Rescue Meditations for Anxiety and Panic

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Have you ever experienced high levels of anxiety bordering on panic?  Symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, sweating, heart pounding, dizziness, and racing thoughts can be overwhelming when they arise.  And if it’s ever developed into a full-blown panic attack, you know the paralyzing fear that comes with that experience. 

When these symptoms arise for you, it’s a good idea to consult your medical doctor.  Some symptoms are shared in common with heart or lung issues, so you want to be sure there’s not an underlying medical concern that’s causing the symptoms.  But if you check with your doctor and you are otherwise physically healthy, your doctor might recommend psychological treatment and/or “rescue medications.”

Rescue medications, such as Xanax or Ativan, are anti-anxiety medications that help to bring your symptoms down to a manageable level when you are facing a high level of panic or anxiety.  I believe these medications can be helpful in crisis scenarios.

But if you don’t have these rescue medications or prefer a more natural approach, there are ways in which you can harness your body’s natural calming systems to relieve that anxiety.  Below are some suggestions for rescue “meditations” that you can do when you’re experiencing panic or even just feeling overwhelmed and stressed. 

If you find that these strategies aren’t effective or you’re continuing to experience symptoms, seek out help from your medical doctor or a mental health professional to address what is causing the panic.

Deep Breathing

When you’re panicked or anxious, breathing patterns are more shallow.  If you place a hand on your chest while you’re feeling stressed, you’ll likely find it rises and falls in short bursts.  The goal in taking deep breaths is to engage your diaphragmatic muscles in your abdomen.  This triggers your body’s natural calming system that helps you relax. 

To do this exercise, sit comfortably in a chair or lay on your back in a comfortable position.  Place one hand on your chest and one on your abdomen.  Take a few breaths and notice which hand moves.  Focus your breath so that your hand on your abdomen is rising and falling more with each breath.

Next, take a series of breaths with one of the following patterns:

  • 4-square breathing: breathe in for 4 counts, hold at the top for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, and hold the exhale for 4 counts

  • 4-2-6 pattern breathing: breathe in for 4 counts, hold at the top for 2 counts, and breathe out for 6 counts

Do 10 repetitions of one of these patterns.  Using a breathing pattern that focuses on a longer exhale helps regulate the body. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your body that calms the fight-or-flight response associated with anxiety and panic.

Guided Meditation for Anxiety (Yoga With Adriene)

On her YouTube channel, Adriene of Yoga with Adriene offers a playlist of short, guided meditations that can help you when your’e in a crisis.  She also has yoga practices designed to help you ground yourself or deal with anxiety on her YouTube channel.  If you have the time to do a longer workout or yoga practice, this might be a good fit for you.  Moving your body is a great way to deal with anxiety or panic.

Headspace or Other Meditation Apps

Headspace is a great app teaching the basic skills of meditation.  They include short videos describing how to approach meditation, and they offer their first 10 basic meditations for free. 

While you can only access those 10 meditations without a subscription, I’d recommend looking into their subscription, especially if you’d like to make meditation a more regular practice.  If you do have a subscription, here are a few of their “SOS” meditations I’d recommend:

SOS for Panicking

SOS for Feeling Overwhelmed

SOS for Flustered

There are plenty of other meditation apps that exist, such as Calm and 10% Happier. Try a few apps and decide which one you like best to use as a resource.

Visualize a Calm and Peaceful Place

Spend a few minutes thinking of a place you’ve been or that you create in your imagination where you can feel calm and peaceful. Identify what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell in that image. Envision yourself there and notice what emotions it evokes. Pay attention to the pleasant feelings in your body and allow yourself to enjoy them.

5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Exercise

Start out by taking a few deep, abdominal breaths, as described above. 

Begin by noticing 5 items in the room around you that you see.  Say them out loud.  Describe the colors you see, Identify any textures you’re aware of on those items.

Next, notice 4 things you can feel without moving your body: it could be your clothing on your skin, the feel of the chair in which you’re sitting, or your feet on the floor.  Say these out loud as well.  Describe the sensation of those feelings. 

Then notice (aloud – catching a pattern?) 3 things you can hear.  Describe the sounds: whether they are consistent or intermittent, loud or soft, familiar or unfamiliar. 

Notice 2 things you can smell or two things of which you like the smell (as sometimes in a sterile environment there aren’t many smells).  Describe what these things smell like.

Finally, notice 1 thing you can taste or of which you like the taste.  Describe that taste to yourself. 

Regular Meditation Practice

What I’ve shared above are short, quick meditations that you can do in a crisis.  However, the strongest benefits of meditation have been shown when you implement a daily meditation practice over the long-term.  Daily meditation actually changes the structures of your brain associated with stress and calm.  If you find you like these strategies for calming yourself, I suggest that you try meditation daily.

 

These “rescue meditations” are a way to distract yourself from the symptoms of anxiety and calm your body down so you aren’t so overwhelmed.  However, they are not meant to completely resolve the anxiety.  The panic will continue to come back until you recognize the source of the anxiety and resolve it.  If you notice the panic continuing, consult a mental health professional to begin examining the potential sources of your distress.

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Have you been dealing with symptoms of panic or anxiety, but aren’t sure why?  Are you feeling overwhelmed with stress in your daily life and looking for solutions to bring about more peace and calm?  Are you tired of dealing with the physical symptoms of panic?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling that targets the roots of anxiety and helps offer relief from the effects your symptoms.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up your first appointment.

