Sexual Harassment May Be Common Part of Bullying

-Rick Nauert, PhD

Sexual harassment is a prevalent form of victimization that most antibullying programs ignore and teachers and school officials often fail to recognize, according to bullying and youth violence expert Dorothy L. Espelage, Ph.D.

The recent teen suicide of Brandy Vela, a teen in Texas City, Texas, is a case in point. According to Vela’s parents, the teen fatally shot herself following months of bullying and sexual harassment, perpetrated in part through text messages and social media.

Espelage recently led a five-year study that examined links between bullying and sexual harassment among schoolchildren in Illinois.

Nearly half — 43 percent — of middle school students surveyed for the study reported they had been the victims of verbal sexual harassment such as sexual comments, jokes, or gestures during the prior year.

Researchers followed 1,300 Illinois youths from middle school to high school, examining the risk factors associated with bullying and sexual harassment and the characteristics of the perpetrators.

Students from four middle schools completed the surveys, and some of the youths and their teachers also were interviewed by the researchers.

Investigators discovered that while verbal harassment was more common than physical sexual harassment or sexual assault, 21 percent of students reported having been touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way, and 18 percent said peers had brushed up against them in a suggestive manner.

Students also reported being forced to kiss the perpetrators, having their private areas touched without consent and being “pantsed;” having their pants or shorts jerked down by someone else in public.

About 14 percent of the students in the study reported having been the target of sexual rumors, and nine percent had been victimized with sexually explicit graffiti in school locker rooms or bathrooms.

According to Espelage, “sexual harassment among adolescents is directly related to bullying,” particularly homophobic bullying.

Homophobic name-calling emerges among fifth- and sixth-grade bullies as a means of asserting power over other students, Espelage said.

Youths who are the targets of homosexual name-calling and jokes then feel compelled to demonstrate they are not gay or lesbian by sexually harassing peers of the opposite sex.

About 16 percent of students in the study reported that they had been the targets of homophobic name-calling or jokes, and nearly five percent of youths reported that this harassment happened to them often.

On the surveys, youths were asked an open-ended question about their most upsetting experience of sexual harassment.

Fourteen percent of students who reported being victimized negated their experiences by writing that their peers’ behaviors were “not really sexual harassment” because the incidents were “meaningless” or intended as jokes.

“What was most surprising and concerning was that these young people were dismissive of these experiences, even though they described them as very upsetting,” Espelage said.

“Students failed to recognize the seriousness of these behaviors in part because teachers and school officials failed to address them. Prevention programs need to address what is driving this dismissiveness.”

Youths who were dismissive of sexual harassment experiences also were more likely to perpetrate homophobic name-calling, the researchers found.

While students reported that large proportions of these sexual harassment incidents occurred in places such as school hallways, classrooms, gym locker rooms, or gym classes where faculty and staff members ostensibly might witness them, the researchers found that many teachers, school officials, and staff members failed to acknowledge that sexual harassment occurred in their schools.

Many of these adults also were unaware that they were mandated by school district or federal policies to protect students from sexual harassment, Espelage said.

“These findings highlight the importance of making sexual harassment prevention efforts a priority in U.S. school districts, and that will require the efforts of students, faculty and staff members, school administrators, and practitioners such as school psychologists,” Espelage said.

“Schools need to have a consistently enforced policy that clearly defines sexual harassment and establishes regulations against engaging in such behavior. School officials also must provide guidelines for faculty and staff members on how to address these incidents and how to respond appropriately to student reports of sexual harassment.”

Sexual harassment experiences varied across socio-demographic groups, depending on students’ age, race, and sex. For example, females were at greatest risk of sexual harassment, while African-American girls and boys were at greatest risk of being victimized by romantic partners, the researchers found.

3 Counterintuitive ADHD Coping Strategies

-Neil Petersen

ADHD doesn’t always make sense. At least, it doesn’t always make sense the way you expect it to.

If the common-sense ADHD coping techniques aren’t working, maybe it’s time to try the non-common-sense strategies. Here are 3 counterintuitive ADHD coping strategies.

  • Working in noisy places: If people with ADHD have trouble concentrating, clearly the solution is to work in quiet places to avoid getting distracted, right? Well, sometimes silence helps, but not always. Lack of stimulation can make it even harder for people with ADHD to focus, in which case working in a more lively environment rather than a silent, empty room can actually help.
  • Listening to music: Along the same lines, you might expect that listening to music would be distracting for people with ADHD. However, for some people with ADHD, listening to music can provide stimulation and stave off boredom, making it easier to stay on task.
  • Procrastinating: Procrastination is a double-edged sword – too much of it can cause a lot of problems. On the other hand, people with ADHD procrastinate for a reason: doing things at the last minute can provide the extra shot of adrenaline the ADHD brain needs to kick into gear.

