Monday, September 19, 2011

Trusting Your "Gut"

Many times clients enter therapy and state a problem or concern and say, "I don't know what to do." My philosophy is that the answers to life's question lie within, and being in therapy is one way to help discover these solutions. People generally enter therapy when they have hit one of life's roadblocks and feel "stuck". Reconnecting with the "gut" is one way to navigate these roadblocks.

So what exactly is the "gut"? I think of it as the still, quiet, sure voice that lies within our core. I'm guessing that it feels different from person to person, but for me, I recognize my "gut" in the lower portion of my stomach/abdomen. I know that I am on the right path when my gut feels calm, and I know to move on when my gut feels unsettled or unsure. I have to admit, though, that I don't always move on when the gut says so, especially when the matter at hand is particularly emotional for one reason or another. No one is perfect when it comes to the gut, but learning to be better attuned to the gut can lead to feelings of confidence when making decisions in life.

You may be thinking, "I have no idea where my gut is," or "I haven't heard from my gut in ages." Reconnecting with the gut, if the connection has been lost, requires that you sift through all of the "white noise" that exists within and around you. This "white noise" usually includes a host of "shoulds"- self-imposed or other-imposed pressures or expectations. For instance, when making a decision, you may get stuck between what you want and what you think others want (either based on what they have said or what you think they would say). The ability to hear the gut can diminish over time if there are important others in your life who either don't understand your decisions or believe that they know what's best for you, especially if this pattern existed with your parents during your childhood and adolescence. There is a delicate balance between taking others' opinions into consideration and moving forward in a direction that feels satisfying to you. Important others generally know you well and, it is assumed, want the best for you, but it is also good to recognize that they may have their own desires and fears about your life (and theirs) that can potentially create white noise for your gut. Fear of the unknown (internal and external) is a paralyzing force, and the fear of "messing up" or "making the wrong decision" also keeps many people stuck in place. Becoming better attuned or reattuned to the gut can help you make a decision and move forward in confidence.

How, then, can one reconnect with the gut? First, think back to the last time that you were attuned to your gut. Your first instinct may be to say, "I've never been in touch with my gut!" but I guarantee that's not true. Think back to the last time that you made a decision and felt really good about it. Sometimes people get stuck here because, although the decision felt good at the time it was made, it may not have yielded the type of results imagined. This is particularly difficult if the decision was met with doubt from important others (or internally). This type of experience may create a sticking point if the person has not learned the skills necessary to navigate life's roadblocks. I always encourage clients to keep in mind that all experiences, "good" or "bad", are beneficial in that they provide insight into one's preferences, which helps in future decision making.

Once you have determined the last time that that you were connected to the gut, the next step is to think about how/when you became disconnected. This may have happened as mentioned above (e.g., an experience that did not turn out the way you might have imagined) or may have happened gradually over time due to a series of dissatisfying events or experiences. After identifying this it's time to "retell the story"- to reframe the experience in such a way that highlights the lessons learned from the experience(s). This is a chance to (re)discover what the gut was telling you at the time that you made the decision, which can inform future decisions and directions. It's also important to discern whether your gut seems difficult to hear regarding certain types of experiences or events (e.g., relationships, job/career decisions) or if it is global (e.g., it seems quiet with all decisions). If it is the former (e.g., only with certain events or experiences) then you can look to the other times when you were able to hear the gut more clearly and begin to find comfort and confidence in your gut's ability to direct your life. If it feels more global, then you may want to start by sifting through events that have felt successful verses those that have not. Part of your "stuck-ness" may be attributed to a tendency to discount positive experiences and focus on the negative ones, particularly if the fear is of negative outcomes.

I suggest that you try to connect to the gut on a day-to-day basis, starting with small decisions. Pay attention to when you are feeling satisfied and grounded, and use this as your "gut compass" for future decisions. Several weeks ago NPR had a great segment on the show Tell Me More that discussed the gut and highlighted articles from a recent O Magazine that focused specifically on the gut and intuition. Here is a link to the NPR segment, and below are links to a couple of articles from O Magazine that may help as you are becoming better attuned to the gut.

