Blog by Miriam

5 Tips for How to Achieve Your New Year’s Resolutions

Yes, Drill Sergeant!

The Huffington Post recently posted 10 Tips to Achieving Your New Year’s Resolutions.” Tip number one is for folks to adopt “all or nothing” kind of thinking, suggesting that one has to be intensely motivated and unwavering. The Huffington Post article suggests you anticipate that you may have to SUFFER, and they recommend you have a look at your self-talk to check for NEGATIVITY. Yes, Drill Sergeant! I have to say, there was a time when I was younger when this kind of driving motivational forcefulness would really work, and I’m sure it works for a time for lots of folks. Not so much anymore for me. And I’m guessing that for those of you who’ve lived a little—and struggled a little—and failed a little (like me) all the hype seems, well, a little hyper.

One thing I know for sure: there will be no 5 AM boot camp for this soldier! Who are these people RUNNING at 5 AM? Well…they’re probably a lot younger than me.

When we’re in our 40’s and 50’s on up and trying to do something like lose weight or eat better or have better relationships, and when we fail because we can’t force ourselves to struggle and strain like we could (if we could) when we were younger, we start thinking something might be wrong with us, or maybe we start to feel depressed or hopeless. We never consider that something might be wrong with a forceful kind of approach—whether it’s a boot camp kind of forcefulness or a constant flow of thinking and obsessing and banging one’s head against the wall. Perhaps trying to force one’s self to change is along the lines of trying to force one’s spouse to change. It can’t be done. So, we might consider a different approach. Maybe. I mean, if you REALLY want to.

Recognizing Our Eusociality

Within the microscope of conventional psychology we find theories and hypotheses and tools and tricks and techniques that locate the problem or challenge as well as the solution for that problem or challenge within the individual human brain. It’s all in your head, so the thinking goes.

ksmn1882_hipsychiatrist

But is it? Maybe we just need our computers to work properly. Can you feel me?

Certainly some popular techniques like brain entrainment (brain.fm), neurofeedback training, cognitive behavioral therapy, and meditation make a difference in people’s lives. And I recommend learning about any of these useful tools and more. But the reality is none of us live in a vacuum, and none of our brains do either. The permeability between brains is astounding sometimes, frustrating at others, and yet glorious at still others. What do I mean by permeability between brains and what does it have to do with New Year’s Resolutions?

Have you ever finished your husband’s sentence for him? Or have you ever known what your wife was about to say before she said it? Or what about this scenario: My daughter and I were riding in the car recently on our way to Starbucks. We were listening to music. She was texting. I looked over at her at one point and said, “You know when we get there you can’t have an icy drink, right?”

“Oh my god!” she said. “I was literally just thinking in that moment that you weren’t going to let me have an icy drink and that you were going to tell me that!” We both had a chuckle at the “synchronicity” of having the same thoughts at the same time. (If you must know about the icy-drink-in-winter thing, google it.) And before you say this was just a coincidence, I have to tell you: It happens all the time in families!

So, brain permeability? Yeah. It’s a thing. (It’s my thing, by the way. Just made it up. The phrase that is.) But seriously, we are a highly connected species, and what one of us does (or doesn’t do) impacts others in automatic and often times invisible ways. It’s like a centripetal force is working on us, constantly pulling on us, making it difficult to separate and do our own thing. Kind of like an ant colony with its clear but too-small-to-see-with-the-naked-eye lines of communication that seem to direct or control every action of every ant, keeping every individual in line and keeping the colony in good working order. Interdependence at its most efficient.

As a matter of fact, biologist Ed Wilson, two time Pulitzer prize winner, identified nineteen species that he considered so interdependent, that each family or colony or hive could be considered a single, complex organism. He called them eusocial. As a direct result of their extraordinary interdependence, all nineteen of these species dominate the planet in number and/or weight. Most of the species are various kinds of ants, a few wasps, termites, and yes, humans.

Our lives are intricately interconnected with the members of our colonies…I mean families…both nuclear and extended—whether we are speaking to them or not—and perhaps so is our success or failure when it comes to New Year’s resolutions and goal setting (and achieving) in general. As you read Jennifer’s story below, consider the ant colony in all its complex communications and patterns that keep them all moving together.

