Depression and Anxiety

Healing Shame as a Couple: A New Path to a Stronger Bond

healing shameHealing shame as a couple offers an opportunity to draw each other closer, to bring a new level of empathy and compassion to a marriage or relationship and to create a more secure, loving bond.

Sounds like a tall order, huh? Indeed, perhaps, but a worthwhile journey.

Shame keeps us from truly experiencing deep connection with another person and from fully experiencing joy. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we are less likely to affirm others, to reach out to others or to feel compassion and empathy for ourselves.

However, learning shame resilience allows the joy in. Hence, the worthwhile journey. Here, we’re going to discuss how shame limits connection and the path toward healing shame as a couple.

The Power of Shame

Marie* was very controlled by her partner in her last relationship. Now, in her relationship with Devin, she becomes fearful of any signs he could be asserting control or being manipulative. As a child, her alcoholic father was critical and had very strict rules. Marie easily gets emotionally triggered when Devin makes even small requests — that they work on a budget together or when he tries to plan their vacation by making suggestions.

Alice and Jim have begun a negative pattern of arguing over neatness around the house. Jim gets easily upset with Alice when she leaves things around and when she’s not as tidy as he wants. Alice is frustrated because she thinks she’s accommodating Jim the best she can, yet it’s never quite enough.

The problem is that shame stays hidden, so we’re not fully aware of how shame affects us. Here’s the other part of these stories:

Deep down, Marie hides shame that she was not good enough or attractive enough to be an equal partner in her previous relationship. She also lacks confidence from her at-times chaotic childhood. Devin tries to reassure her, but Marie’s fears often lead to arguments and accusations that Devin is asserting control.

Jim was raised by a critical mother, and neatness was one of the ways he would try to get her approval. Though, no matter how he tried, his mother would find fault.

How Shame in Relationships Limits Connection

We can easily see how hidden shame impacts these couples. Unspoken shame has power; as we’ll soon see. Speaking about and sharing our deeper feelings is the weapon that can diminish that power.

Shame in relationships includes:

    • One partner putting on a facade or front to protect their image with their partner (and with others)
    • Keeping deeper feelings hidden to avoid having the partner or others find out about personal “flaws”
  • Connection can be blocked because of the “mask” we wear to avoid being authentic

Understanding “Shame Resilience”

Noted shame researcher Brene Brown, Ph.D., uses the term “shame resilience” to describe how we can combat feelings of shame. And, she says, resilience begins with developing greater empathy toward ourselves and toward others.

And, yes, we begin with ourselves (though as we discuss soon, our partner can help).

We tend to keep shame hidden — we are ashamed of our shame! And, the hiding of shame is what gives it such power. When we learn to face shame head-on and with empathy, we can begin to deflate its impact. “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive,” she writes.

Dr. Brown, in her book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (Gotham/Penguin, 2012), she designates four elements of shame resilience:

    • Recognizing shame and understanding its triggers. Learning to recognize when you’re feeling shame and what events evoke these feelings.
    • Practicing critical awareness. Becoming able to see whether messages beneath your shame and expectations are realistic, attainable and what you actually want to be
    • Reaching out. “Are you owning and sharing your story? We can’t experience empathy if we’re not connecting,” she points out.
  • Speaking shame. Talking about shame and asking for what you need from your partner when shame surfaces.

In counseling, Marie shares her feelings with Devin, as well as her deep fears that she’ll lose the relationship. Now, Devin can make sense of her actions — and he can reassure her that their relationship is secure. She can begin to realize he’s not at all like the manipulator she felt shamed by in her previous relationship.

Also in counseling, Jim reveals his shame that lies beneath his demands of neatness in the home. Alice softens, and now it’s clear to her why their arguments can become so heated. With shame out in the open, they can work together healing shame as a couple with loving acceptance and kindness.

