On the Road to Change With Father Time and Gandhi

When I was in college, I got really bored with how my room looked. Changing the colors of my comforter or posters was not enough to make my restlessness go away. So, I rearranged my 3 pieces of furniture each quarter. This is a bigger deal than you think. As a smart control freak, I prepared for each move by cutting Post-It notes to represent each piece of furniture and placed it on a graph paper blueprint that I had drawn to scale. (No, I’m not kidding.) I have repeated that behavior in the 7 places and 6 classrooms I’ve lived in since then.

But, that doesn’t mean I’m good at accepting change or easily ready to make changes to myself. Anxiety and depression are characterized by the overwhelming feeling of being stuck, being unable to change how things are now in order to make things better later. Change is not easy. Maybe that is why there are just as many steps to change as there are to grief.

Cracking Open the Window to Leap Through

Johari’s window

Grad school provided me with two memorable frameworks with which to approach counseling. My homeroom-esque class with the best professor and mentor a loud, know-it-all needed (shout out to the one and only Dr. Victoria Junior) came with an introduction to Johari’s Window. In my practice, it is common for clients to reach out for help for problems that border panes 1 and 2. My clients know there is something not right but just can’t quite articulate the problem. In order to crack that window wide open, we work to crawl, walk, run, retreat, and regroup through the stages of change. (The names of the stages are mine, not the clinical terms.)

Substance abuse and addiction training required the ultimate textbook for understanding all change. This is literally the textbook on the stages of change.
  • Problem? What Problem? There are not enough examples, videos, PowerPoint presentations, or tantrums to get you to see there is a problem. The bad news? Your loved ones must continue to beat their heads against the wall and fill the air with their voices despite its apparent lack of efficacy. The good news? Something is getting through at a subconscious level that is prepping you to proceed to stage two.
  • Oh, That Problem? It’s Not a Problem. Deaf ears are now more like selective hearing. You have gotten the message that there is something in your lives getting in the way of an angst-free existence. But, at this stage, the problem is YOURS; your loved one believes it is manageable.
  • OK, My Problem is a Problem. Time to buy colored pencils, Post-It notes, and erasers.
    Hiro from Heroes when he learned to stop time

    Lots of erasers. You are ready to put a plan in place. We have one stage left before the plan is put into action, but we have a plan!

  • I Did It! Despite the fact that change has been working, albeit at an uncomfortably slow pace, it is clear to everyone that you are making new choices. New behaviors are obvious and should be applauded by all onlookers. Don’t be surprised if physical exhaustion accompanies all of this psychological and emotional change.
  • That Worked..Kinda. Although change may vastly improve your physical and mental health, it is not always easy to maintain. People need to meet the NEW YOU. You need to see how the new you interacts with your old friends and family. An occasional appearance from your stage 1, 2, 3, or 4 self is to be expected, not shamed.

Spark Note Summary

Just because you seek out doing things differently, doesn’t mean you are ready for a change. Anxiety and depression don’t start overnight or disappear in the daylight. There is a process to learning how to see your problems even before you start to address them. Your best friend on this journey is time. Just ask Gandhi, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

The Court of Common Sense and Sensibility

When I grew up, “like” was part of the (annoying), everyday vocabulary. Shows like Seinfeld and Friends gave us more phrases that sunk into our common psyche and rose out of our mouths seemingly without thought. Now, it seems that “Don’t judge me” is the next phrase to permeate our culture. I’m told that comedian Kevin Hart may be to blame. Neither my mother nor my mother-in-law have a clue who that is. Yet, they have both used the phrase “don’t judge me” multiple times in the last few weeks. In a society filled with efforts to stop Mommy Shaming and Body Shaming, I am in complete agreement that we should all be cautious of our glass houses. But, when did having a different opinion get you labeled as “judgy”?

Presentation of Evidence: What Are You REALLY Saying?

Being called “judgmental” is not a slur hurled at you from strangers. It takes place in the course of a regular conversation with someone you know. But not someone you know well. Your lifelong bosom buddies would never accuse you of passing judgment when your opinion differs from their own because you speak the same language. So, here is the internal monologue taking place when you are accused of shaming or judging someone.

