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Friday, December 17, 2010

Merry Christmas to All

As Christmas Day quickly approaches I want to extend my best wishes for a blessed and joyous time. Take care of yourself physically and emotionally, enjoy being with those you love, and remember to reflect on your blessings. Whatever your faith or traditions, enjoy this special time of year.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Giving of Yourself as the Perfect Holiday Gift

Because the holiday season is both exciting and hectic, it is important to maintain a sense of balance and not allow the demands and frantic pace to overwhelm. Practicing good self-care during this time is not only advised – it is critical. It is also important to keep aware of ways to minimize difficult emotional stressors. The term “holiday blues syndrome” describes the downside of holiday occasions. It refers to the psychological problems such as depression that intensifies due to the failed expectations and the extreme stress created by the increase in demands.

Christmas shopping in the U.S. has been a reliable source of anxiety and stress for over a century. In 1894, The New York Tribune wrote: “As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is eaten, the great question of buying Christmas presents begins to take the terrifying shape it has come to assume in recent years.” While this comment was made over one hundred years ago, the modern holiday season has often become more of a burden than an opportunity for joy and celebration. We overspend and over commit in many ways.

While there is joy in giving, the act of giving itself is the most important component of this season. However, there is considerable emotional pressure to flock to the malls or surf the internet, credit cards in hand to find perfect gifts. Finding that ideal gift is hard and forty percent of Americans report returning or “regifting” at least one gift each season. An alternative could be to emotionally focus on others and offer gifts of your time and gestures of caring.

Within a family, emotional gifts such as: a brother completing a chore for his sister, a daughter giving a dad a letter of gratitude, a mom setting aside a special “date” with her son, or a husband giving a gift of time for a special request from his wife; are important alternatives to the traditional store bought gestures. These thoughtful gifts of time and energy can be the most special of the holiday and are sure to generate the warmest feelings of appreciation.

Giving unselfishly is good for each of us emotionally and an important lesson to teach children. Focusing on the opportunities for giving to others outside the family can be a family experience. Cultivating a philanthropic perspective takes time, and children learn best by getting involved in charitable activities at an early age. The holidays are a time for family members and friends to reconnect with one another. Special family traditions are an important part of this season. This season, don’t forget the great gift you can offer together - -your time.

Support the organizations and causes you care about. Visits to local assisted living facilities or nursing homes, making cookies for your local firehouse or police station, donating good used toys or clothes to a shelter, and donating military care packages are all excellent ways to focus on others during this time of year or throughout the year.

Giving of self to others is one way to manage the stress of this season and to protect from the emotional difficulties many experience during the hectic holiday season. No matter what feelings the holidays bring up for you, remember you are in charge of your life. You needn’t have a knee-jerk reaction to this time of year. Celebrate in your way. It is important to set appropriate expectations for the season and focus on the things that really matter.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Thanksgiving is Good for Your Mental Health

As a psychologist dedicated to helping others achieve their goals for joy and satisfaction, I have come to believe that Thanksgiving is the most important holiday of the year. Spiritual leaders and philosophers have long taught the importance of gratitude in the development of contentment, enlightenment and achievement. In recent years the psychological profession has confirmed and validated these century old teachings with research.

R.A. Emmons and M.E. McCullough have engaged in a research project to investigate the nature of gratitude and its consequences for human health and well-being. While the research is ongoing, several publications are available that confirm the importance of gratitude in a variety of areas of life. This research has found that individuals who daily reflect on positives and thankfulness report higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy. These individuals also report fewer health problems, are more optimistic, and are more likely to make progress toward goals.

Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction and lower levels of depression and stress. While grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life, they are found to focus on positives in their lives rather than becoming “stuck” in a negative perspective. Thankful people demonstrate a higher capacity for empathy and are rated by others as more generous and helpful. Gratefulness is also related to placing less importance on material wealth because these individuals are less likely to judge their own and others success by possessions, are less envious, and are more likely to share with others.

Gratefulness is a key to happiness. Even when not a natural part of a personality, it is possible to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness. Strive to be aware of all in your personal, professional, and family life (whether good health, relationships, freedom, or possessions) for which you are thankful. Focus on what you have – not on what you don’t have. Be mindful of nature and the beauty around you. Seek out others who have the characteristics you want for yourself. Moods and attitudes are contagious and spending time with complaining, negative and angry people will impair your ability to achieve your goal of positive focus and gratitude. Conversely, when you are demonstrating a positive and joyful life, you are helping those around you cultivate gratitude.

It is important to tell others often how they are appreciated and the blessings they bring to your life. Say “thank you” not in a perfunctory or obligatory manner but with heartfeltness and sincerity. Let others know how they touch your life, how much they help you and how appreciated they are.

Oprah Winfrey and Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance propose keeping a “thankfulness journal” where each day you record five things about the day for which you are grateful. This is a simple but brilliant assignment. If you commit to this task you will find yourself more aware of the positives in each day because you will be looking for them. Too often, negatives have so much more power to get and keep our attention, and by encouraging a shift in focus to the many things in your life that make each day special, you will be practicing thankfulness.

As you celebrate this 2010 Thanksgiving, I encourage you commit to live with gratitude each day of the year. Thankfulness is good for your mental health and will enhance the life of your family and those around you. Thank you for sharing your time with me by reading this article. I appreciate any thoughts you would like to share with me.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Are You Too Sensitive??

Have you ever felt you are too sensitive? Have spouses, parents, friends, or coworkers labeled you thin skinned and insisted you just needed to “toughen up”, “learn to take a joke” or “get over it”? If you hear these admonitions on a regular basis; or if you frequently experience an intense sense of rejection or pain in interactions, you may be among those identified as highly sensitive. Clearly, some are just more empathic and sensitive than others and this trait can create some difficulties. In a culture that values confident, bold extroverts, sensitivity is often seen as a flaw. However, Elaine Aron, PhD, author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, asserts that high sensitivity is a normal trait for about 20 percent and is certainly not a sign of a mental flaw or disorder.

