Article links, Communication

There is a kind of truism that floats around periodically:

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
― Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Often when couples come to counselling with “lack of intimacy” issues, or “improving communications” goals, one of the places we might look first is at how relationship partners fight. Frequently we discover that the process by which they argue is one in which they (consciously or unconsciously) shut each other down, attack and retreat, defend entrenched positions for the purpose of being “right” or “victorious” rather than closely bonded, vulnerable, or intimate. Unfortunately, these arguments styles are only reinforcing patterns of disengagement and emotional pain, making it increasingly difficult to “come back from the brink” the longer these fighting styles continue.

There are a lot of reasons why people get stuck in these entrenchments, and often figuring out why is a big part of couples counselling; therapists will often do the background digging while also introducing new tactics and changed processes into how a couple might deal with conflicts. Changing behaviours without necessarily understanding how they twisted or broke in the first place can sometimes result in at best a bandaid solution: we can address what’s bleeding today, but the wounds festering under the surface will continue to eat away at the sense of connection if we’re not careful.

The fear of being wrong, the fear of not being heard, the perceived risks inherent in being vulnerable enough to even be open to an opponent’s perspective, let alone admitting they might be valid—these are all feelings that get in the way of changing how we engage during relational arguments. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to sit on top of one’s own emotional rollercoaster and explore understanding someone else’s perceptions and perspectives, especially in a heated moment. To figure out how to best approach being open and vulnerable when we’re feeling attacked is a core principle in Emotionally-focused Therapy (EFT), but its roots lie in the kinds of intentional interviewing approaches developed first as ancient requirements of philosophical debate and ideological critiquing.

Daniel Dennett provides an excellent summary of the four principles of engaging well in moments of debate and criticism, engagement rules that also apply very well to changing relationship argument styles:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

When we spend our time “listening to reply” rather than “listening to understand”, we close ourselves off to the other person in the exchange. We’re too busy formulating our response, marshalling our own defenses, readying our own attacks. We’re probably operating from a place of emotional reactivity rather than the FAR more difficult place of receptivity. After all, who *LIKES* to be criticised, especialled in intimate relationships? So when we feel like we’re being attacked (critiqued), it’s natural for many of us to go on the defensive while preparing to return fire… and at that point, most of us aren’t in a place where we feel like being open and vulnerable is really a Good Idea.

But learning to reframe and return the things we listen for, while difficult, yes, is hugely worthwhile in terms of allowing each participant in the argument to feel heard and understood, even validated. We don’t have to agree, necessarily, with the perspective being offered, but in order to change how we fight (and improve communications overall) we do have to allow that ours is not the only perspective on the board, nor is it going to signal the end of the world if the other perspective is valid, or even (dare we say it?) right. Changing how we listen to allow for inclusion of other people and perspectives is a big part of making improvements that move us back towards healthy intimacy.

Article links, Uncategorized

I wasn’t always a therapist. It’s been ten years since I started grad school to begin this path, six years since I opened my private practice as a part-time operation, and T-minus one week until I begin working as a full-time  therapist for Bliss Counselling… in addition to maintaining my current roster in my own practice. Up until November, I was still working by day as a technical writer for Waterloo Region’s single biggest industry: the high-tech world of IT and software development.

The Regions is known as “Silicon Valley North” for good reason. Global businesses open development offices here because the University of Waterloo’s programming creates some of the best-of-the-best engineers and developers. Incubators and startups have been a part of the landscape since well before I moved here to go to UW as a bright-eyed undergrad in 1986. (For the record, I sent my first email in 1985; in 1986 when I became a UW student, I was given my own student email/internet account, and I have been online ever since.) I have been working in the local field as a writer since before I left my undergrad to become a tech writer full time, circa 1992. I survived the dot com boom and bust cycle, watching more startups come out of the woodwork in a five year window than I can count, and most of them fail within that same window.

I have worked for a LOT of companies in the intervening years before hitting a burnout in 2007 that wasn’t going to be fixed by simply jumping ship to a new company. At that point I came to realize something that has since influenced my therapeutic work with clients coming out of IT companies in the area: things rarely get better, because the mindset underlying many employers’ expectations is one deeply rooted in a deadly combination of aggressive, do-anything, self-sacrificing startup culture mentality, and the pervasive  requirements driven by shareholders and investors to maximize profits while minimizing cost margins. “We need you to do more with less, and for less” is a bottom-line narrative that benefits a corporate quarterly report, but often at the cost of those very-human resources expected to deliver products and services under often unrealistic deadlines.