Jennifer Tries to Lose Weight, 2014 New Year’s Resolution

Jennifer had been married to Jason for 13 years. They had 3 kids who were then 12, 10, and 7. Jennifer is the older sister of a brother, Jason the younger brother of a sister. Neither talks to their extended families very often. They are “a lot of trouble,” so Jennifer and Jason look to each other for most of their day-to-day moral support.

Jennifer thrives on being a mother and on keeping things in order at home, but she has tended to neglect taking care of herself for the last several years. She has tried to lose weight repeatedly, but can’t seem to pull herself away from the kids and the house long enough to work out, etc. Being an oldest Jennifer is accustomed to taking on a little more responsibility than is really hers, and when she tries to back up a little and let others take the lead, no one seems to step in quickly enough. She feels that everything will fall apart if she were to really focus on herself. Jason and the kids are supportive of her efforts when she makes them, but it seems almost like an invisible force is at work that makes it difficult for Jennifer to take care of herself. She has tried the personal trainer and Weight Watchers and any number of diets. She feels she has no one to blame but herself…and man does she ever! But maybe there’s a larger picture to consider.

The Five Things that Helped Jennifer Achieve her Goal

Tip #1: Sought help from a neutral 3rd party

For Jennifer, it started with seeking help from a therapist. Over the course of therapy, she became more aware of the invisible and automatic forces at work in her family. For example, she became more aware of her automatic urge to protect and provide for her children. She began to see it as instinctual rather than thoughtful. As she became more thoughtful about her parenting, she became more sensitive to the older two’s resistance to all her doing-for-them…and the amount of energy their resistance was taking out of her. Little by little, she began to let them do a little more for themselves. Their relating became more peaceful. The centripetal force slightly smaller.

Tip #2: Broadened her definition of the problem

Jennifer’s problem wasn’t that she was over weight. Her weight and difficulty losing it were symptoms or net effects of a particular pattern of interacting. One that was automatic in nature as described above, based in instinct rather than thought and calm reflection. When Jennifer stepped back and looked at her little ant family from above—as if through a telescope from a long ways away, rather than her usual microscope—she noticed she felt a little calmer. A little more objective. (When I say “a little” I really do mean just a little. It’s the little bit that can begin to shift the tide of typical family interactions.)

Her definition of the problem went from one of “weight gain/loss” to one of a dynamic, constant, ongoing interaction pattern that had certain predictable results, namely one that made it too hard for her to take care of self. If the problem was about weight, the solution would be to go on a diet. If the problem was about an interaction or relationship pattern, the solution would have something to do with changing that pattern.

Tip #3: Began to calm herself

As she continued this process of stepping back, she began to observe her little ant family more and more rather than just react to its constant demands. Over time, the urgency to fix or protect grew slightly less powerful. She began to see patterns. She began to think longer term regarding her parenting. To borrow from Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Parenting, she began to take on the idea that she was not raising kids, but rather launching adults. She had to get them ready to be without her, and she wasn’t going to wait until they were 18 to start. While this was a significant goal that would take significant time and energy and thought, it gave her clarity and direction.

Tip #4: Visited home more regularly

Through her work with the therapist, Jennifer began to recognize the importance of expanding her social and familial network. She realized that staying disconnected from her extended family ended up putting too much pressure on too few. She and Jason were looking too much to each other, and even too much to the kids, to keep everything afloat. She recognized that her distance from her siblings and parents was increasing the centripetal force between Jason and her and the kids.

Since her parents were “such a pain,” she started with her siblings, but over time this expanded to include her mom and dad. She was surprised to discover it wasn’t as toxic as she’d expected. She was even more surprised to discover that the more relaxed and kind she was toward them, the less of a ruckus they stirred. Just like with her kids, Jennifer recognized that if she shifted her part of the pattern, the pattern would be forced to shift.

