Becoming the Master of the Universe

As an in-home counselor, I travel…a lot. I was coming home from the city when I noticed a delivery truck on a side street. I was stuck in traffic, so my mind stayed with the relatively common sight for a while. I was a little amazed about how and why all of the strangers in their cars (in a neighborhood with a reputation for violence) all complied with a scrawny man directing traffic. He wasn’t a cop! He wasn’t even a crossing guard with an official vest! Then, it came to me. He. Was. He-Man!

he manStop shaking your heads, fellow children of the 80’s. You know exactly who I mean. He-Man, the Prince of Eternia, would “hold aloft his magic sword” and say, “By the power of Grayskull!” The glittering cloud that changed the boy-next-door to a muscle-clad, gentleman hero was not the real magic. The real magic happened when he held the sword, post-transformation, and said, “I HAVE THE POWER!” Yes! We can all have the power!

…The Power to Fight Depression and Anxiety

Self-efficacy is your belief that you have the power, the ability, to solve a problem and achieve a task. We have all experienced periods of wavering self-efficacy. That’s “normal”. For the approximately 40 million American’s suffering with anxiety and depression, self-efficacy is a key factor in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It is not practical to teach self-efficacy. It is possible, however, to recognize when you are “psyching yourself out” by learning about some mind games you play with yourself. (We call these cognitive distortions around the professional water cooler.):

  • All-or-Nothing: things are in black and white categories. Your brain is starting to lose perspective and becoming too anxious to slow down.
  • Overgeneralization looks like a downward spiral

    Overgeneralization: a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. Guilty as charged on this one; all it takes is for one thing to go wrong before I start “noticing” all of the things that have spiraled out of my control.

  • Mental filter: pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively. Those of you that live near nature will recognize this inability to see the forest for the trees. How can anything around you be manageable when all you see is the negative in front of you?

    tunnel vision
    Mental filters give you tunnel vision.
  • Disqualifying The Positive: positive experiences “don’t count”. Imagine someone who has won the lottery but trips out of the bank after depositing their millions; if experiencing this cognitive distortion, all that person will tell you about his day is how he embarrassingly tripped in public.
  • Magnification (catastrophizing): Exaggerate the importance of things; your “whoops”  or someone else’s “hooray” both register a 10+ on a scale of 1-5.
  • Minimization OR “binocular trick”: inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny. The opposite of magnification, this “skill” is the ability to evaluate your own desirable qualities, the ones everyone reminds you they love and admire about you, to a microscopic piece of shmoo on your ego.

You know which one of these, or two, or three, applies to you. If not, don’t worry. One share of this blog with friends and family will have them all running to you to tell you who you are based on what you do. Yay, family bonding activity?!?

Spark Note Summary

superheroYour supercomputer of a brain can convince you that you are capable of great things. It can also trick you into thinking that you are powerless to change. Recognizing those tricks will help you maintain a strong sense of self-efficacy letting your super brain persuade you to achieve super goals and embrace your inner super hero.


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.


no rulesIn light of the latest national tragedy, I’m going to break some rules.

Rule 1: Professional counselors are not prescriptive; we do not tell our clients what to do. Our role is to help empower our clients to help themselves.

Not this week.

Rule 2: Blogs, especially mine, are lighthearted and apolitical. It makes digesting clinical information easier. It is necessary to stay neutral so taking charge of your own mental health is manageable for everyone by not offending anyone.

Not this week.

Rule 3: There is no right or wrong in a therapeutic setting. Morality is individualized and learned from the unique perspective of our lives’ stories.

Not this week.

Managing the Tragedy to Prevent Trauma

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is not limited to soldiers. It is not limited to innocent people victimized by hatred. It is not limited to abused women and children. Although not a specific disorder, vicarious, or secondary, traumatic stress effects anyone who internalizes a horrifying event. First responders, counselors, clergy, and others associated with a helping profession are at the highest risk for vicarious PTSD based on the constant exposure to victims of tragedy. Sometimes, even well-intentioned parents can increase their children’s likelihood to exhibit serious mental health trauma.

