Questioning Reality: Gaslighting and Emotional Manipulation in Relationships

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It’s happening again.

Your suspicions about your spouse’s behaviors are increasing.  The late nights at the office, not answering his phone when you call, strange text messages.  You could’ve sworn you smelled perfume on him when he came home last night. 

But when you bring it up, he immediately lashes out.  “Seriously?  I’ve told you a thousand times that I’m not having an affair!  You’re seeing things that aren’t really there.  Just because your dad cheated on your mom doesn’t mean that I’m doing the same thing!  Who knows, you bring this up so often it makes me wonder if you’re having an affair and feeling guilty about it.  You’re crazy.”

Once again, you walk away from the conversation wracked with guilt and self-doubt.  Maybe I was reading into something that wasn’t there.  It’s probably nothing.  He’s right, I’m just acting crazy.

As the weeks and months go by, the evidence keeps stacking up against him.  You catch him on his phone late at night talking to another woman.  There are charges on your credit card for dinners you didn’t attend.  Several nights he doesn’t come home at all.

And yet he keeps denying that anything’s wrong and dismissing your concerns.  What at one time would’ve been convincing evidence that he’s doing something suspicious now becomes more fodder for you to doubt yourself and believe that you’re crazy.  His emotional manipulation tactics are working: he’s perfected the art of gaslighting.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation in which the individual being questioned denies the truth and leads the questioner to doubt their own perception of reality.  The term comes from the story in the 1944 film Gaslight, in which the husband gradually and systematically convinces his wife that she is insane. He does so by changing small details in the home, including the dimness of the gas lights, and denying any difference.  The more he denies, the more she believes him and buys in to his assertion that she’s going crazy.

This process is slow and gradual, almost imperceptible.  The questioner eventually believes he or she is misperceiving reality, learning that they can’t trust their instincts.  Gaslighting influences the balance of power in relationship in favor of the one who denies any wrongdoing.

Gaslighting is commonly present in addiction.  Typically the partner can intuit that there is a problem with the addict’s behavior, but when questioning him or her, receives a response of denial.  Eventually the partner believes their spouse’s lies and doubts their own self-worth.  However, when the partner discovers the addiction and begins to see the past in light of this new awareness, they realize they weren’t crazy after all.  Yet prolonged conditioning to doubt their own perceptions can lead to difficulty learning to trust their gut moving forward.

How do I know I’m experiencing gaslighting?

If you find yourself confronting an issue with your spouse consistently and getting nowhere, pay attention to how you feel in response.  If you leave those conversations feeling as though you were in the wrong for bringing it up, or questioning your perception of reality, you may be experiencing gaslighting. 

Gaslighting also has a strong effect on self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.  As your spouse or partner denies evidence that indicates deception or an issue with addiction, you might notice yourself using negative self-talk, beating yourself up, or doubting yourself more often.  Your confidence may suffer.  Pay attention to how your self-esteem has been affected since you entered the relationship with this individual: did you have self-doubt or issues with self-confidence beforehand?  Have they increased or worsened since being in this relationship?

“Crazymaking” is a synonym for gaslighting that gets at another symptom: feeling like you are crazy or losing your mind.  This is often a defensive denial strategy of the gaslighter.

Notice if your partner turns your accusations against you: for example, if you bring up concern about his alcohol use, notice if he or she flips it around and begins accusing you of having an addiction.  Often the gaslighter will project whatever issues they’re dealing with on their partner in their defensiveness.

How do I stop the gaslighting?

The first step toward change when you’re facing gaslighting is owning your own reality.  Slow down and acknowledge the information or data you’re seeing.  Be open to possible alternate explanations for the data, but realize that if enough evidence points in a concerning direction, there’s likely some validity to it.  Don’t allow your partner to twist your reality and lead you to believe you’re seeing something that isn’t really there.

Learn to recognize the signs of defensiveness in your partner.  If you bring up a concern to your partner, see if they turn back to criticize you or lash out.  Often defensiveness is a sign of insecurity or weakness, and it can indicate denial or deception.

Explore and build up your self-esteem apart from your partner.  If you accept their negative words and assumptions about you as truth, then your confidence will likely suffer.  Instead, empower yourself by owning that you have value and worth.  Learn that your perspective matters and your intuition is valid.  Pursue your own self-care and support to build up your confidence and boundaries.

Remember the old adage that actions speak louder than words.  Addicts are great at making promises, but not always skilled at follow-through.  Instead of basing your trust on your spouse’s words, look at their actions and behaviors as representative of the truth.  Gaslighters can easily persuade you with their words, but their actions often tell a different story. 

If you know you’ve experienced gaslighting before, as when you’ve recently discovered a spouse’s addiction, use your feelings of self-doubt or crazymaking as red flags to ask yourself if the gaslighting is happening again.  Go back to reviewing the data to see if there is evidence of deception or denial.  If so, detach from the gaslighter, build up your own self-esteem, and set or enforce appropriate boundaries for your own safety.

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Are you wondering if you’ve been subject to gaslighting in your own relationship?  Do you feel like you’re going crazy in your relationship?  Have you found out about your partner’s addiction and are wondering how to learn to trust your intuition again?  At Restored Hope, I offer specialized counseling for partners of sex addicts who are reeling from the discovery of their spouse’s behaviors.  Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or email me to schedule your first appointment and hear how I can help.

Boundary Problems in Dysfunctional Families

Have you ever had the experience of someone who stands too close to you when they speak? It’s strange how we can recognize right away when someone crosses that invisible boundary line into our personal space.

According to Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their book Boundaries, boundaries are similar to property lines.  They define what is your responsibility and what is someone else’s responsibility.  They separate “me” from “not me”. 

Let’s use a fence in your yard as an example.   The fence line separates your property from your neighbor’s property.  You wouldn’t climb the fence and mow the lawn in your neighbor’s yard: it would be inappropriate to take on that that level of responsibility for him or her.  Similarly, you wouldn’t want your neighbor to use your property as if it were their own.

Emotional, physical, and relational boundaries work in much the same way.  They are intended to protect you from harm.  They help you to experience goodness in a way that feels safe.  If a lack of boundaries led to you to feel the need to mow the lawns of everyone on your block, you would likely overexert yourself and be unable to maintain your own yard.

Yet it is important for these boundaries to be permeable: in a sense, to have a gate.  That way, you can let your neighbors come over to visit and get out to spend time with your loved ones.  Without permeable boundaries, you’ve built a fortress and isolated yourself inside.

The structure provided by these boundaries offers safety to those inside of them.  It allows you to be confident in what you own.

Boundaries in our Families-of-Origin

The easiest way to see boundaries in action is to watch parents rearing their children.  Take a toddler.  Toddlers need limits.  They need to know that if they place their hand on a hot stove, they’ll be burned.  They need to be protected from harmful and dangerous activities.

At the same time, a toddler’s inquisitiveness about the world is a creative gift that can be quashed by strict rules based more on parents’ desires than children’s needs.  Good boundaries with children are intended to provide safety rather than punishment or control.

If a child is exposed to a certain type of boundaries during development, they’re likely to internalize those boundaries.  These can take the form of healthy boundaries and awareness of limits.  But in dysfunctional families, often boundaries are more problematic.  These boundaries can be too rigid, too loose, or an unpredictable combination of the two.