Innate temperament has a very real role in an individual’s level of sensitivity. Differences in a general level of emotional responsiveness can be observed in early infancy. Research has shown that there are genetic influences in the level of sensitivity. Jerome Kagan, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard has tracked children from infancy through adolescence and found that a moody teenager was likely to have been a more fretful toddler.

While these early inclinations exist, environment does much to determine what the ultimate level of sensitivity will be. A sensitive child who is positively responded to may become less fearful and self-conscious. However, a sensitive child with overprotective parents can become even more fearful; and a sensitive child more easily hurt if regularly criticized. Additionally, parents of a highly sensitive child may experience extreme frustrations and get upset by a child’s tears, angry outbursts, and moodiness rather than help the child learn to self sooth the distress. This child may develop feelings of being unimportant and grow even more sensitive. As a child’s level of sensitivity deepens, they experience feelings of hurt by the most innocent interactions. Alternatively, the baby who coos at everyone, being unafraid of strangers, gets more positive attention which helps in becoming even secure and independent.

While sensitivity creates challenges, the positive aspects far outweigh the negative. Sensitive people value others and encourage others to know that their opinions matter. They are good listeners, and they are naturally empathetic. Many highly sensitive people are unusually creative, attentive and thoughtful partners, and intellectually gifted individuals. Because they are so acutely aware of their own imperfections, they tend to be more understanding about the imperfections of others. Sensitivity contributes to kindness, and compassion. Maybe you are not too sensitive. Maybe no one is. However, learning to be less reactive to your sensitivity can be helpful.

A few tools to consider so sensitivity is less reactive:
• Stall. Give yourself enough time to reflect before responding.
• It’s not all about you. Sometimes sensitivity encourages over personalization. Everybody at times has bad days, gets busy, and doesn’t feel well - - other’s behaviors may be about them - - not you.
• Consider the source. Some people love to bait others to see a reaction, some are just uninformed, some unkind. Every opinion should not be given equal weight.
• Distract. Don’t ruminate on the feeling. Positive distractions are important. Take a walk. Watch a movie. Laugh.
• Vent. Don’t store up negative emotions. Talk with a friend or journal to process your feelings.
• Be honest with yourself about your positives and remember them. The more you are aware of your own strengths the less deeply damaging criticism will be.

Accepting yourself as a highly sensitive person is possible when you learn to minimize over-reactions and recognize the positives of being an empathetic, sensitive person.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How Envy Impacts Happiness and Joy

While some may use the words interchangeably, depression is different from unhappiness. Clinical depression is a serious mental health issue which involves feelings of sadness, hopelessness and helplessness and impacts the ability to successfully accomplish routine tasks of daily living. While clinical depression is serious, it is treatable. Unhappiness is a feeling state which all of us have experienced at times in life. It may involve sadness, disappointment and anxiety. Without doubt, the most unhappy people in life are those filled with envy. Envy compromises dreams and steals joy. It makes us focus on what we don’t have, rather than what we have. It leads to a build up of resentment and strife.

Envy is the desire for others’ traits, status, abilities, or situation. It is felt when there is a perception that other people are much luckier, smarter, more attractive, and better. Historically considered one of the seven deadly sins (and in two the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament), envy is a “state in which the desired advantage enjoyed by another person or group of people causes a person to feel a painful blend of inferiority, hostility and resentment,” (Psychological Bulletin, 2007).

Some degree of envy toward those that have more is normal human nature. However, when there is a shift from “I wish I had what you have” to “I wish you did not have what you have”; there is ill will, and envy has become a destructive emotion. This level of envy where there is unhappiness at the good fortune of others can be harmful both mentally and physically. Medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good, while envy grieves over it.” Deeply or pathologically envious people tend to feel chronically hostile, resentful and angry. They are less likely to feel grateful, and are unpleasant to be around.

Underlying feelings of inferiority are often the roots of deep envy. When we feel inferior, we see other people as being somehow larger and better than us. We long to be like them, but we tell ourselves that we can’t. A feeling of despair, disgust, envy and longing develops along with anger and resentment. If we value ourselves, when life goes well we feel happy and secure, and when life goes badly we assure ourselves that we’ll be able to cope. If we don’t value ourselves, we never feel happy and secure, even when everything goes well.

Babies are born with boundless unselfconscious confidence; without a sense of inferiority or superiority. As a child grows, the messages from parents, other adults, siblings and peers determine the conclusions about personal worth and value and therefore determine self esteem.

Dr. Richard Smith and Dr. Sun Hee Kim, from the University of Kentucky recently published a comprehensive article describing the nature of envy as well as the negative effects it can have on mental and physical health. Drs. Smith and Kim suggest learning to recognize feelings of envy and challenge them with cognitive techniques, including: reminders of the negative impact of envious thoughts; distracting from the negative thoughts by refocusing on other more pleasant thoughts, memories, or plans; and finally a process of reminders of our own positive qualities and advantages.

Understanding and challenging underlying feelings of inferiority is important. No one is superior, no one is inferior, and everybody is ordinary. No one escapes the pain of living and we all suffer disappointment, loss, failure and death. We all have to try to cope with life as best we can. It is important to learn to celebrate other people’s success, knowing that no one – other than you - can be good at being you. One way or another, we’re all ridiculous and we’re all important. Envying others prevents truly valuing our own life.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Families Coping with Serious Mental Illness

A serious mental illness is a disease that causes moderate to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines. Most people believe that mental disorders are rare and “happen to someone else”. In fact, mental disorders are common and an estimated 54 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder.

Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. Mental illnesses cannot be overcome through “will power” and are not related to a person’s character or intelligence. With appropriate care and treatment, which typically includes both medications and behavioral interventions, between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reductions of symptoms and improved quality of life. Early identification and treatment is vitally important.