  • “Please don’t point out I’m unsure of my opinion.” The feeling of being judged begins when you interpret that someone’s facial reaction or verbal response has devalued what you just said. In other words, somehow, you are “wrong.” When you are passing on someone else’s opinion, it works like sharing on Facebook — the original content is not your own. The problem is not that you lack an ability to accurately recall the phrase or article you are repeating. The problem is your memories are emotion-based; thus, there is room for misinterpretation of fact based on how that information was emotionally digested.
  • “This is not a discussion. I just need to be heard.” There is a lot of research, clinical and anecdotal, about the positive benefits of emotional venting. It is physically and emotionally healthy to release feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment. However, these benefits are lost if you do not choose your audience well.

Spark Note Summary

My response to the accusation, “Don’t judge me,” is…WHY NOT? I welcome differing opinions from others who have lived a different life. Without healthy, respectful disagreement, it becomes hard to learn. It’s hard to learn about others. It’s hard to learn about yourself.



Take Your Time, Don’t Waste Your Time

My father just got remarried. My anniversary is approaching. I’ve received three emails in the last two days about new clients for couples counseling. And, the cover of my last professional magazine was about marital counseling.

“Marriage, that blessed arrangement, a dream within a dream..”

Message received: it’s time to talk about marriage.

My husband’s aunt and uncle were high school sweethearts, but my husband and I didn’t get married until our 30’s. Our family seems to prove the statistics in Gallup’s analysis of the last census: When Gen Xers (see: me) were aged 18-30 years old (see also: no longer me),  32% were married. Our parents’ generation saw 40% still pledging till death they do part. And, the numbers of matrimonial bliss drop to 20% for the millennials currently aged 18 to 30.

There are a plethora of cliches and metaphors to try to get others to understand marriage. Science minds nod when you say “opposites attract”. Spiritual minds smile in agreement when you introduce the ying to your yang. When and why you chose marriage is not important. To some extent, neither is who you married. As a family counselor for almost a decade, the secret to a lasting marriage is all about time.

It’s All About Time Management

Not the real John Gottman, but the “real” grand poohbah.

In grad school, I bought thousands of dollars of textbooks that got me through the licensing exam before being boxed up and shipped to another counseling student for pennies on the dollar. The only book that I keep coming back to is one I bought at Barnes and Noble, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. John Gottman is the grand poohbah of couples counseling. His Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (of Marriage) are the common mistakes couples make when fighting, the mistakes that allow Gottman to predict with 90% accuracy couples that will remain together or split up. The only behaviors I can predict with the same 90% accuracy are my own. But, I have my own true-isms to add to the field of couples counseling:

  • Explain OR emote: This is not the time to practice what you have learned from me about dialectical behavior theory. It is a neurological miracle to be able to speak eloquently about your feelings while you are having them. Why? Fun fact #1: the area of the brain that processes emotions is as far away from the area of the brain that uses language without leaving your head. Fun fact #2: most people do not naturally possess a high emotional IQ to identify and discern the cornucopia of feelings in the human experience. Fun fact #3: anger, the most primal and present of emotions during a fight, is an alarm emotion.
Fun fact 1 + fun fact 2 + fun fact 3….it doesn’t add up

Anger lets you know that someone or something has breached an emotional, psychological, or physical boundary that you set up for your protection. No matter how you try, it simply does not add up to explain how you feel during a fight.

  • Set an expiration date: You cannot go back twenty years in a fight that started twenty minutes ago.  Yes, there are ongoing unresolved issues in marriage. No, they don’t need to be rolled into every disagreement. Today’s fight is happening because of today’s circumstances. There are some days when getting ice for a glass of water will trigger my startle reflex causing me to launch a full attack on my husband. I have known my husband for 20 years; the startle reflex is not breaking news. He may laugh, duck, or (justifiably) hurl a counter-assault my way.  It all depends on how full our buckets are the moment the fuse has been lit. Giving an accurate chronology of each time my husband has surprised my unconscious in the last 20 years is time consuming and as ridiculous as it sounds. However, focusing on the context of the current quarrel may give you insight and traction on tackling the larger issue.
  • Nice to meet you, again and again:You don’t stop growing up when you are growing old. For those of you who choose to parent, please understand that parenting puts you into stasis. Your world revolves around being a parent, a distant second cousin twice removed from the individual who took vows. A journalist documented this worst-kept secret in the book, All Joy and No Fun; it’s my favorite “homework” to assign  to couples because it freely discusses the not-so-fabulous world of parenting most of us are afraid to admit. A poll conducted by Pew Research in 2014 revealed that 54% of children under the age of 18 were living a traditional home, one with heterosexual birth parents. My unofficial research tells me that these children grew up in homes where the parents stopped learning about themselves and their partners. Who you were when you took vows is not the person you become as you live your life, 585,600 minutes a year. If you don’t share the new you with your old partner, you lose the chance to have a lifelong connection.
  • Spark Note Summary

