewer, beyond that, make the choice to not escape uncomfortable feelings through compulsive behavior- to instead sit with discomfort and befriend our challenging thoughts and feelings and transform them into insight and compassion.  I refer to these types of skills as those of the psychological superstar.  The opposite of a psychological superstar is moving through life as if asleep, not really aware of what motivates you or even what you are actually doing.  Most of us, of course, are in the middle somewhere.  When you have illegal compulsions and are blind to your motivations and actions, you find yourself, at best, at risk of legal repercussions.  At worst, you hurt yourself, hurt others, and can lose everything dear to you.   

The first step to becoming a psychological superstar is to realize where you aren’t expressing the superstar-potential that lies inside you.  This is where recognizing your own addictions and compulsions comes in.  Recognizing is the first step to healing.  All of the illegal compulsions involve the violation of others’ rights or the consumption of substances that are known to cause physical damage to the user- barring a few substances that are scheduled due to political reasons rather than science.  If you look closely and see that you are compelled to hurt yourself or others, chances are that this is an ego-dsytonic fact- and yet, your baseline feelings are worse, because this compulsion is a kind of self-soothing action you have learned to turn towards when you are suffering.  The truth is that every compulsion- illegal or not- causes temporary relief, but does nothing to address the underlying pain that brought the behavior about in the first place.  Add the potential shame for having engaged in the compulsion, and you have a greater mass of pain in your consciousness to compel you into the behavior again.  

If you have identified your own illegally compulsive cycle, it’s time to take action to free yourself.  You are the best person to do this job; as I mentioned before, our wider culture has not prioritized helping you to get free; our wider culture only acts as a judge and executioner.  You need to be your own friend, your own counselor, so that you never see that real-life judge nor executioner.  You can identify places where you can make new choices and you can get yourself to the resources that will preserve your health, integrity, and future.  Reading this article is just the first step.

 

Own Your Isolation

All people with illegal compulsions feel isolated.  Social isolation and the anxiety it feeds worsens the compulsion, and having the socially-unacceptable compulsion pushes you further into isolation.  This cycle can be broken.  Underlying thoughts that fuel the cycle are along the lines of, “Why would the healthy/normal/beautiful people want anything to do with sick/weird/disgusting me?”  Anger at being isolated can fuel the acting-out of the compulsion… but we’ve already determined that acting out the compulsion is only going to get you into trouble and increase your self-hatred, feeding a self-destructive cycle.  You don’t need to self-destruct.  Just because you had a disturbed childhood or otherwise inexplicably violent / intrusive thoughts and feel worthless, which has led to behavior that puts you in an isolated place- which would make anyone resentful and angry- leading to further isolation… does not mean all hope is lost!  Isolation, like any emotion or experience, is impermanent.  

You need to see, name, and own your isolation.  See how it comes from the outside, but also from the inside?  Do you see how your choices reinforce it?  The choice to not make eye contact when walking down the street?  The choice to over-share inappropriate information with strangers?  The choice to not make friends, but instead go straight home after work and not reach out to anyone?  These are examples of ways that people who feel shame and isolation push others away with small but significant actions.  Your life happens to you, to a degree.  Beyond that degree- the cards you have been dealt- you have the freedom to make a choice in every moment about how to live your life.  

Every.  Single.  Moment. Is a chance to think and act in ways that are likely to bring greater health, happiness, and freedom into your life.  It is courageous to own your isolation and decide to make different choices moving forward.  The next two sections, Seek Care and Seek Community, describe ways to change your relationship to the world around you.        

 

Seek Care

Much compulsive behavior is cyclical.  There are uncomfortable feelings, followed by a ritualistic planning and then engaging in the compulsive behavior.  The compulsive activity leads to temporary numbing or mild relief, yet the relief is never as good as had been hoped when fantasizing about engaging in the compulsion.  Then, there are negative consequences in both the external world and the mind and heart of the person with the compulsion.  The frustration, shame, and overwhelm from these consequences feed into a repetition of the cycle.  Breaking this cycle is not easy, and having help from a mental-health professional who understands this process is a good idea.    