Healing Shame as a Couple Builds Connection

Sue Johnson, Ph.D., the leading developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, points out the problems of keeping shame hidden. “[Brain] scans show that suppression actually heightened activity in the amygdala, ‘fear central’ in the brain.” People become more stressed and tense when we hold back negative emotions.

And, importantly, she notes, “The most functional way to regulate difficult emotions in love relationships is to share them.”

Think back to a time when you shared deep feelings with someone who was able to listen and respond with understanding. You probably felt lighter, a sense of relief. That’s the power of connection and the power of not containing and hiding shame. And, that’s the power of connection and how healing shame as a couple reinforces connection and trust.

Building Self-Compassion

One of the powerhouses of defeating shame is building our personal arsenal to diminish the hold shame can have on us. And, developing self-compassion is a fundamental tool.

A great resource is the work of Kristin Neff, Ph.D., whose work on developing self-compassion is well known.  Dr. Neff writes: “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”

Self-compassion involves acting with kindness and empathy toward yourself when you are having a difficult time, experience a failure, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. “Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?,” Dr. Neff explains.

Her website, www.self-compassion.org, is rich with information, including a self-test that’s easy and helpful to complete.

Defeating  and Healing Shame Together

Let’s look back at our two couples. Marie and Devin can now stand together as a team to work toward healing shame as a couple and create a new level of empathy. Devin asks Marie to let him know when she’s feeling afraid.

They work at talking through her feelings, and Devin learns what triggers her shame, so he can now approach those “land mines” differently. Marie works hard to accept that her fears were developed in painful past experiences. She accepts that those were very challenging times.

Jim begins to accept his shame as driven from his past. As a couple, they have several healing conversations in which Jim sincerely apologizes for his actions and accusations.

Now that Alice has deeper insight into Jim’s behavior, she is able to forgive. They can become partners in defeating shame and building greater compassion for each other.

These couples made it emotionally safe to explore their inner feelings and the emotions beneath their behaviors. They sought counseling because they were stuck in trying to break the cycles of arguing on their own.

Emotionally Focused Therapy authors and trainers Brent Bradley, Ph.D., and James Furrow, Ph.D., in their “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Dummies (Wiley, 2013) (yes, there is a “dummies” book for EFT!) suggest:

    • Recognize that shame is often colored by fear — a fear of being vulnerable, of not being fully accepted
    • If your partner becomes defensive, understand that shame is an internal battle with oneself. Your partner’s defensiveness may feel personal, so realize it’s not about you.
    • Show appreciation for the risks your partner is taking to reveal shame and the courage he or she is showing to step into such a painful place with you.
  • Validate your partner’s experience. You don’t need to have gone through his or her pain to understand your partner’s feelings.  Keep in mind that your partner’s emotional landscape may be different than your own. Allow them to be your guide by listening with compassion.

Healing shame as a couple is not easy for many. Yet, breaking through the barriers to connection that are the result of hidden shame can lead to new opportunities for closeness and joy together.

* Names and circumstances have been changed to preserve privacy.

Shame in Relationships: Powerful Forces Can Undermine Connection

shame in relationshipsShame in relationships often lies hidden, beneath the awareness of each partner. Yet, shame can have a powerful impact on

each partner and in how they interact with each other, particularly during stressful times.

Shame is defined as believing we are flawed and unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame is a belief deep within our daily awareness that we are not valuable, that we are somehow flawed and perhaps not worthy of love and happiness.

Importantly, shame can block our connection in relationships. We are often fearful of sharing our deeper beliefs and fears about shame — and this can keep us distant from our partner.

As we learn about shame and how it affects our lives, we can also learn to change our inner thoughts, our behaviors and reduce how shame can be negatively impacting our relationship with our significant other.

Shame in relationships is so important to identify and work through that we’re devoting two posts to this vital topic: In this article, we’re going to give you a primer on shame and discuss how men and women can experience shame differently. In the second, we’ll help you understand pathways to battle shame and to building empathy and greater understanding of yourself and your partner.