How to Tune In to the Voice Within

When is Intuition Not Intuition?

Be well-
Dr. Stanley

Monday, July 11, 2011

What is your Recipe for Happiness?

I love to cook, and I have a few go-to ingredients that I know, if added to the dish, will make it taste especially tasty (for me these are onions, garlic, and green peppers). These items alone are also tasty when sauteed in butter or extra virgin olive oil. I can never go wrong with onions, green peppers, and garlic. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

But I digress. Today's blog takes a look at happiness and challenges you to think about how you define happiness. Before writing this blog I googled "happiness" to browse some of the research that has been conducted on happiness and found a lot of interesting articles. Dr. Martin Seligman is a leading researcher in happiness and well-being and he has a great webpage (Authentic Happiness) that offers resources on these topics. In my search I also came across blog posts by Gretchen Rubin who spent a year testing our various theories of happiness. At the end she wrote a book, The Happiness Project, which chronicles her journey. Check out her blog here and a great article that explores ten myths about happiness here.

First I should define what I mean by "happiness". Many clients state that they "just want to be happy", and I often push them to define what this means. Many have a goal in mind that they would like to achieve, or desire to be in a "happy" relationship, or just want to feel content. When I think of happiness I most often conceptualize it as a state of contentment- a good solid baseline wherein a person feels satisfied, overall, with life as it is at this moment. Life is not always joyful, nor is it always particularly exciting. I believe that it is healthy (and "ok") to have goals and aspirations, and to want things like happy, healthy relationships, but I believe that it is dangerous to base one's happiness on the attainment of any "thing". For instance, what happens if getting that "thing" takes longer than expected? Or, what if it never happens? Unfortunately, many people spend time being unhappy and lamenting the lack of the thing rather than living in and enjoying life's moments, which is an unfortunate way to spend one's life in my opinion.

I read a really good article in O Magazine that I have recommended to clients- you can find it here. The author, Martha Beck, challenges people to pay attention to times in the present when they feel the way that they believe the future thing will make them feel. For example, if you want a more intellectually stimulating job, which you believe will make you happier, the challenge for you is to take note of times when you feel intellectually stimulated in your daily life, whether at work or otherwise. Doing so helps you enjoy, and perhaps cultivate, those activities and moments etc, which allows you to experience that satisfaction in the moment rather than holding out for the future thing. Additionally, people often find that attaining the "thing" doesn't lead to the level of happiness they had expected, which Martha Beck's article also explains. Often, when anticipating a future "thing" the weight of it becomes larger than life such that when it happens it is impossible for it to feel as great as one had anticipated. This is another reason why holding out on happiness for a "thing" is unhelpful and may actually lead to disappointment.

So your goal is to think about what contributes to your day to day, baseline level of contentment. This will be different from person to person, and maybe you don't have a baseline. If you don't have one, the first step in the process will be to take a look at what you are holding out for. If it is companionship, you may benefit from expanding your social circles or trying different ways to meet people (e.g., online forums such as If you are wanting to be intellectually stimulated, you might want to consider writing a blog or using twitter to connect with other like-minded individuals. Overall, your goal is to look for ways to be content and enjoy life as it is now, even amidst the ups and downs that are sure to come. No one's life is perfect, but I believe that it is possible to find enjoyment in little ways. Do you accept the challenge?

Dr. Stanley

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Friends and Lovers: The Family You Choose

I'm not sure who coined the phrase that friends/lovers are the "family we choose", but I think that it is very fitting for this discussion. The last blog entry dealt with unhealthy family of origin relationship patterns, and I promised to follow up with a post on how these unhealthy patterns may impact "relationships of choice" (e.g., friends and romantic partners). Before diving into unhealthy relationship patterns in "relationships of choice" (ROC), I will first briefly explain how family relationships are foundational to other relationship development.