Addictive Cycle

While all licensed therapists have studied this cycle to some degree, there are many clinicians who specialize in addiction or even specific addictions, such as gambling or sex addiction.  Sex addiction- specialists are likely to be most prepared to treat people experiencing paraphilic compulsions.  Very few therapists would consider themselves prepared to work with a free (not in prison) murderer… and very few (if any?) serial murderers seek treatment.  The limits of confidentiality, at least in California, state that a therapist must protect his or her client’s confidentiality.  Even client reports of past murders are not reportable by the therapist.  However, a client’s statement of developing plans to harm someone in the future must be reported, to protect the potential victim and also the client.  A client who has homicidal urges- regardless of an acting-out past- who wants to heal and does not want to harm others may have to take the risk of seeing a therapist and honestly reporting homicidal urges, understanding that the clinician will use her or his best judgement to keep the client and a potential victim out of harm by involving law enforcement or a psychiatric hospital.  In the end, is it better to have legal attention or psychiatric hospitalization before a crime is committed, or after?  Most of us would agree that legal and medical intervention without having committed a crime is best. 

Whether your own compulsion is legal or not, there is help.  I am aware of resources in public mental health systems (meaning: for those with the lowest income) for substance-abuse recovery and basic group therapy, but there is not always the option for individual therapy.  This means that, if you have a paraphilia that is illegal or if you have homicidal urges, you may have a difficult time finding treatment.  If entering a public health system is your only option for treatment due to low income, a good way to frame your needs during the intake process would be, “I believe my particular symptoms would not be well received in group treatment.”  At the same time, you need to have symptoms of a specific mental illness in order to receive any treatment at all.  Chances are, you probably do have symptoms of at least depression or anxiety- so you need to express those symptoms in order to be approved for treatment, while not disclosing your specific unwanted thoughts if you do not feel comfortable disclosing them.  If you feel pushed by the intake clinician to specify the content of your thoughts, you always have the right to decline.  Speaking from experience, knowing that a client has “unwanted / intrusive thoughts” is just as good as knowing that a client “has thoughts about exposing herself in public” when it comes to the data needed for diagnosis.  Only share what you feel comfortable sharing.  Once you are working with a therapist whom you trust, you can dig deeper into your story.         

 

Seek Community, While Also Protecting Your Privacy

There is nothing quite as healing as communicating with people who share your experience.  An otherwise isolating experience can turn into a community-building experience when you look for others who know your struggle.  The more rare or socially unacceptable your situation, the harder it will be to find community.  It’s still worth trying.  The author of the previously-mentioned article writes about finding a community of pedophiles online, and finding some who shared his perspective that it is best to not act on the pedophilic compulsion.  He also made the choice to be open about his real identity, which led to him being harassed and now publicly known as a pedophile.  For the purposes of self-care, I would suggest cautiously seeking community, while being smart about what information you share online.  

For less complicated compulsions, such as substance or behavioral addiction, there are 12-step programs available- in-person in larger cities, and also by telephone and internet.  A lot of people have hang-ups about 12-step programs on account of the spiritual component.  All I can really say to that is that recovery requires humility, and letting go of what you think is the answer.  If you attend a meeting and see people who have recovery that you want to have, why not look a little deeper?  If you attend a meeting and don’t see people with the recovery you want, I suggest attending more meetings.  It’s true that 12-step meetings are not for everyone- but then, recovery is also not for everyone.  Many people are on a path to die because of their addictive and compulsive behaviors.  If you find humility and surrender to guidance from outside of your own head impossible… the prognosis is not good.  Are you more afraid of accepting that you don’t have the answers, or of living another day doggedly pursuing relief from a substance or action that will never deliver the relief you seek?

Finding others who know your struggle and sharing resources and mutual support on the path of recovery has saved many a life.  

 

Develop a New Ritual

Between the stages of emotional pain and acting out in the compulsive / addictive cycle is the preoccupation with the substance or behavior, which can be described as a kind of ritual.  The heroin addict thinks about how great it will be to get high, locates the heroin and the implements needed to use it.  This could be a 10-minute or multi-hour ritual.  The exhibitionist fantasizes about the reaction of the victims to his self-exposure, about how great the orgasm will be when he sees their expressions.  He then finds the right place to do the exposing and masturbating, and waits to find the right victim.  This could be a 1-hour or a multi-day ritual before acting out.

As mentioned earlier, every moment offers us the chance to make positive choices- and there are many moments in these sequences at which a different choice can be made.  The earlier a different choice is made, the better.  If fantasies are entertained for any significant time, the enchantment of the substance or behavior will win.  Therefore, it is important to create a new, soothing ritual to begin at the first sign of heading down the old ritual’s road.  The support of a recovery community and / or therapist is very helpful in this.  The first thought of, “I just want to get high” is the red flag waving, saying, “it’s time to pay attention to what’s happening here” and initiate, instead, a crime- and self-harm-free ritual.  Best of all would be a self-care ritual!  