How Shame Limits Happiness

First, shame is different than guilt or embarrassment. We may feel guilt based on something we did. Shame, on the other hand, is feeling bad about ourselves and who we are. Guilt can fade over time; shame stays with us, often beneath our awareness, unless we take actions to defeat this “inner enemy.” Embarrassment is less painful because it tends to be fleeting, and we know similar situations often happen to others.

Noted “shame researcher” Brene Brown, Ph.D., whose books and TED talks have created a greater awareness of shame and its impact on our lives, notes, “Shame is all about fear . . . Shame is about the fear of disconnection. When we experience shame, we are steeped in the fear of being ridiculed, diminished or seen as flawed. We are afraid that we’ve exposed or revealed a part of us that jeopardizes our connection and our worthiness of acceptance.”

Psychologist Richard Lazarus points out that shame can result from a variety of factors, from the family environment of our childhood to cultural messages. We may experience shame as a result of ideals we believe we fail to achieve.

Psychologist Tara Brach says experiences of shame can originate in broader cultural messages that give us a set of very high standards. “We were told to be special, to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to work harder, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to be too dramatic, shy or loud.”

Sources of shame in childhood can include being criticized, bullied, blamed, neglected and not provided with positive nurturing. Shame can be linked to trauma, including physical or sexual abuse. Shame gets a foothold when we don’t feel good enough as ourselves, as who we are. We feel we don’t measure up to others, to expectations or to an ideal desired by others.

Shame and Connection and Belonging

We’ve written quite a bit here on our website about the importance of the emotional and physical connection between partners. Research has validated how having a secure relationship contributes to our overall well-being and the desire humans have for an emotional bond with their partner.

The role of shame and relationships can be rooted in each person’s beliefs about themselves as being lovable. “If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging,” Dr. Brown writes.

If we have areas about which we feel shame, the ability to maintain a healthy relationship — particularly during difficult or stressful times — can be challenging. The need to belong and for connection to a significant other can get confused with the need to please others, to ignore our own needs for the sake of maintaining connection and to be able to ask for our needs to be met by our partner.

Where Shame Leads . . .

A few of the ways we may unintentionally be coping with shame include:

    • Addictions. We numb our feelings with alcohol, drugs, food, work, sex.
    • Perfectionism. We don’t feel good enough, so we are on a treadmill of sorts trying to continually prove ourselves and avoid criticism, judgment or blame.
    • Anxiety. We may feel we would be okay if we were smarter, stronger, better and could handle anything life throws our way.
    • Anger. We may unintentionally blame or criticize others, including our partner, in response to feelings of shame, as a way of protecting our own vulnerability.
    • Depression. We can feel helpless to improve our situation because of our core beliefs about ourselves as not deserving something better.

Shame in relationships can have two origins or roots: Partners may have come into the relationship with some shame related to who they are. Or, shame can result from actions by the partner during the course of the relationship that can include criticism and blame. Unfortunately, in abusive relationships, the person who feels blamed can begin to lose confidence and a sense of emotional security.

Women, Men & Shame

Dr. Brown’s research has yielded some very interesting information on how men and women in America experience shame.

For women, shame is centered around how they look and being “good enough.” Cultural messages to women include:

    • Look perfect. Do perfect. Be perfect. Anything less is shaming.
    • Despite achievements, women may struggle to feel good enough.
    • Shame can result when women can’t “do it all” — at work, at home, as a spouse.
    • Women can feel they are never enough at home, with kids, in bed.
    • As a youth, girls may have felt they were never cool enough.

Men, on the other hand, are triggered by fears of being seen as weak or a failure. Shame for men can occur when they feel:

    • Failure at work, in sports, in marriage, with money, with children
    • Being wrong; not doing it wrong, but being wrong
    • A sense of being defective, being seen as having any weakness or being anything but tough
    • Showing fear
    • As a youth, boys felt criticized or ridiculed

When we look at the broader context in our culture, we can see how shame does, indeed, feel different for men and women. Now, let’s look at how we experience shame in relationships.