    Maybe the secret to a marriage that lasts a lifetime is to live in all times. You need to cherish the past shared experiences that have kept you together, hope that the future will keep getting better and brighter because of your relationship, and choose your partner every day.

    The Happy Leopard (A Working Title)

    lepardRight now, my biopic would be rated PG13. That’s a cumulative rating. Like most of us, my 20’s were mostly R-rated, filled with inappropriate behaviors that matched my intoxication with freedom by living a time zone away from my parents. As the distance grew, so did the level of responsible, irresponsible behavior. I was never arrested. I didn’t get fired from my job as a new teacher. I also didn’t treat my body with the level of care and respect that I should have…and I knew it.

    A child is believed to be the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama, whom the lamas called “Kundun.” The boy matures in both age and learning, especially after his mentor dies.

    Surviving those years allowed me to calm down and earn a PG rating of life. Life’s spotlight intentionally shifted away from me as my levels of self-care and self-love began to match the care and love I had for others. I became your favorite underdog biopic. Think Rocky or Kundun.

    Now that I’m in my 40s, I am embracing the decade of f*#k-its. Like most of my compadres of the same age, my skin is stretched to the size that I’m comfortable in (metaphorically, of course) where attitude reign supreme whether deserved or imagined.  Just like Patch Adams, I celebrate the parts of me that caused the insecurity of my 20s and played up the sensitive side that brought me love (husband and son) in my 30s.

    Your Identity Acronym

    In order to help clients, I need to understand their biopics. Most therapists focus on one theory, cognitive behavioral theory (CBT), systems theory, just to name some popular ones. But, working with real clients means understanding how thoughts, feelings, biology, and relationships all factor into WHY they need help and HOW to help them. Thank goodness for Arnold Lazarus and his multimodal therapy acronym, BASIC ID.

    • BehaviorNo secret decoder ring necessary. Separate your thoughts from your actions. What are you DOING that is getting in the way of a goal? What can you DO to put yourself back on track? Basic Madlibs treatment plan: Give me a verb.

      I won’t lie. It is still a lot of fun using inappropriate words to fill these out.
    • Affect: This one is difficult because it is dependent on your emotional intelligence. Not only is the challenge identifying your feelings, but in order to understand and treatment plan for the conflict leading you into therapy, you need to work on the triggers for those emotions. You also need to put those feelings on a sliding scale, rage to irritation, sadness to depression, etc. The chain link of BASIC ID actually begins here by connecting the behaviors with the emotions; it’s the old chicken or the egg, psychology style.
    • Sensations: The focus is on the mind-body connection. Hands tingling, heart racing, limbs that seem to be slogging through a sea of Elmer’s glue just to walk to the door…Your feelings may be easier to understand by discussing their physicality. It’s important to focus on how your body responds when relaxing. Practicing mindfulness is essential to this aspect of therapy.
    • Imagery: I tend to think in pictures, so this one is easy for me. But, as you combine your actions, emotions, and physicality, memories will begin to stir. Before you flinch…GOOD memories are vital to any treatment plan. Connecting to past success in dealing with current stress is a major focus of my practice. It’s easy to lose sight of how many obstacles you have overcome on your own when you have to seek help from a professional to solve your current problem. Tapping into the memories of the “you” who can slay giants, at age 6 or age 60, builds up great momentum toward success.
    • Cognitions: Keep in mind, BASIC ID is not a literal, step-by-step process. It’s a clever way for therapists (and clients who want to learn) to conceptualize the presenting problem and create a treatment plan for A WHOLE PERSON. Your self-talk, self-image, and self-concept are words with immense power.
    • Interpersonal functioning: So many of my clients come to me because someone else told them they have a problem. Your support network is key. Learning who to have cheering you on and with whom a relationship has run its course is important to managing life’s stressors. How much those people have contributed to your overall mental health, or lack thereof, is essential to creating a path to a strong version of yourself.
    • Biological dimension: Horrible wife confession: I often tease my husband about having low blood sugar when he is a few items short on the “Honey Do” list. It is impossible to parse out the difference between the sensations of illness or medical conditions and those attributed to mental health illnesses. Are you tired because you caught the flu from your son or are you depressed? The beauty of this method of diagnosis and treatment is the permission for therapists to consider both with dismissing either.

