Saturday, October 30, 2010

Your Happiness Makes Me Happy...

It's a dilemma, isn't it? We want to see those we care about happy, and if they're not we're not happy. So, is that healthy? What if that person just wants space to be angry about something, without being "coaxed" out of it, or wants to figure out how to make things better without involvement from anyone else? Can we let go enough to let them figure it out?

People have begun to realize that they are dependent on others for how they feel, and want in return to make others happy.

This tendency to people-please is usually done unconsciously but the consequences are something we definitely are aware of - frustration, anger, hurt, rejection, etc. This then can escalate in to a fight or at the very least cause resentments to pile up that in turn can cause two people to grow further and further apart until they wake up one day and wonder why they don't love each another anymore, or even like the other person in many cases. Which can be especially exasperating when they might have once been passionately in love or really, really good friends.

Although the first step is awareness of the behavior that caused the effects/consequences, the answer brings up all sorts of frustration for those who first find out they are co-dependent.

"So, how do I change it," they ask, often in desperation.

"By becoming aware of the needs you have, how they did not get met as a child, and how you will have to find healthy ways to get them fulfilled you for YOU," I respond.

"What does that mean?"

This is when I pull out the One-Way Relationships Workbook and we get started. Co-dependence isn't easy to break. It takes courage. In many cases my clients find it too much of a challenge and ask to do something else. In other cases, those that keep working on it begin to see the faulty conclusions they made as a child and the way these beliefs have made up their suffering today. We begin to change those beliefs until they are more empowering ones.

I usually first ask the other person to work on having compassion with him/her self. This is vitally important as painful events begin to come up along with painful feelings. Many times the client has to grieve what was lost in his/her childhood, such as innocence. This is often the case because a co-dependent is asked to grow up quite fast, to become the adult because someone else would not take responsibility for his actions, so the co-dependent took responsibility for everything (or close to it). Part of the process is learning what to take responsibility for in a relationship and what not to take responsibility for. Can you just let the other person have their feelings and not take it personally or try to change it? That's the challenge, because this is what is healthy behavior and easy to do for those who did not grow up with parents modeling just the opposite.

Regardless the process, it takes time and it takes commitment. Despite the amount of work needed to stop being a co-dependent, it is most certainly worth it. My clients have felt freer and much happier in their lives as a result...and so have I.

Homework: Begin to research it...are you a co-dependent? Does your mood depend on the mood of those around you? Do you take responsibility for what goes wrong in your relationships leaving the other person off the hook and not taking responsibility for anything? If the answer to any of these is "yes", then it is worth it to begin the process of stop being co-dependent.

Advocating For Yourself

One the things that I have noticed in my professional practice is that people struggle when it comes to advocating for themselves. Confrontation is one of those issues that people seem to want to avoid at just about any cost, including themselves. Instead of finding a way to ask for what we want or need, we push it down and hope it goes away. Everything could be resolved by making simple requests, yet we are afraid that the person we ask will not be open to hearing what we are saying or, worse, will reject us in some way. And, we take it personally every time someone does not give us what we want.

It would be simple for us to calmly ask for what we want/need. So, why do we not just do it? Could it be that we become so emotional ourselves that it is almost impossible to be calm with someone else? Usually we are attached to what we want from others and this gets a response from us, one that is hard to control and makes us more emotional in our asking for what we need from others.

Leslie (all characters are fictitious though based on clinical experience) came to me to reduce her stress, but it quickly became evident that she had been traumatized a great deal as a little girl. Her father would come home from work and would often stomp up the stairs to her room, dragging her out of bed by her feet and demanding she refold the laundry. She would often get beaten and told to refold the clothes over and over again until they were "perfect".

Through the course of our art therapy sessions Leslie discovered that although she was one of the toughest women I had ever met, she was deathly afraid of confrontation. She would become angry when someone would do something to offend her, but instead of confronting the offending person she would express her anger elsewhere, usually on some unsuspecting person (picking a fight with someone that was more her equal rather than an authority figure) or on her self (cutting or using drugs).

