How to Respond When Setting Boundaries Doesn't Work (Boundaries Series Part 2 of 2)

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You’ve recognized your need for change.  You’ve established a boundary and communicated it to the other person.  You may have included a “cause-and-effect” style consequence.  But nothing’s changing.  What’s wrong?

Unfortunately, boundaries aren’t always as straightforward as they seem.  You can run in to several different roadblocks that interfere with effectively setting boundaries.  Here are a few thoughts to consider as you explore why your boundary-setting may not have worked as well as you expected.

Use the broken record method when communicating boundaries.

When you first communicate your boundary, you might receive a defensive response questioning your decision.  This can lead to self-doubt and hedging that makes your boundary less clear.

Instead, reaffirm your boundary by communicating it again.  For example, you might say, “I can understand your perspective and need for help, but I will not be able to take on that volunteer responsibility.” 

You may continue to receive defensive responses from the other person, but your job is to keep communicating that same boundary over and over again, like a broken record.  Hold fast to that boundary in order to protect your needs. 

Remind yourself of your authentic personal power and seek to meet your needs on your own.

Vicki Tidwell Palmer, in her book Moving Beyond Betrayal, uses the phrase authentic personal power to describe the difference between areas in which you have power or control and areas in which you do not.  You can control your own thoughts, actions, behaviors, emotions, and attitudes, but you can’t control the actions or emotions of others.  They may choose not to respect your requests or your boundaries.

Recognize the areas where you are powerless to change others and find ways that you can meet your own needs using your own power.  For example, you can leave the room when an argument with your spouse becomes too heated, or suggest outings other than shopping to your friend with whom you tend to overspend.  Recognizing where you have power allows you to avoid feeling like a victim.

If the outcome is outside of your control because it depends on the actions of someone else, seek creative ways to set boundaries and follow through on consequences to meet your own need.  For example, you could say, “If you choose to come home later than you communicated you would, I will not have dinner prepared and ready for you.”

Follow through on consequences communicated.

A boundary isn’t truly functional unless there is follow-through on the consequences for breaking it.  Often, in a life without boundaries, you’re absorbing the effects of another’s actions instead of allowing them to experience those consequences themselves.

In some cases, consequences are minor and may only have a small impact on the other person.  In choosing outings other than shopping with your friend, you’ll still be able to spend time together: it will just look different.  When you say “no” to a volunteer opportunity, the consequence is that the person who asks will simply have to ask someone else.

But in some cases, the consequences are more significant.  For the addict who continues to act out, they may have to face the consequences of separation or divorce.  These significant consequences often can be difficult for you as well. Be willing to count the cost of these more significant consequences and imagine how they’ll play out, including what you’ll need to reinforce them.  Imagining the story all the way through until the end will help prepare you in case you need to follow through.

It is important to recognize how the consequences you communicate will also affect you and be willing to follow through anyway. If not, your boundaries will be ineffective at allowing you to get your needs met.  For the addict, the most important part of rebuilding trust is to line up words with actions.  In boundary setting, you need to operate with much the same principle.

Get comfortable with saying “no.”

As silly as it may sound, practice saying “no” on your own or with other people.  Stand in front of a mirror and rehearse what you’re going to say in communicating your boundary.  Talk with a friend or therapist and ask them to help you rehearse how your conversation will go.

An added benefit of practicing your “no” with a trusted friend is that you’ll receive support for the boundaries you’d like to set.  You’ll be able to process who the boundary setting goes and having someone to care for you if things don’t turn out as expected.

Be willing to re-evaluate and compromise if needed.

While I often find that the major issue with setting boundaries is maintaining them, the opposite extreme can also come into play: boundaries that become too rigid and unchangeable.  For example, if you decide that your spouse’s late arrival means you won’t make dinner for him or her, what happens when your spouse was involved in a car accident or was caught in an unexpected storm?  It may be worthwhile to reconsider the consequence of the boundary in this situation.

Be willing to have conversations with your loved ones and offer grace in situations that are outside of their control.  Look for places to compromise when your loved ones have a hard time agreeing with or carrying out your boundaries.  What might be a solution in the middle where you could get both of your needs met? Ask what the other individual is willing to agree to and see if that works for you.

Part of revisiting your boundaries might involve acknowledging that you don’t have control over the behaviors and choices of your spouse or of the person with whom you’re setting boundaries.  Since healthy consequences are meant for self-care and not for maintaining control over the other person, your consequences may not lead to change in them.  Boundaries are not meant to control, but are meant to help you receive what you need.