You might notice that all three of these strategies have to do with finding the optimal level of arousal for the ADHD brain.

Traditionally, we think of a calm and low-stress environment as being ideal for concentration. For people with ADHD, though, lack of stimulation makes it harder to stay on task. When the ADHD brain gets bored, it automatically checks out and goes to find something more interesting to do, whether we want it to or not.

So keeping the ADHD brain happy by working in more interesting environments, listening to music, or adding a little pressure by doing things at the last minute can actually be conducive to concentrating.

Of course, this will be different for different individuals with ADHD. Ultimately, it’s about finding what works best for your brain. But as a starting point, these three strategies are definitely worth a shot!

D’you have other counterintuitive ADHD coping strategies? Please share them below!

Out of Sight-Out of Mind: The Reality of Disenfranchised Grief

-Suzanne Phillips, Psy. D., ABPP

One of the most powerful and frightening articles I read this summer was Leslie Jamison’s Opinion piece, “Rape, Race and the Jogger”. She starts by reminding us that this summer three female joggers, all around 30, all white, were murdered. The information about one of these joggers caught my attention when it was first reported, because the murder occurred close to my childhood home and closer still to my childhood fears. The warning, “ Never go into the weeds alone!” that had carried too much weight as a child was unlocked and now seemed proven to be true…

After years of working with trauma victims, and years of pushing aside fear for the joy of running, I know about the urge to blame the victim for not heeding “the warnings.” I know about the urge to distance ourselves from the horrific events of life that can’t be controlled. I know too that in such dismissal we disqualify the impact of violence, murder and traumatic grief suffered by others.

Reflective of this and even more frightening is Jamison’s report that during the same-two-week period this summer, three other women were murdered whose deaths received much less attention- Skye Mockabee in Cleveland, Erykah Tijerina in El Paso and Rae Lynn Thomas in Columbus, Ohio. They were all young, transgender, minority women. Why did we not hear about their murders?

When I interviewed Jane Baker on Psych Up live for the podcast on her book, Trading Places- When Our Son Became a Daughter, one of her greatest fears was possible violence toward her transgender daughter. Three other mothers faced that reality with their daughters this summer. Few people knew about their loss.

In his chapter, “A Mosaic of Transmissions After Trauma in the book Lost in Translation,” Howard Stein raises the question of unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable grief. He asks, Who counts? Who is treated as though they do not matter? Who is remembered? Who is forgotten?

Stein describes “Disenfranchised Grief” (Doka, 1989) as the loss and grief that individuals, families, organizations and whole societies refuse to recognize as legitimate. It is loss and grief that is given “ no space and no time”. The unknown murders of the three young transgender, minority women exemplify this.

Sadly, the other poignant example from Jamison’s article that can be considered as “disenfranchised grief” is the unrecognized trauma and loss of the five young men now exonerated for the rape of the Central Park Jogger. These young men, The Central Park Five, came of age behind bars. Most know of  them as perpetrators of violence. How many now recognize them as victims of violence?

When the experience of violence and grief suffered by some becomes “ cut out” of the social discourse, we all suffer. Unrecognized trauma and loss returns as resentment, anger, despair and fear – the most dangerous consequence of all.

Even the personal awareness by each of us, regarding the disenfranchising of  another’s trauma and grief, is a major step in a world where we are all connected.

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”Mother Teresa

50 Journal Prompts for Exploring Your Favorite Things

-Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Last week I shared 50 quick journal prompts to help us get to know ourselves a bit better. Below you’ll find 50 more prompts, which focus on your favorite things. As you’re gathering with your friends and family for the holidays, consider asking them to share their favorites, too. Often there are so many things we don’t know about each other because we simply don’t think to ask. This holiday season, consider asking—and be sure to share your own responses.