According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, some symptoms and conditions associated with vicarious or secondary traumatic stress include:

    • Hypervigilance
    • Hopelessness
    • Avoidance
    • Anger/cynicism
    • Sleeplessness
    • Illness
    • Fear
  • Exhaustion

do's and don'tsHere are some things “To Do” and “To Don’t” when processing the latest attack.

Don’t explain the event to your children. Not even in Seuss-speak. Not even in generic terms. (“A bad man hurt a lot of people for being different.”) Children gracefully lack the capacity to understand the concepts of “bad man,” “hatred,” or “terror.” These are moral grey terms that children don’t have the developmental maturation to understand. David Elkind, a gifted psychologist, beautifully illustrates this concept in his books.

Do teach them about other cultures. There are dozens of Cinderella-type fairy tales from different cultures. Reading these to your children helps erase the lines between “us” and “them” in order to educate a generation of “we”.


Don’t allow your children to listen or watch any news coverage. Keep them away from adult conversations, too. Children have no concept of time. There is a risk that children will believe the violence is always happening because they cannot comprehend why it is still being discussed (while wearing serious adult faces) by everyone around them.

Do allow your children to participate in the healing process using art. Drawings, paintings, and Play-Doh are great donations to abuse shelters and children’s hospitals. Let your kids play and create like children. Then, present your child’s love-filled projects to peers to brighten the lives of others and create one for themselves.


Don’t mistake vigilance for preparedness. Fire drills and tornado drills are legal mandates for schools to practice disaster scenarios; they are normal for children. Creating disaster kits, no matter how much fun they may be to compile and decorate, is not normal play time at home. Spending your time guessing what awful event from the past to prepare for in the future will guarantee a loss of enjoyment in the present.

moon landingDo slow down to notice the details of your daily life. Just like one man’s small step on the moon that symbolized a larger step for mankind, the little miracles of daily life will create the armor of optimism needed to power through the major catastrophes.

Spark Note Summary

It is ironic that the same ignorance that fuels violent hatred protects our children’s innocence. We cannot sacrifice the latter to fight the former. Our energy must be concentrated on taking actions that protect the optimism of youthful innocence. Sports venues, schools, and businesses participate in “a moment of silence” in the wake of a tragedy. We respect the loss of life with a moment of silence. We honor the life that is lost with a minute of action. #minuteofaction

I Want My Son to Be a Duck When He Grows Up

My duck at 5 months old
My duck at 5 months old

I have been to three “graduations” in the past two weeks. My son has had two end-of-the-year parties to mark his completion of another year of early childhood education. Those parties are not really different than the high school graduation party I attended. The conversations always revolve around how far a child has come and how exciting it is for the next step. Parents congratulate themselves for managing the tantrums (for toddlers and teenagers) and nurturing the signs of independence (for toddlers and teenagers).

In the first week of his life, I already had some very clear expectations for my son:

 Sexuality: I never had cravings for food when I was pregnant. I craved music sung by Madonna and Cher. I was excited to think I was giving birth to a gay son who could teach his mother how to dress properly for the pear-shape for which he was partially responsible.

Personality: As regular blog readers, you know I have a sharp wit and irreverent attitude. I expect the same from my son, someone who will undoubtedly follow in his mother’s foot-in-mouth approach to life. Jacob began living up to this expectation hours after his birth; he literally was giving the finger to my husband as Jacob nursed.

 Career: At four days old, I explained to Jacob that he was not born to a mother who “would let him be whatever he wanted” when he grew up. I was, and still am, an ardent watcher of Deadliest Catch. I told him he was not allowed to be a crab fisherman.

Despite stereotypical therapists’ views, who we are is more complicated than the expectation of our parents.

