Blog by Miriam

Holy Conversations

From a recent sermon by Rev. Greg Ward:

“Does it feel, sometimes, like the whole world is in the midst of a conversation that isn’t finished?  The conversation between who we’ve been and who we are called to be?  The conversation between the certainty of what we know and the humility of all we don’t?  And, of course, within these conversations are the conversations that have needed to happen, but haven’t.  The conversation between the rich and the poor…  Between light skinned people and people of color…  Between Democrats and Republicans?

I could go on…  but our countenance drops when reminded of the many wedges or walls or glass ceilings preventing all the needed conversations.  And a sense of despair for the times we’ve tried to begin them and the first thing we hear is, “As I was saying…”

This world is filled with division… and hungry for communion (by which I mean, communication… community…)… which calls us into holy conversations…”

Holy Conversations

Holy conversations. What do you think of when you hear that phrase? I think of people learning what they didn’t know they didn’t know. I think of people opening to some new way of seeing things. I think of conflict dissolving into a real head scratcher of what-were-we-so-upset-about?

When I hear the idea of holy conversations I think of the larger social, cultural, political conversations that never quite finish or resolve. But I also think of the more intimate conversations between husbands and wives, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters. I’m thinking of all my mother and I haven’t said yet. Whew. What’s missing could fill stadiums. But I’m working on it. I’m working on it.

Regardless of what comes to mind, the idea of holy conversations is an intriguing one. And so is the consideration of what might be getting in the way of us having them.

When it comes to race relations in the US, perhaps it can come down to the mere idea of distance. We are still a highly segregated society. Something like 91% of whites don’t have people of color in their lives–and I’m told the statistic is largely the same among people of color not having any white friends. Distance is how most of us solve most emotional/anxiety based problems, irrespective of race. We simply remove ourselves.

Would it be possible to un-complicate this very complex issue? What does it take to close the distance between two human beings–be it on a larger social scale or on a much smaller one, like in your marriage or between you and your sister? Mother? Grandfather?

What might it take to have a holy conversation in your significant relationships? What part might you play in those conversations that never quite finish? Consider the following three principles to help you assess how you’re doing and to see if there is some way you can improve your part of the equation.

Curiosity

Curiosity is the desire to know something. When you’re thinking of your relationship with your spouse or your children what do you desire to know about them? Perhaps you feel you know all there is to know about them when it comes to problems and conflict. Perhaps you recognize you know very little. Can you think of 2 or 3 things you really don’t know about their perspective or about where they are coming from? Can you think of 2 or 3 ways you can approach them that aren’t demanding or emotionally laden? Inherent in the principle of curiosity is a lightness of spirit—a nice alternative to the heaviness we often feel in our relationships.

Detachment

Detachment gets a bad wrap in our culture these days. It sounds cold and unfeeling, but it’s actually part of the foundation of warm, open, and caring relationships. Detachment is all about calm—not acting calm or faking it until you make it—but actually being calm. And I’m not talking about being calm when you’re by yourself and not being challenged. I’m talking about walking around in the midst of conflict or chaos in a state of chill. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? How might you assess what your current level of chill is in your most important relationships? Here are a few questions from therapist and writer Lorna Hecht-Zablow to ask yourself to begin to understand where you are on the continuum between chill and kill. Answer each question with a number between one and ten, ten being an extreme ‘yes’ and one being quite low.

  1. How aware are you of each other’s moods?
  2. How easily do you “push each others buttons”?
  3. To what degree do you have the feeling of “walking on eggshells?”
  4. To what degree do you try to avoid controversial topics?
  5. How concerned are you about hurting others’ feelings?
  6. How easily do your own feelings get hurt?

If you’re scoring on the low side, don’t worry. You’re in good company with the rest of us 7 billion or so human types. One of the most powerful and direct ways of getting to a more chill place (and staying there) has something to do with how far we can get practicing the third principle below.

Meaningful Connections with Multiple Family Members

How possible is it, in your extended family, to have a holy conversation? One where you are really curious about another, one where you can learn something you didn’t know you didn’t know. One where old conflicts turn into  what-were-we-so-upset-about? The reality is, the chances of having a holy conversation with your mother or great aunt or whoever won’t be increasing if you don’t even show up. Keeping your distance, for sure, is highly adaptive in keeping the peace for a time. But it tends to escalate things over the long haul because it makes relatively small issues seem bigger and bigger–kind of like how our fear of the little monster in the closet turns it into a fire breathing dragon before we’ve been properly introduced. As the theory goes, the more we are able to succeed with our original families, the easier it is to live with more calm and curiosity in our chosen families and in society.

Check out this article written by leadership consultant John Engels about connecting with difficult family members, especially over the holidays.  He’s got 7 great principles that can really prepare you for those just-around-the-corner holiday visits.

Did you know we are expanding?

We have begun by hiring our resident intern Josh Turton, LAPC, NCC. You can read more about him on our home page. Josh has a sliding scale available for 5 individuals or couples. Don’t miss out on quality yet affordable therapy now before the January rush!

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The Highest Animal

“Man is rated the highest animal, at least among all animals

who returned the questionnaire.” ~Robert Brault

Dog In A Hoodie

 

It is a commonly accepted belief that dogs have similar feelings to humans. A broader perspective might ask us to consider that humans have feelings similar to dogs – that many, if not most, of the emotions we feel are as mammalian and automatic as they are for our beloved pups. But the similarities between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom extend well beyond just emotions or emotionality. Even unto ways of relating in a “pack” mentality where behavior is governed less by individuals and more by characteristic group dynamics.

Our feelings aren’t what define us as distinct from the animal kingdom. Not really. What distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our potential to develop the ability to think about our feelings and how they may fit a larger pattern of an emotional system.