  1. your favorite way to spend a Sunday
  2. your favorite outfit
  3. your favorite cookie
  4. your favorite holiday tradition
  5. your favorite podcast
  6. your favorite sound
  7. your favorite color
  8. your favorite flower
  9. your favorite book
  10. your favorite movie
  11. your favorite dance move
  12. your favorite holiday memory
  13. your favorite memory overall
  14. your favorite thing you’ve ever made
  15. your favorite museum
  16. your favorite way to give
  17. your favorite trip to take
  18. your favorite person to talk to
  19. your favorite dinner to eat when it’s cold out
  20. your favorite quote
  21. your favorite thing to look at
  22. your favorite act of self-compassion (if you don’t have any, how about trying these three practices or these three practices)
  23. your favorite kind of weather
  24. your favorite poem
  25. your favorite way to brighten your day or someone else’s (if you need a few ideas, here are nine to try)
  26. your favorite time of the day
  27. your favorite fabric
  28. your favorite word
  29. your favorite way to practice self-care
  30. your favorite place to rest
  31. your favorite photo
  32. your favorite beverage
  33. your favorite blog
  34. your favorite way to play
  35. your favorite piece of jewelry
  36. your favorite work of art
  37. your favorite dream
  38. your favorite mistake
  39. your favorite part of your body
  40. your favorite topic to read about
  41. your favorite gift
  42. your favorite way to feel loved
  43. your favorite way to move your body
  44. your favorite song to relax to
  45. your favorite song to dance to like no one’s watching
  46. your favorite voice
  47. your favorite holiday scent
  48. your favorite scent in general
  49. your favorite thing to read when you need a pick-me-up or pep talk
  50. your favorite place to hang out, where you can genuinely be yourself

If you’re not sure about a particular favorite thing, then do some exploring and experimenting. And if you are sure, then try to make time to make that favorite thing a more frequent part of your days.

Death, Wealth, and the Psychological Anatomy of a Family Dispute

-Darren T. Case

From the fifteenth century dispute over the succession to the British throne ultimately won by Queen Elizabeth I over her familial rival, Mary, Queen of Scots, to the more recent dispute amongst the Koch children fighting over their father’s $5.6 billion dollar fortune, death and disputes over a family’s wealth have been a reoccurring story for centuries. The public is fascinated by families fighting over the wealth of the deceased.

Recently it seemed it was only hours after the death of Prince that multiple articles had been published forecasting the potential family members set to litigate over the purple rain wealth. While the public seemingly cannot get enough of these types of legal battles, the embarrassed families involved would prefer to not air their dirty laundry. Especially considering that the media tends to focus on the perceived greed of the siblings over the inheritance, but as intimately known by the family members involved, such would not even come close to explaining the entire story. Often never realized is the root cause of the vicious and costly disputes, which is the deep-seated psychological issues amongst family members that have been developing for quite some time.

Family issues are ripe to develop during childhood. According to a 1996 study at Penn State University, 33% of a child’s free time is devoted to their siblings by age 11. This certainly provides sufficient time for the sibling rivalries and other childhood issues to fester over the years, but many might be surprised to learn that root cause of these issues might actually be due to the order in which the children were born. The earliest studies on the subject of birth order impacting a child’s temperament are believed to be those of Austrian psychotherapist, Alfred W. Adler from the early twentieth century. Adler theorized that the personality of a child is largely dictated by birth order, arguing that firstborn children are more achievement oriented, with a second-born child being competitive and ambitious, and later-born children being sociable but dependent.

An extensive number of studies spawned from Adler’s work, many of which demonstrate advantages of being the firstborn child. Firstborn children tend to have a higher IQ and are more likely to annually earn at least $100,000 more than their siblings, but such will not prevent the sense of betrayal felt when the firstborn’s parents bring home a newborn baby receiving the bulk of attention. Middle children, most likely to receive the least amount of attention and quality time with parents, may unknowingly harbor resentment towards their older and younger siblings believing the parents did not love him or her as much. Many last-born children are seen by their siblings as being spoiled or treated much more leniently by parents, also causing consternation in the family unit.

While many may assume that these issues simply go away upon the children growing up, many studies illustrate that early childhood experiences can continue to influence individuals into adulthood. New York psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, Ph.D. details just that in her book Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy, and Regret, stating that “Rivalry, competition and anxiety about your place in your parents’ affections… [breed] rancor that haunts siblings all their lives and occurs in each phase of adulthood–work, marriage, parenthood, caring for aging parents, and eventually, settling that perpetual minefield, the estate.” Thus, these childhood issues very well could be the psychological seed planted that causes the legal battles following the death of a parent. But what, if anything, have the families been doing in an attempt to avoid these humiliating public disputes and the collateral damage to the family’s wealth?

Most affluent families are certainly not taking the ostrich approach by simply sticking their head in the sand and ignoring the warning signs. Parents often take the initial precautions of setting up their estate plan, although still far too few families do; approximately 64% of the U.S. population is currently without an estate plan based upon recent polling. This is certainly a critical step in the process, but it would be naïve for parents to believe that the estate plan will prevent any and all disputes. Even the most talented and well-respected attorneys will experience the illogical and unreasonable actions by grieving children when the estate plan is brilliantly written.