Self-Care for When You Don't Have Time for Self-Care

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Life is busy.  Whether you feel like a taxi driver for your children’s after-school activities, you’re working long hours at the office, you’re raising a newborn, or maybe all of the above, free time can be hard to come by. 

So when someone suggests that you take time for self-care, no wonder you laugh and say, “when do I have time for that?” 

Practicing self-care is an important part of taking care of your mental and physical health.  In particular, if you struggle with anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction, or other mental health issues, self-care is an essential part of healing. Even if you see the need for self-care in your life, it’s easy to feel like you don’t have the time to make it happen.

Perhaps it’s an issue of cost.  Trendy “self-care” tells you to go get a massage, take a vacation, or otherwise spend exorbitant amounts of money with the promise of “relaxation and rejuvenation.”  For most people, this isn’t practical or realistic. While sometimes you might want to “treat yo’ self,” for the most part you can do good quality self-care for free.

Maybe you’re over the trend of self-care justifying selfish and self-centered behaviors.  I get that.  It’s not meant to be “I do what I want” or “I do what feels good” all the time.  True quality self-care Is not designed to replace loving other people and being the best parent, friend, spouse, partner, child, employee, or person you can be.  It’s meant to prep you to fill those roles well without burning out.

Self-care involves physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and relational health.  Sometimes self-care feels exactly like what you don’t want to do, but it’s what will be good for you in the long-term.  Think of it like training for a marathon: you may hate going on those longer runs, but you know in the long term your training will help you prepare your body for the race ahead of you.

How to Make Self-Care Work for You

Check your thoughts about self care.  If you’re looking at it as if it’s selfish or wrong, you won’t be able to benefit from it, instead getting distracted by feelings of guilt.  Reframe self-care as something you’re doing to take care of your mental health and better fill the roles in your life.  See self-care as a discipline, something you consciously consider.  Work it into your routine, like taking a vitamin. 

When you’re short on time, get creative about how you do self-care.  In a recent training I completed on compassion fatigue, the trainer talked extensively about a concept she calls “flexi-self-care.”  This type of self-care takes advantage of small bits of time you have throughout your day where you can pause for a moment and do something nurturing.  Identify for yourself ways to practice self-care that take as little as 1 minute and make a practice of trying these things lately.

Take a look at some of these examples of self-care on a time budget.

1 minute of self-care

  • Take three long, slow, deep abdominal breaths. (It can help to place a hand on your abdomen to feel it rising and falling.)

  • Do a yoga pose.

  • Give a loved one a hug.

  • Feel your feet flat on the ground, supported by the earth beneath them.

  • Read a favorite quotation, affirmation, mantra, or Scripture verse.

  • Look out a window and observe what’s happening outside.

  • Identify what emotion you’re feeling currently and where you feel it in your body.

  • Squeeze a stress ball.

  • Look at a picture of a loved one. 

5 minutes of self-care

  • 5-4-3-2-1 grounding exercise: name and describe 5 things you see, 4 things you feel without moving, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell or like the smell of, and 1 thing you taste or like the taste of.

  • Write a list of 10 things you are grateful for.

  • Send a text to a friend.

  • Stretch out sore muscles. 

  • Four-square breathing: breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts.  Repeat 10 times.

  • Complete one small item on a to-do list (ie. making a phone call, responding to an email, scheduling an appointment).

  • Visualize a place that feels calm and peaceful and enjoy the sensations associated with it.

  • Open a window and take a few deep breaths of fresh air.

  • Drink a glass of water.

  • Listen to your favorite song.

  • Light a candle and watch the flame.

  • Play with a pet.

  • People-watch.

10 minutes of self-care

  • Do a 10 minute YouTube workout. (I like this playlist from Yoga with Adriene.)

  • Eat a healthy snack.

  • Write in a journal.

  • Put on a dance music playlist and dance around your space.

  • Clean out your email inbox.

  • Tidy a space in your home.

  • Watch a YouTube tutorial for an activity you’re interested in learning.

  • Work on a crossword puzzle or a word search.

  • Play catch with a dog or child (or even with a wall!)

  • Do a Headspace meditation.

  • Watch a video that makes you laugh.

  • Pray.

  • Read a magazine article. 

20 minutes of self-care

  • Go for a brisk walk outside.

  • Read a chapter in a book.

  • Listen to a podcast, lecture, or sermon about a topic that interests you.

  • Call a friend, family member, or significant other on the phone to chat.

  • Work on a craft project, draw, or paint.

  • Write a thank-you note to someone.

  • Make yourself a cup of tea or coffee and sip it slowly.

  • Take a hot shower.

  • Play a musical instrument.

  • Clean a room in your home or your desk at work.

  • Create a photo collage of images that help you feel loved, inspired, or that bring you joy.

Take these lists and make them your own.  Pay attention to how long it takes you to do these activities: you  may find that prayer can be as short as 1 minute, or your one yoga pose develops into a 10-minute yoga practice.  Be willing to be creative and try out some of these tools to make self-care something you can do every day, not just as a special treat.

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Are you struggling to find time for self-care?  Have you been dealing with anxiety or depression and aren’t sure how to shake it?  Maybe you’ve tried some of these self-care practices before, but they’ve fallen short of what you need.  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you explore the roots of your anxiety and depression and begin to feel like yourself again.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up your first appointment.

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.