Maybe you don’t have a self-care regimen at all.  This is the time to identify 2 or 3 actions you can take for yourself that you find soothing.  They can be anything from getting outside for a walk, to listening to spiritual music, to meditation, to speaking with your therapist or 12-step sponsor.  All you need is something you can do in response to the earliest signs of fantasy, in order to short-circuit the pattern you have had over the years or months, and create a new pattern.  Instead of the first moments of fantasy leading to preparation and acting out, now the first moments of fantasy can lead to making positive choices for your own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  

Self-care is within reach for anyone- every moment is an opportunity for the situation to make a turn for the better.  What are you going to do to help it along?  

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Creating Community

Looking Deeply

Personal Responsibility

Seeking Care

Recovery

Share Your Experience

If you have experienced healing around compulsive behavior, 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 Feel Disappointed by Someone

“One of my close friends didn’t come to my wedding, even though I gave her months of advance notice.  I know she can afford the trip, and I even made a point of letting her know how important it was to me.  ‘Disappointed’ is an understatement for how I’m feeling about this!”

 

Disappointment is a fact of life, and unmet expectations of other people are one of the greatest sources of it.  If you look again at the sentence you just read, you may notice the phrases, “fact of life,” and “unmet expectations.”  These two terms hint at keys to unlock the prison door of disappointment- which is a prison of our own making.  Disappointment is like all of our negative emotional states- we have the power to change it.  If we don’t manage our disappointment, it will soon become resentment, and resentment is toxic.  When we learn to distance ourselves from our expectations of others and to deconstruct those expectations, we can often get some freedom.  When we allow the disappointment of this one person’s action (or inaction) to rest on a level with all the other myriad disappointments we experience in life, we distance ourselves from the behavior we perceive as being disappointing.  This also leads to freedom.  The through-line here is recognizing that there are different ways of looking at the situation you are currently reading as “disappointing.”  Let’s look more closely at how we can care for ourselves when disappointment arrives on the scene.          

    

Sit With It

The best thing to do when a strong, negative emotion is rearing its head is to take some time by yourself to sit with it- to welcome it, listen to it, see what it has to teach.  Rumi said it best, in the poem “The Guest House.”

Your initial urge will probably be very different than this suggestion.  You may be inclined to numb out with some distraction (social media, television, daydreaming) or substance (alcohol, prescription pain meds.)  On the other end of the spectrum, you may be inclined to embody the emotion and to let it loose on other people.  If you’ve ever stuck your digital foot in your mouth by firing off an inappropriately angry email, you know why this is a bad idea.  I’ve heard it said, “Don’t just do something!  Sit there!!”  This is funny, and true.

Pug Puppy

This guy is working it out.

However, sitting with difficult emotions is not easy.  This is one benefit of psychotherapy- you get the practice of sitting in the room with an empathetic person as you express challenging emotions and learn, through repeated practice, to listen to and learn from these emotions.  This helps you to later go through the process on your own.  Some people learn this skill as they mature through adolescence, and some people enter adulthood still needing help with this.  The good news is that many of us have access to therapy to work this out.

When you do sit with the disappointment, you may feel terrible.  This is a good time to take out a journal and write down your thoughts.  You might write, “my friend doesn’t really value me or our friendship, since she didn’t prioritize my wedding.”  Write down your fears, too.  They could be, “She and I are growing apart, I’m becoming less desirable as a friend, my husband will think I don’t have strong friendships, maybe I don’t have strong friendships, maybe I’m unloveable, maybe my new husband will realize this and leave me.”  It’s really important to let all the pain and fear leave your psyche, to be seen on the page.  I can guarantee that, if you dig deep, you are going to find some ridiculous and embarrassing thoughts.  This is the human condition: we are a bunch of infants running around in adult bodies.  The more you listen to the infant and take care of the infant, the less likely you are to act like the infant in front of people.  

If this kind of vulnerability is new and uncomfortable to you, do this writing part next to a shredder or a burning wood stove, so you can destroy the document as soon as you are done writing and using it.  But before destroying that evidence, sit with the child-like thoughts and fears you may have uncovered, and send well-wishes to that child.  Cultivate some compassion for the child.  I have learned that placing my hand over my heart cues a sense of both nurturing and being nurtured.  Try sitting like that for a few minutes.