The mental illness of one member affects the entire family. Most families are not prepared to cope with the physical and emotional demands a diagnosis of serious mental illness such as major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or borderline personality disorder brings. Constant stress and difficulty can create profound family problems.

There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding mental illness. When someone you love is diagnosed with a serious mental illness, you may experience feelings of denial, shock, sadness, anger, guilt, resentment or even shame. You may worry about what other people will think because of the negative associations to mental illness in our society. It is helpful to accept your feelings as normal and common among families going through similar situations.

One of the greatest difficulties for families in accepting any life altering illness of a loved one is dealing with a changed future and expectations. Families grieve for what might have been and for their loved one. The loss of the person we knew is deeply felt.

Some basic suggestions for family members of a seriously mentally ill person:

• Accept the illness and its difficult consequences – denial or pretending “this is not really serious” or “this will pass” delays finding needed help
• Learn about your loved one’s illness by reading and talking with mental health professionals
• Develop realistic expectations for the ill person and yourself
• Recognize that it may take time to find the proper medications that work
• Accept all the help and support you can get
• Keep a sense of humor
• Join a support group
• Take physical and emotional care of yourself
• Stay optimistic

Family acceptance of mental illness includes an understanding that it’s nobody’s fault and that while the illness is a sad and difficult life experience, it can be survived. There are resources to help. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) is a non-profit organization that provides education, support and advocacy for those with mental illness and their family members. NAMI sponsors a free 12-week course for family caregiver of individuals with severe mental illness that discusses the clinical treatment of illnesses and teaches the knowledge and skills that family members need to cope more effectively. To obtain information on this or other services offered by NAMI go to www.nami.org.

Monday, August 23, 2010

How are Your Communication Skills?

Communication is a critical skill in almost everything we do. Expressing our thoughts, feelings, and needs in clear, assertive ways and being able to understand these messages from others is critical for good relationships. Research on marriage confirms this importance, and good communication skills with children are essential in effective parenting. Additionally, in a 2009 survey of recruiters from companies with more than 50,000 employees, communication skills were cited as the single most important decisive factor in choosing managers.

Communication is only successful when both the sender and the receiver have a shared comprehension of information. Unfortunately, all too often there are “misses” where things are not clearly understood. However, there are specific techniques and skills that can improve communication and reduce misunderstandings.

Use of “I” statements helps with clearer communication. First ask yourself: “What are you seeing, hearing or sensing?” “What emotions are you feeling?” “What do you want?”.

It is far more effective to begin a discussion with: “When I came home and saw dinner had not been started, I felt disappointed and overwhelmed. I want to ask you to help me get this started so we can eat soon.”; rather than “ You never do anything to help around here – everything gets left up to me and I’m sick of it.”

It’s easy to see how the use of “I” statements has a better chance of being heard and possibly even agreed with than the “You” statements that tend to put others on the defensive. When people are defensive, their capacity to listen goes down.

Also helpful is to start important conversations with an invitation. Beginning with something like: “I would like to talk with you about.….. is this a good time?” asks for full engagement and focus. If someone is overwhelmed, angry, tired or emotionally unavailable for any reason, it is simply not a good time to have an important conversation.

Avoid complaints and criticisms, and express specific requests: “it would help me to …” “if you would….”. Ask for action-oriented, positive solutions rather than berating with angry expressions of frustrations. Ask for what you want and learn to negotiate.

In addition to expressing ourselves clearly and completely, listening well is one of the most important skills in effective communication. Unfortunately, research has found that we remember only 25-50% of what we hear. That means 50-75% of what is told to us by our spouses, children, friends, coworkers, and supervisors is never received. Undoubtedly listening is an important skill to develop.

One approach to improve listening is to practice “active listening”. There are five key elements.

Pay attention. Give your undivided attention by putting aside distracting thoughts. Be aware of body language and resist the temptation to be preparing your response.
Show you are listening. A smile or a nod or verbal comments like yes, and uh huh convey interest.
Provide feedback. Reflecting back your understanding of what is being said or asking for clarifications can be important
Defer judgment. Allow the speaker to finish without interruptions or counter-arguments.
Respond Appropriately. Be open and honest in your response but respond respectfully.

It takes a lot of concentration and focus to be an active listener. Old habits are hard to break. The goal is to truly hear what others are saying.

Working on improving communication skills is valuable in all interactions. Positive change in ways of expressing and listening will improve the quality of daily conversations and can significantly enhance the ability to work through more difficult conflictual exchanges.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Is Procrastination Getting in Your Way?

Procrastination is a complex behavioral and psychological issue that affects everyone to some degree. While for some it can be a minor irritation; for others it can be source of considerable difficulty – causing stress and anxiety. Procrastinators sabotage themselves and often are less effective and successful than they could be. Researchers have identified that twenty percent of people define themselves as chronic procrastinators where the habit of putting tasks off to the last possible minute is a maladaptive lifestyle that impacts personal and professional areas of life.

The causes of procrastination can be psychological. When procrastination is a persistent and debilitating disorder there may actually be an underlying psychological issue such as Depression or Attention Deficit Disorder. These underlying mental health issues can be treated with medication and/or therapy and professional assistance should be sought.

However, for most, procrastination is a behavior problem which impacts some but not all areas of life. A main reason people find it difficult to work on a particular goal is that they don’t enjoy the tasks involved in achieving the goal. There is a sense of dread and avoidance associated with difficult, unpleasant, and/or complex tasks. To help with this issue it is important to balance tasks with rewards. Guarantee the fun parts of your life first, and then schedule your work around them. The most successful among us are those who live balanced lives. Additionally, it is important to break down complex tasks into realistic manageable goals. Some tasks are overwhelming when examined in totality but easily conquered when seen as a series of smaller steps.