Sometimes companies recognize the outrageous demands placed on employees, and try to help by offering incentives like cash bonuses, time in lieu, or benefits that include EAP access or incentives to join specific “wellness programs”. These often look good on paper, and at least in the short term can, in fact, bring some ease to the beleaguered workforce. But the bigger problem remains the internal culture of excessive expectation. The last job I held as a tech writer, I failed out of spectacularly in part because I couldn’t buy into the degree of self-sacrifice that had other team-mates working 80 hour weeks, driving from homes in other cities on weekends or logging in for hours from home at night to finish projects that were desperately understaffed *by design*.

This was not the first such company *I* had worked for with that kind of environment, not even close. It’s not unusual that when profits start to fall (note: when the profit margin merely decreases, NOT “when we actively start to lose money”), corporate management will cut the workforce by significant numbers YET STILL REQUIRE the same delivery of product and service without adjusting downward the volume of work to be executed by remaining team members.  But pushing back on those unrealistic delivery requirements? Is generally not only not encouraged, but sometimes actively punished:

“Nothing can alleviate the stress of overwork except working less. Like the road signs say, only sleep cures fatigue. We need to be reminded of this because tired long-haul drivers can be deluded into thinking that coffee, a can of Mother or an upbeat bit of music might help them stay awake. For the madly overworked, we need reminding that the only cure for working too much is to stop. It’s as simple as that.

In the last month or so I’ve had several clients raise the issue of overwork with their managers, with the following results. One had a consultant brought in to assess her team’s workloads against their position descriptions. Each member was found to be working at between 130 and 160% of their load. So the load was reset and anyone working at below 150% was told they weren’t pulling their weight.

Another workplace appointed an organisational psychologist to assess the team’s interpersonal relationships as a way of responding to a workload complaint. As a result, my client was told his personal commitment to reasonable working hours was putting his team at risk and he was put on a program of performance management. Another was simply told not to come in again.”

I hear the same stories over and over again from IT clients: often they want to seek therapists who are NOT with their EAP because they have come to mistrust the EAP motives and methodologies. EAPs are selected by the corporation, and are tied to benefits provisions, themselves provided by other corporations with a goal of paying out as little money as possible for a process aimed solely at returning the worker to functional/employable status as fast as possible. Therapists working for EAPs are often hamstrung in that regard, as we are required to employ short-term, solution-focused approaches as bandaids to symptomologies that may or may not themselves be rooted in different or deeper locations than we are allowed to explore in 6-8 sessions. That’s not to say there’s something wrong with short-term, solution-focused approaches. On the contrary, they’re very effective ways of developing tools and strengths with struggling clients. But when it’s the ONLY tool allowed on the board, there’s a limit to what we or our clients can achieve. And therefore, many EAP clients in high-stress fields often come in and out of therapy as the same problems continue to crop up again and again.

The problem isn’t the client. The problem isn’t the therapy. The problem is the workplace culture that often deliberately cripples its people by normalizing outrageous demands and rewarding the willingness to sacrifice everything outside of the workplace in the name of the corporation’s reputation or bottom line. And in Waterloo Region, that is an ENORMOUS problem. It’s not just one company who works that way, it’s the endemic mindset across a great many of them.

So it behooves us as therapists working in the Region, and working with clients who work in the high-tech industry, to be VERY aware of two particular issues:

  1. stress and anxiety related to job performance are HUGE factors for a very great many of our client base
  2. there is currently no effective way to push back against unrealistic corporate demands, nor is coaching a client to consider employment elsewhere likely to be a guaranteed change so long as the potential job field remains limited to IT

What’s left, then?