The Three Pieces That Make Up the Puzzle of Self-Conceptpuzzle of self

  • Part 1: Family of Origin: Both Nature and Nurture factor into who you are groomed to be. Lehman famously outlined personality characteristics of birth order by defining first born children as ambitious, natural leaders, middle children as peacekeepers, and youngest children as free spirits. Combined with a family’s ethnic and religious views for gender and birth order, we start life as a relative cardboard cut-out of a member of the family.
  • Part 2: Friends and Community: As we grow up, we enter a larger world where comparisons and contrasts to our upbringing begin. Erikson labelled this struggle identity versus role confusion. There are three ways we moderate our concept of self during this stage.
    • Differentiation = “That’s not me!” We test out concepts, feelings, and emotions we have learned from our family of origin against how our friends’ families define these ideas. Rebellion against our own family is necessary at this point in order for us to embrace independent thinking and a strong adherence to values.
    • Substitution = “I want to be like him/her.” This is another form of rebellion, rejection. Painful for parents, again, but a necessary part of the process of becoming an individual. This is also where we embrace social changes like accepting same-sex marriage and a black President. By replacing one set of beliefs with another our society becomes more inclusive.
    • platypusIntegration = “I’m a platypus!” This strange animal is the role model for a healthy self-concept. You have taken who you were raised to be, tweaked it by seeing how others understand the world, and settled on a unique whole.
  • Part 3: Current Family: In order to be YOU, the imaginary audience weighs in. Everyone has a heightened perception of people watching and judging each decision they have made throughout their lifetime. Once you are the final judge, the loudest voice in the room, your self-concept is set.

 Spark Note Summary

My duck 4 years later congratulating Grammy
My duck 4 years later congratulating Grammy

Asking “what do you want to do when you grow up” is never as impactful as “who do you want to be when you grow up.” If I had my way, Jacob would be a proud man who lets the judgment of others, including his over-opinionated mother, run off his back like water off a duck’s back.

Huck Finn, Beowulf, and Star Wars

student teachingI started my student teaching nearly 20 years ago. My assignment was split between an accelerated sophomore English class and a regular junior English class. I was twenty years old, smart, cocky, and completely unprepared for what being in the classroom actually meant.

My sophomores had to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I had designed fantastic lesson plans surrounding the use of the n-word and the allusions to Shakespeare all to disguise how much I detested the book. I was not impressed with Twain’s satire despite my self-proclaimed coronation of the Queen of Sarcasm. I was not a fan of the protagonist’s introspection on the river. (My own introspective years came much later.) This teaching assignment was going to be painful; I was all creativity and no content.

My junior class assignment was the opposite. I struggled to find ways to interpret a complex text like Beowulf (which I learned to pronounce BAY-AH-WULF three days before the end of the unit) for regular level juniors. My students had the same opinion of this unit as I did, a necessary evil for both of us to move on to the next step in our education. My cooperating teacher had the answer for years; compare Beowulf to Star Wars as examples of mythic heroes. That plan also gave me the chance to shamelessly enjoy one of my favorite movies AND complete a daunting teaching unit. star wars poster (First, don’t ask which Star Wars. This was twenty years ago; there was only one. Second, don’t worry about wasted time. There was a six page packet to fill out while watching to prove or disprove the monomyth’s applications.) The outcome of both of those experiences was a lesson learned that resulted in a blissful fifteen years as an educator and an insightful eight years as a therapist.

The Power of “And”

It was tricky to be a teacher and a student. That never changed. But, once I embraced that a teacher can remain a student AND learn from her students’ fresh approaches and reactions to material, I became an award-winning teacher. In therapy, the theory behind seeing how two seemingly polar opposites can be true is called dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

An old woman AND a young lady.
An old woman AND a young lady.

DBT is a treatment model used for chronic mental illnesses such as addiction, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and anxiety. Unlike previous posts, these struggles cannot be helped without professional interventions. The modality was created to help balance the contradictions imbedded into lifelong mental illness. DBT allows for the harmful effects of the illness to be incurable while making them manageable.