For parents wishing to do more than just setting up the estate plan and keeping their fingers-crossed, family meetings are often set up. The hope and purpose of holding the family meeting is to provide an open dialogue about the family’s wealth and what the parents choose to do with it following their death. The concept of the family meetings to discuss estate planning and wealth is certainly not a new concept. Wealthier families and their advisors have been holding family meetings for quite some time, with a variety of successes and failures, but commonly from a tax and financial perspective alone. These financial discussions are unquestionably necessary, for the conversation about money (i.e., inheritance) can be one of the most difficult topics anyone can have, but it is debatable whether these conversations will prevent the shocking family disputes that spill into our court systems following the death of the surviving parent.

Many times the issues amongst siblings run much deeper than the disputes over money.  

It is not that the parents or their estate planning attorney do not recognize that these issues exist amongst the children. The potential problem with this attorney-client setting is that an interdisciplinary approach of involving the field of psychology in the estate planning process is not being recognized by the parties involved. While an attorney is well-experienced with post-mortem family squabbles, the attorney’s de facto degree in psychology or therapy is a far cry from involving a licensed professional to solve the deep-seated issues in the underlying the estate plan. The difficulty, however, is finding a workable setting for the family, the attorney, and the licensed professional involved, all while delicately navigating both the attorney-client and physician-patient privileges.

The extent of using a psychologist or therapist during the estate planning process is certainly up to the parents. So long as the estate plan is revocable, it would be wise to get it in place while arranging the meetings with the medically licensed professionals. It may also be prudent for the parents to meet with the psychologist or therapist on their own at first, seeking recommendations as to how to address sibling rivalries and other issues prior to any family meeting, but understanding that the professional’s recommendations may be limited in scope or incomplete without involvement of the children. Regardless of children involvement, consideration of having the estate planning attorney engage in preliminarily discussions with the psychologist or therapist may also be advisable.

This more unique interdisciplinary approach to the estate planning process certainly does not guarantee that any and all post-mortem disputes will be avoided.  The deep-seated issues, even with psychological assistance, may still surface in a volatile manner when the adult children are once again thrust together in a substantially emotional situation involving the death of a parent. However, many families would welcome additional recommendations or options available for avoiding the costly and embarrassing litigation battles over estates and trusts.

This more unique inter-disciplinary approach to the estate planning process may not only lead to less family disputes being subjected to the public’s fascination with death and wealth, but it may also allow the parents to comfortably state that they did everything they could for the children that they brought into this world, who inevitably will be close by their side upon their death. And that may ultimately be the effort the family is looking for in managing their private affairs while alive.

Self-Compassion: A Life-Changing Skill

-Neil Petersen

It’s a cliche to say that we’re out own worst critics. But if you read the AllPsych blog very much, you know that psychology researchers are in the business of showing that a lot of the old cliches go a lot deeper than we might think.

Today’s exhibit is self-compassion. Most of the research coming out on this topic is suggesting that you can make a real difference in your life by showing yourself a little empathy.

That’s because self-compassion is linked with mental health in a general way: people who have higher self-compassion tend to have higher overall wellbeing and happiness. Giving yourself a fair shake can change your approach to life.

Don’t believe me? OK, here come the studies…

For starters, research published earlier this year found that a “harsh attitude towards oneself” was a strong predictor of depression and poor mood in the general population. Mindfulness also had significant influence, suggesting that a combination of high self-compassion and high mindfulness may be optimal for mental health.

Another study published this month showed that when women are feeling less self-compassionate than they usually do, interacting with people focused on their bodies makes them more concerned about their body image and lowers their mood. When they’re feeling more self-compassionate than normal, however, interacting with people focused on their bodies has no effect or sometimes even makes them appreciate their bodies more.

One researcher looked at self-compassion in older adults. She discovered that those who approached their relationships in more anxious and avoidant ways tended to have lower purpose in life, sense of mastery of their environment, personal growth, self-acceptance and overall quality of interpersonal relationships. However, what connected all these things to the way people approached their relationships was how much self-compassion the people felt.

Of course, there’s a natural question here: does becoming more self-compassionate actually make people happier, or does being happy just make people more self-compassionate?

Well, good news: self-compassion is a skill that can be learned.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers experimented with a six-week online course for teaching self-compassion. When the program ended, the 37 participants reported that they felt not just more self-compassionate but also happier, less stressed, less depressed and better at managing their emotions. Even better, they were still experiencing the benefits of their self-compassion training three months later!

So if self-compassion is such a powerful way of creating positive change in our lives, why isn’t everyone already going out of their way to cultivate empathy for themselves?

Recently, some psychologists from the United Kingdom did a survey to figure this out. They found that while most people think the world would be a better place if we were all a little more self-compassionate, people feel some reluctance about becoming more self-compassionate themselves.