    Spark Note Summary

    People are beautifully complex. The treatment models that try to disqualify thoughts and amplify feelings or focus on relationships without figuring out real sensations are limiting. The healing process truly begins, and lasts, when you can understand and accept all parts of you and your life. It’s not magic. It’s pretty basic…

    In Gut We Trust

    I’m not sure when it became standard operating procedure to tell the story of how you met your spouse when you first meet people. My snarky retort for “how did you and your husband get together” is ALWAYS: “It’s an awful Nicholas Sparks novel, and I don’t look good in it.” It’s true. thI have known my husband since I was 19, dated him briefly when I was 21-22, but didn’t marry him until a decade later. We stayed friendly over the decade between “it’s not you, it’s me” and “I do”. He came for a visit in 2010. I cooked dinner. We laughed and were ridiculous until he left to return to his primary reason for the trip from Tucson to Chicago, a family visit. The second the door closed behind him, I called my best friend. “I think I just let my husband walk out the door.”

    What!?!?! I didn’t know until….I knew!!

    Common Memories and Legacies

    I spent most of my 20’s learning how to trust my gut. I had spent the previous two decades relying only on my intelligence. I had lost touch with my instinct, my gut. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. There is so much focus on HOW you know WHAT you know, we have let our instinct diminish.

    • What Is It?: Our instinct is actually the primal part of the brain, commonly referred to as the subconscious, that kept us alert and alive during caveman times. Despite being ignored, your primal brain is responsible for your automatic responses to stimuli. Our brains have been hard wired over centuries to be afraid img_4029of some objects while understanding and accepting others.Here’s an example of (cultural) subconscious. While visiting my family in NJ, my son picked up a phone (that was not ringing) and said, “Hello!” Let’s do the math: I haven’t had a land line in 15 years, and my son is 4 years old. How did he know that was a phone?
    • Where Does It Come From?: Carl Jung would attribute that knowledge to archetypal memories, or a collective unconscious, that exists as the combination between instinct and archetypes. Consider how many people have a fear of snakes. Their instinct tells them to be wary of this creature as a potential sense of harm. Jungian psychologists trace that instinct to the snake

      "Snakes, why does it always have to be snakes?" - Indiana Jones
      “Snakes, why does it always have to be snakes?” – Indiana Jones

      as a common character in world religions and mythology that deceives others. In fact, most of you probably took some form of the Myers-Briggs Personality test designed by Jungian psychologists; they are often disguised as employment surveys. Intuition is the second letter of your four letter personality profile.

    • How Is It Helpful? There was a comprehensive study documented by Kelly Turner in her book, Radical Remission, which recounts amazing stories of terminal cancer patients who survived by making decisions based on their intuition. The belief that a strong intuition can create positive situations and outcomes has even made its way into the world of business. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink uses the term “rapid cognition” instead of intuition. (I assume he wants to get the connotations of hippie-belief and mysticism away from his best selling books.) Card tricks, car buying, and marriage have all been researched through the lens of intuition. The results don’t change: people who are advised by their brain but decide with their gut are happier than those who out-think their instincts. 

    Spark Note Summary

    Your instincts are primal. Your primal self is emotional and relational. It will be easier to trust others when you trust yourself, trust your gut. The best way to nourish and nurture your gut is to disconnect from our devices and reconnect with our friends and family. (After texting, tweeting, and sharing this blog, of course…)

    Marital Counseling by Elmo and Cookie Monster

    My husband is a natural mimic. He doesn’t mean to, and he is spot on with his mockery…I mean, mimicry. He sounds like a native New Jerseyean after talking to my mother or even listening to me talk to her. He pronounces doom and gloom for the ground meat and vegetables he is making for dinner like the Manchurian from Iron Man 3 without knowing it.

    cookie monsterThanks to our son’s unwavering love of Sesame Street for the past four years, more often than not, my husband now talks like Cookie Monster. For example,

    Me: Honey, did you take out the recycling when you got home?