Perfectionism is often associated with procrastination. Most procrastinators do not think of themselves as perfectionists but the extremely critical spirit of the perfectionist can be paralyzing. Believing that you must do something perfectly is a recipe for stress and will likely prevent you from getting started on important tasks. Work to replace perfectionism with permission to be imperfectly human.

Procrastination becomes less likely on tasks that you openly and freely choose to undertake. When the goals are set and evaluated by others – particularly others in authority - procrastination can serve as a form of rebellion. This is very often seen in students with rigid and demanding teachers or parents.

One of the things that perpetuate procrastination is positive reinforcement (reward) when things are delayed. When a looming task is thrown together at the last moment and the result is accepted or even praised by others, the procrastinator may convince themselves of statements such as: “I work best under pressure” or “I had to be ready – and when I was – I got it done”. These “lies” will make it easier to accept the anxiety and stress when the next episode of procrastination occurs. It is unlikely that goals accomplished with great pain and anxiety couldn’t be met more effectively using successful time management skills.

Three basic types of procrastinators have been identified by psychologist, Dr. Joseph Ferrari:
** Arousal types, or thrill seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush.
** Avoiders, who may be avoiding fear of failure or even fear of success. Concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability.
** Decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision. Not making a decision absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events.

If you identify yourself as a procrastinator with negative consequences on your life, it may be helpful to work to find a more comfortable work style with less stress and frenzy.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

They're Baaaack - When the Empty Nest Refills!!

Congratulations to the college graduating class of 2010. College graduation is an exciting time of transition and new beginnings. However, not everything is new! For many, the first step is a move back home with mom and dad.

CollegeGrad.com is the foremost job site for entry-level positions and conducts an annual online survey of new college graduates. The trend is clear - college grads are increasingly moving home after graduation. Last year, 80% of the graduating class of college kids moved back home with their parents, up from 77% in 2008, 73% in 2007, and 67% in 2006. The class of 2010 will no doubt follow this pattern.

These young adults aren’t generally spoiled “slackers” and there are several factors contributing to this trend. The economy is very unfriendly for job seekers at any level and college graduates are competing for employment with more experienced and seasoned applicants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in October 2009, unemployment of 20 to 24 year olds was at 15.6%, compared to 8.7% for people over 25. Additionally, there is a huge gap today in what an entry level job – assuming you can find one – pays and what it costs to live.

Another factor identified is that students born in the 1980’s and 1990’s tend to have closer ties with their parents, and feel no stigma to moving back home after graduation. Aaron Krasnow, a counselor at a major university, discusses this trend. He states that in “previous generations, parents thought they were helping their children become independent by pushing them out the door – but boomer parents are more likely to welcome that their children stay home longer.” He further states, “generally speaking, this generation of parents is closer to their kids than any before them.”

Parents of past generations grew up in an era where after finishing your education; you got a job, moved out, got married and had kids - - in that order. Today there is simply not the same consistent blueprint. Today’s young adults typically do not marry immediately after school and may wait years before starting a family. The traditional path to adult life is simply not uniformly followed by this generation.

Parents who welcome back their adult children should keep in mind that their children deserve to be treated with respect, and should not be treated like small children who still need to be guided about how to eat or dress, when to go to bed and how late to stay out at night.
It is easy to slip back into old roles, but it’s not healthy for anyone. When an adult child moves back home parents are still entitled to enjoy freedom, time together as a couple, and a quiet, peaceful home. Your grown child is entitled to be treated as an adult, a role that includes freedoms and responsibilities.

Studies show that the return to the nest can be positive when there is an honest and open discussion about expectations. Laying down ground rules about the sharing of household chores (making dinner, doing laundry, food shopping, or running household errands)-either in place of or in addition to any rent; financial issues; and time limits for the arrangement is crucial. Having children return to the nest can be a wonderful time of family closeness but only if there is a clear understanding of expectations.

The transition for both parents and adult children can be very difficult. Expect bumps and address any issues before resentments develop. With mutual respect and acceptance, parents and their young adult children can establish boundaries as they transition through the next season of life.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Power of Living with Authenticity

The most exhausting thing in life is being insincere.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh

If you are old enough you may remember the expression of being or keeping it real which was extremely popular in years past. More recently the idea of authenticity has caught our attention to express the goal of living a life where inner needs, desires, and values are understood and honored in life choices. Authenticity involves taking ownership for your life (your decisions, actions, behaviors, its quality, and the results) and living with complete congruity with values and principles.

Young children have no trouble being authentic. However, at some critical point children learn that in order to get along in the world adaptations are necessary and the focus shifts to pleasing others …. parents, friends, teachers…..then eventually to bosses and spouses. Children are “socialized” to learn to play by others rules and that sometimes opinions should be withheld, elders should be listened to, and to deny what is seen and heard. While some of this process is important and necessary – children do need to learn to understand the feelings and expectations of others; when the idea of being your own person and living a life with honesty and integrity is neglected and replaced with the singular goal of approval from others, we are less likely to find a sense of inner peace …the kind that accompanies authentic living. Additionally, people-pleasing, dysfunctional relationships where trying to live life based exclusively on what others think or want, rather than based on our own preferences and choices inevitably creates anxiety and unhappiness.

Authenticity involves a sense of self awareness where there is knowledge of and trust in one’s own motives, emotions, preferences, and abilities. Living an inauthentic life is often experienced as vague dissatisfaction or even depression, a sense of emptiness, or self-betrayal.

