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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Healing from Unhealthy Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are human emotions which develop in early life. Research suggests that guilt begins to develop around the ages of three to six, while shame occurs much earlier – from fifteen months to age three. Guilt is a more mature reaction to mistakes than shame; and while guilt can be used to motivate change, it can also become unhealthy when unresolved or disproportionate.

Guilt involves self-blame or sense of responsibility for a regretted thought or action. True guilt is what is felt when facts justify the level of responsibility and regret. Perceived guilt is what is felt when responsibility is accepted for something outside of personal control or when the consequences are misinterpreted. Unhealthy guilt can occur when there are unreasonably high standards that result in guilt when unmet.

Guilt can be a helpful emotion when it is justified. It motives to learn from mistakes and make changes. The initial conscience pang when something is in conflict with values prompts a realization of a mistake and a desire to make changes. Healthy people use self-chastisement to steer themselves back on course.

Shame is hardly ever a helpful or motivating emotion and creates a sense of worthlessness or inadequacy. Internalized shame can also lead to other unconstructive actions including: attacking or striking out at others in an attempt to feel better; seeking power and perfection; blaming others for personal faults; being self-sacrificing and attempting to please everyone; and withdraw to numb against the feelings of guilt and shame. Shame is fear based and drives to hide or protect from scrutiny.

When the burden of extreme guilt or shame is carried, there is low self-esteem. The sense of low self-worth creates issues that compromise mental health and can become destructive, debilitating emotions. They can create serious negative consequences such as: alcoholism, drug abuse, and other types of self-destructive behavior; depression, unfulfilled lives, and relationship problems. By differentiating between the action and the actor, we can prevent shame and its negative connotations, while still encouraging a healthy sense of right, wrong, and guilt when necessary.

Steps to accept mistakes without unhealthy guilt or shame:

1. Admit and accept wrong. It is okay to make mistakes, as long as one benefits from the experience.
2. Learn the lesson. Offer thoughtful consideration of underlying motivations that led to mistaken action.
3. Forgive yourself. Self-forgiveness is not abdicating responsibility. It is seeing mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than personal failure.
4. Make amends if possible. A sincere, well-executed apology has the potential to help heal wounds; both for the person who feels guilty as well as for those who were wronged. However, the injured person may not accept even a sincere apology. This is beyond personal control but the action of offering amends is important.
5. Change your behavior so you don’t make the same mistake again.
6. Lose the guilt and move forward with life. This step is the natural conclusion if the previous five steps are taken.

When we feel guilt, it’s about something we did. When we feel shame, it’s about who we are. When we feel guilty we need to learn that it’s OK to make mistakes. When we feel shame we need to learn that it’s OK to be who we are!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Weddings Should Be About More than a Beautiful Day

It’s wedding season – and weddings are fun! Weddings are the birth of a marriage – and are about more than the perfect dress, beautiful flowers, a wonderful meal, and a great party. Sometimes the excitement of getting engaged or planning a wedding can overshadow some of the more important issues about the decision to marry. Making the wedding more about a marriage is important!

Engagement and marriage is one of the most significant psychological transitions in life. It involves more than just finding true love. Often engaged couples believe that their relationship will not experience the relationship problems other couples face. However, nearly half of marriages end in divorce so clearly this belief is incorrect in many cases.

To have a healthy marriage, each partner has to be mentally and emotionally mature. This means having a strong sense of self. Rushing into marriage before becoming a “grown up” rarely is successful. Being in love is simply not enough!

Plan your marriage – not just your wedding! This is about more than one day. The popular TV personality Dr. Phil advises engaged couples to consider developing an emotional prenuptial agreement, outlining how you’ll handle children, discipline, sex, money, household chores, religion, careers, in-laws …… the list goes on. It may not be very romantic, but marriage isn’t all romance – it’s also collaboration and if you don’t plan for and discuss tough issues – you won’t be able to successfully merge two lives together.