Normalizing the idea that this is what the industry itself has normalized. It’s been my experience over almost thirty years in IT that it’s rare to find companies who *genuinely* allow and encourage a balanced quality of life without at least hedging bets (“Well, it’s only like to get REALLY bad around project release time, ad that only happens a few times a year”).  We can encourage clients to have conversations with their bosses about setting reasonable expectations—and to me, being EXPECTED to persistently work 150% OVER one’s job description is not reasonable—but be aware the likelihood of effecting sustainable change without threatening employment status is realistically slim. Work with clients to change how they relate to the inherent stresses of their chosen profession.  American feminist and author bell hooks, in her book All About Love: New Visions, wrote:

“Work occupies much of our time. Doing work we hate assaults our self-esteem and self-confidence. Yet most workers cannot do the work they love. But we can all enhance our capacity to live purposefully by learning how to experience satisfaction in whatever work we do. We find that satisfaction by giving any job total commitment. […] Doing a job well, even if we do not enjoy what we are doing, means that we leave it with a feeling of well-being, our self-esteem intact. That self-esteem aids us when we go in search of a job that can be more fulfilling.”

Help clients learn to be realistic about what’s demanded of them, and work on finding some kind of balance with the rest of their lives. Help teach them how to create and sustain relationship intimacy in the face of their worklife demands, and work with them to develop effective emotional language to communicate with intimate partners authentically and realistically about the impact of their work on their availability to non-worklife demands.

Sometimes the best we can do is help teach swimmers how to stay afloat. Teach them to recognize the signs of exhaustion, but also be compassionate and educated in your own understanding about the realities of the industry they work in. IT is a wide ocean, and it takes a special swimmer to make it effectively from one side to the other. Being an effective swimming coach also means being aware of the conditions of the ocean we’re swimming in.

It’s not always a pretty reality, but it’s the reality of living and working in Silicon Valley North.

Article links, Communication, Relationships

Most Marriage & Family Therapists (MFTs) and psychotherapists who deal with couples’ counselling often come aboard once there’s a problem within the relationship that requires addressing. Couples heading into commitments and marriages will more often seek premarital counselling from their chosen officiants or more familiar spiritual caregivers, but MFTS are increasingly privileged to have the chance to work with clients embarking on these kinds of commitment processes. It’s a great deal of fun, most of the time, to sit with clients who are puzzling through interesting questions that explore themselves or their partners, topics or areas of interest on which they may never have had the inspiration to reflect before. Sometimes these discussions lead to increased understanding and closeness; sometimes they lead to uncovering differences of opinion or values that generate discomfort, and it’s our job to help our clients navigate both types of experience.

The types of questions that form the core of premarital counselling vary; there are some good resources in general you can Google if you’re looking to start some of these conversations yourself. A very recent article from the New York Times provides a really nice set of topics to explore that’s worth sharing. It covers uncomfortable topics around the values for sharing debt, the impact of experiences with exes, autonomy and shared interests, parental relationship models, sex and pornography, and more. Relationships in the 21st century are a little different than they were in out parents’ and grandparents’ generations, when gender models and relationship values were often VERY different, and “obedience” was still an expected part of marriage vows. The value for communication through the process of shared discovery is vastly more important now, recognized as a critical factor in the success or failure of relationships more and more every day. “Improving communications” is probably one of the most common issues couples in crisis report as a goal for relationship counselling.

If more couples would seek premarital counselling — individually or with their partners, in private sessions or group workshops — perhaps we might arm them with better tools for navigating the evolutionary landscape of their partnership over time. Advanced preparation might decrease the number of couples arriving at therapists’ office already in the fire of conflict, and that would be A-OK by most therapists.

Article links, Polyamory, Relationships

Something that has come in handy as a tool when I’m working with clients in any kind of non-traditional relationship model who are struggling with definitions and expectations tied to “traditional” relational definitions, is the Relationship Escalation model. Polyfolk know but still frequently get caught in, and monogamous folks moving into open relationship structures often discover the hard way, that the invisible values carried forward out of traditional (and cultural) relationship models can still trip us up, especially in the realm of emotional expectations.

When a newly-opened relationship starts to date people and develop relationships according to the same patterns with which they have always developed relationships, it can cause a lot of instability because it looks like (and, to many, often feels like) developing the *NEXT* relationship in the serial monogamy model, rather than developing a concurrent loving relationship in the poly model. Intellectually we may know better, but on the gut level?? This is one of the most common issues I see with my poly and mono-to-open clients, next to communications issues.

So how do you work with that? First, by becoming aware of the “built-in models”: the inherited values and invisible expectations, then by learning how to effectively choose differently than the programming. Some people want the escalator, and that’s cool; but for those who want to stop the escalator and get off, here’s a good place to start working on being (becoming) aware of how that invisible cultural programming that people often trip on, generally works.