If you’ve been able to identify dysfunction in unspoken family rules or family roles in your family-of-origin, you may resonate with some of these descriptions below of the effects of unhealthy boundaries in your family.

Types of Dysfunctional Family Boundaries

Too Rigid/Strict

Parents who offer rigid boundaries use authoritarian parenting strategies or “helicopter” parenting.  They attempt to protect their children by exerting too much control over them, not allowing them the opportunity to learn through failure.

These boundaries can feel more like walls than a fence: they are meant to keep the bad out, but they also prevent any nurturing or good to get in.  These families may lack healthy affection and physical touch and struggle with intimacy.  They might be characterized by a lack of praise or affirmation, focusing more on criticism and judgment for decisions.  There is a tendency to hear more negatives than positives from these parents.

For the child, this style of boundaries can lead to dependency on the parents to define reality with a corresponding fear of risk-taking or failure.  Impossibly high standards can be internalized in a way that fosters shame when they can’t be met.  Perfectionism can develop, as this style of parenting associates a child’s value with their performance.  Adults raised in this environment can experience stunted creativity.

Too Loose

Parents who offer too few boundaries and allow their children to have an inappropriate amount of freedom in childhood are opening their children up to harm.  Similar to having no fence at all, the child has no idea where the limit of their responsibility are and are left vulnerable to harm.  In childhood years, this can lead to engaging in more high-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use.  Children end up having to make adult decisions as children because they don’t receive adequate guidance from their parents.

Too few boundaries, while it might sound appealing especially to adolescents, can actually be scary for children, as they don’t know how to keep themselves from getting hurt.  They miss out on learning skills necessary to protect themselves from harmful behaviors or experiences, and therefore face confusion and uncertainty in childhood.

In adulthood, those who had few boundaries can struggle with responding well to “no.”  They may overindulge or have difficulty with discipline or follow-through.  They may struggle with emotional regulation, as parents with loose boundaries often give in to temper tantrums, preventing children from learning healthy ways to cope with emotions.

Unpredictable Boundaries

One of the worst boundary styles parents can offer is an unpredictable combination of both strict and loose boundaries.  This can happen when one parent offers strict boundaries while the other offers more loose ones, or when one or both parents alternate between the two extremes.  This is typical of families with alcoholism or other addictions due to personality changes surrounding using the drug of choice.

Children in these families are given confusing messages of what is right and wrong.  They alternate between the walled-in isolation of rigid boundaries with the fear associated with no boundaries at all.  Never knowing what they can expect is crazy-making.

These children have learned to always be on guard for how their parents will respond.  It’s easy then, as adults, to be wary of relationships and people-please to control others.  They may lack confidence in setting limits with others because if they attempted to do so with their parents growing up, they would be unsure of what type of response they would receive. 

Which boundary style was present in your family growing up?

Are you dealing with the after-effects of rigid or loose boundaries in your family-of-origin?  Do you feel like you always have to be perfect and despair when you don’t meet the high expectations you set for yourself?  Do you struggle with discipline and setting limits with yourself?  Recognizing the links between these present-day behaviors and past experiences is the first step toward healing.  At Restored Hope, I help you explore how your past influences your present, offering counseling to help change your future. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.

Targeting Sobriety in Addiction Recovery: How to Make a Three Circle Plan

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When a sex and love addict comes to the realization that they need help to stay sober, it can be a mystery of what to do next.  By the time you’ve humbled yourself enough to admit you’re powerless, usually you’ve already tried to stop your behavior several times.  This can take the form of forcing yourself not to act out, through white-knuckling, attempting aversion techniques, or even sometimes using self-harm as a deterrent.

But if you’ve been in this cycle of trying to stop on your own, you often find that you can’t help but go back to your addiction. The foundation of addiction is isolation, secrecy, and shame.  You likely deal with feelings of shame by acting out, which cycles back in on itself to create more shame as you wonder why you can’t just stop.

What needs to change?

The first step in true healing for any addict is to get support from other people, such as in a 12 Step or support group.  These groups encourage creating a sobriety plan as part of your recovery. 

I often recommend the three-circle plan as a helpful sobriety tool to identify the behaviors you want to avoid and healthy self-care behaviors to increase.  Not only does this plan provide that, but it also allows you to identify risk factors or warning signs of acting out.

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The Three-Circle Plan

The image of a three-circle plan is three concentric circles.  The inner circle is the list of behaviors from which you’re trying to maintain sobriety.  The middle circle is your boundaries list, or a list of the risk factors, warning signs, or triggers that might send you into your inner circle.  The outer circle involves healthy self-care behaviors that you can increase to help you avoid addictive behaviors. 

Inner Circle Behaviors

Your inner circle behaviors, or abstinence list, is the list of activities from which you want to achieve sobriety in your recovery.  These are the behavior checks you’d share at your 12 Step meetings or with your sponsor as a regular way to hold yourself accountable.  For example, if you primarily act out using pornography, you will put “pornography” in this circle.  If you have had several affairs, prohibiting “contact with acting out partners” may be more appropriate. 

If you’re aware of your cycle of addiction, you know that there are some behaviors that inevitably lead to acting out for you.  While these might eventually end up in the middle circle, it may be wise to put them in your inner circle in early recovery and revisit them once you’ve achieved some more solid sobriety. 

There will be some behaviors you are hesitant to put into this inner circle because it means you will have to give them up.  Notice the discomfort you have around those as a form of denial.  Use your support system to help keep you in check on what needs to go in this circle.

Outer Circle Behaviors

I believe it is important to make your list of healthy self-care behaviors early in recovery, so we will turn to the outer circle now.  Outer circle behaviors, or healthy self-care, are required to help you establish and maintain sobriety.  Self-care helps you cope with withdrawal from the addiction and replace acting out with activities that are more healthy and nourishing.  You can become much more sensitive to triggers when you aren’t practicing healthy self-care.

Make a list of activities you can to do take care of yourself.  This can include such activities as therapy, going to your support groups, meeting with your sponsor, and doing 12 Step work.  Focus on a few specific categories: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational, and professional self-care.  Recall hobbies or activities that you enjoyed or always wanted to try, but you haven’t been able to because of time spent on acting out.  Think about things you used to love doing as a child and incorporate some of these into your present-day life. 

Choosing to practice healthy self-care will literally help to re-wire your brain to reduce cravings and replace desire to act out with other enjoyable activities.

Middle Circle Behaviors

I save this section for last because the middle circle can be the most complex. Determining what belongs in your middle circle requires observing behaviors to see how your unique cycle of addiction works.  Middle circle behaviors, or your “boundaries list,” are behaviors that are warning signs that you’re slipping back into your addiction.  These can be triggers that happen unexpectedly or behaviors you’re walking into that are risky for you.  Behaviors in your preoccupation/fantasy and ritual areas of cycle of addiction are often middle circle behaviors. 

Ask yourself the question: what sets me up to act out sexually?  Make a list of emotions you experience that can make you more susceptible to cravings.  In AA traditions, the acronym “HALT” is used as a reminder to check for triggers if you’re feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.  I often add “bored” to this list as well.  Identify risky behaviors you might need to put some boundaries around, such as using your computer late at night or driving past the strip club you used to frequent.