Many Forms of Shame in Relationships

Interactions with our partner can trigger long-held and often-hidden shame beliefs. Women can feel insecure in their relationships if they don’t feel pretty or good enough, for example. Men can feel shame in relationships if their role doesn’t live up to cultural standards to be tough, fearless and take-charge.

Both feel pressure to be good sexual partners and good parents.

Julie and Sam* have struggled with arguing the past few years, mostly centered around parenting. During times when their arguments escalated, Julie would be critical of Sam’s limited interactions with their kids. Sam would criticize Julie for being too lenient and for coddling the youngsters.

Can you find the shame? It’s sneaky and often hidden — and each person experiences shame differently and attaches meaning to what is said in very unique ways. Sam feels shame because he works long hours to give the family a good and secure lifestyle. He’s often tired in the evenings, and knows he’s not fulfilling all of Julie’s needs as both husband and father.

Julie strives to be a “perfect” parent (which is, of course, impossible!). However, when Sam says she’s lenient with the kids, she feels an emotional stab of shame that she’s not a successful mother.

Their different shame triggers keep them from being able to calmly talk about how they want to parent as a team and to agree on household rules for the kids.

Here’s another example: Carrie was cheated on by her former partner. She is insecure in her relationship with Gina. Carrie gets upset when Gina doesn’t answer texts, when Gina is out with her friends and, well, just about any time.

Since discovering her previous partner’s infidelity, Carrie has struggled to feel confident and good enough as a desirable partner. Since meeting Gina, she has become insecure and jealous — emotions she never felt before. To make matters more difficult, Carrie feels intense shame about her fears about Gina being faithful. Gina becomes frustrated because it’s so hard to reassure Carrie that their relationship is secure.

Hope for Healing Shame in Relationships

There is, fortunately, good news. We can learn to identify the roots of our feelings of shame, to understand their impact on our relationship and to work toward diminishing that inner voice that tells us we aren’t good enough.

In the next post, we’ll explore what researchers have discovered about healing shame and the role our partner can play in helping us grow and thrive.

Learn more about our Couples Counseling Services in Denver

Book a complimentary couples therapy consultation in Denver

 

* Names and circumstances have been changed to preserve confidentiality.

 

Dealing with Anxiety After an Affair: When Will it Get Better?

Anxiety After an Affair: Very Common and Very ChallengingAnxiety after an affair

Anxiety after an affair is a major obstacle for couples to work though, and, while common, can be a substantial challenge in the healing process.

What we’ve found in working with couples is that:

  • The amount of time for the anxiety to lessen varies greatly with the individual who was hurt by the cheating
  • The partner who went outside of the relationship may become frustrated because he or she is working hard to alleviate the partner’s fears, but can feel helpless as the anxiety continues
  • The healing process is most effective when both partners understand the challenge and are able to work as a team to address the anxiety.

In this post, we’ll aim to deepen your understanding of why anxiety after an affair is so challenging. We’ll then explore some ways in which partners can collaborate to ease the nervousness that has become so prevalent.

Not Unusual at All

Infidelity is a traumatic event in a relationship. Our biggest fear in relationships is losing our partner. This fear is the root cause of the anxiety and can result in varying types of actions as the hurt partner strives to be certain the connection is secure.

These typically stem from an intense need to know the partner is now faithful, and may include:

  • Strong desires to verify partner’s activities; “Why were you late?”, “You didn’t answer your phone or return my text for so long!”
  • A need to check the partner’s phone and email for any signs of improper outside contact
  • Behaviors seen by the partner as controlling: “Who are you going to lunch with at work?”, “When will you be home?”

Healing is hampered, often, because these fear-driven behaviors by the hurt partner are not understood by the offending partner. The behaviors feel demanding, overly controlling and totally distrustful. The offending partner may feel, “Will you ever trust me again?”

Stay with us here; we’ll help you understand the fear and what lies beneath.