Article links, Emotional Intelligence

Hola! How did it get to be September already!??

As one might guess from the lapse in blogging, it’s been a busy summer of the “it all just got away from me” variety, complicated in July by the unexpected need to buy a new business computer, and the hairy adventures of getting everything (almost everything) migrated over. Client work has been slowly and steadily increasing, and there is a massive stack of professional reading and development that is just waiting for me to have time to dig into it.

Time. “Ay,” as Hamlet says, “there’s the rub.”

We all have such excellent struggles against Father Time, especially over the summer when there may be vacatin plans to pep for and make up for afterwards, or more travel on the local front, more get-togethers, more gardening or cleaning the pool. Those with kids have the complexities of everyone else’s schedules to work around on top of all of that, and suddenly, it’s September all over again. Not a bit of wonder that for any of us (even those of us without kids), September is the month that feels like things calm down just a little bit, settle back into normal routines, steady schedules.

A friend pointed me recently to an excellent blog by Geneen Roth (of “Women, Food, and God” fame) that provided a nice little reality check on the efforts we put ourselves through chasing the kinds of success we think will make us happy, that we believe will buy us the time and freedom to do whatever we want… only when we get there, to that pinnacle of whateverness we’ve been chasing, we find that *staying* there comes with its own rigorous demands, and that the freedom we thought we’d earned i as far off in the distance as ever it was… just like any other horizon.

It’s not hat I’m not a fan of “chasing your happy”, but I’m a bigger fan of what happiness expert Martin Seligman came to see as “flourishing”, which allows for more tolerance of the not-happy, more development of tools for coping and self-soothing in adversity, than a fixated pursuit of happiness tends to allow. reaching the pinnacle of success won’t buy you happiness if you’re a burned-out husk of your former self when you get there.

So as we all roll over from the summer’s chaos into whatever September brings for you, now is as good a time as any to take a page out of Geneen’s book (or blog, in this case) and reflect a while on this:

“It turns out that the true extraordinary isn’t reserved for special people or big achievements or red-carpet-moments. It’s extraordinary to write a book, and it’s extraordinary to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes and mustard. It’s extraordinary to meet a famous person, and it’s extraordinary to meet the eyes of a grocery store cashier. When I pay attention to what is in front of me, the seemingly ordinary things are backlit with the extraordinary: the hum of the refrigerator, the yellow sponge, the trill of a finch.

“Now, instead of lurching forward, I step back. Instead of looking for the extraordinary, I look at it. If I get breathless or anxious that I am falling behind and that everyone else will get there before me, I remind myself that the top is just a square of earth you pass on your way down. And that no moment, no place, is better than this breath, this foot touching the cool floor in the middle of the night.”

Have a great September!

Article links, Family Issues, Relationships

I’ve found myself saying this a lot recently, and I’ll keep saying it if it makes a difference for someone who needs to hear it:

Biology and genetics are no longer sufficient excuse for feeling compelled to remain part of a sick system.

Sometimes a “family” (biological *OR* chosen) is the single most toxic and dangerous environment there can be. As a human being, you’re entitled to safety and respect for your personhood. If that’s threatened by your own family — GET OUT, get safe, and heal.

In this case, a “sick system” is one that manipulates one or more participants into remaining fused in the relationship, constrained to support the manipulative relationship partner even to the other participant’s own detriment (unhappiness, ill health, depression, risk of violence, etc.), but all in the guise of love and care. It’s a form of gaslighting, or rather, gaslighting is a common tactic in creating and sustaining sick systems: make someone doubt themselves so much that it only seems safe if they rely on you for perspective. Abusive or emotionally-manipulative parents and care-givers will do this to children, other family members, and to their partners; romantic partners can do this to each other.

One of the best descriptions of sick systems I’ve ever encountered is found on LiveJournal:

A sick system has four basic rules […] All of [which] work together to make a bad workplace or a bad relationship addictive. You’re run off your feet putting out fires and keeping things going, your own world will collapse if you stop, and every so often you succeed for a moment and create something bigger than yourself. Things will get better soon. You can’t stop believing that. If you stop believing, you won’t be able to go on, and you can’t not go on because everything you have and everything you are is tied into making this thing work. You can’t see any way out because there are always all these things stopping you, and you could try this thing but that would take time and money, and you don’t have either, and you’ve been told that you’ll get both eventually when that other thing happens, and pushing won’t make that thing happen so it’s better to keep your head down and wait. After a while the stress and panic feel normal, so when you’re not riding the edge, you feel twitchy because you know that the lull doesn’t mean things are better, it means you’re not aware yet of what’s going wrong. And the system or the partner always, always obliges with a new crisis.