    My husband: Me remember.

    (Come on wives, shake your head from side to side with me…)

    Ironically, I wrote a 25 page paper about the educational intentions of the Children’s Television Network when they created Sesame Street. I catalogued hours of watching Sesame Street on the TV in the basement of my dorm with a notepad to document the topic of each sketch and a stopwatch to time the longevity of them. It turns out, I was onto something. An article was published about one year ago that announced a study found that watching Sesame Street had the same educational efficacy as pre-school programs. Now that I’m back watching Sesame Street again, it seems as if they also have some excellent marital advice.

    What’s Good For the Gosling Is Good For the Goose and Gander

    family of geeseYou don’t need to have children to love the animated movies by Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. Those studios have graciously given adults plenty of nuggets embedded into “kids’ movies” to make it acceptable for a date night with your partner or the bazillionth viewing with your toddler. Sesame Street has done the same. The lessons they teach pre-school children are remarkably poignant for couples.

    • Finding a common language: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, communication is the key to a successful marriage. Oh, wait! That wasn’t me! It was every marriage and family therapist that has walked the Earth since the caveman beat his wife over the head with a club. Sesame Street has a word of the day which gets defined in simple words and illustrated with three examples. These are not basic words. Chris O’Donnell did a great job explaining the word “activate” when he couldn’t find the right button to turn on the robot. Zack Efron taught Elmo the word “patience” with several examples of why they couldn’t run off to play basketball; then, the basketball explained another one. Translation: showing someone what a word means to you quickly closes the gap of miscommunication. 
    • Managing anxiety: This is not a “me” thing; it is a “we” thing. The point of marriage (and all other forms of long-term relationships) is to have a partner to help you when you are too tired, too stressed, or too overwhelmed to help yourself. Nearly every episode of Sesame Street has an idea to help calm down when you are overanxious.

      Click here to watch the video.
      Click here to watch the video.

      Sometimes Alan, the owner of Hooper’s Store, helps Elmo calm down by advising Elmo to put his hand on his chest to stop the ramped up speech associated with anxiety and breathe. Other times, there is a musical guest showing Elmo how to “belly breathe”. Yes, it is always Elmo. Translation: no good comes from behaviors and conversations bathed in anxiety; helping your partner calm down shows him/her you are working together to deal with the source of the anxiety.

    • Pay attention to the beauty of every day things: The older we get, the faster time seems to go. We rush to work. We rush home from work. We rush to tell our partners everything that happened between those times in the six minutes we have before parenting responsibilities take hold. (Insert deep breath, here.) Children are naturally curious. Telly and Elmo notice insects on the sidewalk and plant leaves on Sesame Street. Abby Cadaby sees practical magic with her “magi-goggles” in Lela’s laundromat and Gordon’s table. Translation: the reason the book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, was a multi-million dollar best seller is because we let the details of life at work and home ruin both places; what if we slowed down long enough to see the sweet details of both places?

    Spark Note Summary

    The lessons we use to raise our children can be the same lessons we use to stop acting like children. Parenting takes a toll on marriage. Mr. and Mrs. lose their way when Mom and Dad take over. It’s a good thing to know that there is a way back… “can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?”

    …All the King’s Horses and All the Kings Men, Couldn’t Put Humpty Together Again

    adrienne rich
    Words That Kept Us Going

    I just spent the last few days with my sister wife. We are not Mormon. We were co-workers for four years where we shared a husband, hers by true love and marriage and mine by work. Notice the use of the word “shared”. We lost this incredible man not too long ago and way too soon.

    Ironically, these same few days overlapped a funeral. Although the loss was family (by marriage), I was not sad or upset. I went to the service to give love and support to those who were related to him by blood and felt his loss deeply.  My distance lessened when I recognized the profound sadness all around me. There was a daughter estranged from the family for so long she was unmentioned and unrecognized during the service and burial. There was a widow of more than four decades of marriage lost to dementia; I wasn’t sure if she understood what terrible occasion we were marking.stages of grief

    The grief and loss that comes with death always triggers discussions of the five stages made popular (to the tune of being available on WebMD and Wikipedia) by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Let me join the professional bandwagon  by saying…crap!