In this case, you’ll likely grieve the loss of an ideal or hoped-for outcome.  If the other person doesn’t respond in the way you’d hoped, you might need to re-evaluate how to get your needs met on your own.  In extreme cases, like in failure to respect boundaries about sexual acting out behaviors outside the marriage, this may mean pursuing separation or divorce.

 

These general principles are meant to help resolve simple boundary violations or conflicts, but real life can be complicated beyond what these simple solutions can provide.  If you’re facing these more complex boundary situations, consider sitting down with a therapist to discuss how to set boundaries specific to your situation.

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Have you run into issues like the ones described above in setting boundaries?  Are you losing hope that you’ll ever be able to have your needs met?  Are you fearful of facing the cost of the consequences you set?  At Restored Hope, I will offer you support and space to grieve as you seek to set boundaries for your health and well-being.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up your first appointment at my Ann Arbor counseling office.

How to Set Yourself Up for Success in Boundary Setting (Boundaries Series Part 1 of 2)

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Beginning to set boundaries in relationships can be a difficult process.  It often requires you to change a pattern of relating that’s been ingrained into your lifestyle.  It might feel like swimming upstream. 

When you’re first learning to set boundaries, you’ll come up against resistance, including resistance within yourself.  Others might not respect your boundaries.  You might notice yourself having a hard time maintaining your boundaries because it feels uncomfortable.  Perhaps you’ll even begin to question or doubt yourself.

What makes a boundary a true boundary is holding to it no matter what resistance you come up against.  If a fence topples the second someone leans against it, it doesn’t function as intended to keep the bad things out.  Similarly, if your boundary is communicated with words but isn’t followed by actions, it isn’t functioning the way it should.

In the case of sex and love addiction, often spouses of sex addicts will threaten divorce or separation if the behavior doesn’t stop.  This can come from an honest place of desiring protection or safety.  However, if the boundary is not followed through upon, it’s an empty threat and therefore cannot effectively lead to change or safety in your relationship.

How can you begin to set boundaries in your life?

Identify what needs you’d like to have met as a result of the boundary.

How does the lack of boundary affect you? For example, if your spouse consistently communicates that they will be home at a certain time but consistently arrives much later, you may have spent time or energy on meal prep or childcare that you weren’t expecting.  If they have a history of addiction, you might also be fearful and feel unsafe as a result of their lack of communication.

Another example could be when you are asked to pick up one more volunteer responsibility at your church.  You might feel overwhelmed by the lack of time you have available for your family and friends.

What needs do you have that a boundary could provide?  In her book Moving Beyond Betrayal, Vicki Tidwell Palmer lists several needs that might be present in response to a lack of boundaries.  These include examples such as:

  • Safety

  • Empathy

  • Understanding

  • Freedom

  • Peace

  • Authenticity

  • Honesty

  • Love

  • Rest

  • Time

  • Communication

  • Respect

  • Trust

  • Affection 

Once you’ve identified your needs, you will be able to brainstorm possible ways to set a boundary with yourself or others to fulfill that need.

Clarify your vision for an ideal response to your boundary.

Imagine this: what would your ideal solution be?  Even if that solution feels silly or unrealistic, allow your mind to go there in search of the “perfect” solution. 

When you’ve created this ideal situation in your mind, ask yourself where you have the power or control to make that happen.  If your ideal solution to your need of rest is taking Saturdays off, you may have the power to set a boundary to say “no” to activities on Saturday.

Then identify where you’d need support or buy-in from others.  If your ideal solution to your spouse’s late arrival at home is his or her on-time arrival, you may need to request that they arrive home when they communicate they will.

You will also need to identify the consequence or result of a broken boundary.  Palmer explains that consequences are not meant to be punishment or attempts to control the other.  Rather, consequences are to be thought of in terms of cause and effect: the broken boundary is the cause, and the effect involves meeting your need.  A consequence to your spouse not arriving home when they say they will might be that you will not make dinner for them.  This meets a need for freedom to complete the other tasks that need to be done that evening.

Pay attention to what resistance you feel when holding that boundary line.

As you start this process of brainstorming solutions, you might notice doubt or misgivings arising.  Be curious about those: what’s getting in the way of setting those boundaries?  Is it fear of the other’s response?  Do you worry that you don’t have value or you’ll be forgotten if you say “no” to requests for help?