The same author later wrote a companion piece to examine the qualities of the people most likely to become trapped in such a relational sick system, available here. These qualities do not guarantee you *will* become trapped in these kinds of dangerously-destructive relationships, but they seem to be the common characteristics of those who find themselves stuck.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks when its a *family* system is the pervasive cultural belief that because it’s *FAMILY*, we *HAVE* to remain loyal. This is absolutely not true. In truth, it never has been, but it’s one of the great cultural myths we propagate from one generation to the next: from one level of sick system to another. “Family above all others”. So how does a person finally waking up to the reality of the system’s destructive nature get free of it? Escaping the gravitic pull and emotional enmeshment of a sick system is hard, but necessary. Gaining perspective from friends outside the system is often how change starts, followed by seeking professional help if you can. Sometimes a complete cut-off is the only way to enforce new self-protective and self-respecting boundaries from toxicity and violence, and that’s a hard thing to hold up in the face of pressure to remain loyal, to remain compliant to the herd, to avoid ostracization from other members of the system with whom you have healthier relationships (but who conform to the systemic expectations).

One has to begin a process that Murray Bowen (father of modern family systems theory) termed, “differentiation”, the gaining of self within the system or, if not possible to achieve selfhood within the family system, then outside of it. It starts with creating new boundaries and defending them, of valuing yourself as a whole person inside those boundaries who is individually deserving of love, compassion, and respect. If those things are not to be found within the system through the larger change process of differentiation, they can only be found outside. A sick system almost never changes for the sake of the differentiating individual; a sick system exists solely to sustain its own sickness. That’s the trap, ultimately: you can almost never change the perpetrator, no matter how much love and care you bring to them.

In addition to Issendai’s articles above and the wikipedia definition of “gaslighting”, I also highly recommend the following readings:

Emotional manipulation: how to recognize and free ourselves from it

When parents are too toxic to tolerate (NYTimes article)

The Guide to Strong Boundaries

Love is NOT Enough

Article links, Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence

With the rise of conflicts in geek/con/gamer culture coming to mainstream attention in the past year or so, and the rising persistence of the feminist movement to counter male privilege best exemplified by what started as an internet backlash to “nice guys being friendzoned” and spun into a larger (still ongoing) discussion about male emotional self-management, entitlement and privilege, and the pervasiveness of “rape culture”. This has, one can imagine, made it a very interesting time for men seeking therapy on their own or being brought into counselling by their partners. In North America we’re mostly at least generally aware of the vastly-different cultural values placed on men’s emotional experiences and expressions, versus those assigned to women. It’s not even that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”, we’re simply not given the same tools or lexicon for those experiences from the ground up. And it’s not simply what men are being taught as boys directly; as long as girls are still being raised with the cultural narrative that Prince Charming will come along to rescue/validate them, there will always be an implicit expectation that boys have to be stronger and smarter than girls are in order to be able to do for girls what they for some reason are *still* being taught to believe they cannot do for themselves (can we *please* have more Self-Rescuing Princesses, and more Emotionally-Developed Princes??)

Because we have this cultural myth of male strength and control, there is precious little room for exploring the fact that men have all the same emotional experiences, to the same range and depth, that women do. They are taught almost from birth, however, that men’s emotions have to be suppressed and compressed into fewer “acceptable” channels than women, which is why men in therapy have such a difficult time putting identifying labels on any emotional experience beyond happy or angry; they don’t have the language to say what they’re feeling, assuming they can distill the experience clearly in the first place.

My first resource and insight into this topic was David Wexler’s book, Men in Therapy (written more for professionals), and When Good Men Behave Badly (general audiences).

Some more recent links that have crossed my inbox on the subject:

Big Boys Don’t Cry

Cracking the Code of Men’s Feelings

Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men

Article links, Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development

Still tackling the backlog clearance; there may be a long slog of what we used to call “link sausage” posts that are less about original content on my part and more about sharing interesting or thought-provoking (or maybe even useful) resources for people interested in noodling about on their own psychological or emotional development.