    Picking Up the Pieces

    The grieving process occurs all through your life. It is not just when there is a death. It is important to remember, and not belittle, that LOSS is an obstacle you have survived – from the moment you were not able to use your pacifier until the moment you were not able to remember your name. Keeping that in mind, here are some of the real struggles of grief and loss:

    • Identity: With my full opinionated support, my friend has never referred to herself as a widow. (I am cringing right now.) As I mentioned in an earlier blog about identity, so much of growing older is adding relational titles. When those titles are lost, sister, daughter, wife, the process that originally took the first two decades of your life (at least) needs to re-start. Who wouldn’t be angry about a second puberty?
    • Belonging: According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, maslowethis motivation, to belong in a group, is a vital stepping stone to developing a healthy self-esteem. Consider the losses in your life that were unrelated to death, my earlier example of a child’s loss of a pacifier. The demarcation that parents celebrate as a sign of maturity is met with the loss of confidence about self-soothing. Down the pyramid you go! Now, you have to search your environment for survival and safety again. We all do it. We just forget that from the perspective of a toddler, and some professional counselors, that loss needs to be acknowledged as evidence that you are strong enough and resourceful enough to survive all kinds of losses. Even a small loss can be used as fuel to get a small gain for a bigger loss.
    • Isolation: You lost your job. Becoming a parent wasn’t what you expected. Your child isn’t interested in playing Legos with you. All of these dashed dreams trigger the grief and loss stages. They also separate you from friends and family. person aloneYou have become the embodiment of fear — the living and breathing “what-if” monster. You shy away from people who shy away from you. Until you reinvent yourself, and choose whether your old friends should be your new friends, a self-imposed, community approved, isolation is in effect.

    Spark Note Summary

    Death is not the only reason we suffer from grief and loss. Each time we don’t live the life we expected, we have to reinvent ourselves. Bringing the successes and lessons learned from a past life into the next life (cue Indigo Girls “Galileo“), makes you strong enough to start again. You just have to start by salvaging the right pieces…

    Life is Not a Marathon, Highway, or Box of Chocolates

    raining cats and dogsIf you ask any one of my students what it means to be “raining cats and dogs” or what exactly is the “rule of thumb,” they will proudly tell you the etymology of those clichés. (But, since my students’ identities are confidential, you can ask in the comments of this blog.) State level tests used to use clichés to assess whether or not students understood the theme of a passage. I had no choice but to teach them, and learn for myself, what it meant for a “stitch in time to save nine” in order for my students to save themselves from self-induced shame of a test score that tested nothing. (Can you pick up on my passion for the worthlessness of formal assessments?)

    word choiceI have a long history of being fixated with word choice. In college, I wrote an extensive paper attacking feminists for trying to change the English language by taking “man” out of words like “woman” and replacing it with “womyn.” Or, changing the word “history” to “herstory.” First, take it up with Latin; there is an etymological reason “man” and “his” appear in a ton of words. Second, shouldn’t we have been devoting our energy to ACTUAL problems like equal pay, reproductive rights, or domestic violence. (I’m not picky; any one of those is worth fighting for.)

    The meaning behind hackneyed phrases and proper word choice is not limited to standardized tests or creative activism. Neither is my deep passion for saying what you mean and meaning what you say. What is left out from that gem of a slogan is the option to say…nothing. Or, confess that you do not know what to say.

    You Are Not Really Sorry 

    If you remember my blog, Wife Points for Mrs. Smarty Pants, you know I am a fan of the Urban Dictionary. This resource contains all of the content to show your kids you are cool and often contains words that bully their way into traditional dictionaries. That’s where I learned about the sorry syndrome. The hallmarks of this disorder are using the words “I’m sorry” as filler in situations where you lack the true words to express your feelings. Here are some examples of what may be beneath your faux-pology:

    • “I don’t understand.”
    • “I accidentally made physical contact with you.”
    • “I’m trying to avoid an argument.”
    • “I am worried that I may be too assertive or passionate about a situation.” (I’m sorry but changing the English language to inaccurately reflect the Latin root of a word is a self-important, feckless task.”)
    • “I knew it was wrong but don’t like the consequences of being caught.”