Specifically, they think being more self-compassionate will make them more vulnerable and maybe even open them up to ridicule from others because they feel Western culture discourages self-compassion.

This suggests that if we’re serious about promoting a happier, healthier, less stressed society, we have to create a culture of self-compassion. And we can work toward that by being more self-compassionate as individuals.

Think about it, developing a self-compassionate approach to life is a win-win: not only are you an early adopter on the cutting edge, but you’ll be happier and less stressed out as a result!

9 Steps for Reducing Stress this Holiday Season

-Julia Lehrman, LCSW, RYT

December is officially upon us. With the holiday season in full swing, we are more likely to encounter the unforeseen travel delays, frustratingly long lines, and triggering interpersonal interactions that tend to be commonplace this time of year. These situations can push our buttons and test our limits. Here are some strategies to use when you feel like your patience is running low.

1) Realize that some things are out of your control
This can be tough, but the sooner this recognition occurs, the better. We cannot control the weather, the traffic, or the actions of other people. When we fight against what is out of our control, we often end up feeling more miserable and stressed out. Instead of stressing about what you cannot change, give yourself permission to let go of the struggle and move forward.

2) Realize that some things are in your control
Hooray! While it is not always easy, we do have the power to control our actions and reactions. We also have the ability to influence our state of consciousness (see #4), mental processes (see #5), and physiological responses (see #6). By effectively drawing upon your own personal resources, you allow yourself the opportunity to regain control and feel more at ease. By focusing on what you can control, you become not only less stressed, but more empowered.

3) Learn to surrender and accept
Instead of resisting against the things that are out of our control, we can choose to surrender. There is absolutely no connotation of weakness or defeat by choosing this route. To surrender is to find acceptance for that which we cannot change. When we release resistance and welcome acceptance, we actively reduce our own suffering. Finding acceptance helps decrease stress and other difficult emotions while simultaneously increasing feelings of liberation. By learning to surrender, you actually win.

4) Be mindful
Pause for a moment. Discern what is happening inside of you right now. Try to observe your internal experience, just as it is, without judgment. See if you can be an objective witness to your own inner-workings. Encourage yourself to become more conscious of what is transpiring within you. From there, you can more clearly see what is happening around you. Being mindful is a way to lessen the gap between the stressed-out version of yourself and who you are when functioning at your optimum level. Practicing mindfulness brings you one step closer to becoming the best version of yourself.

5) Take charge of your thoughts
Although sometimes it might not seem like it, we are in control of our thoughts. The goal is not to ignore or deny the thoughts, but rather to clearly see them, acknowledge them, and then transform them. Try to honestly type out your thoughts or write them in a journal. Once you identify your thought patterns, you are better equipped to change your thinking from negative to positive. Since our thoughts so greatly impact our emotions and behaviors, this shift can play a crucial role in decreasing stress and the actions that accompany it. As the saying goes, “what you think, you become”.

6) Use your breath
Your breath is a tool that you always have with you. It is there for you no matter where you are, no matter who you are with, and no matter what is going on around you. Your breath connects your mind and body and it can be your greatest ally in dissipating stress. As you breathe in, think of the word “inhale” and as you breathe out, think of the word “exhale”. Continue to silently and steadily label your inhales and exhales until you find a steady rhythm in your breathing. Keep focusing on your breath to calm your nervous system and stay present. Like icicles melting outside, watch your stress slowly start to disappear.

7) Look on the bright side
Again, this can be challenging, but also entirely doable. See if you can focus on the positive or find the silver lining in frustrating and stressful situations. Try to think of something you are grateful for, rather than automatically honing in on the negative or what is going wrong. Gratitude has been shown to help reduce negative emotions such as stress and improve connection to the self and others. Also, sometimes the most disastrous seeming situations are the ones that actually end up turning out the best. Open yourself up to all the possibilities.

8) Take care of yourself
Self-care is a potent remedy for stress and a main ingredient in our overall well-being. Often, the more stressed we become, the less we take care of ourselves. Although it may take time, self-care is time well-invested and can prevent burn out. You might try exercising, taking a shower or bath, drinking herbal tea, eating a balanced and healthy meal, resting/ getting a good night of sleep, going for a massage or manicure/pedicure or engaging in any other relaxing activity that brings you peace. It is impossible to pour from an empty cup, so try to replenish yours as much as possible with healthy amounts of self-care.

9) Try not to compare
Relinquish the temptation to compare yourself to others. Whether on social media or in person, comparing can lead to distorted perceptions and feelings of stress. Notice if comparing is a habitual or automatic response for you. Rather than operating from a scarcity mindset, aim to cultivate an attitude of joyful abundance. Believe that you already possess all the qualities necessary to attract happiness and success. Sometimes it is just a matter of unveiling and embracing those attributes that may be cloaked in fear or self-doubt. Sprinkle in a word or two of kindness and provide yourself a calming elixir to soothe holiday stress away.