Ann Ronan Ph.D. offers the following top ten tips for living authentically:

• Know your purpose - your unique life goals
• Know your values – do your goals match up with your values?
• Know your needs – take care of yourself
• Know your passions – honor what makes your heart sing
• Live from the inside out – listen to your inner voice
• Honor our strengths – identify your unique gifts
• Take time to play – recharge by doing what you love
• Be aware of your self-talk- are you supportive, positive with yourself or condemning and negative? Focus on positive affirmations
• Surround yourself with inspiration
• Serve others – when you are true to yourself and living your purpose, you will share your talents with the world around you

Whether using meditation, journaling, or simply a routine quiet time for reflection; it is important to make time on a regular basis for self-awareness to tune in to who you are, what you want, and what is best for you. Living authentically also requires the courage to face personal truths. That truth might be how you really feel about yourself, the fears that are blocking your life, what habits perpetuate the life you have, or what dreams you have suppressed or neglected.

When you create a life where the decisions you make and the actions you take are considered, deliberate, and in harmony with what it important to you, you are living an authentic life – a life that you know in your heart is right for you. When you have this level of peace you are more likely to respond to difficulties with effective coping strategies and are more effective in meeting goals. Additionally, there is a more creative approach to living, rather than reliance on fear, routine and habit.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Extraordinary Importance of Fathers

During this season we celebrate holidays to honor mothers and fathers. While no one should dispute or diminish the importance and contributions of mothers, I want to focus on the often times neglected recognition of the influence of fathers on the lives of children and family.

A child’s relationship with a father impacts the development of specific skills and there is clear evidence showing that emotionally present and supportive fathers contribute meaningfully. The quality of contact with a father is a more significant predictor of a child’s later success or failure with school and friends than the mother-child interactions. Research shows that children with involved fathers are more confident and less anxious in unfamiliar settings, are better able to deal with frustration, better able to respond with flexibility to change and have a better sense of independence. Daughters with involved and emotionally available fathers are less likely to engage in sexually promiscuous behavior and are more likely to have healthy relationships as adults. Additionally children raised by involved fathers, are more likely to mature into compassionate adults and are more likely to have a positive self-esteem.

The role and importance of the dad begins during pregnancy. Husbands who participate in the preparation and birth experience are more likely to hold and comfort an infant. Dad’s who are involved in caring for a baby are also likely to continue involvement into childhood and teen years. It is important that new moms step back and let dad and baby have their time together. This growing relationship is important to the child’s later development.

Families need to create opportunities for fathers to engage meaningfully in their children’s lives. However, it can be a difficult challenge for men to maintain their involvement in the daily life and experiences of their children. Men are often the primary family breadwinners and may work extended hours that leave little time or energy left for family life. Psychologist Ronald Levent writes that a fathers’ impact on family life is “not only about providing for their families’ material needs. It’s about being there on a daily basis providing for the never-ending, ever-changing, day-to-day physical and emotional needs as well.” It is vital to the families’ emotional well-being that father find a healthy balance between work life and home life.

When there is a divorce between parents, it is essential for a father to stay involved in his child’s life. Children of divorce benefit when mothers and fathers continue to view parenting as a shared and collaborative venture. Unfortunately, divorced dads most often have progressively decreased contact with their children. Many factors contribute to this and some are outside the control of the father. No matter the reason, as a father’s contact with his children declines, so does his influence. This “dad” influence is critically important to children. Research supports what we all know - - children benefit from having supportive and loving relationships with both parents. Much of the negative impact of divorce on children can be avoided when parents are cooperative and work together in the raising of their children.

Participatory fatherhood is good for children, families and fathers themselves. There can be enormous joy in parenting and having a deep and intimate connection with children is a wonderful experience. Fathers who commit to this level of relationship with their children are greatly rewarded.

As we celebrate mothers and fathers on their special days, it is important to reflect on the extraordinary and unique contributions of both in the lives of children. When commenting on fathers, David Blankenhorn wrote: “Many people today believe that fathers are unnecessary. I believe the opposite. I pledge to live my life according the principal that every child deserves a father; that part of being a good man means being a good father; and that America needs more good men.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Importance of Appreciations in Marriage

It is easy to take people for granted. We don’t mean to do it, but often we fall into expecting our spouses to do what satisfies us. We stop saying please and thank you, we stop acknowledging how special our mate really is. We get so caught up in the daily routine that we don’t stop to feel and express appreciation.

One of the single most important attitudes in marriage is a pattern of looking for the good and positive in each other. The reality is that if one is looking for the good - - - - that is what will be seen. The converse is also true, if the negatives are the center of attention and focus, then that is what will be seen. One of the characteristics of a successful marriage is where the focus is on the good things that can be appreciated. Unfortunately, it can become easy to notice all that our spouse doesn’t do, while focusing on the positives may require a conscious decision. Criticism tears down a marriage, while appreciation builds up and strengthens a relationship.

Research on marriage conducted by Dr. John Gottman at the Family Research Lab at the University of Washington has found that happily married couples make five times as many positive statements to and about each other and their relationship than negative ones. A good marriage has a positive attitude where affirmations and appreciations are expressed. Dr. Gottman advices couples to “cultivate a culture of appreciation” where there are many acts of fondness, admiration, gratitude and positive sentiment. A positive attitude enables a marriage to better cope with stress, conflict, disappointment, and other negative influences.

Appreciations can take different forms. Acknowledgement for what we do – both the little and the big things is important. Communicate to your spouse that you recognize their contributions that make life better. Affirmations is where a spouse is reminded how important they are and how deeply a connection and commitment is felt. Adoration where there is a genuine expression of admiration and affection, and is another important type of appreciation. It is easy to fall into the “they know how I feel” excuse. However, do any of us tire of being reminded of our importance and value to others? Another form of appreciation comes with Acceptance. None of us are perfect and none are married to perfect spouses. Acceptance is a true appreciation of differences without the intention to change our spouses to be more like us.

Appreciations are most effectively expressed when they are specific. A verbal expression of appreciation or “thank you” is sometimes all that is needed, but a written card or note, flowers, or an embrace can make the thought more special and effective.