What triggers do you experience in your daily life?  Common triggers include fights with a spouse, feelings of loneliness, or shame getting stirred up at work. When you find yourself experiencing triggers or engaging in the risky behaviors, it doesn’t carry the same severity of abstinence as the inner circle behaviors.  However, it does require you to take a look at what you’re doing and run in the other direction toward your outer circle behaviors, seeking greater support along the way.

Implementing and Adding to the Three Circles

In general, your goal to maintain sobriety involves moving outward: avoiding the inner circle and directing your attention and focus on the outer circle behaviors.  Notice that the outer circle is so much larger than the other two: this space allows you to put plenty of options in that circle to encourage you to live there as much as possible.

The natural slope of the addiction is to move inward instead of outward.  As you notice yourself engaging in more middle circle behaviors or experiencing more triggers, the natural tendency is to move toward inner circle behaviors as a form of coping or escaping.  However, recognition of this tendency means you now have the opportunity to lean in the other direction, focusing more on the outer circle behaviors as a healthier way to cope.

Continually add to and update this list. As you learn and grow through your recovery, keep adding self-care behaviors or coping strategies that are helpful for you.  You can never have too many outer circle behaviors.  Also, use your slips and relapse as an opportunity to learn more about your risk factors and needed boundaries.  Identify what inner circle behaviors you might need to add and new middle circle behaviors or triggers. 

Additional Resources

For more information about how the three-circle plan is used in Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), check out their pamphlet online.

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Are you struggling to maintain your sobriety from sex and love addiction? Have you tried to white-knuckle it and force yourself to stop on your own with little to no success? Are you realizing your powerlessness over your addiction? At Restored Hope, I offer specialized counseling services to help you achieve freedom from sex and love addiction. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to learn more and schedule your first appointment.

Let's Talk About Sex: A Review of Total Intimacy by Douglas Rosenau and Deborah Neel

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Do you and your spouse have a hard time communicating about sexual intimacy?  Do you feel like your sex life is kind of blah?  Are you dealing with the aftereffects of trauma or betrayal and want to ease into sexual intimacy with your partner in a way that feels safe?

Doug Rosenau and Deborah Neel are Christian sex therapists that specialize in helping couples have more satisfying sex lives.  In their slim volume Total Intimacy: A Guide to Loving By Color, they offer a practical approach to talking with your spouse about sex and improving the quality of your intimacy.

We long to be in an intimate relationship with someone, especially a mate, who will pursue us, fully know, love, and accept us.
— Doug Rosenau and Deborah Neel 

What is Total Intimacy?

“Total intimacy,” as the authors define it, approaches sexual intimacy on three distinct levels.  Each of these levels involves three-dimensional connecting, involving the mind, body, and heart or emotions.  The authors liken the balance between these three levels to a healthy diet with all necessary food groups.  Emotional and sexual intimacy are intertwined and work together.

The three distinct levels are represented by colors: green, purple, and orange.  Each color exists on a continuum of depth ranging from lighter to darker shades, representing the depth of interaction at each level.  Knowing and understanding the meaning of these colors can help you use them as a playful way to communicate your desires.

Understanding the Colors

Green

Green representing bonding in the relationship, where you and your spouse are “intimate companions.”  Connecting with one another and sharing emotions builds intimacy, as in other friendships.  Experiencing Green intimacy, or marital friendship is required to establish safety before you can move onto the more intense colors of Purple and Orange.

To grow your Green, revisit activities you enjoyed when you were dating.  Get to know your spouse again using Gottman’s Love Maps exercises.  Make time for date nights or other intentional time together.  Lean into vulnerability in communicating honestly about your feelings, which can often be difficult.

When dealing with broken trust or betrayal, as in the case of sex and love addiction, Green behaviors are essential to re-establishing trust and safety.  The addict must show actions that line up with words in order to grow trust, and the later colors of Purple or Orange may not feel safe for the partner until that trust is rebuilt. 

Purple

Purple represents the coupling level, or becoming “sensuous lovers.”  Purple actions go beyond friendship into romance, using flirtation and affection to communicate closeness.  This color is often most neglected in marriage, as romantic cuddling or kissing becomes just a step toward sex.  But skipping over physical touch and affection for the sake of enjoying one another leads to missing out on the intimacy that comes in the Purple stage.

Purple activities are sensory in nature, requiring you to use all five senses to create a romantic experience.  It is necessary to practice mindfulness in this stage, remaining in the present moment and enjoying that experience.  This level of affection may trigger arousal, but the goal of Purple behaviors isn’t orgasm, simply to enjoy the romantic connection.

Purple intimacy is eroticism with boundaries – sensuality that may be arousing, yet not having to lead anywhere.
— Douglas Rosenau and Deborah Neel

Orange

Finally, the orange level is associated with igniting as “erotic playmates.”  This can include a range of sexual experiences that does not always require orgasm, but focuses instead on mutual pleasure rather than self-seeking or self-focused pleasure.  In order to make orange intimacy safe, refusals have to be practiced and accepted, as you must be able to say no in order to say yes authentically.

In the book, Rosenau and Neel talk about becoming more comfortable around sexual intimacy, especially for Christians who have received messages of shame about erotic sexuality and sexual desires.  Sexual intimacy was created by God as a reflection of His love.  Communicating about this orange level of intimacy and naming wants and desires can break through this stigma.

As a couple, increase your knowledge about the differences between male and female sexuality, instead of just basing your awareness on stereotypes or expectations.  Know that it is normal to have a range of different satisfaction levels with intimacy, and seek to understand what makes it an enjoyable experience for each of you through learning about you partner’s turn-ons and turn-offs.

Helpful Tips

Sprinkled throughout the text, Rosenau and Neel put in sidebars that give extra tips if there are wounds for either spouse.  This acknowledges the reality that when there has been sexual abuse, sexual assault, or lack of trust due to an affair or betrayal, that has effects. The theme in these sidebars is to allow for intimacy to grow more slowly, create for more communication around intimacy, and talk about safe touch.

I also love how the authors encourage women to find their sexual voices.  The book reminds women to take up space, communicate, and ask for what they want.  The emphasis on learning to refuse sex within marriage is important as well, because being unable to say “no” can set up an unhealthy dynamic where she can feel silenced.

The book also normalizes that a healthy sex life takes time and practice, instead of happening naturally.  Often newlyweds expect that sex will be natural and easy.  However, that is often not the case.  The book also breaks through the faulty assumption that sex doesn’t need to be discussed, when the opposite is true in order to have a mutually satisfying sex life.  I appreciate the practical exercises and discussion questions in the book that will help you and your spouse communicate together about your sex life.

A Few Criticisms

As much as I love the concepts of this book and their practical applications, there are a few criticisms related to style and some commentary that need to be acknowledged.  There is quite a bit of cheesy language and gender stereotyping that may be difficult to look past.

As the focus is for a Christian audience, the principles are supported by Scripture and references to God are made often through the text.  However, I believe the concepts still stand even for couples who aren’t Christians.

Finally, some of the language around forgiveness in the book may be difficult for partners of sex and love addicts to read, because offering forgiveness isn’t so simple in their experiences. 

All in all, however, I believe that learning to love by color can greatly enhance your comfort in talking about sexual intimacy and creating conversation about likes and dislikes, and I’d encourage you to start conversations about these principles in your marriage.