At the same time, when cheating is discovered, the hurt partner experiences a range of emotions that can include:

  • Shame that he or she is inadequate to meet partner’s needs
  • Intense waves of feelings from sadness to anger to withdrawal
  • Insecurity about the relationship, often for the first time in the couple’s history together

Anxiety of the hurt partner can thus feel as if this worry and fear is taking over the relationship. And, at times, these fears actually do become a dominant force between the couple.

Anxiety After an Affair: A Deeper Understanding

When any difficult or traumatic event occurs, our brain is wired to now be on the alert. We are  suddenly more likely to be fearful about any sign of disconnection in the relationship. A person may now react quickly and automatically to any possible trigger related to the trauma.

At times, the hurt partner herself or himself can’t figure out why the anxiety persists and continues to cause such highly escalated emotions. The hurt partner may be trying to recover from the affair, yet still has strong urges to search for any signs of “danger” to the relationship.

“Her emotions go from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds,” a partner might remark. “I try to reassure her, but my attempts never seem to go very far.”

“He just doesn’t understand that I can’t just ‘move on’ and let go of all this anxiety,” is a common reply.

The anxiety on the part of the hurt partner can impede recovery because arguments often result from one partner feeling controlled and constantly questioned. The hurt partner then may feel their partner is defensive and insincere — and those responses can trigger a fear that there is something being hidden.

It’s important to realize that the hurt partner’s anxiety is a natural and very human response to a hurtful event.

We’re Hard-Wired for Strong Connections

Anxiety after an affair is so common because of the strong emotional connection that occurs when couples fall in love. We are drawn to our partner both physically and emotionally and a strong, powerful bond is created.

This human bond developed in early, primitive times to keep us safe from predators. We banded together in groups to be more secure. We then became bonded as well to one special individual.

Any disruption, or threat, to that bond can become embedded in the emotional center of our brain. Hence, those intense feelings of anxiety after an affair is discovered.

Because we humans learn to love deeply, we hurt deeply, too.

Understanding Anxiety

We most often find that both partners are struggling to cope with the hurt partner’s anxiety after an affair. After all, anxiety is unpleasant and often misunderstood.

Therefore, it can be helpful to understand more about the nature of anxiety so you can collaborate together in coping, rather than becoming more upset when the anxious feelings occur.

It’s helpful to know:

  • Anxiety varies greatly with the individual. How each person experiences anxiety can have a range of intensity, from mild to very extreme.
  • Anxiety can include an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, racing thoughts, difficulty sleeping, problems with concentration, stomach discomfort, chest pain, fatigue and a general feeling of restlessness and being on edge
  • Anxiety is often accompanied by unwanted, repetitive thoughts and compulsive behaviors — such as persistent questioning, a strong need to check the partner’s phone and email and a great need for ongoing reassurance
  • For some, anxiety feels like a sudden panic.

Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress, fear and apprehension of a possible future event. Accepting and understanding this “natural response” can be quite challenging, however.

Coping with Anxiety

There are several self-care ways to assist in coping with anxiety. These can include:

  • Eating healthy, avoiding excess sugar, caffeine and alcohol, which can trigger anxiety in some people
  • Learn breathing exercises to help your body gain a sense of safety and security (which, in turn, helps the brain learn to relax). You can find several ideas on the internet, and there are a number of phone apps to assist you in learning to breathe for relaxation as well.
  • Exercise is very helpful for many to reduce anxiety
  • Working to get enough sleep, even though this may be more difficult after the affair discovery

In some cases, counseling and/or medication may be an important component of coping with anxiety after an affair if the hurt partner’s anxiety is disruptive to daily well-being and health and if the anxiety continues with intensity.

Healing Together

Coping with the hurt partner’s anxiety can be — and this may indeed seem contradictory — an important way of healing and a key component of affair recovery. You can learn to stand together in helping the anxious partner work through periods of anxiety.