Therapy that focuses on our feelings often times makes us feel like the most automatic parts of us (our emotional reactions) are the most important or relevant parts of us. An understanding of what our feelings tend to be – part of a long standing dynamic of a larger pack (a.k.a a family, a society, or a culture) – tends to be more beneficial. More often than not, our feelings have us. We don’t have them.

An understanding of the forces that lead to resolution of human problems goes a long way. These forces include  triangles (for example, your wife is overly involved with her mother who doesn’t like you), projection (when our bad days or stomach aches – a.k.a. negative emotions – are attributed to those closest to us), and sibling position (yours as well as those of your parents), just to name a few. These kinds of organizing forces in a family trump anything else we do. Which is why date nights, extra sex, communication techniques, and love languages don’t make a lasting difference in our relationships. There are  larger, systemic, “pack” realities extending back to your great grandmother, if you will, that mitigate the process.

Every family has large and small stressors to deal with. But what makes the difference between families that are destroyed by these stressors and the families that aren’t? This is a complicated question with a complicated answer. Suffice it to say that the difference is in how the family responds to the crises. The difference is in how much any individual family member understands those mitigating factors like triangles and can act upon his or her understanding. Can we use the idea of a triangle, for example, as a springboard to greater understanding and change or are we washed away by the emotion of it all?

I have found in my own life that studying about the family emotional system makes an important difference in how I handle arguments or illnesses or individual dysfunctions as they inevitably come to pass.

Most of the folks in my industry are trained to help people grow distant from their family emotional systems, in a stance that blames parents for either being too much or too little or too toxic or what have you. This only intensifies problems in the long run. It is better to re-enter the emotional field of one’s family system in order to learn what makes your pack tick. You might be surprised what it can tell you about how you tick and how you contribute to the problems you are now facing in your nuclear family. Chances are, whatever problem you are dealing with in your own nuclear family has happened before in some shape or size. So, congratulations! You are the proud owner of your great grandmother’s problems.

The advantage we have over our four-legged friends is we can do more than just feel. We can observe and think. We can educate ourselves about how emotional systems function, and when we have that knowledge, we can make a difference.

Check out Roberta Gilbert’s books to get your education started: The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory and Extraordinary Relationships.

5 Tips To Improve Bad Communication

Have you seen the movie This is 40? You won’t find any kind of sage marital advice or existential profundity – but you will find yourself hopefully able to laugh hysterically about the absurd situations every married couple has found itself in, at one time or another. Check out the fight scene from the movie here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NN-XC4_TAE

Ever had this kind of a fight with your spouse where both of you are trying to follow the “rules” of “good communication” and it turns out rather absurd, rather quickly? Consider these 5 tips to improve bad communication in your marriage.

  1. 1. Good communication is not about following rules or squeezing techniques into tense moments. Sometimes tense moments are just tense moments. Trying to “behave” during them sometimes misses the jewels and gems you may learn about yourself and your spouse. I’m not advocating “blowing” at your spouse. Walking away when things get tense can be a very important relationship saving discipline. But on some occasions losing your cool can be useful. It may help you recognize the load you are carrying in the relationship and it may help you let go of it a little. It may help you identify feelings you weren’t aware you had. It can sometimes even help you let go of these feelings. One wife I spoke to recently saw her husband’s newly emerging, occasional angry vents as a sign of progress – a change from his normally stoic approach to their every problem. He experienced the relief of not holding on so tightly. They both look forward to a time when feelings and thoughts can be shared between them openly and without too much fear.
  2. 2. Good communication is separate, equal, and open. Good communication is about adopting a stance characterized by 3 qualities: separate, equal, open. When individuals can separate themselves, even just a little, from the emotionally reactive blob of couple-ness, they can start to settle down and respond more from thought – much like they may be able to do with, for example, a work colleague. Working toward separation from this blob in turn generates more of a sense of equality and openness. The two shall become one may be a truism rather than an ideal for couples when it comes to good communication. 
  3. Bad communication is a symptom, not the problem. What is the problem? According to Bowen Theory, the problem has to do with an imbalance between two powerful relationship forces: the force toward togetherness and the force toward individuality. When the relationship togetherness pressure is greater than the ability of each spouse to be separate individuals, communication falls by the way side. It is a matter of too much anxiety or togetherness pressure and too little individuality. Being able to be an individual when the pressure to conform increases is key to improving bad communication.
  4. 4. It’s about the “I” Position – not “I” Statements. Did you see the couple’s absurd application of using “I” statements in the movie clip above? Using “I” statements is a way of thinking – not a technique or formula to apply as if we are in grade school learning how to write sentences. Perhaps a better way of thinking about “I” statements is the “I” position.  An “I” position is a way of being – a lifestyle not a diet. An “I” position is a way of being we develop over a long period of time with sustained focus and effort. It involves increased self-awareness, not only of what principles we live for and live by, but also a self-awareness of how we contribute to the stuck-ness and crises in our relationships. Harriet Lerner does a wonderful job of describing the “I” position in her books. The Dance of Anger or The Dance of Intimacy would be great places to start.
  5. 5. Keep it light. Ever think about why friendships seem so much easier to maintain than marriages? One theory I read about recently – in Roberta Gilbert’s book Extraordinary Relationships – posits that friendships tend to automatically make fun and lightness a priority. When you can cool off some of the emotional reactivity to make a point of having more fun with your spouse, you will go a long way to being able to resolve some of the stickier issues in the relationship. This is not a quick- fix kind of idea. Developing this ability and having it be a more stable aspect of a marriage takes a long time with sustained effort. But if the married couple in This is 40 could have broken down and started laughing at each other and at themselves during this fight, we would all have been laughing with them. Some of us were anyway.