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Are you feeling dissatisfied in your sex life and wanting to learn how to communicate with your spouse better?  Are you unsatisfied with your sexual intimacy?  Do you tend to argue about sex and feel stuck?  At Restored Hope, I offer supportive couples counseling to help you learn to communicate more effectively in all areas and grow more intimate connections.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Take a Deep Breath: Five Mindful Strategies for Dealing with Anxiety

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During my first year of my master’s program, I saw how anxiety, stress, and lack of time would hit me with intense experiences of overwhelm.  I was working close to full time hours at a nanny job, attending class 4 nights a week, and serving in my church in my “free time.”  Any extra time I had was filled with studying and attempting to navigate my way through our massive textbooks.   With a temperament that errs on the side of anxiety and perfectionism, it was easy to talk myself into a state of stress that would make it difficult for me to function.

My school was a commuter school about 30 minutes away from where I lived, so I began listening to podcasts in my car.  (Cue the beginning of my obsession with podcasts).  One of those podcasts interviewed a life coach and therapist who gave tips on dealing with anxiety.  She taught a technique involving deep breathing, which I’d never tried before.  I decided to give it a go in the 10 minutes I sat in my car before class.  Let me tell you: it was like magic.  I felt like I could enter into the classroom in a completely different and relaxed state of mind.

Everyday anxiety is something many people experience, especially during stressful seasons in their lives.  Anxiety engages our internal fight-and-flight response, which pumps up our body with adrenaline and cortisol, a stress hormone.  By practicing deep breathing and other techniques below, you can take control over your body’s instinctual reaction.  As you slow down your breathing and your thoughts, you’re essentially reminding your body that you aren’t in danger.  This calms your fight-or-flight response.

Here are some tips on how you can respond with mindfulness when you feel yourself becoming anxious, nervous, and overwhelmed.

Daily Meditation

As the foundation of all the exercises that follow, daily meditation helps you become attuned to your body.  Spend time in a quiet room in silence for a few minutes to start.  Gradually increase to more time as you become more comfortable.  Pay attention to the way your body feels, noticing each part of your body, any emotions that arise, or any physical sensations. 

Oftentimes meditation is associated with “clearing your mind,” which can discourage you if you feel as though you can’t turn your thoughts off.   Instead, accept the likelihood that thoughts will cross your mind, and allow yourself to notice them, but not shame yourself for having them.

There are several apps that offer guided meditations, if you’re someone like me and are too easily distracted to sit quietly.  I’m a particular fan of Happify and Headspace, but there are many out there you can try and find the best fit for you.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is the practice of mentally becoming aware of each part of your body by isolating one muscle group at a time, tensing and flexing the muscles.  Pay attention to the feeling of holding tightness in your muscles as you tense them, and notice how it feels to release and relax them afterwards.

This practice can also help you fall asleep at night or re-energize yourself during the day.   In the morning or throughout your day, start by tensing and releasing your toes and work your way upward through different muscle group such as your legs, knees, stomach, chest, arms, shoulders, neck, jaw, and forehead.  At night, do the opposite - start with the muscles in your forehead and work your way down through your body. 

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing was the technique that I heard Dr. Jennifer Degler speak about on that podcast all those years ago.  She introduced four-square breathing: a technique where you breathe in for 4 counts, hold the breath for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, and hold for 4 counts.  Completing about 10 cycles of these deep breaths allows you to begin to feel the anxiety melt away.

As you’re practicing these breathing exercises, you’ll want to breathe from your diaphragm or abdomen.  In order to do that, it can be helpful to imagine that there is a balloon in your stomach, just behind your belly button.  Breathe in through your nose, trying to make that balloon expand.  As you breathe out through your mouth, imagining the balloon deflating.  Another helpful strategy involves laying on the ground or on a sofa, placing your hands on your stomach, and feeling your stomach rise and fall as you breathe.

5-4-3-2-1 Senses Grounding Exercise

This is a personal favorite of mine, especially when I’m feeling particularly triggered by thoughts or emotions.  Begin taking a few deep breaths, noticing the rise and fall of your abdomen.  Next, take a look around you and notice 5 things that you see.  Notice the colors, textures, and other characteristics of those objects.  Next, move on to identifying 4 things you can hear, noticing the quality of the sound, whether it is loud or soft, repeating or one-time.  Continue down through this pattern by noticing 3 things you can touch/feel, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.  You’ll feel yourself becoming grounded in the present reality around you, and emotions will likely become less distracting and more manageable.

Breath Prayer

Often when we talk about Christian meditation practice, it is accompanied by reading or memorizing Scripture and seeking to understand truth about that passage.  While that can be helpful to engage your mind, when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, this isn’t always the quickest way to address that anxiety.  Instead, integrate some of the earlier mentions of breathing exercises and Biblical truth through breath prayer.  Breath prayer involves identifying a short phrase or sentence of truth about God or prayer to God.  Examples might be phrases such as, “Lord, have mercy,” “God, I need you,” or “Holy Spirit, come.”  You could also use short Bible verses that are meaningful to you, such as “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13 ESV).  Repeat those words to yourself out loud or in your mind while you are practicing deep breathing.  Breathe in on the first part of the phrase, and release your breath on the second half of the phrase.

While these mindfulness strategies didn’t immediately fix my stress levels or perfectionism, they did provide a way for me to calm my body down and remind myself of truth.  Test out some of these strategies for yourself when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, and see which ones help you to lower those levels of stress.

This article was originally posted on May 4, 2017.

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As you begin to address your worry or stress, you may find that you feel better for a short period of time, but then the anxiety floods back in.  Or maybe even the thought of making time to complete these exercises gives you more anxiety.  At Restored Hope, I’d love to hear your story of anxiety, perfectionism, or stress and help you navigate to a place of calm and peace in your life.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based therapy office where my goal is to support you on your journey to healing and wholeness.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out my form here to schedule your first appointment today.

Making Space for Your Inner Child

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Do you ever wonder why you naturally go to destructive behaviors or habits without knowing their origins?  Do you feel like a child sometimes, overcome with shame about your behaviors but uncertain why you chose to respond in what seemed like an immature way?  Do you notice other adults acting like children, with corresponding temper tantrums or dependence on others?

These behaviors are often responses to childhood trauma or stress that you picked up as a way of surviving their impact because they worked, even if they aren’t healthy to use as adults. How can you get rid of these habits that have been holding you back?

The key is getting in touch with your inner child.

According to Google, the inner child is “a person’s supposed original or true self, especially when regarded as damaged or concealed by negative childhood experiences.”  This inner child, or child within, is the original core of who you are that has been affected in both negative and positive ways by life experience.  It often involves a sense of childlike wonder and trust, playfulness and fun. Issues arose when negative experiences and their corresponding messages interfered with your connection to your child within and problematic coping strategies took over. 

Why is it important to make space for the inner child?

For many of us, basic needs for nurture and support were not fully met in our families of origin.  You may have experienced either big T or little t traumas throughout your childhood that taught you certain messages about yourself and the world around you. 

One measure psychologists use to assess levels of trauma in childhood is the ACE score.  This list checks for areas of major, big T trauma.