Here are some ideas:

  1. Work together to accept the anxiety as a common occurrence after infidelity. Rather than “fighting” the anxiety (which creates even more tension!), acknowledge that anxiety will occur. Or, as therapists often say, “Name it to tame it.” You can both say, “Yes, it’s that anxiety again. We know it will happen.”
  2. If you’re the hurt partner, try to discover what will help reassure you. Can you request that your partner provide what you need? Is it a calming discussion, acceptance of your pain, reassurance of commitment to the relationship?
  3. If you’re the offending partner, avoid being defensive. This is critically important, as you’ll see in our related articles. Its helpful to learn to accept your partner’s feelings as genuine and that he or she is struggling to stay calm. You may not fully understand your partner’s emotions or anxiety; however, they are real and true for him or her.

The majority of couples seek to recover from infidelity. However, not all can heal without help. Counselors trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy have a proven roadmap for helping couples heal after a hurtful event. Seeking professional help may be the best path for this difficult phase of your life together.

More Helpful Posts

Because recovery from infidelity is such an important and challenging area, we’ve devoted several articles to this subject. You can read more about affair recovery  

If you’d like to book a free consultation to discuss healing after an affair, click here. Or, you can read more about our approach to Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy.

Do I Need Individual Counseling AND Couples Counseling?

I’ve noticed an increase in the number of people who call and ask, “Do I Need Individual Counseling AND Couples Counseling?”Woman free from depression  While there are times that this is needed, I’ll give the perspective that I have as a couples counselor on whether you should seek both individual counseling and couples counseling.

The Notion That You Need to Work On Yourself First Is Outdated and Blaming

One of the main reasons that people feel they may need individual counseling is that they think, or have been told by their partner, that they have “some issues” to work out. Sure, folks have issues. However, the majority of the time, unless we are talking about a serious mental health diagnosis or some other big stuff, it’s not a good idea to see your issues as something that you need to go off in private to work on. 

Why is your relationship struggling? Is it because you have these issues that you can’t handle, and your partner is an innocent bystander being caught in the crossfire of your stuff? Or are you like most couples, where you both do things that result in the other person feeling hurt, unheard, angry, etc? The fact is that relationships can be a huge contributor to things like depression and anxiety, as well as anger and bad moods. Fights and distance can make depression and anxiety worse. Looking at these things outside of the relationship is like going to the doctor for knee pain and not bringing your knee.  A LOT of things can successfully be addressed in the light of improving your most important relationship.

Plus, it makes it seem like you’re the reason your relationship is struggling. As a couples counselor, I know this is usually not true. And buying into blaming one person for what’s wrong in a relationship is, well, probably not helping the relationship. 

The Notion That Your Partner’s Involvement Can’t Help You Heal Is Also Outdated

In the olden days, psychoanalysis was an individual pursuit. The field of relationship therapy came out of a response to seeing that our loved ones are the biggest source of both our pleasure and pain. Not including them really denies how powerful the bond with your loved ones is in helping you cope. 

There are things that we bring into a relationship that are bigger than the relationship itself. Things like depression, anxiety, past trauma, these are all things that can feel like a huge barrier to us being able to be really present and show up in our relationship in a way that creates closeness instead of distance or fights. Being able to explore some of how this impacts your relationship, with your partner in the room, can really help them understand what’s going on, and how they play a role (positive or not) in the interactions between you.

There is some research being done that is pointing to the healing power of the relationship for things like addictions, depression, and trauma. There’s even evidence that we feel pain and fear more intensely when we don’t have the comfort of our partner (if the relationship is strong). Things that have traditionally warranted a solely individual approach can be folded in with the couples counseling in powerful ways. And working on improving the relationship has incredible benefits for your individual coping and resilience. Win-win.  Many of these things do require individual counseling as well, but we prefer to suggest that you start with couples counseling before adding individual counseling.