Tip #5: Focused on feeding herself

With a little less self-blame and a little more awareness of the forces at work within and around her, Jennifer started working on feeding herself. She put effort into cooking for herself, sitting still for meals, and not allowing herself to be distracted (even if that sometimes meant eating alone, without the children’s constant demanding-ness). Once she was able to feel satiated and relaxed during meals, she started a program with a nutritionist. After a few months, Jennifer started feeling (and looking) much better.

More Telescope, Less Microscope

In the absence of a more telescopic (or broad, systemic, and long range) view—one that considers context, as much as, if not more than, individual functioning—people generally end up with their heads so far up their…well…you know…that they can no longer see straight. I’m not being mean here. Just speaking from experience.

shutterstock_213094486Monkeybutt

When we locate too much of the responsibility for things going wrong (or right) on the individual we miss the context in which that individual lives. The emotional systems in which we live are not an excuse. They are part of the puzzle. A part that becomes much more intriguing—and workable—when we can observe from just a tiny bit more of a distance. Via telescope.

Jason’s New Year’s resolution for 2016? Figure out what in the heck happened to his wife! Jason had a little catching up to do…but maybe he would be up for the task, given the right context.

 

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Sense and Sensitivity

So, I had a birthday recently. I turned 43. Spring chicken. I know.

My husband is a bit older than me, and on my birthday he was reflecting on what he knew…and didn’t know…about relationships when he was my age. He said he was a little jealous, wishing he knew at 43 what it took him until 54 to learn. I told him I was thinking the same thing. Lord is he ever slow.

Agingdchn17_hi

Nah. Just fooling around. But his comment did raise the question for us both: Why does it seem to take so long to change so little in marriage? We’ve been at this a long time, he and me. Talking about, thinking about, reading about, writing about, and sometimes screaming about our relationship. We were only homicidal that one time…but it was probably indigestion.

On the whole we’ve done well with each other…AND we still have times when it seems like we’ve developed more sensitivity than sense. You know that thing couples get into when the first spouse doesn’t have to say even one word, and the second one knows what the first one is thinking (and is correct), and the second one shuts the first one down even before they get that first word out. Yeah. We do that. If this kind of sensitivity were an Olympic sport…well…let’s just say we’d rank. But so would lots of people.

Lots of people work and search and read and search the internet for blog posts for years trying to figure this thing out, trying to make marriage work. Why does progress seem to move so slowly, if at all?

As a therapist and student of Bowen Family Systems Theory I am aware that sensitivity in family relationships is one of the biggest factors in why change happens so slowly. Being sensitive to family members leads to both caring actions as well as the not-so-caring. Our sensitivity can be what leads us to offer either a neck massage—if our spouse seems stressed—or to be a pain in the neck—if our spouse seems like they deserve it.

It can be helpful to consider that our sensitivity to each other as a species is something we have in common with all other species: wolves, dogs, birds, and monkeys, etc. Evolution favored the sensitive. Not sensitive enough and one gets eaten or stung or bitten. In addition, sensitivity kept packs, herds, gaggles, tribes and families together for centuries, thus increasing their chances for survival. After all, one must have some idea or sensitivity toward others’ needs and wants in order to form a cooperative group. Fascinating research on wolf pack behavior shows that wolves kiss-and-make-up just like humans. Even wolves have ways of “getting along.” Relatively cooperative groups stayed together longer, and therefore, survived longer. Without sensitivity there could be no cooperation.

But things have changed in the day-to-day needs and activities of any given human. Life is very different now. No more surviving the tundra, fighting for every moment. We can calm down now. But we haven’t been able to figure that one out. Not yet anyway. The momentum of centuries and multiple generations of great sensitivity is still with us. The field of epi-genetics is now demonstrating this scientifically. The environmental stressors (emotional, mental, biological, chemical) that our great, great, great grandmothers experienced is, quite literally, transmitted to us…and our children…through our genetic code.

Much of our sensitivity is now hurting us rather than saving/preserving us. The reason change in marriage takes so long is the same reason evolution takes so long. There is a lot of momentum going in the wrong direction, and the human animal pack simply hasn’t caught up yet. But we will. In time, we will be more and more able to reflect on how our sensitivity and automatic reactivity is really the only problem we face in marriage and family life. We will figure this out. We can’t not figure it out. We are as caught in the force of evolution as are all species, and evolution is bigger than we are. It is the ultimate correction.

