family of origin

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.

Nine Questions to Ask Your Fiancé Before You Get Married

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. What was your parents’ marriage like?

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

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

2. How will we handle finances?

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

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

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

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

4. What are your expectations around sexual intimacy?

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

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

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

5. How will we handle changes in our relationship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. How will you and I become a “we”?

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

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

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

Roles in Dysfunctional Families

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In a previous article, we discussed the effect of unspoken family rules on your present-day view of the world and of yourself.  Those family rules set up or reinforced relational dynamics in your family that placed each member in a different type of role.  If your family subscribed to the “don’t talk” and “don’t feel” rules, these roles provide distraction and denial from problems the family is facing. 

These roles aren’t necessarily dysfunctional within themselves: they are natural and common to family systems.  There is nothing wrong with drifting toward one of the roles, so long as they are flexible.  But just like the unspoken family rules, dysfunction occurs when they are rigid and unchangeable.  You’ll notice this when shift from the role you typically play in your family and it seems like things start falling apart.

When you’ve become accustomed to playing one of these roles in your family-of-origin, you’re likely to either repeat the same patterns in your adult relationships or carry out the drastic opposite of the role you played.  Take a look at the roles listed below and identify which roles you played, as well as those of your other family members.  Often this will shed light on current family dynamics or strong, negative reactions to your significant other or friends. 

Common Family Roles

Golden Child/Hero/Saint

This child is the favorite, the one who can do no wrong, the perfect child.  All other children in the family exist in comparison with this child.  The golden child allows the family to ignore any problems beneath the surface because of his or her accomplishments and success. This child is proof that they’ve done something right, even when there’s been dysfunction present.

The saint takes the positive aspects of the golden child and adds a spiritual twist, as this family member may be the most devoted Christian.  This particularly comes into light when there are siblings who have “fallen” and are no longer of the same faith background as the parents.

As an adult, the golden child often doesn’t feel as if he or she can make mistakes or mess up, because the whole family would come crashing down if they do. They may also become accustomed to being in the spotlight and feeling special.  The saint may have their identity or value associated with religious behaviors and church service.

Troublemaker/Scapegoat/Black Sheep

In opposition to the golden child, this is the child upon whom all the blame falls for the family problems.  It may take the form of acting out behaviors or disobedience, or it could simply be the effect of illness, mental health issues, or other “abnormal” features that draw attention.  It may be that the black sheep has no problematic behaviors, but is simply different from the rest of the family members and therefore is ostracized.  Their behaviors are seen as the source of any problems in the family, such that more major problems can be denied or ignored.

Lost Child

The lost child naturally coincides with the golden child or troublemaker.  When the attention of the family is taken up by the larger presence of one of these two roles, the lost child receives less attention and feels left behind.  Sometimes this is a natural consequence of having a sibling who is physically or mentally ill, or even the byproduct of being in a large family.  They may live by the unspoken rule of “children are meant to be seen and not heard.”

The lost child wrestles with strong feelings of loneliness and cravings for love and attention which may extend into adulthood.  They learn to take care of themselves, not to need or want anything, and may have trouble later in life asking for or receiving support or care from others.

Peacemaker/Mediator

The peacemaker is often found in the middle of arguments.  As a child, he or she may be pulled into taking sides between opposing parents, as is the case in contentious divorces.  It could also occur as the mediator seeks to keep peace between a troublemaker sibling and parents.  Similar to the lost child, this role requires the peacemaker not to have personal needs or become confrontational themselves, but instead to always be “reading the room” to identify how others are feeling and adjust or adapt accordingly.

Mascot/Clown

The mascot is the family member who lightens the mod when things are getting tense or family problems are rising to the surface.  They’re the funny one who makes jokes that facilitate denial or minimization of the real problems.  This is another role, like the peacemaker, that requires reading the room and gauging levels of tension.  In adult years, the mascot may have difficulty connecting with negative emotions or conflict, instead deflecting with humor.

Caretaker/Enabler

A caretaker is someone who takes on the responsibilities of others in the family and tries to save them from the consequences they might face.  A common example of this in today’s world is the “helicopter parent” who wants to protect his or her child from harm.  Usually this desire is well intentioned, but it actually causes more harm, as the child does not have to face the consequences of their actions and learn from their mistakes.