See if there are any areas of insecurity that you need to work through.  Remind yourself of statements of truth, such as, “My value doesn’t come from what I do for others,” “I have control over my thoughts and actions,” or “I can walk away if things get too heated.”

Communicate your boundaries clearly and directly.

The biggest issue I often see is deciding on your own boundaries but neglecting to communicate them and/or their consequences clearly and effectively.  Sometimes that can be as simple as saying “no.”  Other times you need to clearly state your request and the consequence if that request is not followed through.  For example, you might say, “If you continue speaking to me in a sharp and harsh tone of voice, I will leave the room.”

In some cases, it may be more appropriate to know your own boundaries and make choices to care for yourself that don’t involve the other person’s buy-in.  For example, you  may realize that going shopping with one of your friends is hard on your budget, as you tend to overspend while you’re with her.  You may choose instead to suggest different outings together that don’t involve shopping in order to maintain the friendship, but it may not be necessary to communicate that directly.  If, however, your friend pressures you to go shopping with her more often, there may come a time where you choose to communicate your boundary more clearly to her.

Recommended Resources for Boundary Setting

  • Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend – This book is a great primer on the concept of boundaries.  You can also purchase the corresponding Boundaries Workbook to help you put into practice the concepts you learn from the book.

  • Moving Beyond Betrayal by Vicki Tidwell Palmer – While this book is written specifically for partners of sex and love addicts, she does an amazing job with her 5-Step Boundary Solution in explaining a concise, step-by-step process in setting boundaries.  I would recommend this for anyone interested in setting boundaries, whether or not you are a partner of a sex addict.

In Part 2, we’ll address what to do when you set a boundary and it doesn’t work out the way you expected.

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Are you learning how to set boundaries in your relationships?  Do you feel like a doormat, unable to stand up for yourself or ask for what you need?  Is your partner an addict and you’re wondering how setting boundaries can help to rebuild trust?  I’d love to help you understand how setting boundaries can revolutionize your relationships and help you grow in confidence.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me  to set up a counseling session today at Restored Hope in Ann Arbor.

The View from the Therapist's Chair: A Review of Maybe You Should Talk To Someone by Lori Gottlieb

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There’s an old adage in the therapy world that therapists are best equipped to help others walk through difficult experiences when we’ve done our own therapeutic work. It can seem strange to imagine your therapist getting help, but the truth is that many of us do. And when we do, it makes us better at helping others.

Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist who entered the field later in life. While she was a therapist in private practice, she ran into her own personal issues and decided it was time for her to seek out therapy for herself.  This is the story of her parallel process: what she was experiencing in her own therapy and personal life and how those were impacted by what was happening in her sessions with her patients.   

As a therapist myself, this book resonated with me deeply.  In some ways, it felt like my own personal diary.  Hearing her walk through her struggles and describe them in clinical language that is familiar to me from grad school helped me to relate even more deeply to the story.  This book reminded me of things I know but often forget about my field of work and practicing psychotherapy.

At the same time, there were elements that were tough and challenged me as a therapist.  Reading this book helped me humbly reconsider the way I approach therapy and run my sessions.

Whether you are currently in therapy, are considering beginning now, or are a therapist who is hoping to begin your own journey through therapy, I’d recommend taking a glance at this book.  Here are a few of my takeaways.

Good therapists are self-aware enough to seek out their own therapy when needed.

We all go through difficulties in life and moments of grief or trauma, including therapists.  Therapists especially need of extra support because we are holding the pain of the stories of the people we help. 

What therapists learn from their own experiences in therapy informs their work with you.  You can often feel it in how they hold themselves in sessions.  In fact, I recommend you ask your therapist if he or she does their own therapy to find out this fact.

Most of our problems boil down to relationships and connection (or lack thereof) with others.

Think about what you seek out help for in therapy.  How many of those issues are directly or indirectly related to relationships?  The therapeutic relationship becomes essential in healing when you realize this fact. 

Your therapist likely genuinely loves and cares for you.  You share a lot of vulnerable parts of your story with them, which invites intimacy.  I feel that way about my own clients.

The therapeutic relationship also provides a corrective process to “repetition compulsion.” Repetition compulsion involves looking to receive love in the same way you did from parents as a child, even though it may have been abusive or harmful, because that feels normal.  Therapy can teach you that it feels good to be cared for and loved in a healthy way.

Good work in therapy is slower than you might expect.

