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What to do with fear?

What we do with scary information is my point in writing today. Patients frequently express to me that they just do not know what to do with a problem facing them: whether it’s a worry about their job, their marriage, their child, etc. 

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RISK and FAILURE

It is curious to me that so little has been written about the four-letter word – RISK.  Those who do not take sufficient risk in life, whether in pursuit of relationships or achievement, become frustrated and resentful people.  We all know those who have stayed too long, whether in a job, in a relationship, or in a neighborhood.

The endless moaning for “the good old days” often shines a mirror on an individual too afraid to change.  Young people find this enshrinement of the past difficult to understand because of their confidence in being able to meet any challenge and this confidence is usually undented by the many potholes in life.  A balance is necessary, however, between the overconfidence of the young and the frequent resistance and reluctance of the old. 

The focus of much of our national attention is presently on the scourge of drug addiction.  One wonders if the best description for the last quarter of this century is to describe the United States as the addicted society.  Food, alcohol, drugs, sex, or money has become a source of gratification and security that is short-lived and extremely costly.

There is a correlation between the reluctance to grow through exposure to risk and the need to tranquilize the mind and heart from the grimace of opportunity. 

We worship winners. In fact, being a fan of a winning team is somehow considered more noble by many than being one of the losing participants.

Here are some things to consider about healthy life risk:

  • There is such a thing as information overload.  As a culture, we have more access to knowledge than at any time in world history.  Such opportunity can spark inertia as much as achievement.  If the expectation is that one should not move ahead until one knows everything necessary, productive movement is stopped.
  • Collecting opinions on which way to proceed beyond three trusted sources can guarantee gridlock.
  • Failure is a teacher, not a judge.  The greatest personal cost of failure is in what we think it means to other people and, ultimately, what they think of us.  Test out the truth of this by listing your five greatest failures, as you perceive them, and then ask your best friend whether he holds the same perception of you.

Risk sharpens our capacity to adjust.  It is our adaptability as a species that has saved our behinds, not our worship of “the way we were” and the “Don’t rock the boat” philosophy. 

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Too Much Instruction is a Dangerous Thing

Here she is, entering eleventh grade, and her father interrogates her weekly, “…so what do you want to major in and where are you thinking of going to college?”

We have moved ahead these last years.  She no longer requires a winter temperature of 70 degrees as a college selection criterion.  Her father has reduced his home lecture schedule on the importance of choosing a major by fifth grade and determining promising career paths.  Some progress, at least.

But what is there to tell a son or daughter about the future, based on our own experience?  Is any of that personal, bloody, often boring learning time relevant to the offspring? 

Let’s see, what wisdom should I impart in my note in her lunch bag for the first day of college?

Dear Elizabeth,

First of all, it is okay to admit that higher education is often drier education.  Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers are not retiring to deliver any monologues in the classes you’ll be taking.  There will be a few teachers who touch the soul, but many are on automatic pilot.  So find the professors by the student grapevine that knows what they are doing and like doing it. 

Get the classes you need to qualify for what you are generally aiming for.  There is a great debate between education and vocational training, between learning to think and learning a skill.  Both are necessary.  Knowing computer programs and your way around the internet makes self-expression a whole lot easier.  Using a computer makes writing a lot less laborious.  At a more advanced level, keep checking to be sure you have the courses necessary to qualify for admission to the next level of study or the certificate and/or diploma required for practiced in the field of choice.

There is rarely enough said for steady persistence.  Expect that a few people or committees will decide you don’t have “the right stuff.”  Rejection hurts, but it doesn’t kill.  Learn what you can from the disappointment.  Even though your heart says no, share it with friends and family; it normalizes the experience and everyone has been rejected at one point or another in their lives.  Remember, too, the length of this game is a lifetime and, if you’re going to play, it’s never too late to score.

Look at what works for you.  Find your groove – it may take 25 years.  There needs to be a match between what you do well (talent) and what you love to do (desire).  Once you own that connection, good things will happen.

Finally, take the above and mix it with your own experience.  Use what works and discard the rest.

Love,

Dad

Well, that is what I would put in the note for my daughter’s first day of college lunch bag; but what would you tell her?  If you drop me an email, tell me your age so I can see if wisdom alters over time. 

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Will Marital Counseling Break Up My Marriage?

Marriage can be challenging at times. Maybe one of the wedding gifts should be a therapy gift card to be used when things get tough.  Much like a new dining room table that gets scratched from constant use, relationships can also show wear and tear over the years. So how do you know if your marriage has hit a rough patch or it’s something more serious requiring professional help?

1. Poor Communication

When you are not able to talk about your problems. When It’s just too frightening to even bring issues up — from sex to money, or even annoying little habits that are being blown out of proportion, a therapist’s job is to help the couple become clear about their issues and to help them understand what they are truly talking about.

2. Your Sex Life has Significantly Changed

Most feel that when there is a loss of intimacy, there are problems. While this is true, it is also important to be mindful of either an absence or a sudden increase of sex in your relationship can signal danger. “If you have not been having regular or passionate sex and all of a sudden your partner behaves like a courting lover or wants to experiment with new activities that s/he has never expressed an interest in before, it could indicate that he is experiencing feeling of arousal that are not originating from his relationship with you!”

3. Holding on to the Past

It is a good idea to talk to a professional when there has been a traumatic event in your life, like the loss of a child or an affair — and one partner cannot let the past go. Whatever the situation, every person processes trauma differently.