Things I often tackle with clients trying to observe and manage or change their own behavioural patterns, include looking at how we resort to short-term hits of happiness (“hedonic pleasures”, but I’ll get more into hedonia in a later post) in lieu of — sometimes to the complete disadvantage of — longer term, bigger-picture desires or goals. When this becomes a self-destructive pattern, as with addictions and pursuit of addictive highs in any form, narcotic, alcoholic, process-oriented, then we have to dig deeper into figuring out the underlying triggers to those cycles. People are so adept at masking their own unhappinesses, however, that this becomes a significant body of the work that some people are facing when trying to make improvements in themselves and their lives.

Two links that help shed a little light on these patterns, the first from AMerican Scholar:

Certainly, our march from one level of gratification to the next has imposed huge costs—most recently in a credit binge that nearly sank the global economy. But the issue here isn’t only one of overindulgence or a wayward consumer culture. Even as the economy slowly recovers, many people still feel out of balance and unsteady. It’s as if the quest for constant, seamless self-expression has become so deeply embedded that, according to social scientists like Robert Putnam, it is undermining the essential structures of everyday life. In everything from relationships to politics to business, the emerging norms and expectations of our self-centered culture are making it steadily harder to behave in thoughtful, civic, social ways. We struggle to make lasting commitments. We’re uncomfortable with people or ideas that don’t relate directly and immediately to us. Empathy weakens, and with it, our confidence in the idea, essential to a working democracy, that we have anything in common.

The second article, from Forbes, looks at how people become detached in their own lives, in ways that leave long- and short-term emotional voids that we all move instinctively to fill… but when moving unconsciously, we get trapped in short-term fills rather than long-term solutions (the other articles linked by the author at the top of this one are also definitely worth the read):

In this series of articles, I’ve covered hallmarks of highly respected achievers, ten reasons why we fail, and reasons why some of us love what we do. Now I’m going to veer a bit existential and examine eight reasons why so many of us feel lost in our lives, with a few suggestions peppered in along the way to help get our oars back into the water.

Article links, Relationships, Uncategorized

Honestly, I’m just trying to catch back up to all the links I save in OneTab with all the best intentions of writing thoughtful in-depth reviews of them… Then I just get busy or distracted and have to clear out the backlog in scattershot blasts like I’m doing this week.

I know, I know: “Therapist, manage thyself”. (We may hear this among ourselves all the time. I’m just sayin’… remember, your therapist is also a human being 🙂

Today I’m sharing a number of links that shape some commonly-held-to-be-true beliefs about what makes relationship more or less effective as an intimate partnership. As with many of these, especially the list posts that offer “Ten of These” of “Five of Those”, bear in mind these are topical suggestions at best. Good ones, but generally left to the couples to explore best-practices for implementation. In many senses left unexplored by these kinds of articles, it’s often not about the *action* itself, it’s about understanding the meaning(s) of these actions between partners. Or to put it another way, sometimes what makes a relationship strong is not following the letter of the law, but understanding the spirit of the law and finding adaptable ways of meeting the need in the spirit, rather than adhering to the limited code of the lettering.

As always, take most web-based advice with a grain of salt… including mine 🙂


The Ten Habits of Happy Couples
I’ve never been really good about the whole “go to bed at the same time”, because in most of my relationships, one or the other of us has been a night owl for whatever reason. But the rest of these are good suggestions, if sometimes challenging to practice in times of tension.

9 Qualities Of People Who Are Great At Relationships
Moving out of what makes *relationships work well”, we come to a nifty list of some common qualities of people most capable of having really good relationships. I aspire to many of these; like I tell my clients, some days are better than others when it comes to actively practicing anything that is an ideal. In the end, we’re all human, and sometimes under stress we resort to earliest patterning. The point is that people who are good at relationships know how to forgive… including themselves.

4 Surefire Ways To Make Your Partner Feel Loved
Number 4 in this list, “letting go of the need to be right”, is something a lot of my clients struggle with. Fighting in relationships makes us fearful, and when afraid, we dig the emotional equivalent of defensive trenches and prepare to defend our positions at all costs… even against our own partners. I’ve done it; I’ve lost relationships because of it. It’s a natural response to what feels like a hostile action from quarters we otherwise presumed to be friendly and supportive, trusted allies. And let me tell you, once you start digging those kinds of trenches through your relationship, it becomes increasingly difficult to dig your way out of them.