It took several attempts, but she began to realize that her fear of her father's abuse was no longer in control over her. She was choosing, instead, to work with people she felt safe with and begin to ask for what she needed, despite the anger and despite her fear. Leslie learned that asking for her needs to be met was appropriate, and that how she asked made a difference. She learned to ask in a way that expressed how she felt, rather than attack, and asked rather than be defensive and angry. It was through practice on being calm, yet assertive that Leslie found her voice.

She is still working on her goal of healthy communication and advocating for her self in appropriate ways (facing the confrontation). However, she has begun to take her sense of control/power back and her self-esteem with it.

Homework: An art therapy directive that works well with the issue of fear of confrontation is having the client make a drawing that illustrates the walls she has around her. In Leslie's case she drew four distinct walls and was able to identify each of them as specific actions she has taken to isolate herself from other in order to not be hurt by them. When you can identify what doesn't work, you can begin to change it to what does/can work.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pandora's Box

So, how many times have you heard the story of Pandora's Box? Several? Me too. It seems to have either found it's way in to our psyches, or the story was created to convey what was already there...the fear that if we let our emotions out, if we take the lid off of that box, we will "lose it" and "all hell will break lose". We will have no control over our anger, over our sadness, over our rage, etc. And, these emotions will destroy us (or those around us) if we let them out.

This fear of our emotions leads us to hold them back as much as possible. We don't allow ourselves to feel what is there. We push them down and hope they'll magically go away.

The only problem is that they don't go away. Instead, they grow and get bigger, only to explode down the road or come out in deviant ways, leading us to believe in Pandora's Box even that much more. Because, "See. I knew that if I expressed my emotions they would destroy things."

So, how do we change our relationship to our emotions?

How about considering another way of looking at Pandora's Box? What if instead of one box there are several boxes. Imagine there is a wall of shelves, and on those shelves are multiple boxes, each representing a different emotion and/or a different negative experience. When you are ready, you get to take down a box from the wall of shelves and then open the box long enough to deal with the emotion you choose. You then get to put the lid back on and put the box back on the wall. It's not overwhelming because you are only dealing with one emotion/issue, not every possible emotion all bottled up at the same time.

How much could you get done by approaching it this way? In my professional experience the answer is "a lot".

So, which box would you like to take down and work on?

An art therapy directive that works well with this analogy is the Inside/Outside Box. You choose a box (I usually have several shoe boxes to choose from for my clients) and then choose an issue you are dealing with. Once you have chosen, open the box and put magazine images you have cut out inside and on the outside of the box. The negatives go inside, while the positives go outside. You then put the lid back on the box to close the negatives back in, letting the positives out. Every situation has positives and negatives. And, sometimes just looking through magazines and choosing images that call to you can put you in touch with the positives and negatives.

Have fun with the directive. Play with it and see what happens.

You are the one in control, and you can take any box down you would like, or put any box back on the shelf until you are ready to work on it with someone you trust.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It's OK to be YOU!

Who am I? Who am I, really? Do I like to be flashy or plain? Am I outgoing or keep to myself? What is my favorite color? Blue? Pink? Light green? Pine green? Am I in to sports? Or art? Do I like to drive a fast car? An economical one? Am I attracted to brunettes? Blonde's? Redheads? What kind of job do I want to do for the rest of my life? Am I happy in this one? Should I change? Stay the same? Do I like fish? Steak? Do I want to stay is this relationship? Leave? Am I spiritual? An atheist? Am I happy with me? Or, is there something I want to change about me? How can I accept myself more?

There are soooo many questions that when we get to explore the possible answers to them we find that we are varied and unique from any one else. Conversely, when we keep ourselves from exploring who we are, or are kept from exploring who we are by our primary care-givers while growing up, we find that we become stunted in our growth and unhappy.

Chelsea (all characters mentioned in this blog are fictional, though based on clinical experience) was a 26 year old woman who was engaged and had a two year old son. She had very little sense of who she was and would hardly ever speak up for her self as a result. Her fiance began making unilateral decisions for her and her son, and she found her self shutting down more and more. Before long (and not surprisingly) Chelsea was majorly depressed. She could not understand why, though, as she seemed to have everything she wanted and needed to be happy.