4. A Reoccurring Issue

One type of red flag that usually can be greatly helped by therapy is an issue that has been difficult in the relationship from the beginning, but regardless of endless discussions, never seems to pass.  When you see that the same issues are coming up again and again in disagreements, it is a good sign they are not effectively being resolved and the couple is at a sticking point.

5. Finances

Disagreements over money are one of the top reasons couples find themselves in conflict. If your spouse keeps you in the dark about family finances or feels the need to control everything related to money, it may be time to speak up. You both need to be aware of your debt, monthly bills, the balance on your mortgage, how many savings/checking accounts your have, etc.  If your spouse objects, it’s time to see a counselor.

6. Kids

Yes, children are a blessing, but they can also add stress to your marriage, especially if the two of you are not a united front. Seek counseling if you disagree with each other’s parenting styles and frequently argue about how your children should be raised.

7. You Still Love Your Spouse

If you still love spouse and really want to make things work, and have not been successful, then consider finding a counselor. You need to seek advice before things escalate and you truly despise the other person. Be a proactive couple who strives to solve issues before they tear at the fabric of your deepest bonds of trust and intimacy.

Whether you choose to seek help or continue down your current path — be aware that counseling does not break couples up or even hold them together. Couples counseling is about helping the couple communicate better and understand what is going on.

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Home for the Holidays: Your Survival Guide

This recent Thanksgiving with extended family was not the Norman Rockwell picture that some of you may have experienced. The father-in-law of my niece was present and decided to poll everyone on who they voted for in this past election and would not be deterred or detoured off the topic. When that fell flat, he then decided to grill a family member on why that person married their spouse of 40 years and how accepting the family was of the spouse. Let’s just throw gasoline on that fire.

Some of you may have parents and family who have supported you 100% throughout your entire evolution.  They smiled when you got the Mohawk and dyed your hair purple in 8th grade, applauded when you dropped out of college to hitchhike through India, yelled, “Congratulations!” when you announced you were seriously dating someone 25 years older than you, and were the first in line to buy shares in the butterfly farm you developed in South America.

If that is your family, then this blog is not for you.

However, most of us have families who, though well meaning and loving, consciously or unconsciously tried to hold us back from becoming the person we needed to be.  They might have been subtle or blatant.  They might have shamed us, badgered us, withheld funds or love – all in an attempt to shape us into who they thought we should be.  And maybe you chose to live half way across the country from them so that you could finally spread your wings.  But now, you are heading home for the holidays.  You’ll be breaking bread at Thanksgiving or lighting the menorah for Hanukkah or opening presents under the Christmas tree with these same folks. 

Not in the top ten items on your bucket list, right?

Yet, on the flip side, these people do love you in their way and you do love them in your way.  So how can you survive or even enjoy this time together?  Here are a few tips:

1.  Pre-pave with Forgiveness

So knowing you’ll be seeing some folks that have been difficult for you, prepare yourself.  Rather than focusing on how irksome they still might be and how you can “defend”, spend some time using whatever forgiveness process works best for you.  Everything you see, everything you hear, every person you meet, you experience in your mind.  You only think it is “out there” and you think that absolves you of responsibility.  In fact, it is the opposite:  You are responsible for everything you think and everything that comes to your attention.

My insight that the above father-in-law is probably anxious and not very self-confident when he is out of his element gives me some compassion into his intrusive comments and topics of conversation. 

2.  Tell a New Story

Basically, take a situation and experience it from a totally different perspective.  For example, think of an incident from your past with one of your difficult relatives that still irks or upsets you.  Now, image that same incident, but put your relative in a duck costume.  See them waddling around, flapping their arms as they do whatever they did back then.  Give them a Daffy Duck voice as they speak to you and add silly sound effects.  Make this image of them as bright, colorful and big as you can. 

Trust me:  If you spend some time playing with your new, ridiculous version of the hurtful incident, the charge you will feel will start to disappear.  And you may even have some new insights into what was really going on at the time.

3.  Don’t Take It Personally

Everyone interprets life through their own filters and their own assumptions.  What another person sees in you has more to do with who they are than who you are.  When Uncle Warren insists that you’re a fool for trying to start your own business and that you should get a real job with benefits, he’s talking about his own fears and limitations, not yours.   My advice taken from Melody Beattie is: Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same.  When you really start to understand this, rather than feeling insulted by what Uncle Warren has to say, you might instead feel curious and may even be able to enter into an interesting conversation about why he feels the way he does.

4.  Bring Yourself to the Party

Have you ever noticed that you can revert to who you were as a child when you return to the friends and family of your childhood?  We all learned to “play our part” in the family dynamic as children.  We were “the nice one”, “the smart one”, “the one who comforted mom.”  Whatever role we took on, we got really good at it.  Like riding a bike, our ability to play that part is still available and, when we go back home, we can slip into those old roles automatically.

As adults, we have grown and changed, hopefully, becoming more of who we really are.  Prepare yourself to enter your old family environment by reminding yourself of who you have become.  Make two columns on a sheet of paper, one titled, “Who I Was” and the other titled “Who I Have Become.”  Jot down the different characteristics of each. 

Now take it a step further by personifying those characteristics.  For example, if you were “timid,” what posture reflects that quality?  And now that you are “self-assured,” feel how that posture is different.  Do you speak differently?  Have different eye contact?  Note your “befores” and “afters” so that you can catch yourself when you slip into your old roles.

Just like giving an important presentation or getting ready for a big date, the key is in the preparation, not for the worst outcome of your family holiday gatherings, but the best possible outcome. 

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