 

Reframe the Disappointment

Once you have honored your own emotions and underlying thoughts and fears, it’s easier to widen your perspective.  This is the time when you can deconstruct your expectations of the person and your stories about the disappointment.  

Here are some mantras that I find helpful when I’m feeling disappointed by someone.  The first one is:

This is not about me.

Because, truly, whatever the other person is going through or whatever his or her shortcomings, the disconnect between your expectations and the other person’s choices are almost never about you.  Untangling your disappointment from the ego leads to some freedom.  Second:

This is the nature of reality: dissatisfactory.

I’ve heard it called the “inherent dissatisfactoriness of life”- many spiritual teachers talk about how dissatisfaction with the material world is just the price we pay to be in the flesh, dealing with imperfect bodies, imperfect minds, entropy, and all the other things that pose challenges.  Hence, the drive to seek meaning in spiritual practice.  Whether you believe this or not, there is no denying that the person’s behavior in question is not the only thing you were disappointed about- maybe even that day!  Recognizing this may help to accept this disappointment as just another drop in the “I don’t like it” bucket.  Third:

This is an opportunity for me to take care of myself.

What did the person fail to do, or fail to do for you?  Can you do it for yourself?  If so, do it!!  Don’t let your disappointment keep you from enjoying what you thought would be coming from the other person.  Do it for yourself, and enjoy it.

 

Acceptance

You’ve considered some new ways to look at the disappointment.  Now let’s dig deeper, to your expectation that set up the disappointment.  First, was your expectation a reasonable one?  Once you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you may find that your expectation simply wasn’t reasonable.  Maybe it was something that you would do- but was it something that the other party could reasonably be expected to want and be able to do?  For example, if you were disappointed that your friend with three jobs and two kids did not give you 24 hours advance-notice of a lunch invitation… maybe your expectation- while reasonable in most circumstances- is not reasonable here?  Expecting your partner to remember your favorite beverage when he’s at the grocery store is pretty reasonable.  Expecting your mother- who has never been expressive of her feelings- to tell you she is proud when you land a new business deal isn’t- unfortunately for you- reasonable.  

When looking at the reality of the situation, we can see the places where we haven’t been reasonable- the places where we need to accept reality- and also the places where we can ask more of our loved ones.  Maybe you have heard the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  

There is much, much freedom to be had in this sentiment.  When we can see the parts that we simply cannot change (a friend / relative / coworker who is not interested in being reliable, for example,) we can let those expectations go.  Sure, we also then adjust down our vulnerability to that person- but without any hard feelings.  This approach- acceptance- is against a lot of people’s natures.  Humans are problem-solvers, and sometimes the problem is another person!  If we could just decide how everyone else would act, the world would be great- right??  This is the dream of every dictator.  When you find yourself wishing someone were more this way and less that way, remember Stalin and instead radically accept the person for who they are.  You don’t need control of other people- managing yourself is hard enough!  

On the other hand, when we see the parts that we can have a hand in changing (a partner / coworker / friend who simply doesn’t know the best way to relate to us,) we can speak up and help change the situation.  This is where setting some boundaries- described in the next section- comes in.     

 

Set Boundaries

Now that you are much clearer in your thinking about the disappointment, and have gotten a deeper understanding of what pieces were your perception and what pieces were truly unacceptable behavior, it’s time to communicate skillfully.  It’s important to remember the things you appreciate about your coworker or loved one before you broach this conversation.  Look deeply to see the paradoxically good qualities tied to the disappointing behavior.  For example, if your college-aged daughter skipped her Sunday phone call home and didn’t answer her phone when you called, only to call the next day and say she had been backpacking that weekend, you might be disappointed that she didn’t tell you ahead of time so you could make other plans and not worry.  If you look deeply, you may also see your appreciation for her spontaneous and adventurous nature.

Next, look for times that you have made the same mistake as what you are finding disappointing right now.  There is almost always an example… for example, didn’t you miss the Sunday call by an hour last month, because your phone battery died and you weren’t somewhere you could re-charge?  Look deep for this- taking responsibility for your own regrettable actions allows you to have empathy for the other person, allows you to see how easy it is to do what they did.  When you share your regret with the other person, you also clear the air and you model taking responsibility for your mistakes.  To set your boundary, find a good time to talk with your loved one or coworker.  Share your appreciation, share your regrets for times you’ve made similar mistakes in your relationship, and then set your boundary.  For example:

“Lisa, as your mother, I so appreciate your spontaneous and adventurous nature.  I love that you are taking time to build friendships and enjoy the mountains even when you have such a demanding course load.  I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry I didn’t plan accurately last month and I wasn’t able to call you for our weekly phone call.  I know you set aside that time and I’m sorry you had to wait.  This last weekend, I was pretty worried when I didn’t hear from you on Sunday- and even more worried when I tried calling you.  I do my best to not catastrophize, but that kind of stuff keeps me awake at night.  In the future, I’d like for us to both make a better effort to keep our phone call- and to always let the other person know if we won’t be available.”  