At the same time, there are several basic needs of children that often go unmet in dysfunctional (or even functional) families.  In his book Healing Care, Healing Prayer, Terry Wardle names several of these needs including:

  • Connection and belonging

  • Unconditional love and acceptance

  • Safe and loving touch

  • Attention and assurance

  • Protection

  • Praise

  • Play

  • Role models/teachers/supporters/allies

  • Opportunities to learn without punishment or pressure

  • Permission to feel and express

  • Age appropriate challenges and choices

As you look through this list, which needs were not met for you in your family growing up?  To be honest, it’s an extremely rare family that meets all of them.  When you identify which needs weren’t met, be curious about how you have been affected by that lack. 

Sadly, we’ve often been told to grow up and let go of childlike wonder and awe we experienced when we were younger.  Perhaps due to your family-of-origin trauma, you had to grow up too soon and care for siblings or yourself.  Maybe you never had the chance to get to know that younger part of yourself.  If we ignore this inner child, it will come out in behavior patterns we dislike.

In every real man, a child is hidden that wants to play.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

How to Make Space

Get to know your inner child.

Look through pictures of yourself at younger ages and notice how you feel about the individual in those pictures.  Identify what he or she liked or disliked.  Did that child have any particular needs?  How was he or she feeling in the picture?  Or at the stage of life when the picture was taken?  Identify which of the above needs were not met in this child’s life, and come to terms with the fact that the inner child had unmet needs. 

Visualize past pain and ask what your child within needs.

When you notice painful emotions, shame, or destructive behavior patterns coming up, listen and see if the inner child is telling you something.  Pay attention to the emotions you’re feeling, thoughts running through your mind, and sensations coming up in your body and see if they connect to a similar experience in the past.  In those memories, ask the younger version of yourself what he or she needs.  Sometimes simply allowing that inner child to have a voice can make all the difference.

Write a letter to a younger version of yourself.

If you connect with one of the photos of yourself or an image from past pain, address that child with your adult self by writing a letter to him or her.  Include the things you wish that child could know about the world and any advice you would’ve given him or her.  You might even imagine entering into that child’s experience and giving a hug or a comforting touch.  This is part of allowing your adult self to re-parent the younger version of yourself. 

Recognize your behaviors that come from a rebellious inner child.

When your inner child isn’t being honored or heard, you might notice problematic patterns surfacing in your life.  For example, you might be caught up in perfectionism and feeling exhausted, leading to harsh words toward your spouse or your child.  Identify where the perfectionism comes from: is it a coping strategy from your childhood?  What might your inner child have needed when that perfectionism first came to be?  Giving yourself the kindness and care you longed for at that point in your life can lead to healing and change.

Spend a day with your inner child.

Think about the activities and pastimes you loved as a child.  If possible, pick a specific age and identify some of your greatest desires and most enjoyable experiences during that time period.  Maybe you loved the carnival or the zoo as a child.  Or you could spend hours outside exploring in the woods. Take yourself on an outing for the day and let your inner child lead the way. 

A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him.
— Pablo Neruda

Play!

The power of play is greatly underutilized and incredibly important.  Take the insights you gained from your day with the inner child and create awareness of moments in daily life where you can be in touch with your child within.  Take time to rest or enjoy a beautiful walk outside.  Go to a park and hop on the swings or pull out a favorite childhood board game and play with a friend.  Read a book series you loved when you were a kid.  Bring out some painting supplies and paint or draw a picture.

Additional Resources

If you’re interested in learning more about the topic of inner child work, here are a few books that may interest you:

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Do you recognize behavior patterns that stem from coping strategies picked up in childhood?  Are you disconnected from your inner child, but hoping to learn more?  Are you stuck in trying to change, but unaware of any past trauma?  At Restored Hope, I offer supportive counseling services to help you overcome problematic behavior patterns that are holding you back from living wholeheartedly.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to find out more and schedule your first appointment.

Finding Your People: Social Support in Addiction and Trauma Recovery

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In an early season of the television show Grey’s Anatomy, Christina, one of the main characters, has to undergo a medical procedure.  To do so, she needs to designate an emergency contact who can help her out if needed.  (If you’re a fan of the show, you know which scene I’m referring to.)  She writes down the name of Meredith, leading to an iconic phrase the show repeats through the seasons: “You’re my person.” 

We all need our “person.”  Or, in all honesty, our “people.”  We need those who can support us and help when we’re facing crisis.  But what if the biggest crisis you are facing is your own or your spouse’s struggle with sex and love addiction?

Maybe your spouse has just found you out and the behaviors you thought you could keep hidden from everyone are now coming to light.  Maybe you’re on the other side, discovering your spouse’s addiction, and you feel isolated and alone because of the shame tied to revealing his or her secret to others.  Having people to turn to and rely on when battling against sex and love addiction and trauma can be incredibly difficult, but it is essential for effective recovery.

Why is it so important?

For the Addict

We know that addiction thrives in secrecy, and accountability to others is a necessary component of maintaining sobriety.  Fear of feeling ashamed or rejected can keep you quiet.  But when you have people who know, they are more likely to hold you accountable for your actions because you’ll have to talk with them about it.  Honesty with your therapist is a great place to start, but you’ll also need to talk to people you can access more easily when you’re experiencing craving or wanting to act out. 

Speaking up about your addiction releases you from shame, paradoxically enough.  When you hear others’ stories and find similarities with their experience, you know experientially that you’re not alone.  Addiction is isolating because you can feel as though you’re the only one who struggles, and yet knowing others’ stories helps you rely on them for reassurance and validation when shame threatens to take over.

Talking to other individuals who have struggled in this area can be a helpful way to get feedback on what’s worked for them in their recovery.  When you’re on your own, it’s difficult to know how to stop.  But you can learn so much from people in recovery and notice your experience change as you integrate that new information.

For the Partner

Partners of sex and love addicts need to break through the feelings of isolation that come with discovery of a spouse’s addiction.  The pain and agony of finding out can lead to feelings of sadness, anger, grief, fear, and hurt.  These can be overwhelming when experienced on your own.  You might feel guilt or fear about sharing about your spouse’s addiction with others because of how it reflects on you or your self-esteem.  And yet you need to find a place where people can support you and help you not to feel so alone on this side of the trauma.

This support also allows you to have accountability for self-care and boundary setting.  Sometimes hearing from others about their experiences setting boundaries with their addicted spouse can help you have a better picture of what boundaries feel right for you.  These people can also connect with you if you’re having a hard day, listening to your difficult emotions or even offering practical help like taking care of your children.  Talking to others can remind you of your right to stand up for yourself, give yourself a voice, and practice self-care.

Another reason for connection is to find a safe place for yourself.  Lack of safety and stability in the home is a symptom that crops up often for partners in the wake of addiction.  Triggers can send your mood swinging back and forth as you relive the past years of your life in light of the addiction.  Finding a place where you can be with a friend or group on a regular basis can ease that burden by providing a consistent safe space in your life.

For Both

Sex and love addiction is an intimacy disorder often related to attachment wounds from earlier on in life.  Partners in trauma may also experience triggers related to their attachment style.