We all experience stress to varying degrees. Some situations and exchanges can be more provoking than others. Mindfulness techniques such as the ones described in the steps above have an infinite number of potential applications for counteracting stress and other types of emotional distress. Try using these tactics in various situations in your daily life and see what happens.

Therapy is a great place to process the causes and effects of stress beyond the holiday season. With the new year around the corner, now is as good a time as any to get a head start on your goals for 2017. If you are curious about learning more or want to explore ways to utilize these skills on a regular basis, contact me today!

Is Your Partner Really ‘Emotionally Unavailable’ or Is It You?

-Anna Lloyd

“He’s just so emotionally unavailable.” This is one of the things I hear most often in my practice and one of the things I heard myself saying most often before I did my own work. I remember being utterly convinced of it. The evidence was in everything my husband did — the way he stonewalled me during arguments, the way he zoned out and disappeared into the television so much, the way he got sleepy and indeed did even nod off when I was talking to him sometimes. I was outraged by his “emotional unavailability” and I experienced it as deeply wounding.

Women, and sometimes men, often have a long list of behaviors they have identified in their partner which serves as evidence of their partner’s emotional unavailability. What they often miss is that the behaviors they are observing do not occur in a vacuum. They occur within the context of a relational field, one significant aspect of that field being the person doing all the observing, judging and amassing of evidence.

What I find so interesting is that, when we are constantly watching our partners for their level of availability, scanning their behavior, anxiously monitoring them and living in hyper-vigilant relationship to their level of availability, WE are in fact unavailable — to our partners and to ourselves. When we are so focused on the other, we leave ourselves, and the intensity of focus on the other and intensity of need for the other to be available is an open invitation for the other to distance, withdraw or shut down. Far from being just inherently emotionally unavailable, the partner observed as “emotionally unavailable” is actually expressing part of a relationship process, in which both partners play an equal role.

What so often gets missed is the reciprocal nature of the relationship between partners.

I have heard even respected therapists say things like “He will always be an avoidant,” and actually what I have come to believe is that that is rarely true. In different relationships we do different dances. It depends on the reciprocal process that develops between us. But one thing is for sure, being monitored and having our behavior scrutinized and our level of availability constantly assessed and criticized is hardly inviting of intimacy or closeness. It has an intrusive or “too close” flavor that invites distancing behavior in the other and makes it very likely that they will need to retreat.

If we look out at the distancing other and only see their distancing, rather than also seeing our role in the dance, we rob ourselves of the power we have to alter the dance. When one partner in a partnered dance alters their dance moves — their rhythm, timing, spacing, intensity etc, even very subtly, the other partner cannot help but alter theirs. This is the power of working with relationship phenomena systemically. We need not be concerned with attempting in any way to change the other, we need only change ourselves, and the other will change around us.

In my own relationship it has been so vital to dispense with unhelpful labels like “avoidant” or “emotionally unavailable,” to get my focus off what my husband is doing and to look at my own part of the dance. If my husband has become distant or withdrawn, what contribution have I made to that state of play? Have I assailed him the moment he has entered a house full of children in various states of dinner/bath chaos, not half an hour after he has finished a full day working in an intense job, coming at him with the full force of my excitement/intensity/anxiety/need to talk and connect. If I really thought it through would I choose to try and connect in that way? Am I really emotionally available when I move toward him in that way — or am I just discharging energy from my day? What happens if I manage my intensity and my need more thoughtfully, act with more self-responsibility, parent myself, practice a little containment, patience and maturity? If I am actually interested in getting my needs met, how, when and in what manner might I approach him?

When we are obsessed with our partner’s unavailability and endlessly taking note of the long list of behaviors they would need to change in order to be more available, we disempower ourselves and we damage our relationships. Many relationships don’t survive the damage done. When we begin to look at our own part in the dance however, all the answers for a more satisfying relationship lie there, and we empower ourselves to do what needs to be done and make the necessary changes because we have no power over others, we have loads over ourselves.

This conscious attending to our part in the dance can be done from either side of the closeness-distance, pursuit-withdrawal reciprocity. The partner who more often distances has just as much power to observe themselves in their part of the dance and to alter their contribution. There is of course, as above, an interplay between a distancing partner’s behavior and another partner who is in pursuit.