Similar to my post on group therapy, I will attempt to summarize the basics of this treatment modality which works to keep patients in a steady mental state. (Still, no Spark Notes.):

  • Stage 1: The focus of this stage is stabilization. Therapy is centered on safety and crisis intervention. The goal of this stage is to help people achieve some control over themselves despite the recurring messages they give themselves that life is out of control.
  • Stage 2: Despite more overall stability, behaviors characteristic of mental health issues may still be prevalent. Now is the time to investigate the origin of the pain. The goal of this stage is to help people process an experience instead of silencing or burying it. start on road
  • Stage 3: This stage focuses on creating a new life under new terms; the individual is in charge of life, not the trauma. Optimistic exercises like goal-setting are the focus with the reminders that stability breeds happiness.
  • Stage 4: This stage is all about maintenance. The new “you” discovered is vulnerable to doubt. It is important to stay engaged in therapy even at this stage in order to have support when natural mistakes threaten to derail incredible progress.

Spark Note Summary

With the start of summer, adults want to be kids. Friction occurs when kids still need their role models to be adults. The answer is to live in a world of “and” by being both. Get dirty in the mud from summer rain AND be responsible enough not to trek it into the house. Show your kids who invented fun!

Hooray, Spring! Boo, Cleaning…

Everyone has a mild hoarder inside. My husband’s grandfather was a survivor of the Great Depression who became a very successful businessman; he also had a drawer full of rubber bands that had been used and re-used for decades.(Ironically, today would have been his 97th birthday.) One of my closest friends has such a love of sticky notes, she trained all of her 4th graders to think, rethink, and really think about whether the page being saved or reminder being written was truly worthy of a sticky note. For me, it’s containers.sticky notes

I’m not just crazy about boxes – don’t we all keep shoe boxes to collect and organize the crayons and cars littered around the house? I keep the zipper plastic bags from new sheets, the cardboard partitions from wine boxes, old baby wipes containers…even the plastic rings that bind the oversized salsa bottles we buy from Costco. Much to my husband’s chagrin, my obsession keeps my house more cluttered than categorized.

With spring cleaning finally here, it is time for me to decide what goes and what stays. It’s also a great opportunity for all families to work with their children in developing a systematic moral code.

Pay It Now, Pay It Later, Pay It Forward

Parents are always looking for a way to direct the moral compasses of their kids. moral compassWe are successful in teaching the rules of morality, holding doors open, saying “please” and “thank you”, and taking turns. But, these successes are only in one-on-one relationships. Without fail, my clients consistently ask me how to teach their growing children how to be moral members of a group, their family, their school, their community. The answer is to set up a system of “paying” for things now, saving for later, and donating to others.

When talking about a lifelong lesson, it is best to start young. Here is how the morality code system works for toddlers, the youngest age you can effectively begin to mold morality. Consider each step using the commodity of toddlers, in playroom

  • Pay It Now – Setting priorities: Every parent has suffered through the nightmare of turning down the wrong aisle in Target and landing smack dab in the sightline of the seven aisles of toys. At that moment, we all become Monty Hall and make deals with our toddlers. Getting one of the toys asked for during that shopping trip is a great experience for our young ones because they needed to decide which toy was too special to leave on the shelf.
  • Pay It Later – Understanding patience: Psychologist Lev Vygotsky introduced the idea of providing children the opportunity to achieve goals just beyond their reach with the help of a caregiver. zpdHe called this the zone of proximal development, or ZPD. Most of us practiced this theory instinctively when our infants’ hands couldn’t entirely grasp their spoon off the feeding tray, so we propped it up for them to snatch it. Buying, or better yet, allowing doting grandparents to buy, toys they are targeted for the next age bracket achieves the same goals. Toddlers love work-for toys targeted for big boys and girls; parents love watching them learn how to wait for gratification.
  • Pay It Forward – Learning empathy: The best trick I learned from another mom was the concept of a bag or bin of “non-sharing” toys for playdates. The idea is for your child to identify toys that are so important and special that nobody else is allowed to touch them. (When you “pay it now,” they have already internalized that decision-making skill.) kid donatingParents can take this one step further, especially before holidays and birthdays, by working with your child to sort through toys that no longer hold interest or develop advanced skills. A quick car trip to the Salvation Army or donation to CASA gives our little ones big feelings of empathy and pride.

Spark Note Summary

The reason why parenting is unanimously considered the hardest job is because its goal is to make the world a better place, one moral person at a time. We cringe at words like “bully” and “apathy” and lose decades of sleep hoping they don’t apply to our kids. The earlier we start to teach our kids what good morals look like, the earlier they will know what good morals feel like.