When addiction is present in the family, the caretaker role shifts into one of an enabler.  This individual makes excuses for the addict, denies any problems despite their obvious effect on the family, or struggles with lack of boundaries with the addict. 

Doer

This member of the family takes action and gets things done.  Often this is the stereotypical mother who coordinates the schedules of her children, cooks meals, and handles household chores.  This can also happen with older daughters whose mothers have passed away or are not able to be emotionally present, as they take on the responsibilities of a parent.

As adults, doers struggle to rest and are constantly feeling exhausted.  Allowing themselves to just “be” instead of “do” is not an option for them.  They may become angry or resentful as they struggle to say no.

Martyr

Taking the doer role a step further, the martyr makes sure everyone knows how much he or she is sacrificing for the family.  This role often involves guilt-tripping others or sarcastic comments that leave family members feelings as though they owe the martyr something.  If you have a martyr in your family, you may notice vague feelings of guilt when someone helps you, reminiscent of how you would feel guilty for the same with a parent or sibling.

What do I do now?

Read through these roles and ask yourself: which roles have I played in my family?  What about my other family members?  Have they changed over time?  How are they still affecting me in the present day?

When you’ve identified these roles and how they’ve impacted your behaviors today, experiment with breaking the mold.  Ask for what you need.  Say no.  Speak up.  Recognize feelings of guilt for what they are: echoes of the past.  Step into whatever action opposes the dysfunctional role you played in the past.  Talk with others about how you’ve played these roles and seek accountability and help in changing the scripts.

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Do you feel stuck playing out the same patterns of relating that were present in your family growing up?  Do you struggle with vague feelings of guilt when you have to set a boundary or say no?  Are you feeling exhausted all the time by constantly achieving and striving and you just want to take a break?  I’d love to support you in letting go of past scripts that are no longer serving you and living a more wholehearted life.  I offer counseling sessions at Restored Hope in Ann Arbor. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment and hear how I can help.

Unspoken Family Rules: How They Shape Your Decisions Today

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Have you ever noticed how much families differ from one another?  If you’re married, dating, or have even lived with a roommate, you’ve likely experienced friction as a result of these differences.  You’ve learned certain patterns from your family-of-origin that are different from other families.  Perhaps your loved ones clean differently than you do, cook certain recipes that have been passed down through generations, or have a different morning routine.  These patterns aren’t necessarily negative: just different.

But what happens when the messages you’ve absorbed from your family-of-origin create problems for you?  Maybe your spouse wants to talk about their feelings when they happen, and your philosophy is just to keep quiet and move on.  Perhaps apologizing is difficult because it wasn’t modeled for you growing up.

We assume these patterns of behavior are “normal” because we don’t know anything different.  We expect others to act in the ways our family did.  However, what we come to realize is that these patterns of behavior aren’t always healthy.  Unhealthy coping patterns learned as a result of these unspoken family rules can lead to addiction and dissatisfaction.

What are unspoken family rules?

As a child, you likely had some rules that were clearly outlined.  A curfew, allowance, and chores often have direct and clear expectations.  However, there are often “rules of engagement” in relationships, such as how you speak to one another, the way in which emotion is handled, or identifying who is responsible for consequences.

When these rules are unspoken, as is often the case, you learn them more by the response when you unknowingly break one.  You also might learn from your parents’ modeling of behaviors.  If your parents never talk about their feelings, for example, the precedent is set for you to do the same.

We internalize these “rules of engagement” and pick up unhealthy coping as a result.  If you were taught that it wasn’t okay to experience a negative emotion like anger, then you aren’t given tools to handle anger when it comes up in your adult life.  You may shy away from it or find yourself exploding when it arises and then feeling intense shame. 

Common Unspoken Family Rules

Don’t talk.

This family rule doesn’t mean that you aren’t speaking to one another, but instead that you don’t have conversations about uncomfortable topics.  Certain areas of discussion are off-limits.  This breeds secrecy and hiding, both inside the family and outside as well. 

You might notice this with an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent.  All the family members may be aware of the problem, but you don’t talk about it, instead discussing lighter topics and ignoring the larger issue.

Don’t feel.