A Nervous Condition

Taken from “Friedman’s Fables:”
“…One day, as she was walking home, Little John’s wife chanced upon a mother cat giving suck to her newborn kittens. As they scrambled over one another in their thirst, the mother carefully guided each one to its turn, stretching out a firm but gentle paw as she lay contentedly on her side. Then Little John’s wife noticed that one of the kittens had been born lame; its leg had not been fully formed, and it had more difficulty maneuvering than the others. Strangely, it was also the most aggressive. While the other kittens, when satisfied, went off to sleep, this one kept coming back to wiggle its way in front. Each time, however, the mother cat pushed it away, at first gently, and then with successively harder whacks…”
A Nervous Condition by Edwin Friedman

Is it a cruel mother cat or is there something here we might learn? Would her lame kitten be better served by sensitivity or care or was the kitten being served well by the discipline her mother instinctively delivered? When it comes to raising our children when is it about discipline and when is it about sensitivity?

What do we do when one or more of our children seems to have been born “lame” in some way, when they seem to be struggling more than the other(s)? Has your child been diagnosed with ADD or with some behavioral or emotional problem? Does your child seem to struggle with anxiety? If you’re like me, when you see your child having a problem, you worry…and worry…and THEN you get busy. Busy learning about what to do for the lame little beast. What do I feed him? Do we vaccinate? How do I discipline her properly? What is too much discipline? What is too little? How do I make sure she is growing up in a calm environment so as not to disturb her more delicate state? And when we do the best we can and they respond with increasing cantankerousness, ill-humor, and dyspepsia, those of us on the more neurotic side of the scale…just sayin’… ask the fatal and seemingly unavoidable question: WHAT-DID-I-DO-WRONG?!

We can rack our brains for years wondering what we did wrong and what we could do better, and when this automatic emotional process goes on long enough, and things get worse, we reason that we have done everything possible for the ungrateful little beasts-who-are-now-bigger-beasts, so it must be THEM!

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But it’s a fallacy to think in such black and white terms when it comes to such complex issues and challenges as raising a child. It’s either them or me…it’s either the husband or the wife…it was either too much discipline or too little sensitivity. These black and white terms block us from thinking about things more objectively, from being able reflect upon the part we play, the part our ancestors play, the part our culture and physical environment play, and the part our children play—without the blame.

But what the heck does that mean…the part we play? The part we play in what?!

Dr. Murray Bowen, father of family therapy, identified and described 4 patterns of interaction that all families find themselves living out in one relationship or another. Knowing what these patterns are helps us identify not only which pattern(s) we may be enacting but also the part we play in keeping them going. Dr. Bowen’s idea was that emotional problems in families are merely the symptoms or direct results of these interactional patterns. Change your part and you change the pattern. If you want to read about them, I’ll copy a link later in this post.

The steps to change in any family relationship are simple enough but certainly not easy.

Step 1 is Education. What are the interactional patterns we get into when anxiety is high in any relationship? You can read about the 4 typical patterns here.

Step 2 is to Observe. Which of the 4 pattern(s) do you fall into with your lame little beasts? What part do you play in keeping it going? What part does your spouse play? Your children? The environment?

Step 3 is to Change YOUR part and to resist trying to change or “help” your child (or your spouse…or your mother-in-law) with HIS or HER part. Learning to tell the difference between what is yours and what belongs to someone else is key. If you find yourself having difficulty, find a family therapist. A neutral 3rd party can make all the difference.

Steps 2 and 3 in particular are more effective when you can approach things with an attitude of curiosity and an unwavering willingness to experiment and to learn from what you experience. Without thoughtful reflection, we are at the mercy of our automatic fears and worries, and so are our children.

The cool thing about Mama Cat wasn’t that she swatted her kitten. I’m not advocating going back to the good ol’ days of spanking children into submission. The cool thing about Mama Cat was that she wasn’t worried or angry. She was clear. Our children have real problems, ill-formed legs and all, but when we forget that our own anxiety and anger is more important to deal with than anything else, it is we the parents who grow lame.