It wasn't until we began to explore who she was separate from anyone else that the answers began to come up. Chelsea had been raised to be the "perfect little girl". She was quiet, calm, got straight A's throughout school, looked pretty, and always did what her parents thought was right for her. She had never gone through a rebellious stage with her parents, and therefore never really became aware of who she was as an individual.

So, we began to explore who she was, without judgment or condemnation.

Turns out she was an artist and she loved the Soul Collage Cards. She began to explore the challenges of what it was to be an adult, and still make time to explore things she enjoyed. She loved shopping, dining out, traveling, and partying with friends. However, she also loved her son and her fiance and wanted to create a stable and happy home.

Before long, Chelsea was realizing that it was ok to have the longings and desires she thought were "taboo". She also realized that she had to find ways to balance her life so that all of her desires could be possible. She began speaking up with her fiance, asking to be included in decisions made regarding the family. She realized that she didn't have to be that perfect little girl anymore and instead started to relax with expectations she had for her self. She was smiling again and feeling more and more in control of her life, having it work for HER.

Homework: Take time to discover YOU! Give yourself permission to want and desire things in all aspects of your life/personality. Then, find that balance to have it all work for you. Even if you can't have what you desire now, look for ways that it can work in the future. Don't give up on you and what you want. Instead, find ways to give voice to your dreams!

What is most important to YOU?

There are so many times that we make our decisions based off of what we think others want us to do, rather than what we feel is best for ourselves. We place what others want from us above what we want for ourselves or feel is important. We do this to avoid making someone angry or disappointed in us, to make someone else happy with us, and to find approval. However, we also do this at the expense of our selves.

If left unchecked, making decisions based on what others think can lead us to unhappiness at best and deep depression at worst.

So, what can we do to break the cycle?

Tonya was one of my first clients. She was a 32 year old woman, married for seven years with two children. She came in to therapy because she wanted to deal with the anger she had from her husband's infidelity, but soon found out that she was more angry at her mother for having so much control over her. Tonya quickly learned that it was her self she had to look at. Why was she giving so much control over to her mother? Was it because her mom would put her down if Tonya didn't do what she wanted? Was it because her mother would use the past failures as a reminder for why Tonya should do what her mother said? All of these things were going on, but Tonya could not seem to see a way out of trying to please her mother, to let the fear of disappointing her mother in, recognizing it, feeling it and then letting it go.

It wasn't until I asked her, "In this moment, with your mother not in THIS room, what do YOU feel is the right thing for you to do?", that Tonya began to see her self as separate from her mother's desires for her.

Tonya struggled with answering this question at first. I had to repeat it several different times, in different ways, until she finally was able to begin to get the idea that it was ok to have a differing view from someone she cared about. She wrote two letters to her mother. One expressed everything Tonya was thinking and feeling, without holding anything back. This also took some work, encouraging Tonya to get in touch with her deepest anger and resentment seemed to assist her in letting her become aware of what she was really feeling.

The second letter was what Tonya requested from her mother; the letter Tonya could give to her mother. This letter was the filtered version of what Tonya had wanted to express, creating requests of her mother in considerate yet assertive ways.

It didn't take long before Tonya felt she had more control over her own decisions, separate from anyone else. She decided to stay in her marriage and continue with her family, making some decisions that her mother did not agree with, but ultimately taking care of her and her immediate family needs above pleasing her mother.

I watched as Tonya went from a sad and angry person to a smiling and joyful woman. She felt free from constraints that had been holding her down for so many years, able to finally find her own voice and believe in her own sense of self-worth, separate from any one else.

Homework: Take the time to find out what is most important to YOU, separate from what you may think anyone else will respond to it. Learn to place importance on what you feel is best for YOU, before any one else. Yes, you want to consider the impact of your choices on others and weigh it against what you feel is important to you. However, be aware that putting what someone else thinks you should do above your own sense of what is important is dependence and ultimately unhealthy to your well-being. Find your voice. Take healthy actions. Take care of what is important to you first.