Patience is a skill that is both developed by participating in psychotherapy and also needs to continue developing as healing happens on its own timeline.  You’ll take many small steps toward health over a long period of time.  Gottlieb says, “A supervisor once likened doing psychotherapy to undergoing physical therapy.  It can be difficult and cause pain, and your condition can worsen before it improves, but if you go consistently and work hard when you’re there, you’ll get the kinks out and function so much better.”  Each of those small steps or transformations has a big impact. 

Most big transformations come about from the hundreds of tiny, almost imperceptible, steps we take along the way.
— Lori Gottlieb

Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerabilities.

Gottlieb says that patients often put on their best faces in therapy when what psychotherapists want is to see the real, human parts of who you are.  We want to see what’s not working, and that usually means you’ll have to engage with uncomfortable feelings and face the parts you’re hiding in the process. 

In a story Gottlieb shares about her own therapist, she says that his eyes communicate a clear message to her. “In this room I’m going to see you, and you’ll try to hide, but I’ll still see you and it’s going to be okay when I do.”  This is the essence of a strong therapeutic relationship, and it is what I aim for. 

I expect that there will be resistance in therapy: lying, posturing, hiding parts of yourself.  You’re going to be trying to maintain an illusion, and my goal is to break through it.  It’s okay if you resist this process: it can feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. Recognize the resistance when it comes, and be willing to talk about it.

Acceptance is the key to healing.

This book explores the concept of acceptance in depth.  She learns to accept the fact that she doesn’t always know why she does what she does.  Not everything will end with a neat and tidy bow, because that isn’t realistic.  In therapy, you’ll learn how to recognize and accept feelings, including anger, and what lies underneath those emotions.  You’ll come to understand your resistance, avoidance, and hesitancy.

You’ll learn about how you picked up coping mechanisms to survive when you were younger that may no longer be the best choice for you.  What are you using to protect yourself and avoid reality?  Instead of being afraid and denying these things, accept that they are there and be curious about what they have to teach you.

One pattern I notice in clients is that they beat themselves up for feeling pain when they compare their lives to how difficult others have it around the world.  If you have this thought, realize that it is not fair to you and not fair to your experience of pain to compare like this.  Gottlieb repeats several times in this book that, “There is no hierarchy of pain.”  What you’re facing is what you’re facing, and it’s affecting you differently than it would anyone else.  It’s fruitless to compare it to someone else and come up feeling bad about yourself for hurting.

You are the one doing the work of therapy.

Therapy is about a series of small steps you take to heal.  I, or any other therapist for that matter, can’t do this work for you.  It would actually hurt you if I tried.  I can’t save you – you need to learn to come to your own rescue.  I can’t make choices for you, and you’ll find that I often counter requests for advice with further questions.  Giving advice hurts rather than helps: you need to come to your own decisions. 

This book taught me to be more reflective about what happens in my sessions with my clients and to integrate who they are as a person into what causes distress for them.  When I have a good understanding of who is sitting across from me, I can allow them to do the hard work of therapy and simply gently guide them in the direction.

Rather than steering people straight to the heart of the problem, we nudge them to arrive there on their own, because the most powerful truths – the ones people take the most seriously – are those they come to, little by little, on their own.
— Lori Gottlieb

And finally, learn to be kind to yourself.

As Gottlieb reminds us, “Most of what we say to ourselves we’d never say to people we love or care about, like our friends or children.  In therapy, we learn to pay close attention to those voices in our heads so that we can learn a better way to communicate with ourselves.” Practice kindness toward yourself by changing the words you use to speak to yourself into ones you might share with a loved one instead.

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Are you interested in trying out therapy for the first time?  Have you had a hard time understanding the purpose of therapy and how it works?  Have you read this book and become curious about therapy for yourself?  At Restored Hope, I offer individual and couples therapy to help you begin to heal.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

It's Time To Let Go: Letter to a Perfectionist

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Dear perfectionist, 

I know what it’s like to walk in your shoes.  I call myself a “recovering perfectionist,” but most of the time I’m not sure what makes me different from someone who’s not “recovering”.

There are days where the drive to achieve, to do more, to get it right overwhelms me.  And there are days where I’m able to give myself more grace.  But often, I have no idea what kind of day it’ll be when I wake up in the morning. 

So when it is a tough day, I need something to hold onto. A reminder to give myself grace. And the words that have been coming to mind repeatedly have been simple: It’s time to let go.

Can I share these words with you, my perfectionist friend?

Let go of the “have to”s.

You have a to-do list that will never truly be finished.  Your thoughts tell you all the things you have to do before you can truly feel settled.

Problem is, that list will never be fully completed.