The foundation for ROC is built upon family relationship experiences. "Family" is defined as any unit or configuration in which you were raised (e.g., two parent, single parent, with grandparents or other relatives, etc). The way that you seek and participate in relationships stems from family relationship patterns. It it is important to understand that family relationships may be perceived and experienced differently by each member and, while there may be common themes (e.g., parents were distant or not supportive, there was a lot of fighting), the impact of these experiences varies from person to person even within the same family. For example, it is not unusual for siblings to navigate friend or romantic relationships in very different ways even though they grew up in the same home. Parents/guardians may have treated siblings differently or the family environment may have changed over time (e.g., the family's financial situation may have improved or worsened, the addition of or loss of family members, etc), which would impact an individual's perception of his/her experience in the family.

Thus, the environment of the family and the way in which you were treated growing up impacts the way you seek out and interact in ROC. This is works out well if you were raised in a family that was supportive, loving, and open to change (i.e., healthy family environment), but it may be a challenge if you were reared in a family where members were put down, physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, or alienated. Keep in mind that these family descriptions are extremes and most families fall somewhere on the healthy/unhealthy spectrum. Nonetheless, the family acts as a base for the development of what I'll call a "relationship identity", which includes an individual's expectations about how he/she is perceived by others (e.g., accepted, rejected, or invisible/ignored), how he/she initiates and engages in ROCs (e.g., fearlessly, hesitantly, not at all/isolates self, trusting, distrustful), and any "baggage" that he/she brings into the ROCs (e.g., "I am unlikeable", "I am unloveable", "I always mess things up").

So how exactly do these family of origin relationship patterns manifest in your ROCs? Discovering this involves a bit of introspection. Here are some questions that may act as a guide:

- How did individuals in your family get along in general as a whole? Did people cooperate with one another or were things hectic or tumultuous? Was there cohesion or did everyone do their own thing?
- If you had siblings, how did you get along with them? What are sibling relationships like now?
- If you were raised with two parents, what did you observe about their relationship with one another? Was it close and overtly loving (e.g., physical and verbal affection) or was it more distant?
- Does there exist a pattern of romantic relationships in your extended family? For instance, are extended family members generally married or divorced and/or single? Do family members hold romantic relationships in regard or are they discussed with disdain or contempt?
- How did your parents interact with their peers? Did they have close friends or were they more reserved? Were you encouraged to trust others or taught to be cautious or distrustful when forming new relationships?

Now think about your own ROCs- do you see parallels between relationship patterns observed in your family? Do you react to your friends and/or romantic partners in ways that are similar to what you observed or were taught? It may be helpful to compare notes with peers from your family who may be able to help you brainstorm about family relationship patterns and/or norms.

A follow up blog post will take a look at ways to go about breaking the cycle of dysfunctional or unhealthy relationship patterns.

~ Dr. Stanley

Thursday, January 6, 2011

You Don't Always Get Out What You Put In: Unhealthy Relationships 101

In my last blog post I discussed relationships expectations and how to cope when your expectations are not met. As a follow up, I'm going to do two posts focused on identifying unhealthy relationships. The first post will tackle family relationships, and the second will focus on what I'll call "relationships of choice"- friends and romantic partners. Let's dive right into unhealthy family relationships.

A family is a complex conglomeration of personalities (my own personal definition). Throughout this post, I will use the term "family" to describe the environment in which an individual was raised. This includes two parent homes, single parent homes, being raised with extended family (e.g., grandparents, aunts/uncles, etc), foster homes, adoptive homes, etc. Basically, whatever you would consider your "family".