One of the many gifts of no longer kidding yourself that it is your partner that is emotionally unavailable, is the opportunity to begin to be emotionally available to ourselves, to identify and give ourselves what we need and hunger for, to define and live by our own values and principles, and to become our own loving parent. When we quit blaming the people we love for what we are experiencing and begin to acknowledge the back and forth, reciprocal interplay of our relationships, in a completely blameless way, adult relationships become possible. Our need for our partner to be emotionally available to us settles down markedly and we become capable of bringing a full self to our relationship encounters.

Wonderfully, when I become focused on the degree to which I am in relationship with myself, my needs are much more met in my own self-process, and when I do choose to move towards my husband I am significantly less needy and overwhelming, and he is naturally more receptive to connection, and has less need to chronically distance. I am always struck by the beautiful paradox that in becoming willing to risk not getting what we so desire from our partners, and learning to hold ourselves with love in the suspended tension of that place, we often end up getting our heart’s desire in spades.

How to Stop Enabling

-Jonice Webb, PhD

What is enabling?

Enabling isn’t the same as helping. Helping is doing things that others can’t do for themselves. Enabling is doing for others what they can and should do for themselves.

Codependent relationships are out of balance and often involve enabling. If you have codependent traits, you over-function, are overly responsible, or work harder than the other person in the relationship. This allows him/her to under-function or be irresponsible because you’re picking up the slack. When you enable, you take responsibility for someone else’s behavior.

Examples of enabling an adult include:

  • Making excuses for his/her behavior
  • Bailing him/her out of jail
  • Giving or loaning money
  • Cleaning up after him/her
  • Paying his/her bills
  • Providing transportation or a place to stay
  • Doing his/her laundry, dishes, meal prep
  • Pretending everything’s OK when it’s not
  • Lying about him/him so others won’t think badly about him/her
  • Saying you’re not going to do any of the above, but then doing it anyway

In certain circumstances, some of these behaviors could be helping rather than enabling. However, they are probably enabling if you do them repeatedly, they are an inconvenience or hardship, the need occurs due to untreated addiction or mental illness, irresponsible behavior, or refusal to fulfill adult roles. Enabling helps your loved one avoid the natural (and negative) consequences of his/her behavior. This may temporarily keep the peace, but it ultimately prolongs the problems.

Enabling prolongs the problem by allowing your loved one to avoid negative consequences that would motivate change?

So, if what you really want is for your loved one to change, why do you enable him/her to continue destructive behaviors?

These are some common reasons for enabling:

  • You worry about your loved one physically hurting him/herself or others
  • You worry about your loved one getting into trouble
  • You’re afraid of conflict
  • You don’t know how to set boundaries
  • You’re afraid your loved one will leave you, shame you, take the kids, ruin your finances, etc.
  • You truly want to help, but feel powerless

How do you stop enabling?

The truth is it’s hard to stop enabling. Your intentions are good and your worries may be valid. Below I’ve outlined several components that will help you to stop enabling.

Accept that you can’t fix it.

Enabling is an effort to control an uncontrollable situation. It’s scary because your loved is out of your control and probably making some pretty bad and risky choices. Unfortunately, you are powerless to prevent harm from happening. Accepting this is waking up from denial. Nothing that you do or don’t do can save your loved one or force him/her to make better choices. That’s the bottom line.

I find it helpful to remember that you didn’t cause your loved one’s problems and you can’t fix them. You can control yourself and that’s it.

This is also known as detaching. Detaching means that you untangle yourself from your under-functioning loved one, see yourself as a completely separate person, and begin to focus more on your own needs. When you detach, you stop taking responsibility for other people and start taking responsibility for your own behavior and needs. Detaching helps you recognize that your loved one is not a reflection of you and you are not responsible for and did not cause the problems that they’re having.

Get out of denial.

In order to stop enabling, you have to break through your denial. Denial is tricky because your reality seems completely real to you. It can help to spend some quality time in contemplation about your enabling behaviors, how they allow your loved one to continue in a dysfunctional pattern, and how your life is out of control. You may also find it’s necessary to get some outside opinions to break through your denial. 12-step meetings and sponsors are great at this, in my experience. But a trusted friend, spiritual leader, or therapist can also be helpful.

Be honest in order to break down shame.

Shame is another big barrier to changing your enabling behaviors. Chances are you’ve experienced judgment from others about your choices. It’s very easy for others to say, “Why do you keep loaning him money? You know he’s only going to use it to get high.” From the outside, enabling makes no logical sense. And on some level, you know that your enabling isn’t helping (or maybe it’s even causing more problems).

Do you feel ashamed of your enabling? Are you honest with yourself about what you’re doing? Are you honest with others about it? Maybe you no longer confide in your best friend about paying your adult son’s phone bill because you know that she’ll shake her head in judgment.