Or, on the topic of the missed wedding:

“Sadia, I appreciate that you are such a go-getter- you’re always doing creative things, and going to new places!  I was recently thinking about the time you planned a group vacation in Mexico and I was the only one from our group of friends who didn’t make it- I’m sorry I didn’t make a better effort!  Last month, when I was looking around at all the friends and family in town for my wedding, I was very hurt to not see you there.  We can’t turn back time and put you in those memories, but I need for us to have a conversation about how that went down, so I can put it behind me.  I want to know that you value our friendship and value me… if, in fact, you do.”   

When you approach another person with well-considered thoughts and perspective, you are much more likely to see a positive outcome.  The communication style I am describing here- influenced by both Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication and the Beginning Anew conflict resolution style of Plum Village Monastery- allows both parties to feel seen, heard, appreciated, and accountable.   

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Listening

Pausing

Journaling

Compassion

Acceptance

Reframing

Gratitude

Personal Responsibility

Self-Advocacy

Communication

Setting Boundaries

 

Share Your Experience
If you have some ideas or experience with managing disappointment, please share them in the “comments” section.  

How to Take Care of Yourself When… You Need to Change Course

“I need to either change my work contract or find another position, but I don’t know how to go about making this change without upsetting others. Help!”

 

It is great to know what you need.  Clarity is an underrated mental state.  So, you’ve done half the work- you know how something in your life is not meeting your needs.  Your next step is getting your needs met.  The preparation for, execution of, and resolution of negotiations on this front are different depending on the nature of your relationship with the other party.  We have needs in every area of our lives, so I’d like to broaden this topic from one of making a change at work to making any kind of change that involves others.  Here are some steps for taking care of yourself in this sometimes murky area:

 

Walk Through the Potential Outcomes

Something is not working for you, and you have concluded that this thing must change- one way, or another.  For example… your hours at work need to be reduced because you are burning out.  You need your girlfriend to text or call at least once on days you don’t see each other so you know she’s alive.  You need your neighbor to stop using the leaf-blower at 7am on Saturdays so you can sleep in.  Whatever your situation, take some time to consider what the outcome of requesting your desired change might be.  

 

Consider:

-the strength of your relationship.

-whether the other party has been responsive to past requests you have made.

-whether your need may be reasonable in the other party’s eyes (which is not an indication of the validity if your need- simply an indication of the other party’s perception.)

Imagine what the best-case response could be, if you bring this topic up with the other party.  Now note the worst-case response.  For example, in the burning out on the job example, a best-case response could be your boss agreeing to reduce your hours- without reducing your pay or benefits.  A worst-case response could be a dismissive and non-accommodating reply from your boss, followed by an unprecedented- and seemingly undeserved- formal reprimand from her the following week.  Which one of the responses is more likely to happen?  

 

 

lighthouse

Let your own light guide your way

 

Decide if it is Safe to Bring your Request to the Other Party

If your mental walk-through of potential outcomes seemed pretty promising, you are close to ready to broaching the conversation with the other party.  Go ahead to the next step, “Effective Language for Getting What you Need.”  If your mental walk-through did not seem promising, you need to decide if you are willing to subject yourself to a potentially abusive / unsettling exchange in order to try to get what you need, or if you are simply ready to move on and find a situation that better meets your needs.  A large question here is: if your boss / girlfriend / neighbor is truly so unpleasant- but you still want to bring your concerns to that person- what are you trying to hold onto?

 

A self-care superstar knows that 1) no one else is responsible for our needs, if we are able-bodied-and-minded adults, but that 2) we have the daily opportunity to surround ourselves with people who are responsive to our needs.  If the boss or girlfriend has a track record of little regard for your needs, it’s time to find another job and to leave that relationship.  If the neighbor has little regard for your needs… it may be time to get a noise complaint in to the local officials, rather than wasting your time and breath with your neighbor, directly.  In an ideal world, we would be able to honestly and vulnerably share requests with people in our lives.  Unfortunately, some people are not ready for that kind of exchange, and are prone to defensiveness- anything to avoid change, or personal responsibility.  