Why We Suggest Starting With Couples Counseling First

Instead of jumping feet first into several types of counseling at once, we suggest starting with couples counseling for several reasons:

  1. It gives the therapist a chance to assess the situation and help you decide if it’s indeed true that you need extra individual support from another therapist doing individual therapy.
  2. Your couples therapist can help you find ways in which the individual therapy and couples counseling are going to compliment each other. You can choose an individual therapist that works from a relationship point of view. Some types of therapy can accidentally undermine your couples work by giving you contradictory advice, such as to deal with your emotions by yourself instead of learning how to respond to becoming upset with your partner in the moment, with them there.  We really like to set individual therapy clients up with another practitioner who also does couples therapy right here in our practice. This way, you know you will be complimenting both your individual and couples therapy by addressing things in both types of therapy in ways that make sense together.
  3. It prevents you from starting too much counseling at once. This can be counterproductive and confusing.
  4. It gives you, as a couple, a good first glimpse into all the things that you’ll be able to accomplish with couples therapy. This helps get you off to a good start where you are both seeing your own role in the relationship issues, rather than one partner being pre-labeled as the “one who really needs the therapy.”

Do I Need Individual Counseling AND Couples Counseling?

Hopefully this has given you some glimpse into how we approach this, but this is a good question to ask any counselor that you are considering seeing. If someone absolutely says that you shouldn’t do couples therapy until all of your individual issues are resolved, you can run screaming for the hills.  And if you ask a couples counselor this question, you can get a good glimpse into how they work and what their approach is.

Disclaimer 

There are some instances where couples counseling is absolutely not a good idea – such as when there is physical abuse in the relationship, or when someone has active addiction that is so strong that they are not yet capable of interacting in a meaningful way in therapy. (However, both of these situations also need assessment because they aren’t black and white, so it’s still best to contact a qualified couples therapist to get assessed).

 

 

Counseling for Anxiety and Relationship Issues Actually Changes Your Brain

Help Ahead for depression and relationship issues'Did you know that counseling for anxiety and relationship issues (as well as a host of other things) can re-wire your brain?

Many people have heard of how the way that we think influences how we feel. And most of the time, the way we feel influences how we think. If we experience a worry, that can create a physical feeling of anxiety. This physical feeling and the fear that come with it cause us to do things that might not be helpful, such as worry more or avoid situations that cause us stress. Sometimes it’s the physical feeling that comes first. All of these things seem to be wrapped up together.

The same is true for conflict in relationships. It’s easy to go on autopilot and have that same fight with your spouse over and over, without ever wondering if there’s something that your brain has been trained to do. You feel nervous and defensive in your body, and you know there’s going to be a disagreement. So you go ahead an strike first.

All of this happens without even thinking most of the time. And the more your do and experience certain types of things, the more they are likely to happen.

Your brain chemistry changes with your experiences.

In science this is called brain plasticity, but what it means is very practical. It means that even adults have a tremendous capacity to change how their brains are wired, for the better. You can actually learn how to create an upward spiral for yourself that is even better than antidepressants or anxiety drugs. Sometimes these drugs can be a lifesaver, but pills alone never work at both the symptoms and their causes. When you learn how to re-wire your brain through powerful techniques learned in counseling for anxiety and relationship issues, you are not only learning how to address the causes of the problem with different behaviors, but you are actually changing your brain’s chemistry, much like an antidepressant.

The details of how your brain changes are too detailed to get into here, but think of it this way: If you drive a Jeep down a muddy road, you leave tracks in the mud. The more you drive through that, the deeper the tracks get. When the mud dries and hardens, you are left with hard tracks that the wheels of your Jeep will naturally fall into the next time you go down that road. Our thoughts, feelings, actions, and brain chemistry create these tracks. These tracks represent how our brains are wired to have a certain chemical and neurological makeup. It is within your power to create new tracks, and actually have different chemistry and neurology. This means a new experience with a re-wired brain. You aren’t destined to drive down that same path with those old brain wires if you have some help in creating those new tracks.

If you are interested in learning more about how to create real and lasting change through counseling for anxiety and relationship issues, we’d be honored to help. Call our Lakewood office now to get your  free consultation and explore what new tracks you’d like to create on your road to the life you want.