The single best advice for a happy marital relationship is to “be the spouse you wish you were married to”. In my work over the past 25 years with hundreds of couples, I have found this simple guideline to be the most effective. Waiting for change from your partner before committing to personal effort is doomed to failure.

If you and your spouse feel stuck – get help! Most couples struggle unnecessarily for years before seeking help. While only 1% will contact a professional for assistance, many more will end their marriage or settle for a marriage that is unhappy. To learn more about what makes marriage work, read The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Three Rivers Press, 2000) by John Gottman, Ph.D. This is an important resource for troubled marriages and for good marriages that want to be better. It is never too late to have the marriage you want.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Reflections on Being a Mother

“All that I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
Abraham Lincoln

I have written in the past about the importance of fathers and how much they contribute to the lives of their children and to the family. However, I’ve never written about being a mom. It’s a no-brainer to declare that mothers are important. Psychological research confirms what we know by common sense, - - mothers are crucial in the emotional and physical development of children. Babies need a mother’s love and attention and there is something uniquely special in the relationship between a mother and a child. Mothers play a critical role in family life and have invaluable contributions in creating the next generation.

Mothers Day is the day set aside to honor mothers and to let moms know how much they are appreciated. In the United States, Mother’s Day falls on the second Sunday in May of each year and became an official holiday in 1914. However, Americans didn’t originate the idea of honoring mothers and their many contributions and sacrifices. In fact, tributes to mothers actually date back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Being a mom has at times been described as a thankless job. So much gets unnoticed and seemingly unappreciated. However, the work involved in caring for a home and family are enormous even if not directly related to a pay check. Salary.com completed a survey of more than 12,000 mothers and determined that based on the time mothers spend in typical daily activities; they would earn an annual salary of $122,732. Moms earn this income with their efforts and commitment even if they never see the paychecks!

There are so many things no one tells you about being a mom. It is a rare mother who never experiences self-doubt. Being a mother includes continual changes in the job description. As soon as you master or even get a little bit comfortable with one stage, your child grows, changes, and demands you learn something new. How truly difficult!

New moms especially express painful feelings of inadequacy because our culture tends to focus on “maternal instincts” and “falling in love with your baby at first sight”. While these phenomenons may exist, there are many more experiences of being overwhelmed and exhausted. Women tend not to open up about their struggles and frustrations in mothering. Even worse, mothers often are openly and harshly critical of other mothers. These factors make it difficult to be realistic about being a good mother. It is essential to give up on perfection. You will make mistakes, you will disappoint - - and your child will survive!

While challenging, being a mom is also wonderful. The tasks are so important, the demands so endless, and often the criticisms so harsh that it is essential to develop strategies to enjoy the roller coaster ride called motherhood. Having fun and enjoying the process of mothering is not only important - - it is survival!! Strive to let go of your own and others expectations and allow the fun to take whatever form available.

Being a great mom is about being yourself and giving your children the best of you. This requires taking the time to care for you and accepting yourself without judgments. During those times when you struggle, get help from family members, and seek advice from others along the journey. Children don’t need perfect mothers - - they just need mothers who are present, nurturing, and are “good enough”.

This year, on Mother’s Day take the time to thank your mom. If you are dad, thank the mother of your children. If you are a mom, take the time to recognize your worth and contributions to your family. All of us should remember to acknowledge and appreciate the sacrifices and challenges each mother faces.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Achieving happiness is likely the most universally common goal. While there are significant subjective definitions of what happiness really is, we all want to be happy. People around the world value happiness above intelligence, success and even material wealth. This makes sense because happiness is associated with good personal relationships, better jobs, more success and higher income.

The advice of how to have a happy life comes from many sources. There are recommendations from the ancient Greeks, the ancient Chinese, 19th Century German philosophers and of course shelves of self-help books in any bookstores.

The psychological literature clearly shows there is a strong relationship between success and happiness. However affluence produces rapidly diminishing returns on happiness.

Psychologists have in the past 10 years begun to investigate the questions about what causes human happiness how to enhance this sense of wellbeing. The results of this research show first off that almost all humans are surprisingly happy and 90% of Americans report themselves to be “very happy” or “fairly happy”. There are individual differences in the level of happiness and these differences are stable across the lifespan. Another interesting finding in the research on happiness in that major life events that we would expect to effect happiness over the long term (winning the lottery, death of a loved one) only affect it for about six months to a year.

Research suggests that the contributions to our happiness are 50% a stable “set point” of overall sense of well being – this is largely determined by our overall temperament which is determined by genetics. Not much we can do about those issues. 10% of a sense of happiness is related to life circumstances such as how much money we have, our education level, and age. We have some possibility to change our life circumstances and these factors do matter, but these changes make a small contribution to happiness. However 40% of happiness is determined by our day-to- day activities. Research has confirmed that enjoyable activities have more potential for making us happy than improvements in our circumstances. People tend to place much more importance on their life circumstances to the detriment of happiness enhancing behaviors and everyday pleasurable activities.

Three activities that psychologist have investigated that enhance happiness are 1) visualizing you best self and imagining your life in the future where goals have been met; 2) helping other with acts of kindness has been found to increase a sense of well-being by 40%; and 3) practicing gratitude.

In addition to these guidelines research has shown the impact of daily pleasurable activities on happiness. Having fun improves our sense of well-being. The activity choices should have three characteristics: 1) They should fit our needs and our personalities (sky diving is NOT for everyone). 2) The content should vary (new experiences are especially helpful because the amount of pleasure we can get from the same experienced tails off with repetition). 3) The timing should vary.

We live in a society of materialism, where objects are valued way beyond their possible contribution to happiness. Happiness research has determined that experiences give more pleasure than material purchases. This difference is for several reasons. Experiences create memories which improve with time – possessions don’t. It is hard to compare our own experiences with those of other people. However comparing possessions is easy. Pleasure diminishes with unfavorable comparison.