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.

I’ve Misplaced Myself

IMG_4541My son turned four years old on Sunday. That was also Mother’s Day. Anyone that pointed out that coincidence (which will happen roughly every seven years) heard me gush that without his birthday, I wouldn’t be able to celebrate Mother’s Day. Sounds sweet, doesn’t it?

My Mother's Day Cards
My Mother’s Day Cards

Secretly, though, I was a little cranky about sharing my day. It has nothing to do with how much I adore my son. It has everything to do with losing the opportunity to be seen and celebrated. Like so many moms, motherhood put me one step further away from who I am as an individual void of relational terms. I used to be Amy. She was silly and smart, irreverent and intense, selfish and selfless. Every year, it seems like I add more titles, mother, supervisor, blogger, that load me up on external expectations and make it harder to see the individual behind those roles.


Part of my job is providing workshops for any and all individuals who devote their lives to others, firefighters, volunteers, moms… At the end of my Help for the Helpers workshop, I provide an acronym that helps keep people reconnect with the individual in the mirror. These are everyday tricks to lower stress based on what biologically happens in your brain and to your body.

landscape of green

  • Breathe in oxygen: When you are experiencing stress, your brain channels its activity to stay alert and keep you alive. The fight, flight and freeze responses stay active until the levels of adrenaline and cortisol let the body know you are safe. The problem is there is a lack of oxygen going to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that you use to set priorities and regulate emotions. By surrounding yourself in an oxygen rich environment, you can force oxygen into the prefrontal cortex and help yourself return to a more rational, measured state of problem solving effectiveness.
  • Emote – tear up, sob out: Crying sheds the body of toxins. Research shows that emotional tears, separate from tears of pain, have a high level of the hormone that controls mood and stress tolerance. When the levels of that hormone return to normal, so does the emotional state.
  • Celebrate micro wins in a macro way: Finishing the laundry. Getting your child to complete homework without a fight. Getting praise for a project completed at work. These events are all worthy of a celebration. By recognizing that you are taking successful baby steps towards a larger goal, a clean house, an independent child, a successful business person, you can sustain yourself for the long haul.
  • Accept a compliment: You are unique, and the things you are able to accomplish are also unique. Plenty of people are parents or hold the same job title as you do. But, only you have achieved success in those arenas. Along with the micro win, you need the recognition from someone outside of the mirror to tell you that you did well. Our society is trained to connect accomplishment with pubic validation. We give our kids participation ribbons and employees premier parking to publicize their worth. There is nothing wrong with a barista telling you the time you spent before ordering your chai was worthwhile. When you dismiss your success, you distance yourself from the ability to celebrate the bigger win.
  • Let one day be all about you: Women are forever pushing themselves down the priority list. We sacrifice a manicure for a kid’s toy. We give up an hour of peace and quiet to let our husband have time out with his friends. For one day, treat yourself like you treat the ones you love. Commit with your whole heart and calendar a measurable chunk of time to appreciate and celebrate the individual you are by giving the cook, cleaning lady, scheduler, shopper, etc. a day off!listening to music
  • Music, music, music! – a no brainer: Research conducted with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, and recorded in the documentary Alive Inside, has concluded that music accesses a part of the brain that connects individuals to parts of themselves and their brains that were once thought lost to disease. As pregnant mothers, we played Brahms and Mozart through headphones on our bellies because we understood the power of music on a developing brain. That brain functions much the same way at the other end of the life span. Grab your iPhone and give the family some headphones, or grab some headphones and ignore the family altogether, and blast the music from your childhood. Choose music that connects to when you had the least amount of titles, pre-mom and pre-wife and pre-bad ass businesswoman.

Spark Note Summary

The analogy about self-care that likens it to putting the oxygen mask on yourself before others in the event of a plane crash is problematic. It implies you only need to take care of yourself in a crisis. If you can take care of yourself a little every day, the chance that an event will feel like a crisis is…what? The same chance as being in plane crash?