The Real Reason You Can’t Stay Motivated

The real reason you can't stay motivatedI have a really bad habit when I’m trying to stay motivated to change something about my life. It’s something that I recognize does me no good, but it creeps up on me like the dishes and the laundry. I don’t notice it at first, but then suddenly I’m knee-deep.  Somehow my optimism about things has dissolved and I have a case of the screw-its. I’m talking about feeling discouraged at the amount of progress I’ve made in my endeavors. Trying to be a better parent and spouse. Trying to do the things that I know are important for my mental and physical well-being.  Have you ever worked hard at something, but couldn’t stay motivated because you weren’t seeing any progress? Since I’m a human, I do things that work against my peace of mind. And, since I’m a therapist, I know I didn’t invent this little mind game.  In my Lakewood counseling practice I see this all the time.

There are plenty ways to describe this habit. You can call it perfectionism, pessimism, realism, the need for instant gratification (I want this issue fixed now). Sometimes I just call it:

“I’m never going to stop yelling as a parent. Things were going well this morning and then I blew it.”

“My partner and I haven’t solved our fighting problem, this isn’t working at all.”

Why do we do this to ourselves? Goal setting and staying motivated while you are imperfect isn’t easy. Here’s a neat way to combat this that I got from a mentor of mine:

String.

Yes.

String. This is a powerful metaphor for setting goals and having confidence. And it’s a way to learn how to be gentle with yourself. Here’s how it goes:

Everyone has a certain length of string. This string represents how much good stuff we have that can combat a problem. Coping skills and tools to use in difficult situations. Knowledge that we need. Resources such as having enough support and encouragement. Usually we have a relatively short piece of string. We humans tend to recycle the same strategies to deal with issues over and over. We yell. We sulk. We turn to substances or other distractions. We get mad. We approach our issues the same way over and over.

We add to our string every time that we work at improving ourselves, try to learn new ways to deal, etc.  So you tried to be patient with your spouse and not start an argument when you would otherwise have gotten into a huge fight? String. You are trying to take better care of yourself by eating healthier? String. You tried out meditation that one time? String. We don’t add a whole lot of string at one time because we don’t magically erase all of our problems at once. We tend to add it inch by inch.

Here’s the problem

If you had five feet of string, then, no, an inch wouldn’t even be noticeable. That is the lens that we are looking through – we think we have way more than we do, so small changes are too little, too late. But, adding an inch of string to 4 inches is a significant improvement.  That’s something to protect and keep working at. It’s very, very easy to discount your efforts because you think that you should be better at this happiness thing. Then, it’s hard to stay motivated to keep trying.

You didn’t yell at your children this morning, but by the end of the day you were barking orders from the couch again. You tried really hard not to argue with your spouse, but you still had an argument anyway. We think, “That’s nice, but it’s not enough. This isn’t fixed.” We focus on the fact that we didn’t add ten feet of string, and we cut off the bit that we do have by thinking it’s not enough.

It may sound strange that overestimating how many coping skills we really have is not helpful. Isn’t self-esteem important? But, what does it do to your self-esteem to feel like no matter how hard you try, you stink and aren’t changing enough in your life?  By remembering that naturally we humans only have a few ways that we know of to deal with issues, we can take a deep breath and realize that a teeny bit of string added (to our tiny bit of string) is a real change. Yelling bit less during the day, holding off before you jump into that argument, thinking about starting to eat better – inch by inch you are making real progress.

So when I’m getting discouraged at just how little I’ve been able to change, I try to take that as a clue that I need to think about string. If you are struggling to improve your relationships or accomplish your goals and feeling stuck, it might be time to call us at (720) 443-1947 to schedule a free 30-minute consultation and learn how to create the life you want.

Kat Mindenhall, LCSW, is the Director of A Peaceful Life Counseling Services in Lakewood, CO. She specializes in helping people create vibrant lives and relationships.