Maybe they’re saying, “I have to do this or else I don’t matter” or “I have to do this because this is the right way.”  In some way, your value or worth is tied up in completing tasks or accomplishing goals.  If you don’t finish, you’re not worthwhile.

What do your “have to”s sound like?  And are they really true?

Remember this: worth and value are inherent in who you are as a person.  You cannot attain more value by performing better, beating everyone else, being the best, producing perfection. 

Let go of expectations.

My guess is you have pretty high expectations for yourself. 

Likely you beat yourself up for the smallest of mistakes and have high standards.  You question and doubt yourself.  But those high expectations set you up for a crash when you inevitably can’t meet them. 

And what about your expectations of others?  Are they a mirror of your expectations for yourself?

Do you judge others for not doing what you’d expect them to do?  Not producing the quality of work you would do yourself?  Allowing their failures to define who they are?

Careful, perfectionist, for this will cost you relationships.  No one can live up to these high expectations, especially if they don’t know you have them.

Perhaps your expectations of others don’t even come close to the standard you set for yourself?   Why is that?

If this is true, use this knowledge to set more realistic expectations for yourself.  When you’re beating yourself up for yet one more failure, ask yourself how you’d speak to your best friend.  Their words wouldn’t be nearly as harsh as you are to yourself.

We are our own worst critic, after all.

Let go of “doing it right.”

Answer me this, perfectionist: how often have you found yourself obsessing over details? How much extra time do you end up spending on that project?

Is it worth it?  What is it costing you?  Time with your family?  Peace and calm?

What you produce is not the same as who you are.

It is okay for you to make mistakes.  Making a mistake does not mean that you are a mistake.

Let go of control.

This is a hard one for you, perfectionist.  You know that if you’re in control, what you need will get done, and it’ll get done right

But my goodness, carrying the weight of the world gets heavy sometimes.

There is so much that’s outside of your control. 

The weather.  A crisis situation you didn’t expect.  The choices and responses of others.

If you try to grasp at control in everything, you will fail.

I know letting go of control is scary.  It can feel unsafe, as if you’re giving up your security.  Focus instead on what you can control: your thoughts, your feelings, your actions, your attitudes.

Let go of all or nothing thinking.

Perfectionists tend to have pretty rigid thinking patterns.  Remember the “have to”s?

All or nothing.  Right or wrong.  Good or bad.

These false dichotomies trap you in an endless tug-of-war where you always lose.

Acknowledge the “and.”

This document can have a typo and I still did a great job.

I can love you and forget to stop at the store to pick up the thing you asked. 

I can be a good and worthwhile person and still make mistakes.

Let go of doing it all yourself.

You aren’t responsible for carrying the world on your shoulders. You aren’t Superman or Wonder Woman.  You need help.

“But if I let someone else help, what if they do it wrong?  What if it’s not the quality I know I can do myself?”

True, they might make mistakes.  They might not follow exactly the same path you would. 

But perhaps an exercise in releasing control and learning not to be perfect is to ask someone for help.  Notice how it feels when you let them complete the work you believed you had to do. 

Let your kid do the dishes one night.  If there’s a little bit of food left on them when you pull them out of the cupboard tomorrow, you’ll know you’re in a good place. 

Let go of comparison and being the best.

It’s so easy to look at someone else’s life and believe that they have it all together while you’re completely falling apart.  Social media is a beast for this, as friends post photos or comments about their most positive moments and neglect to mention the struggles.

It’s impossible to be the best at everything.  To have the perfect family vacation every time.  To have a flawless body.  To be #1 in your line of work. 

What if you thought of it as giving it your best instead of trying to be the best?

And know that your best will change in different seasons.  Your best as a mom of littles isn’t quite the same as your best was when you were single and had much more time on your hands.

Let go of letting go.

I know where your mind might go with this letter, perfectionist.  It might just be one more yardstick you apply to your life to which you’ll never measure up.

Have a little grace for yourself.  You’re not going to be perfect at letting go.

Give it a try.  A little at a time.  Celebrate your victories and learn from where you go wrong.

Let yourself experience moments of peace by not adding to the demands on your life.

You’re going to be okay.  I believe it.

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I know how it feels to be overwhelmed by anxious thoughts and exhaustion from striving to be perfect.  Did this letter resonate with you in any way?  Have you been trying fruitlessly to let go of your perfectionism and move into a place of more peace and grace?  I’d love to help.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up an appointment at my Ann Arbor counseling office. 

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.