    I am adding to the list. There are times when “I’m sorry” is used as a filler. It’s meaning is no better than “um,” “uh,” or, the any other 80’s equivalent of “like.” Here are some of the situations the most authentic well-wisher fills the unknown space with “I’m sorry”:

    • To express condolences for the death of a loved one (including pets)
    • To express solidarity for a friend who has suffered an injustice
    • To express compassion for a physical, emotional, or psychological pain

    Believe it or not, science has taken up the cause of trying to make the world a better place by studying apologies. There have been TED talks and studies that explain how to apologize and the significant positive psychological effects to both parties when that process is completed correctly.

    In a (Apologetic) Nutshell

    There are times when you need to provide an authentic apology. The first time I heard of the three parts to an apology was when I saw Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” on YouTube. I have expanded on his bullet points to be a little more specific.

    • Step 1: Tell them what you feel: Usually, we start by saying “I’m sorry”. We have already shown how those words in isolation are ineffective. “I’m sorry” is more effective when for apologies when you express remorseful feelings. For example, “I’m so sorry AND sad that my comment caused you embarrassment.” Warning: stop there. You will ruin everything if you get defensive: “I’m sorry that you are overly sensitive about this topic and got embarrassed.”
    • Step 2: Admit your mistake AND the negative impact it had: This part is hard because it necessitates a few demerits to your ego. sorrypuppThe key to success is empathy. You need to connect with the feeling, not agree with why that feeling is present in the person to whom you are apologizing. Simply trying to understand their feelings, even confessing that you are struggling with that understanding, is the key. Warning: do not explain the reference for when you experienced those feelings; this is not about you and your hurt.
    • Step 3: Make the situation right: It’s no coincidence that governments make reparations to ethnic groups as an act of forgiveness for historical travesties. Authentic apologies include a reparation of some kind, either real or symbolic. Be creative: if you embarrassed someone, is there a way to help them regain some credibility? If not, can you help them restore some of the self-esteem lost by your mistake? Warning: don’t make stuff up if you don’t know; ask the person whose forgiveness you are seeking how to make it up to them. No negotiations here – just do it!

     Spark Notes Summary

    Well-wishers are often not well-spoken.All relationships are hard work, like training for a marathon. There are going to be times when healing a relationship is necessary. There are other times when a relationship should be over because its season or reason have passed. Granting forgiveness is helpful for both parties, you know like what’s good for the goose…

    Wife Points for Mrs. Smarty Pants

    Does any of this sound familiar?

    Husband: Why are you crying?

    Wife: Because I’m pissed off!

    Husband: So, you’recouple fighting sad?

    Wife: No. I’m just really upset. (long pause) Don’t you want to know why?

    Husband: Sure?

    Wife: I’m overwhelmed about everything I have to do and don’t feel appreciated.

    Husband: (long pause)

    Wife: (longer pause followed by a loud grunt..and possible stomping of feet and slamming of door)

    This “fictionalized” conversation is common. As if it wasn’t hard enough to decipher the difference between upset and overwhelmed, now the Oxford Dictionary has added slang emotions! IMG_4812I’m happily validated that “wine o’clock” is now an acceptable time, but now I have to understand if I am can be “hangry” and “butthurt” on the same day. In my house, we created a points system. (Hey, I’m a highly competitive sports enthusiast. Remember my blog about The Queen of Tic-Tac-Toe?) My husband will give me “wife points” for coming home with a surprise steak or “Mom points” when I find a new way to trick my son into letting us put sunscreen on him before school. But, this is a silly solution to a real problem. Knowing, identifying, and conveying feelings is the real answer.

    Smart in the Heart

    Emotion cards I use often in therapy.

    What’s more important than the names of feelings, are the functions of them. Some emotions serve to sound an alarm. The anxiety alarm goes off when an expectation is shattered, whether practical or not, your anticipated outcome did not come true. The anger alarm goes off when boundary is breached; your personal bubble constructed over a lifetime of experiences to keep your mind and body safe has been broken. Understanding this brief explanation has just raised your emotional intelligence (EQ), knowing what to do with this knowledge raises your EQ up another notch.