When we experience judgment, we tend to stop talking about it and start minimizing, denying, omitting, and lying. Remember, shame lives in your secrets.

The clearest path out of shame is honesty and I know that’s hard. Start with being honest with yourself. It’s time to truly own what you’re doing and why. Then you can move on to sharing with people who have earned your trust and really get it.

Manage your anxiety.

Enabling may be an effort to protect your loved one, but enabling is also an effort to manage your own anxiety and worry about the situation. So when you enable, you’re also trying to make yourself feel better in a very scary and out of control dysfunctional situation.

Anxiety is another reason that it doesn’t work to simply tell people to stop enabling. When you stop enabling, your anxiety and worry are going to spike and you’re temporarily going to feel worse.

If you think that anxiety and worry fuel your enabling, getting help to manage your anxiety may be necessary in order to change your behavior. Professional treatment through psychotherapy and/or medication is very effective for many. You may also find some relief through meditation, using apps such as Self-Help for Anxiety Management or Insight Timer, grounding techniques, or journaling. The website Anxiety BC is a resource for managing anxiety that I often recommend to my own patients.

Once you get a handle on your own anxiety and worry, you will be better able to reduce your enabling behaviors.

Restoring balance to your relationship means you need to stop doing things for the other person in the codependent relationship. You can learn to stop enabling when you accept that you can’t fix it, get out of denial, get honest with yourself and others, and manage your anxiety and worry. Support is also an important part of any change plan. Reach out to others through Al-Anon or Codependents Anonymous, online forums, therapy, or supportive people in your life. Change is hard, but definitely possible!

Living Life in Seeking Mode

-Jonice Webb, PhD

Do You:

Eat too much?

Spend too much?

Drink too much?

Smoke cigarettes or pot?

Spend too much time on the internet?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, there’s something you should know:

There is probably a good reason for it.

These types of tendencies, which we all tend to think of merely as habits, are actually much more than that. “Habits” like these are actually your unconscious attempt to adapt to, or cope with, something inside you. A deep discomfort or emptiness or pain which your body feels, but of which you are most likely unaware.

Eating, spending, drinking, smoking or zoning out on the internet are all actually ways that you have found to soothe yourself.

During 20 years of practicing psychology, I have observed that these tendencies are not only common, they are practically ubiquitous. You may be able to find a person who doesn’t regularly over-indulge in something that’s not good for him or her, but it won’t be easy.

In today’s world, life comes at us quickly. We move from one activity or errand to the next, and in-between we are occupying ourselves with the internet, social media, Hulu or Netflix. We seldom have a moment to simply sit with ourselves, think the thoughts that need to be thought, or feel the feelings that need to be felt. Both of which are required to process an emotion in a healing and growth-producing way.

The truth is, most of us are not even aware that emotions need to be felt or processed. And, of course, not every emotion does. But the most deep and powerful emotions that drive us are the ones that we must acknowledge, feel, and think about. These emotions have the ability to either make or break us. And when we do not acknowledge, face, and process these feelings, their strength and power continually build over time.

If you were raised in a family that under-attended, under-acknowledged, and under-discussed feelings and emotions (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), you are more likely to live your life in seeking mode for two key reasons. First, when your emotions are pushed away, you are left with an emptiness that naturally seeks to be filled. Secondly, if your family avoided feelings you probably didn’t learn the emotion skills that other people have: how to name, sit with, understand, manage, and express your feelings.

Where does this leave you? It leaves you scrambling to feel better. Seeking a distraction or a soother that’s readily available and under your control. Something that will fill you, gratify you, take you away, and dull your painful feelings so that you will not have to feel them.

Once you’re in this cycle of seeking and avoiding, it can be difficult to escape from it.

But you can.

4 Steps to Stop Living Your Life in Seeking Mode

  1. Set aside a specific period of time every day (any length from 2 to 30 minutes) to sit alone in a room with your eyes closed and pay attention to the feelings and thoughts that you have. Set a timer so that you don’t have to watch the clock.
  2. Gradually increase the time you spend per day or the days per week that you do this; or both.
  3. At the end of each sitting session, write down the thoughts and feelings you noticed. Keep writing as much and as often as you can; Periodically re-read all that you have written.
  4. Learn how to meditate. Meditation is not only a way to train your brain to look inward, it also gives you better control over your own mind. Meditation has been proven by research to improve your health, and build powers of concentration. Therapists know that it also is useful in processing emotions.

The problem behaviors that you always thought were habits are actually a message to you. You need something, and some part of you knows it.

What you do not need is to be filled by food or drink or material rewards, or to escape by zoning out.

All you really need is to finally give yourself — and your feelings — some well-deserved attention.

At last.