Some engaged couples participate in formal pre-marital counseling before their big day. Such professional sessions can assist in examining compatibility and conflict resolution style. Investing in preparation counseling sessions provides a format for couples to discuss and understand the “hot topics”. Of course, these discussions can occur outside of a professional’s office. The goal is to communicate openly and honestly about what is important to each of you. Not everything can or will be covered before the wedding but by learning effective communication skills, a couple can learn how to navigate future issues of conflict. This skill is critical in marriage.

Agreement on all the issues is not the goal. During these premarital discussions, if you agree on everything, someone isn’t being honest. You are different people and will disagree! However, being able to express strong feelings and respectfully accept a partner’s strong feelings is essential. Finding where you are willing to and how to find that important middle ground is a necessary skill in all marriages.

Living intimately with another person requires making decisions together. It requires consideration of another’s view. Be sure to identify and communicate needs and expectations. It is not selfish to know what is most important to you. Be honest with yourself and your partner about your “non-negotiables” – the deal breakers. We all have them – it is important to understand what they are for you and your partner.

Pre-marital counselor, Dr. Rich Nicastro offers the following five questions for engaged couples to consider:

1. Why do you want to get married? A feeling that “it’s time” is not enough.
2. Why do you want to marry this person? “Because I love him/her” is not enough.
3. What core values do you share with your future spouse? Compatibility on values matter.
4. What are the main differences between the two of you? Understanding and accepting differences are important.
5. How do you envision married life? Discuss expectations.

If a wedding is planned for your families’ summer, take the time to discuss how the wedding day should be the celebration and beginning of a beautiful marriage.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Are You Speaking Your Valentine’s Language?

The Five Love Languages (1992) by Dr. Gary Chapman is an international bestseller that has helped many couples improve their relationship. This book is based on the basic principles that (1) each person expresses and experiences love differently; (2) seldom do a husband and wife share the same primary love language; and (3) problems in marriage can come from the assumptions made about how to express love.

One important tool in keeping a marriage healthy is to express love to your spouse in a way that your spouse understands. Dr. Chapman asserts that many struggle with feelings of not being loved when in fact one or both spouses express love in ways not shared by their partner. By recognizing different love languages, more experiences of being loved and loving are possible. Of course there are many ways to show love, but Chapman identifies five key love languages. While each is important, there is typically identification with one of the following primarily love languages:

• Words of Affirmation: This love language involves compliments, appreciations, words of encouragement, and gentle use of language. Positive verbal expressions are experienced as love and insults are devastating and long remembered.

• Quality Time: This language is when love is felt through genuine sharing, listening, and shared time and activities. This language is when full undivided attention is important to feeling special and loved. For this language, distractions, postponed dates, or failure to listen can be very hurtful.

• Receiving Gifts: This love language is not about simple materialism but rather on the importance of the unique effort and thoughtfulness of a specially chosen symbol of love that represents the value of the relationship. The care involved in choosing something special that has unique meaning is experienced as love.

• Acts of Service: Yes, for some cleaning the toilet can say “I love you”. Any freely given “gift” of doing for your spouse can be a way to show love if your spouse has Acts of Service as a primary love language. However, broken promises or laziness may communicate a sense that their feelings don’t matter.

• Physical Touch: This is not just about sexual touch. It is about all affection that can be ways to show concern, care and love. For a person with this primary love language, hugs, touch, and physical affection are vitally important and experienced as love.

Some difficulties in marriage can be avoided by insuring both partners know, understand, and communicate using the right love language. A wife who is longing to have a special date night with her husband may not recognize his “I love you” when he fixes the leaking sink; and the husband needing to hear appreciations for his long hours and sacrifice to provide monetarily for his family may not feel loved with the new watch selected by his spouse. There is no “correct” language, but because each person has a preference, it is important to find how your spouse experiences love and make the efforts to express love using that language.

It is not difficult to identify your love language. Very often, your language (what you want) is how you express love to others. However, if you are unsure, Chapman has a very short and easy quiz in his book and online (www.5lovelanguages.com) designed to identify you and your spouse’s primary and secondary love language. Use of this knowledge may improve your marriage.