Attachment is a word that describes your experiences with caregivers at a young age.  These early attachments influence how you see others and the world around you, and they affect later relationships in life.  If your parents or caregivers were comforting, nurturing, and responded to your needs such that you felt loved, you’re set up to have a secure attachment.  But if your caregivers were unable to comfort and nurture you effectively, either by offering too much attention or not enough, you may have grown up with an insecure attachment style.  This is common if your caregivers dealt with their own experiences of addiction, depression, anxiety, or other mental health struggles. 

The good news is that these attachment styles aren’t permanent.  You can “earn” secure attachment through involvement with safe individuals in your life who offer nurture and comfort to you through their relationship with you.  Creating secure attachments in your adult life is a major reason why social support is so essential in the recovery journey for both the addict and their partner.

How to Find Support

12 Step Groups

12 Step groups are an effective starting place to find community with other people who understand what you’re experiencing.  Find a group that’s a good fit for you by attending at least six times and seeing if you feel connected and supported.  The best groups for sex and love addicts are Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), and Sexaholics Anonymous (SA).  If you’re local to Michigan, these fellowships are particularly active and have several meetings in the Ann Arbor area.

There are also 12 Step groups for partners of addicts to address their own trauma.  COSA and S-Anon are great options for finding a safe place to talk about your experience and receive support.  If you aren’t comfortable attending a group specific to sex and love addiction, or there aren’t options in your area, Al-Anon is another great resource as a recovery program for friends and family of alcoholics.

Church-Based Support Groups

Finding a support group at your local church is also a helpful option.  If you’re a Christian, a church-based support group can be a helpful way to integrate faith into your recovery journey, as well as find support systems and accountability. Celebrate Recovery is a Christian 12-Step based program in churches around the country.  In the Ann Arbor area, churches such as NorthRidge and Oak Pointe offer groups for addicts and partners of addicts.

Therapy Groups

Many therapists offer group therapy as an additional option for extra support in your recovery.  There is often an extra layer of safety in these groups because they are run by therapists who maintain confidentiality and manage group dynamics.   

Existing Relationships

As an addict, you may struggle with telling anyone you are close to due to the shame of how their opinion of you might change.  But part of recovery involves coming clean in all areas of your life, including with people who are important to you.  While early in recovery, identify the people who are safest for you: those who are least likely to judge you and who you would trust to hold you accountable or support you.

As a partner, safety is incredibly important, as you are likely experiencing intense emotions and may be deciding whether to stay or go in the relationship.  Telling someone who’s going to bash your spouse or, alternatively, try to convince you to stay isn’t always helpful.  Instead, look for people who would be supportive of you no matter what you decide and share with them.  Consider your motivation to tell and the long-term ramifications of telling others. 

In Intimate Treason, Claudia Black and Cara Tripodi recommend using the image of a stoplight to decide who might be safe to tell.  Make a list of people you’d like to tell and rank them in terms of the three lights: red, yellow, and green.  Green individuals are supportive, safe people who you can trust with just about anything.  People in the yellow category may not feel safe to turn to for emotional support, but need to know for logistical reasons.  Those in the red are people who are unlikely to be supportive, will toss around blame, or may minimize the behaviors.  You might find, in this process, that family aren’t always safe to rely on emotionally at first, but may need to know for logistical reasons, such as when you are separating.

Have a conversation with your spouse and decide together who you will tell about the addiction and the corresponding trauma.  For the addict, you might feel challenged and uncomfortable by being asked to share your story, but openness is key to recovery.  For the partner, having a conversation allows you to feel free to talk to people without feeling guilt about telling your spouse’s story.  For individuals who are in the “yellow” group listed above, write out a short script as a letter informing them of the necessary information without going into too much detail and agree upon this together before sending it or talking to them.

While recovering from addiction is one of the most painful experiences you will likely go through in your life, the gift of lasting and supportive friendships that can come from that experience is one that can’t be matched.  Lean into this chance to build connection and community.

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Are you feeling isolated and alone after finding out about your spouse’s addiction? Are you an addict who is struggling with feelings of shame and having a hard time opening up? Have you felt disconnected from others as a result of your struggle with trauma? At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you work through the roadblocks that are in the way of recovering from addiction or trauma, including the experience of isolation and loneliness. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Nine Questions to Ask Your Fiancé Before You Get Married

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 There are plenty of questions to ask yourselves when you’re engaged and preparing for a wedding.  When do we want to get married?  Who do we want to invite?  What type of cake do we want to eat?  But sometimes, in the hoopla of planning the big event, you miss the opportunities you have to prepare for what comes after the wedding.

Premarital counseling is often a prerequisite to have a religious officiant for your wedding.  Sometimes couples will attend premarital counseling with a therapist, but that practice is becoming more rare.  Yet once married couples come to my door for therapy, problems have been developing since the start of the relationship.

Why is premarital counseling necessary?  We seem to have a great relationship.

Preventative medicine is becoming a cost-saving trend in medicine.  If you can prevent problems from developing in the first place, you’re more likely to avoid the later costs of fixing it.  Similarly, in marriage, if you have a few intentional conversations before you get married, you’re more likely to avoid pitfalls of relational tension later.

Working your way out of entrenched problems in your relationship is much more difficult than addressing them head-on before they have a chance to start.  Premarital work gives you more awareness of the warning signs of a problem in your relationship.  Having practiced the skills of open communication gives you more confidence to have tough conversations early on in your marriage.

Here are some questions to consider asking as you prepare for marriage.

1. What was your parents’ marriage like?

We learn most about marriage from our families-of-origin.  Whether you have a positive relationship with your parents and trust them as role models or you are trying to be as different as you can from them, their modeling is often the most significant influence you’ll have in your marriage.

Your mother may have always taken care of the housework.  Your father might have been the person who drove the kids to all their activities.  But your fiancé’s father may have traveled during the week and their mother may have hired a cleaning service to take care of the house work.  Having discussions about the way things were in your family and how you’d like to emulate or differ from those standards can circumvent unspoken expectations you carry into the relationship.

2. How will we handle finances?

What is your spending style in comparison to your partner?  Is one of you a saver?  Is the other a spender?  What level of transparency do you want to have about finances?  Will one of you handle the budgeting and bill-paying, or will it be a joint effort?  Will you have a joint account and/or two separate accounts?

Money is one of the most common areas of disagreement and argument for couples.  Learn how you handle money through participating in a money management course, such as Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.  Start having conversations about money and spending before you’re married so you know how to talk about this sticky issue.

3. Do you want to have kids?  How many?  When?

Expectations about having children can differ widely.  Discussing your plans for children can facilitate discussions around career and dreams for the future.  For example, if you’re focused on finishing your PhD or making partner in your firm before having kids, that can be discussed.  If one of you wants to stay at home with the children, that is helpful to identify.  You may want to consider the financial cost of childcare needs.  Acknowledging the financial aspect paves the way for that important conversation to happen later.

4. What are your expectations around sexual intimacy?

Oftentimes couples assume that sex should feel easy and natural within marriage, but the truth is farther from this assumption.  What creates quality sexual intimacy within a marriage is the freedom to have open conversations about it.

These conversations can be as simple as discussing logistics such as how often you’ll be intimate, when you expect to be intimate, or even the (sometimes awkward!) conversation of what you like and don’t like sexually.  You might want to discuss how you’ll handle initiating sex and saying “no” if you’re not interested.  Consent is still important in marriage, and often unspoken expectations influence whether you feel comfortable refusing.