 

I have heard it said that the only mandatory life experiences are “death and taxes.”  There are many people who don’t pay taxes, and some people are pursuing immortality, so let’s just say that nothing is mandatory.  You don’t have to stay in an unhealthy workplace or relationship.  There is always- always– an alternative.  It doesn’t matter if you are 60 years old and it’s the only job you’ve had, or you got married in a cult where you will lose your entire social circle if you divorce.  There is always another way.  However, in these circumstances, you want to take extra care to set yourself up to succeed when you make the change.  So, if you have a ton to lose when considering letting your needs be known or just walking away from what you know will not meet your needs, identify at least 3 resources to help you.  Is it 6 months of living at your cousin’s home when you leave your home?  Federal unemployment money if you lose your job (because, otherwise, you will just be applying for new jobs while still working at your current job?)  Calculated risk and covering your rear are both forms of self-care.

 

Back to broaching the conversation: even if you believe the other party is not able to respond well to your request, read the next section.  You may find a way to get through, yet.  

 

Develop and Practice Effective Language for Getting What You Need

It is possible that negotiations have not gone well with the other party in the past.  This could be due in part to the other party’s inability to have genuine conversation, and it could also be due to your inexperience in communicating your needs effectively.

 

Imagine hearing this, from your romantic partner:

“You never text or call me.  I need you to text or call, or I’m going to leave you.”

What is your immediate, gut-response?  You would probably note the 1) over-generalization of “never” or 2) the threat of being left!  These are two communication tactics that are sure to not get you what you want or need.  Unfortunately, many of us grew up in homes that modeled exactly this kind of behavior- and a lot of melodramatic media reinforce these and many other negative communication styles.  Fortunately, there are better ways to communicate, and we can train ourselves to use them.

 

Now imagine hearing this:

“Something I really appreciate about you is how full of a life you live- you work hard, you make time to spend with your friends and with me, you stay fit- and I know your days are packed, doing all of that.  I know I’m not always the best at letting you know that I’m thinking of you, but I think about you all the time.  I’ve noticed that on days when we don’t see each other, I wish I knew what you are up to- or at least that you are okay, and happy.  When I don’t hear from you on those days, I even get worried.  Are you willing to make a point of at least texting me once on days we don’t meet, so I know that everything is okay?”

What would your gut response be to this request?  Hopefully, nothing too strong- maybe just compassion for your partner, who is sharing vulnerably and respectfully what she needs.  Notice the 1) appreciation she shares first, then the 2) acknowledgement that she isn’t a perfect communicator and 3) her sincere wish for you to be happy and healthy and 4) her non-debatable feeling of worry when she doesn’t hear from you and, finally, 5) a specific, attainable, request of you.  This gal gets two gold stars for having identified all these factors- her need, what she appreciates, her own part in your dynamic, etc.- and then speaking this truth to you.  In other words, she’s a keeper.  You can be a keeper, too!

 

In order to get ready for your own conversation, develop a gold-star script like the one above.  Write it down.  It is by far best to have this conversation in person, so you aren’t going to be holding the script in front of you during the actual conversation.  You are writing this script so that you can internalize and be very clear of all the points you want to address.  You can even ask someone close to you to stand in as the other party while you rehearse delivering these lines two or three times, to get the feeling of the potentially unfamiliar words rolling off your tongue.

 

Have the Conversation

At a predetermined time, or at a time that the other party appears available, bring up your appreciations for the other person, acknowledge the time you know you were remiss.  Be cool- easy-breezy.  Chat a little bit, then ask for what you need.  Make sure you say the emotional and physical consequences to you, when you don’t get what you need (the burn-out, the fear, the lack of sleep.) You are confident because you put the time in to understand your position and the likely position of the other party.  You know your request is legit- and that you are free to go elsewhere, take an alternate route to getting your needs met, if this conversation doesn’t bear fruit.  More often than not, people respond well to someone who has thoughtfully prepared a request, and who speaks with humility and integrity.  Appreciating the other and acknowledging your occasional shortcomings, vulnerably stating the consequences to you of the status quo… these are undebatable, blameless ways to speak.  They inspire collaboration and goodwill.  Good luck!

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Communication

Personal responsibility

Boundary-setting

Self-advocacy

 

Now, Share Your Experience

If this article has inspired you to ask for what you need, please share how you asked and what outcome you saw in the “comments” section below.