Achieving happiness is a lifetime goal and pursuit. Doing what brings YOU the most meaning and contentment to your life over the long run will bring happiness. Benjamin Spock wrote “Happiness is mostly a by-product of doing what makes us feel fulfilled.”

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Judging Others is Damaging to All

From religious teachings, great literature, and even popular music; the message of the value of not judging others is asserted.

• Judge not, that ye be not judged. ~ Matthew 7:1
• Time will change and even reverse many of your present opinions. Refrain, therefore, awhile from setting yourself up as judge of the highest matters. ~ Plato
• If a man looks after the faults of others, and is always inclined to be offended, his own passions will grow, and he is far from the destructions of passions. ~ The Dharmapada (a collection of the Buddha’s essential teachings).
• Our senses don’t deceive us: our judgment does. ~ Goethe
• I know I’m not perfect
And I don’t live to be
But before you start pointing fingers
Make sure your hands are clean ~ Bob Marley

However, human nature seems to be determined to criticize and judge each other – to some degree – on many different parameters. Personal appearance, including weight and attractiveness; intelligence and education; individual values, beliefs, and spiritual practices; occupations and professional success; and wealth are all arenas inviting negative judgments of others. It appears that the task of accepting people as they are is just incredibly difficult. Our culture is conflict-ridden and often there is an attitude focused on “one-up man ship” or winning. As we live we slowly develop biases or pre-conceived notions about people with whom we interact.

When criticism and judgment are negative it can lead to great hurt, and damage. People react to criticism and judgment in different ways. Some become fearful, and close down emotionally to protect. Some develop feelings of inadequacy; while others become angry, and strike others with the venom of judgment and rejection. Everyone as some fear of being judged rejected or abandoned. No one really likes to be judged and so eliminating this from our own actions will improve your life and relationships.

Living a life filled with judgments and criticisms of others are as hurtful to oneself as they are to the target of judgment. Those who judge others often also judge themselves in very painful and damaging ways. People who feel good about themselves can more easily see the good in others. Self-acceptance and practicing kindness towards the self encourages tolerance. It is known that acceptance of the self and others is important is overall mental health and general happiness.

We analyze and make decisions about living based on individual values and beliefs that are developed through learning and personal experience. Having confidence and clarity about values and decisions is not only natural, it is valuable and important - – imposing those convictions on others betrays an attitude of arrogance. Assigning a moral code to another disrespects alternative perspectives. As soon as you judge someone you are saying that you are better or worse than that person.

There is a difference between being clear and confident of personal values for ourselves and imposing those onto others. It is important to delineate between making judgments based on belief or value systems which makes them opinions – and when we are actually stating fact. Most of the time, judgments come from a place of opinion. We can still have an opinion, but not condemn others for having a different opinion. Everyone sees things differently and when opinions are expressed in a way that demands agreement, and is judgmental; there is a lack of respect of alternative views. While we can verbalize and share opinion – even forcefully – it is important to acknowledge that others can believe differently.

Being judgmental and critical becomes habit over time. Finding ways to be loving and accepting can replace old ways and become a new habit. If we decide to be as non-judgmental as possible about people then we can really transform our personality. It is a difficult process but making sincere attempts to do so is very powerful.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why Live an Unhurried Life?

The concept of living an unhurried life is proposed in many magazines, books - - - even from pulpits and it brings great rewards. The balance found in living at a less frenetic pace brings back time - - time to experience, time to listen, time to think, and time to embrace a moment. We must choose to slow down, eat slowly, walk slowly, and speak slowly. Living at a fast pace makes it difficult to care for and respect the other people in our family and community. Loving and respectful relationships demand that we slow down

It is difficult to live an unhurried life in our fast paced world, especially when being busy and productive is viewed by society as praiseworthy. Too many experience feelings of guilt when not constantly being occupied and productive. A common yet misguided modern attitude is that if I can speed myself up, I can be more competitive and successful. No wonder amphetamines are so popular! However, being in a constant hurry does not allow love to be felt to its fullest, which is the goal of healthy parenting and family life.

An unhurried parent takes the time to explain to their child where they are going. Hurried parents tell their children to get in the car. Unhurried people take time to chat with a sales clerk, while the hurried is impatient and possibly rude in their need to be finished and move to the next thing. The unhurried think about how to show love to others – with encouragement, the right gift, and a kindness. The unhurried are less vulnerable to frustrations, irritations and angers of daily life.

Our children – especially teens – find pressure to live in an ever increasing pace so that they can compete successfully. The student who is able to obtain information quickly often gets better grades and is more successful. It is a sad reality that a student without success in Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes will not be accepted into the most respected colleges. Years ago success in high school did not have to include having college credits at the time of graduation. It is important we stop pushing our teens to rush through each season in life.

A first step in slowing down is to establish priorities. While most verbalize that family relationships are central, often our daily decisions do not reflect this. Television, cell phones and the computer can create convenient paths to avoid interactions with others. The addictive quality of information technology steals time from family life. Technology is not bad. However, the role technology plays in our lives needs examination. Checking email and answering messages, preoccupations with chat rooms, and focus on computer-based relationships fostered by My Space and Face Book, sometimes take priority over interactions with family.

Native people teach insulating from the stress of modern life by slowing down the pace of living. One technique is described in the principle that “if the sun catches you out of bed you will have a long life”. Learning to slow down by getting up early helps with stress because there is time to reflect and get centered before others and the demands of the day are awakened. Having the silence of the morning to ourselves before the rush of school and work makes us more kind and patient with children, spouses, fellow commuters, and coworkers. It is also helpful to identify the most rushed part of your day and find one or two changes that can ease the stress, and allow you to slow down.

Love demands that we cultivate the ability to slow down, to set priorities that encourage health, creativity and to learn beneficial ways to reduce the stress of modern life. Leading an unhurried life and slowing the day down are ways of improving the quality of life.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Does Love Mean Cleaning the Toilet?