Also, think about how you’ve been influenced by culture, church, family, career, or other areas of your life with certain messages about sex or what it means to be a man or a woman.  Uncovering these narratives for yourself can have implications of which you’re not aware.

5. How will we handle changes in our relationship?

Are you the same person you were ten years ago?  Fifteen?  Twenty?  Or have you changed in significant ways?  The type of music you enjoyed when you were younger, for example, may be vastly different from what you like now.  Personality can change over time, so it’s important to know that the person you’re standing next to on your wedding day may change significantly over the course of your marriage.  Sometimes just recognizing this fact together can prepare you, and you can discuss how you’ll handle those changes as they come.

6. What traditions for connection do we want to establish?

John Gottman, in discussing the aspects that make up healthy marriages, outlines the importance of creating shared meaning through establishing rituals of connection.  These can be everyday points of connection, like returning home from work or having dinner together.  They can also be larger traditions, such as what you do for holidays or how you celebrate birthdays.  Discuss how your family handled major holidays and what you’ll want, especially if you’ll be splitting time between two families.  Identify the aspects of your family’s moments of everyday connection you’d like to continue.

Regardless of what your family-of-origin does for holidays, I suggest that you identify some new holiday traditions you’d like to establish in your new family with your partner. Having these special traditions you develop together help to keep connection going through more stressful or trying times.

7. What will we do when we’re attracted to other people?

One of the biggest setups for finding yourself entangled in an extramarital affair is believing that it will never happen to you.  Esther Perel, a clinician and researcher on marital issues, discusses affairs in her TED talk.  She points out that problems arise when one spouse is too ashamed of the attraction they feel to discuss it with their spouse.  They instead turn to the person to whom they’re attracted and tell them in an attempt to resolve it.  But instead, this makes the attraction more intense, as the other party may reciprocate and they share a secret.

Affair-proofing your marriage involves talking about the moments when you’re feeling attracted to someone else and asking for accountability from your spouse.  If you walk into marriage expecting this to happen to one or the both of you, it will come as less of a surprise.  Fostering a safe environment by being honest with one another is the most crucial part of keeping your marriage intact. 

8. How do we want to argue?  What are the rules for fighting fair?

Arguments are another inevitability in marriage.  Even if you didn’t fight often before you were married, there are many more opportunities for arguments to arise when you’re living your lives together.  In fact, if you aren’t arguing at all, I might be concerned about how you might be avoiding or ignoring issues that come up.

Disagreements are an open door to intimacy when they involve fighting fair.  Setting ground rules for communication, which can be aided by a therapist, helps you to be able to maintain connection even when you disagree.  Learn how to communicate your emotions effectively and listen with empathy and compassion to your partner’s perspective.  Learn about why you or your partner are more sensitive to certain interactions due to triggers or how they remind you of your family of origin. Identify what you’re really desiring underneath the conflict and problem-solve for how to create that together.

9. How will you and I become a “we”?

One issue that often arises in marriages is leaving behind the loyalty felt toward your family-of-origin to focus on loyalty to the marriage.  This is necessarily painful, as change can require leaving behind some past traditions and activities that you love with your family in service of creating a new future with your spouse.  Identifying rituals of connection (see question 6) can help create this connection by establishing new traditions together.

If you’ve been single for a long time, you may have a different problem: leaving behind the independence of single life to connect with your spouse.  As a single person, you were able to come and go as you pleased and make decisions without thought for how they would affect others in your household.  In marriage, those behaviors are more difficult to maintain.  Learning how to let go of some independence is part of a healthy process in creating a “we.”

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Are you preparing for an upcoming marriage?  Have you had a hard time making space to answer some of these questions? Are you already married wish you’d had these conversations beforehand?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling to couples in every stage of their relationship, with a goal of teaching tools to help create a healthy marriage.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to find out how to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.

Fairy Tale Farce: A Review of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists by Eleanor Payson

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What comes to mind when you hear the word “narcissist”?  The word gets thrown around a lot today as a synonym for selfishness.  The millennial generation gets stereotyped as narcissistic because of increased focus on the self or use of social media to present an image.  But narcissism in its truest form is more insidious and damaging than the stereotype we assume.

In her book The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, Eleanor Payson outlines how to recognize both the overt and covert narcissist, different relationships you might find yourself in with a narcissist, and how to set boundaries to keep your sense of self intact.

According to the DSM-5, someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is characterized by:

  • Grandiosity and self-importance

  • Need for excessive admiration

  • A lack of empathy

  • Preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, love, beauty, or brilliance

  • Belief in personal uniqueness or specialness

  • Sense of entitlement

  • Envy of others

  • Belief that others are envious of him/her

  • Arrogant or haughty behaviors or attitudes

  • Manipulative behavior with others 

For a narcissist, his excessive self-absorption is a protection against unconscious but powerful feelings of inadequacy.
— Eleanor Payson

While a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder requires at least five of these criteria, someone with narcissistic traits can have milder symptoms.  You might notice that he or she is sensitive to criticism, has rigidity and criticism toward others but leniency toward the self, and projects his or her own issues on others. 

NPD individuals can never admit wrong and are expert manipulators to convince you that they are right.  They can often be dismissing of your needs, leading to a non-reciprocal relationship.  If you don’t serve a purpose to the narcissist, they don’t give you the time of day.

Addiction, by its very nature, is narcissistic.  While sex and love addiction doesn’t necessarily correlate to NPD, many narcissistic traits are present in addiction, such as lack of empathy, manipulative behavior and gaslighting, entitlement, fantasy, and a sense of uniqueness.

What I Learned from This Book

Overt and covert narcissists are different, with the covert narcissist more difficult to detect.

Overt narcissists are what we would typically imagine: someone who is charismatic, engaging, and loves the spotlight.  You often feel special at first when this individual pays attention to you, but they become less interested in you when the spotlight is off of them.  They have many friends, usually at a superficial level.  They crave admiration and support, which their charm allows them to receive.

Covert narcissists are less showy, drawing you in by being attentive and listening, but eventually becoming controlling and detached when you disagree.  They express anger in passive-aggressive ways, and you struggle to determine where you stand with them because they are aloof and indifferent. This type of narcissist blends in well with helping or service professions, such as church involvement or counseling.  They gain a sense of power or value from association with their “cause.”

Relationship with a narcissist involves loss of the authentic self.

The inadequacy the NPD individual feels is mitigated by seeing others as an extension of the self.  Thus, when you are in relationship with the narcissist, it becomes easy to lose awareness of your true self.  You might not be aware of your own emotions and have intense negative beliefs about yourself, stemming from the criticisms of the NPD.  You can end up developing codependency and caretaking for the NPD.  You might focus more on the expectations of others instead of your own desires. 

The confidence we so desperately need comes only from our authentic self.
— Eleanor Payson

Understanding your own strengths and value is the path to getting to know your authentic self.  Learning who you truly are can help you see the flaws in the NPD’s thinking about you more clearly.  This will then lead to more resilience to negative messages about yourself.

Notice early and get out if you can.

The major takeaway this book offers is education on how to recognize a narcissistic person.  If you aren’t already in relationship with an NPD individual, or if you’re in the early stages where you still have the freedom to leave, this book offers you the opportunity to learn about warning signs and take action.  Payson emphasizes multiple times that believing you can change a narcissist is risky behavior: the best way to deal with narcissists is to set boundaries or leave while you still have the chance. 