Psychologically speaking, the family is a very important in child development. In a healthy family, children are protected, nurtured, supported, encouraged to try new things, and learn how to navigate conflict through relationships with siblings or by observing the adults in the family. A concept that is thought to be particularly important is that of a family being a "secure base". According to Dr. John Bowlby, an attachment theorist, children who are securely attached to a parent (the mother) feel comfortable exploring new elements of an environment because they know that they can go back to the parent if anything goes wrong. (Read this article if you want a more in depth look at Bowlby's theories.) A secure base is very important for a child- it teaches him or her to have healthy levels of trust in others and fosters an interest in the world in general. Without it, children may be overly trusting of or lack trust in others, and may be unwilling to try new things, both of which can hinder a child as he/she advances into adulthood. Another concept relating to healthy families is the concept of "differentiation". Murray Bowen, a family systems theorist, healthy families foster individuation, meaning that all members are encouraged to be his/her own person and are supported in this endeavor. Go here to read more about Bowen's concepts.

If you just read the last paragraph and thought, "That is not my family!", you are not alone. No family is perfect, and most families have at least a couple of imperfect elements. For the purpose of brevity, I will briefly discuss a couple of elements of unhealthy families, and will provide links to websites where you may find additional information about each.

Substance abuse and/or dependence can greatly disrupt family functioning, and this can be true even if no one in the immediate family uses or uses heavily. For instance, having a history of substance abuse in the extended family (e.g., if your parents grew up in an alcoholic family, or if their parents grew up in an alcoholic family) can have trickle down effects on the generations that follow. Families in which there exists active substance use or abuse can be chaotic and unpredictable- a child may not know from day to day if the parent will be intoxicated or sober, which may make the difference between a calm evening or one filled with yelling, arguing, or crying. This can be a very scary environment for a child, and can lead to anxiety or depression, isolation from peers, and relationship problems. Children raised in homes in which there exists substance use or abuse may end up being substance users themselves and/or may enter romantic relationships/marriages with substance users, which ends up repeating the cycle in which they were raised. Additional information about some of the effects of growing up in an alcoholic family (which can also be applied to families in which there is drug abuse) can be found here and here. You can also Google search Al-Anon and ACOA for more information and local support groups.

Another unhealthy relationship pattern, which is at times also found in families in which there exists substance use/abuse, is emotional abuse. The type of emotional abuse I'm describing here can be a little more subtle than say name calling. It involves a parent withholding affection or praise, or placing conditions on receiving affection or praise. There's a thin line between making sacrifices for family members (e.g., doing something for a family member that you don't particularly want to do) and this type of emotional abuse, but the indicator this type of abuse is whether or not conditional affection exists. Some examples are getting the "silent treatment" or an "if you don't do it that means you don't love me" message from a family member. This type of abuse pattern often creates a "need to please" orientation wherein a child may be drawn to difficult ("hard to please") individuals and constantly try to please them, which proves to be very difficult. You can see how this might create an unhealthy relationship pattern: one person constantly tries to please while the other either rejects or accepts the advances. The sporadic nature of the response from the hard to please person reinforces the pleasing behavior, and the "pleaser", more often than not, constantly feels rejected but compelled to try again.

Another unhealthy pattern in families involves lack of differentiation. As previously mentioned, in a healthy family members are encouraged and supported in their individuation. At the appropriate time, children leave the family of origin and begin an adult life of their own. Ideally, parents support this transition and "release" the child to this life, and the child eventually develops an adult-to-adult relationship with the parent. Unfortunately, this doesn't always occur, and some families make it difficult for the child to differentiate. For instance, some families may alienate a child for seeking higher education, moving outside of the home or city, or other decisions that the child has made on his/her own. These messages create a "we/you" divide in the family, and the child is left to decide if he/she wants to continue to pursue the path he/she has chosen or be a part of the family. This is an unhealthy pattern because the choice is to be enmeshed and a part of the family (see the definition here) or individuated and potentially alone and alienated.

Ideally, a family should be a safe place. A healthy family loves its members and protects them, and provides a place for its members to receive support. Unfortunately, families are not perfect, and many people feel hurt and rejected when their family is not meeting their needs. I will post a follow-up to this entry that deals with how to cope when your family is not meeting your needs. But first I want to write about "relationships of choice" and how these relationships may be influenced by unhealthy family relationships.

Until next time-
Dr. Stanley