Valentine’s Day encourages thoughts of what are important issues in having a good marital relationship. According to a Pew Research Center survey of more than 2000 American adults on what are the most important factors in a happy marriage, Sharing Household Chores (62%) ranked only behind Faithfulness (93%) and Happy Sexual Relationship (70%).

Numerous surveys have found that even though many women work outside the home, they still tend to do most of the household chores. Conflict over domestic duties around the house is second only to conflict over money in causing marital disharmony. When either partner in a marriage is unhappy about the allocation of household chores, the stress level in a home will increase tremendously.

Although many women complain about their husbands not doing their share, they may actually be inhibiting their spouse’s involvement by a subtle sabotage known as maternal gate keeping. Maternal gate keeping is defined as having three dimensions: 1) Discouraging a husband’s involvement by redoing tasks, criticizing and acting as household managers. The husband, then acts as a helper by doing only what is requested. 2) When a women’s identity is tied to how well she thinks others view her homemaking and nurturing skills, she may be more likely to resist her husband’s involvement since it would diminish her value. 3) Some women cherish AND resent being the primary care-giver, feeling both relieved and displaced with a husband’s involvement due to struggles with the ideas about traditional family roles.

Of course, men also have responsibility when there is a discrepancy in the distribution of household tasks. 1) Some men also struggle with changes in the traditional family roles and are resistant to “doing more than my father did”.
2) Some men have feelings of inadequacy in both household and child care skills. 3) At times there are significant differences in the tolerance level for housekeeping. For some, a sink full of dishes or a dirty toilet may not cause concern or come with any sense of urgency while it may be highly distressing to their spouse.

Accomplishing a true sense of sharing in the business of running a household requires communication, motivation, and respect. These basic guidelines are helpful in this process:

• List out every job that has to be done in the house. Set your priorities as a couple. It may not be possible to accomplish EVERYTHING.
• Identify the chores that each of you hates to do. What one hates, the other may be able to tolerate.
• Don’t ask for help!! Asking for help implies that the responsibility for the chores belongs to one person and others agree to assist.
• Timing is important – pushing another to complete a task when they really aren’t ready to do it only creates tension.
• Don’t nag. Even though your complaints may be valid, nagging makes your spouse resentful, defensive, and feeling attacked. Nagging is a vicious cycle. The more you nag, the more a spouse will avoid and withdraw.
• Be flexible and allow your spouse to accomplish a task in his/her own way. If you give up responsibility for a chore, you have to give up control over it too.
• Train your kids. Make sure your children, boys as well as girls, grow up believing that sharing chores at home is just what considerate people do.
• You can’t change your spouse. If there is an absolute refusal to equally share household responsibilities it is necessary to look for outside help or perhaps to stop doing some things.

There is greater efficiency and happiness in a home where family members share household responsibilities. When a couple can divide chores in a way that both spouses feel satisfied with the outcome, they are showing mutual respect for one another.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Romance in Marriage

With apologies for stating the obvious – keeping the romance alive in a marriage is not like when dating! When you think about the courtship days you may remember holding hands, quiet candlelight dinners, walks in the moonlight, sharing private laughs, and feelings of being safe, valued, appreciated and truly loved. Those initial passions and sparks dim over time if not kept alive with deliberate focus and intention. It is an important marital challenge to find the ways to be together long term without losing the romance.

Too often spouses come to feel like “business partners” committed to raising children and keeping the household smoothly functioning. The “romantic love” of courtship and early marriage may be replaced with a life that is dominated by the demands of parenting, careers, and financial concerns. Unfortunately, many couples get into a groove where they just become comfortable in a routine of daily life. This can lead to not holding hands anymore, not kissing, or even talking about the day. A significant priority shift from the couple identity to other concerns is problematic as ongoing romance strengthens and enlivens the marriage relationship.

By focusing on your spouse and looking for opportunities to encourage romance, couples keep a closer more satisfying bond. Romance can be facilitated in many ways. By pampering and spoiling your spouse, writing love letters or sending cards, spending time together, or arranging little surprises; the importance of the marital relationship is reinforced. Romance is alive when the marital relationship needs such as respect, appreciation, companionship, support, and affection are met.

Romance springs from friendship and intimacy. Cultivate a friendship with your spouse. Making time to be alone with each other should be a priority. Compliment and flirt with your husband or wife. Take a genuine interest in your spouse’s activities or hobbies. Even when life is hectic and crazy – carve out time for each other!

Don’t expect your spouse to read your mind and make you happy. Each person is individually responsible to communicate needs and desires. Good and effective communication includes being a good listener, paying attention to the words, tone and nonverbal communication to get a complete understanding. If the marital relationship is neglected or ignored, it may be difficult to have an open conversation with your spouse about your relationship. If honest efforts don’t improve things, your marriage may benefit from professional help.

While the marriage relationship should not be superficial or based on physical appearance, it is important to put effort into looking good. Maintaining attraction is important. Consider minimizing wearing the comfortable over-sized grunge-wear. It rarely is an attractive look. Be sexy. Not only can taking care of yourself and your body help your relationship, but it also helps you feel good about yourself.

A very obvious sign of a couple who has lost romance is when physical and affectionate touch has disappeared. Even if the sex drive has changed, couples can maintain touch with hugging, kissing, cuddling, back rubs or foot massages. These non-sexual gestures are independently valuable and may foster a passion spark leading to sexual activity. However, romance and sex are not the same thing and if you expect to be rewarded for physical affection with sex, your spouse will see this motive and the romantic value of the affection can be diminished. It is normal for sexual feelings to ebb and flow during a marriage, but with effort and commitment affection and romance can be kept alive throughout the relationship.

It is important to make every effort to keep the romance and fun in your marriage. Plan regular dates and create opportunities for enjoying each other. Keep focus on what is most important in your marriage; the two of you.