Finding Love, The Old-fashioned Way
I really appreciate PT’s ability to present complicated things in relatively simple language, including the complexity of human courtship rituals in the 21st century.

[P]eople feel forced to put up a false front for the suitor—or for their own families. The result is that their more complicated inner selves, personal issues, and needs are not revealed. When that is the case, disillusionment is around the corner. […]
Social media and the widespread use of internet dating sites have compressed the amount of time devoted to the getting-to-know-you process. This may produce a pseudo-courtship in which participants develop the illusion that they are getting to know one another, but there is no nuanced, deep level of mutual appreciation. Oddly enough, this kind of courtship is similar to the early 19th-century chaperoned relationships in which the incentive was to create a suitable persona for the occasion. In both cases, the real self may be omitted. This is akin to building a home on a sinkhole.

Article links, Self-Development

I’m pretty sure anyone who has been in the workforce long enough has heard the old adage, “A cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind; the empty desk is a sign of…?”

Television shows like “Hoarders” have shed an unsympathetic light on people who run the gamut from being poor housekeepers to having outright mental illnesses, and made a lot of people whose housekeeping skills slide during anxious or depressive cycles become increasingly ashamed of the state of their living spaces. I have had clients for whom the struggle to maintain a reasonable grasp on their living conditions is a repeating (sometimes constant) source of tension, so over the years I’ve collected a number of resources that help supplement the work we do in session around unravelling the internal stories these clients tell themselves about chaos and control.

Most people who deal with these kinds of issues have heard of Fly Lady, which is half environmental-management programming, half social networking and support. I used the program myself in its early incarnation, and I still adhere to the “ten minutes a day” approach to tidying and putting things away… most days, at least. I certainly got much better at managing my space when I moved the counselling office into the house; having clients walk through your living space makes it *really* imperative you don’t have a dazzling array of laundry and dishes and cat hair visible on the transit path. (Clients coming to a home office are a pretty forgiving lot, by and large, but all the same: if I want my clients to treat this as a professional space, I kind of have to lead the way in treating it that way myself.)

Not too long ago, a friend who had given up on Fly Lady when it started getting “too commercial” pointed me at a different site with a similar mandate, and much stronger language appealing to a different sense of humour, and sensibility in general: Unf*&k Your Habitat. I don’t mind the language, personally, and I find the slightly-edgier, less-hand-holdy-cutesy tone that was more pervasive on Fly Lady works for me. It’s a little more like being motivated to work by my Mom as I remember from childhood years, than my gentle and slightly-batty Auntie. It won’t be to everyone’s taste.

I’ve also been a longtime fan of Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits for suggestions on how to approach decluttering and environmental maintenance; for example, this recent Quickstart Guide to decluttering a home is a great example of a simple, low-pressure way to rethink our attachments to our Stuff. Dig through the archive; there’s plenty more where that comes from.

This morning a friend sent me this link, about how clutter in our closets may reflect our thinking styles on other fronts as well:

Many powerful emotions are lurking amid stuff we keep. Whether it’s piles of unread newspapers, clothes that don’t fit, outdated electronics, even empty margarine tubs, the things we accumulate reflect some of our deepest thoughts and feelings.

Now there’s growing recognition among professional organizers that to come to grips with their clutter, clients need to understand why they save what they save, or things will inevitably pile up again. In some cases, therapists are working along with organizers to help clients confront their psychological demons.

Another recent article that touches on the related issue of motivation provides some useful scientific (or at least, plausibly-scientific; this *is* the INternet after all, and I take all such claims with a huge grain of salt these days. It’s essentially a link-bin for the supporting articles, but it’s worth the time to sift through most of them, especially the concepts of using optimism — often explored in client sessions as finding ways to change the internal narratives, or the client’s internal perspectives on how and why things happen as they do — and progress, or new metrics for measuring change, however incremental, toward a goal.

There are a lot of resources, and a lot of research, being done into how people approach their environments in conscious and unconscious reflection of their own internal states. It’s rarely as simple as the “cluttered desk/cluttered mind” scenario, but it’s all far more interconnected than we think, and disorganized thinking affects all of us to one degree or another, at one time or another. Being able to help people both find better solutions to the household clutter issue, and find ways of challenging or adapting the internal mental processes, is a part of what psychotherapy can do.