    The idea of emotional intelligence has been around for decades. This psychological theory has even been adopted by corporate America to help their productivity. Basically, there are four areas of emotional intelligence:

    • Self-awareness – You are able recognize and identify your own emotions. You understand how they affect your thoughts and behavior. Your self-confidence comes from knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
    • Self-management – You are able to control the actions triggered by your feelings. emotional iqYou understand which feelings are impulsive and which behaviors are triggered when those feelings are present. You can manage your emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances.
    • Social awareness – You can understand the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people that may be different from your own. This includes the ability to pick up on emotional cues and feel comfortable in different social circles
    • Relationship management – You know how to develop and maintain healthy relationships and communicate your feelings clearly. That intelligence inspires and influences others to manage conflicts.

    Spark Notes Summary

    The best way to have a happy life as a happy wife (or mother, or sister, or partner) is to understand what happiness means. Once that is figured out, you will be on your way to figuring out what the word is for the loss of happiness, the yearning for happiness, and the dream of happiness. Your feelings are unique to you; you have to know them as well as you know yourself. Otherwise, you run the risk of being too hangry and getting butthurt by foolish things.

    The Queen of Tic-Tac-Toe

    My husband and I take silly seriously. We spent a great deal of our courtship playing Warcraft over an Ethernet hub with six friends in a two-bedroom apartment. (Really, it was incredibly romantic to be advised to “make a peon” every three seconds.) So, when we are overwhelmed with responsibility, we find a way to shirk off the dusting and vacuuming by playing a game.

    tic tac toe

    The other day, I downloaded an app so I can write text and draw on photos before posting them on Facebook. I demonstrated this new toy to my husband by scribbling on a picture of him. Somehow that devolved into using the app to doodle a tic-tac-toe board. Seventeen games later, Joe still had not won one. Not one. Many of you are smiling because you know the same pattern I do, the one which secures the top left, bottom left, and bottom right corners guaranteeing a win regardless of what pitiful move your opponent makes. I’m lucky that Joe is a good loser because I am a horrible winner. What is worse than that is I set him up to fail…seventeen times. That is the epitome of unfair and an issue I see in marital counseling all of the time.

    Developing a Definition of Fairness

    It takes a lifetime to develop a working definition of fair/fairness. There are developmental models in psychology, Supreme Court cases, and dictionaries that attempt to define this complex issue. It’s no wonder that a couple has a hard time negotiating the content when there are as so many different ways of understanding the construct. I have my own developmental model of fairness:

    • moralityAs a therapist, I learned all about Kohlberg’s developmental model of morality. Kohlberg designed a scenario similar to the Kobiyahi Maru of Star Trek legend. The beginning of fairness falls into Kohlberg’s Level 1, Stage 2, Individualism and Exchange. Between the approximate ages of four through 9, children’s moral codes are defined by outsiders and authority figures. Rules are clearly outlined by parents and teachers. Children can easily observe whether they are being treated fairly when compared to peers.
    • Adolescence brings with it the mantra, “That’s not fair.” Parents don’t allow extended curfews or call in an excused absence to cover missing homework. These are the years I call the “War of the Door”, one side slams it and the other removes the door from the hinge. Erikson believes the actual war is the teenager’s struggle between identity and role confusion. Young adults are consistently comparing and contrasting the adults who make the rules to decide whether to emulate or reject those values. Success in this stage breeds fidelity, a close relative of fairness. Young adults align themselves and show loyalty to people who share the morals, like fairness, that match their individual identity.
    • Society is hyper-focused on fairness. We want to make sure women have equal pay for equal rights. We want to make sure same-sex couples can marry and raise children like their heterosexual friends and neighbors. Fairness morphs into equality in adulthood. Supreme Court cases legislate concepts that consistently examine equality of outcome vs equality of opportunity. Fairness becomes a question of winning or losing. But, with 300 million individuals in America, winning or losing depends on perspective. (Rosie Perez explains this best in White Man Can’t Jump.)

    Spark Note Summary

    Marriage is not a game. If you are already counting wins and losses, you have lost a fundamental building block of your marriage. Fairness in marriage is a feeling. And feelings are not shared through slammed doors.