Have you ever seen the film Frozen?  (If you’re the parent of young children, my guess is you’ve seen it more times than you’d care to admit.)  In the movie, Elsa has magical ice powers that spiral out of control when she feels negative emotions.  To manage these powers, her parents isolate her and explicity tell her “don’t feel.”  But she soon finds this is impossible, and the plot of the film unfolds as she loses control of her emotions.

It is impossible not to experience negative emotions.  But if they are unacceptable in your family-of-origin, you don’t learn how to manage them properly.  You might become numb to certain emotions or struggle to control them.  Emotions may be seen as a sign of weakness.  Christian parents can sometimes give messages that certain emotions are sinful or signify lack of faith.  Emotions such as anger, fear, hurt, and sadness are commonly minimized and implied as unacceptable.

Another way a child can absorb this unspoken rule is by observing parents’ strong reactions to negative emotions.  If your parent becomes abusive while angry, you’re likely to avoid anger out of fear of losing control.  If you had a parent who was consumed by sadness or depression, you may have learned to take on the role of the positive one who brought up the mood, and sadness will feel foreign to you.

Blame-shifting.

Anyone who breaks unspoken family rules becomes the scapegoat, taking on the blame.  If you speak up as a child against these family rules, you get targeted.  Others who break the rules are blamed as well, such as extended family members who attempt to change dysfunctional family dynamics into more healthy patterns.

If you talk about your parent’s addiction to a teacher, for example, your parents may punish you severely and blame you for the problems the parent is now facing.  You’re told consequences are your fault for speaking up.  The teacher may be made out to be the villain and blamed for their role. 

Children are great observers but horrible interpreters.  When you’re told there’s something wrong with you as a child, you believe that what your parents are saying is true, even when it clearly isn’t.  As an adult, then, you’re more likely to distrust any positive qualities and focus on the negative.

Deny any problems.

Similar to the “don’t talk” rule, denial involves hiding problems under the rug and pretending they aren’t affecting you.  Phrases like “stop making such a big deal out of it” are a hallmark of dysfunctional families.  Imagine an alcoholic parent whose spouse enables by covering up the addict’s behaviors.  Children then learn to minimize their parent’s drinking, even when it leads to abuse or other problems.  In domestic violence situations, children may learn to lie about any injuries they sustain.

This can lead to dissociation in adults, where you cut yourself off from any negativity in your life and compartmentalize to avoid distressing thoughts or feelings.  You might doubt your perception of reality because it had been questioned for so long as a child.

Boys should be… Girls should be…

You may have picked up how boys and girls are supposed to act in a variety of spoken or unspoken family rules.  Phrases like “boys will be boys” or “girls should be prim and proper” are often used to direct behavior.  Often these gender roles can be exacerbated by traditional “Christian” values that often have little basis in Biblical truth.

Appearances are everything.

Focusing more on the external than the internal is a common unspoken family rule.  Perhaps you learned to put on a good face even when there are problems at home, addiction, or arguing.  Body image issues can arise from this rule as well, as you may be taught to wear makeup or be a certain clothing size to hide any emotional distress.  You are taught to pretend that everything is okay on the outside while your emotions are raging on the inside.

Your value comes from what you do/produce.

This unspoken rule teaches you that academic achievement, financial success, Christian service, or some other measure of external success is what makes you worthwhile.  You might feel like you have to be a “good kid” at the expense of being able to make mistakes.  As an adult, you begin to question your value when you make mistakes or fail.

What are the unspoken family rules you experienced growing up?

How can you name these rules today so that you can break the patterns?

  • What were topics that were off-limits for discussion in your family?

  • What emotions were unacceptable in your family?

  • Did you learn to shut off any negative emotions?  Which ones?  Why?

  • Where do you tend to place blame when something goes wrong?  Yourself?  Others?

  • What gender roles did you learn from your family?

  • When do you find yourself putting on a mask to pretend everything is okay on the outside?

  • Is it okay for you to make mistakes?  Where does your value come from?

As you reflect on the above questions, are you becoming more aware of the dysfunctional patterns in your family?  Have they impacted the way you interact with others or feel about yourself?  Do you find yourself swallowed up by shame or unable to feel certain emotions?  My role as a counselor at Restored Hope is to uncover these distorted messages you carry around and help you experience a new, healthy way of relating to yourself and others.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor counseling office.