Boundaries and self-care are essential.

Yet once you’re entrenched in a relationship with a narcissist, assertiveness becomes indispensable.  When I work with partners of sex addicts, boundaries and self-care are the first areas I target as necessary for empowerment.  Therapy can help you as you explore how to set effective boundaries with the goal of giving yourself a voice and speaking up for yourself.  Know that this will likely require practice with safe people first, as the narcissist is a master manipulator that can twist the conversation.  You’ll also need to learn new strategies for setting boundaries.

Your primary work involves developing the ability to validate your thoughts, feelings, and needs along with an ability to stand up for yourself in the relationship.
— Eleanor Payson

Your reactions are a clue to discerning the narcissist.

When you are always trying to please someone else or gain their approval with a corresponding loss of self-esteem, you might be dealing with a narcissist.  You may notice yourself becoming the primary giver, ending any reciprocity in the relationship.  You might find yourself caught in lose-lose situations regularly.  The pain associated with these reactions is like a light turning on in the dashboard of your car: it’s an indicator of the need to change.

There are a variety of situations where you might have contact with a narcissist.

In particular, the parent-child relationship is explored at length in the book, likely because it can lead to repetition of patterns from childhood in adult years, or addictive tendencies that arise as coping strategies from a traumatic childhood.  If you are a child of a narcissist, you must to understand that the parents’ behaviors aren’t your fault.

Beyond the parent-child relationship, you might see a NPD individual in a romantic relationship, friendship, work relationship, or even service professional.  In the workplace, Payson recommends communicating everything in writing, getting emotional support outside of work, and involving a third party in discussions.  If you’re in the process of looking for a therapist, she recommends interviewing your mental health professional and checking out a few options before making a final decision.

Ultimately, this book offers both warning and empowerment.  Payson gives you the skills to recognize the narcissist in your midst before you become established in relationship with him or her.  Yet she also offers empowerment to learn about your authentic self, practice assertiveness, set boundaries, and stand up for yourself.

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Are you dealing with the ripple effects of having a narcissistic parent?  Are you currently in a relationship with an addict who is showing narcissistic tendencies?  Do you see some NPD qualities in yourself?  If so, there is hope.  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you lean into more of your authentic self, learn how to set effective boundaries, and release the your insecurities.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Understanding Ambivalence: How Recognizing the Push-and-Pull of Your Desires Can Set You Free

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Think of the last difficult decision you had to make.  Maybe it was as simple as where you’d like to go out to eat or as significant as a change in career path.  What makes the decision difficult is the tension between the options: you might desire some more than others, or fear the downside if you make the wrong decision.  Eventually, the choice is made when one benefit outweighs the other and you feel confident enough moving forward.

But what happens when you get stuck between two desires?  Or worse yet, when you feel two opposing emotions about something at the same time?  Have you experienced loving someone and hating them in the same instant?  What about wanting closeness and intimacy, but pushing others away by your actions or words?

In these examples, what you’re experiencing is a phenomenon called ambivalence. 

What is ambivalence?

Ambivalence is often thought of as apathy or indifference, meaning you don’t care much about something or that it doesn’t matter to you.  On the contrary, ambivalence involves strong desires or emotions in opposition to one another.  You may feel pulled in two different directions at the same time, or you might flip-flop back and forth between two feelings.  This can take place in both simple decisions (where should we go for dinner?) as well as major desires (is this the person I want to marry?).

As time passes and you struggle to resolve these opposing emotions, you might find that you do experience a form of apathy.  The indifference is a numbing response to exhaustion from the tension of trying to balance both sides at once.

What in my story might cause ambivalence?

Ambivalence is common for survivors of sexual abuse or assault as they deal with the aftermath of their abuse.  In many cases, the abuser is someone with whom the survivor has a close relationship.  Positive memories and experiences with that person get mixed up with the abuse, and the confusion of feeling drastically different emotions toward the abuser can be overwhelming. The survivor may also struggle with aspects of sexual abuse that felt good when they confront the damage it has done in their lives.

Similarly, many partners of sex addicts experience the addict’s behaviors as a sexual violation against the partner.  Confusion around staying in the relationship to work things out or leaving is common as they try to reconcile the person they love with the addiction that has destroyed their relationship.

For addicts, shame is a major factor in ambivalence.  Addicts live a double life, attempting to balance the addictive thoughts and behaviors with the normal, everyday self.  Breaking off into these two versions of the self helps to ignore or deny the tension of ambivalence around the double life.

Ambivalence can appear in depression and anxiety as well.  If you’re anxious, you may hate being alone but feel terrified of breaking into a group or connecting with others.  In depression, ambivalence can appear when you lack the motivation and energy for self-care and yet know that the way to feel better is through exercising, spending time with loved ones, or other activities to take care of yourself.

How can I recognize my ambivalence?

One common characteristic of ambivalence is all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking patterns.  The rigidity of thought patterns requiring a choice between two extremes is what makes the tension between them feel so difficult.  Sitting in the gray area of wanting two things equally and being unsure of what the right next step is can be stressful.  Often, that leads to a desire to escape.

That desire to escape is where apathy and numbness come in.  When alternating back and forth between the two desires or emotions becomes too much, you feel defeated by the struggle.  Rather than staying with the tension, you might just throw in the towel and numb out with addiction or distraction. 

How can I deal with my ambivalence? 

Acknowledge that there are gray areas.  Instead of the rigidity of black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking, allow yourself to recognize that you can (and are!) feeling or desiring two seemingly opposite things at the same time. 

Press into that knowledge and explore your ambivalence with God and others.  Talk about it with a therapist or trusted friend and explore what might be coming up with each of the desires.   

As a Christian, ambivalence leads to greater intimacy with God.  So many Psalms contain ambivalence: lament, pain, and crying out to God; followed by reminders of the goodness of God and his character.  Often the Christian life involves suffering while also seeking to place hope in God.

Name your desires, even if it hurts to put words to them.  The naming of desires is painful because it involves grief, in understanding that your desires aren’t met yet and you may never see those desires realized.  But recognizing and working through that grief leads to life rather than numbing or escapism.  Addicts in particular struggle to know their true desires, as addiction has offered immediate relief or numbing from desires in the past.  In owning and acknowledging desires, addicts receive freedom to seek out other ways to meet that need instead of through addictive behaviors. 

Learn to practice acceptance. Acceptance isn’t settling for the status quo or pretending that things are okay when they really aren’t.  Instead, acceptance involves recognizing the reality of where you are right now in this present moment, and reminding yourself that you’re okay.  If you aren’t satisfied with what you’re experiencing in the present, acceptance invites you to explore what you might like to change in the future.  Accepting your ambivalence helps you to begin to be curious about it and seek out the story behind your ambivalence.  Understanding your story opens you up to change.

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Do you struggle with ambivalence often in your life?  Have you gotten to the point of numbing and indifference after a long struggle with ambivalence?  Or do you notice rigid and inflexible thinking patterns that make it difficult to make decisions or practice kindness toward yourself?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you understand your personal story of ambivalence and how you can move forward into greater acceptance and awareness of your desires.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.