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… You Have Downtime

A question raised by a client: “As soon as I get some days off of work, I Iike to jet off somewhere for a vacation.  Is there any better form of self-care?”

Travel can be an excellent option for self-care.  Whether it includes total rest or exploring new places, meeting new people, or learning new skills, you can support your mental, physical, spiritual, and social needs going somewhere outside of the places you ordinarily see.  A travel vacation is a gift to yourself.  There are also plenty of other ways to meet self-care needs and to gift yourself.  Other options are often less expensive than travel and can be as powerful of an experience.  Before you catch that plane or train or jump in that car, here are some excellent ways to care for yourself when you have several days that are unscheduled.   

Cozy Cabin

Reboot

Many of us have some changes we would like to make in our daily habits, and a few free days are a good time to practice incorporating the new habit or eliminating the old habit.  When you see the new habit in action, you can determine how practical it really is going to be in your usual, busy schedule.  You can also see how you feel without enacting the old habit.  You can identify barriers and scheme for how to circumvent those barriers.  Bringing a healthy lunch to work every day might be a challenge if you get home late at night and don’t have the energy or desire to prepare it before bed or in the morning.  These days off are a chance to explore some healthy soup recipes or even research some healthy-lunch hacks the food bloggers of the world can offer.  

Different from the conceptual making of a resolution to do something, creating a habit is done through nuts-and-bolts actions.  Do you want to meditate for 15 minutes every day upon waking?  Some down time is an opportunity to see what that’s like.  Of course, creating a habit is a multi-layered, longer-term endeavor.  First, conventional wisdom says that it takes about 2 months to establish a new habit.  So, after your few days of playing with the new habit outside of your usual routine, keeping it up during the busy periods will be a test.  It is very helpful to focus on the benefits of the new habit in that critical moment, or “choice point” at which you do the action… or you don’t.

For example, if you are laying in bed and deciding to get up to go sit on a meditation cushion, you may rather sleep for another 20 minutes instead.  At that critical moment, it’s important to recall how serene you felt for the rest of the day yesterday when you gave yourself the gift of getting on the cushion.  In fact, viewing the new habit as an indulgent treat you give yourself makes the “activation energy” of the behavior a lot easier to mount.  You are really loving yourself when you set aside time for meditation, feed yourself food that nourishes you at work, coach yourself through a vigorous workout that will keep your cells thriving.  Feeling cared-for is a lot more motivating than feeling cattle-prodded.  The choice in perspective is yours.

Sometimes there are some deeper psychological barriers to adopting a positive new habit / eliminating an old habit.  This course by Kelly McGonigal is an excellent choice if you want to address those elements of change during your time off.  I recommend it.

 

Dive In

Sometimes we have some unresolved experiences or feelings that keep calling for our attention, but it never feels like the right time to really look into them and do the work of “processing” the feelings or experience.  A few free days are a great time to safely look at difficult situations and allow the process of resolution to unfold.  This can be as simple as sitting down with a journal and writing out our thoughts and feelings about the experience, then going on a bike ride.    

Scheduling a retreat at a local church or meditation center is a way to delineate the time during which you are going to “sit with” the unresolved experience.  These venues also offer teachers / spiritual leaders who can offer support if your processing brings up some feelings you aren’t prepared to manage.

You can also bookend your few days of delving into your heart and psyche with appointments with your personal psychotherapist.  He or she may also have suggestions for exercises you can do during your time to welcome movement and healing in your journey through the difficult situation.  A therapist can also help you interpret what you experience, to integrate what you learn into your self-concept and your understanding of your life until now.   

Connect

A few free days are an excellent chance to reach out to loved ones near and far.  In our everyday lives, it’s easy to deal with what’s directly in front of us and mostly forget our web of support- all our friends and family!  With some free days, you can make plans to visit some of your loved ones, either locally or even a short flight away.

You can also plan your days of connecting as a “stay-cation” at home: days of relaxation and other self-care, punctuated by writing letters to distant loved ones and a few hours on the phone.  A whole day free makes it easier to ring up the people who cross your mind often, but with whom time-zone differences tend to prevent contact.  Maintaining the social fabric of your life is an act of self-care and loved-one care, at the same time.  Connecting with others is a basic need we all have to feel secure and seen.  Offering connection to others helps those in our lives who may not be as skilled at reaching out to receive those benefits, as well.  

 

Enjoy your downtime!      

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Communication

Looking Deeply

Habit-Creating

Rest

Creating Community

Healing

Journaling

Share Your Experience
How do you use your time off for self-care?  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