Monday, December 20, 2010

New Year Resolution

It's that time again! The start of a new year is soon upon us. Out with the old. In with the new.

Some people will make new year's resolutions. Lose weight. Start exercising. Call my mother every week. Keep my desk clean.

Others refuse to make resolutions because they don't like the guilt when they don't stick with it.

I like to think of the new year as a time to think in terms of successes. I like to look back at the year and ask myself what I did well. Then when I think about the coming year, rather than making a resolution based on NO success, I can make a decision to build on past successes. I've already gotten the momentum going, so let's keep going.

If you are determined to make a new year's resolution, then here are a few suggestions:

1) Make a reasonable resolution. Don't promise yourself that you will do the impossible or improbable.
2) Try having an accountability partner that can help you monitor your progress.
3) Choose a goal that has good motivation behind it. Guilt is not a good motivator, by the way!
4) If your resolution is one that you have tried and failed before, take time to examine why you didn't succeed. If you can eliminate or deal with the obstacles you may have better success!

Happy new year!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Making Holiday Memories

One way to avoid holiday stress is to focus on what is important.

The presents, the tinsel, the baking and decorations are all nice. Sometimes we pay a heavy price for those things, in the form of stress and family conflict. If that is true, then it might be that you want to dial it back a bit (see this post from October 11).

When you or your family remembers holidays past, do you want the picture to be joy and contentment and love? Then keep that in the forefront of all that you do. As adults, we rarely remember the gifts we got, but we are sure to remember the family dynamics and the wonderful memories.

Here are a few ideas that are meaningful in our family. It may be different for yours, so create your own list.
  • Decorate the tree together as a family. String popcorn and make homemade ornaments.
  • Go out in the town you live in and look at Christmas lights.
  • Volunteer to ring the bell for the Salvation Army. Do it as a family.
  • Go Christmas caroling as a family or organize a caroling party with other families. Go caroling, and then come back to your house for hot chocolate.
  • Adopt a family who is less fortunate. Buy presents and provide their Christmas dinner. Include your children in this venture!
  • Do advent activities. Here is a very fun and easy one that will help even the smallest children understand the meaning of Christmas. It is called "The Advent Event" and I highly recommend it!
  • Take your family to musical events in your town, things such as Christmas pageants, musicals, Handel's Messiah, etc.
  • Consider starting a "Christmas Scrapbook" where you all write and enter pictures of your holiday activities. Each year, you can look at Christmases past and add to it.
The list of ideas is endless, really, but those kinds of things will make memories for your family for years to come. Toys break. Clothes wear out. Electronics become obsolete. But memories you will have forever!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Avoiding Pain

When I have a new client, it is usually pain that brings them to me in the first place. It is pretty common for people to come in and use the first session or two to kind of "bring me up to speed" on what is going on and what is happening in their lives.

It is also pretty common, as we work together, for me to begin to explore with them not only what is going on in their lives, but also answer the question of "what came before that?" A lot of that comes out in the initial history taking.

One thing that sometimes surprises people is that there is a direct connection between past and present. Often what is going on NOW has roots in the past. What that means, in practical terms, it is often necessary to talk about past wounds and heal them in order to alleviate today's pain.

It is not surprising that people sometimes resist that. I can't tell you how often clients have said, "That happened a long time ago and I don't want to talk about that because it makes me sad." It is my job to help them to understand the connection, and I try to do that with grace and compassion.

Exploring past issues can be painful, but I liken it to cleaning out an infected wound. If I avoid touching an infected wound on my body because it hurts too much, I may ultimately be allowing it to fester and get worse. What I have to do is tolerate the pain of touching it and cleaning it out, so that I can have relief.

It is the same with emotional pain. I may avoid that past hurt in my life, but it is festering down there somewhere and the symptoms I have today may very well be the result of the festering. If I touch the pain and heal the wound, my today symptoms may subside.

Monday, October 25, 2010


Parenting is a mixed bag! It is one of the most important and rewarding jobs we'll ever do in our lives, but it is sometimes stressful and full of concerns.

One of the things that is important in parenting is consistency. Most of us understand that there needs to be consistency in discipline. The rules don't change or bend according to the mood of the parent, and the consequence is the same each time. Predictability communicates to the child that it is in their best interest to choose their behavior wisely.

Consistency is also important in teaching your children values and priorities.

Examine what your priorities are. What are they? Faith? Education? Teaching kindness? Good manners? Family?

Decide what the priorities are, and then every parenting decision you make needs to fit with that.

Sometimes decisions are made that bring two priorities into conflict. In those times, you have to decide what the top priority is.

It isn't easy. Trying to wade through the hundreds of parenting decisions you make in your kids' lives can be overwhelming. If you have your priority list in your head, when you are thinking about what decision to make, ask yourself:

  • What does this decision teach my child about ______? (fill in the blank with the priority you're thinking about)
  • How does this decision line up with what I want my child to understand about _______?
  • If I make this decision, will my child get the impression that ______ is less important?

You get the idea! Remember that the goal of parenting is to give your child an opportunity (although ultimately your child will make his/her own choices) to grow into a person with values, morals, and character. Each decision you make moves towards that or away from that.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Holiday Stress

It is that time of year again!

Many people see the holidays as kind of a "mixed bag." They will report that it is their favorite time of year, while at the same time saying that they hate the stress and the pressure of the holidays.

My best advice for not just surviving the holidays but enjoying them? Boundaries!

Family Boundaries - You need to decide with your household what you want your holiday to look like. If you currently spend all of your holidays in the car making sure you can get to parents, inlaws, etc. and you feel it is too much, then stop! Decide what you will do, inform family members, and then stick to the plan.

Consider (for example) spending the actual holiday with your side of the family and then celebrating with your spouse's family on the Saturday before the holiday. If not that, then some variation of that.

I have three married children who all have inlaws, of course. and we have to make some of those kinds of adjustments. This year, all of my children will be with inlaws on Thanksgiving and they'll be with us on Saturday. It works just fine.

Money Boundaries - Money is perhaps the biggest stressor at this time of year. Make a decision before you start shopping as to what your budget is this year. Include items in the budget such as gifts, food (i.e. baking or holiday dinners), and special activities (i.e. holiday concerts). Then stick to your budget. Decide up front that credit cards are off limits.

Consider making homemade gifts, or consider giving a service (i.e. washing someone's car once a month) or a time (going for coffee once a month) gift. Don't confuse love with amount spent.

Shorten your gift list. If you are giving some gifts out of obligation, consider cutting that person all together or cutting down the amount you spend on that person. Or consider giving something more personal, such as a picture of your family. Be creative!

Time Boundaries - There are so many possibilities and expectations in terms of activities during the holidays. Take the time to consider all the invitations to parties, concerts, tree-lightings, decorating parties, etc. and realize that you may not be able to make them all. Decide what is reasonable (i.e. "I cannot be out every night during the weekend" or "I can only do one activity per weekend" or "I'll do two activities per week.") Whatever your limit, decide and then stick to it.

Also realize that just because something has always been, doesn't mean it always needs to continue. Life is a series of choices, and some of those choices involve time commitments.


Decide your boundaries, and then stick to them. You will probably find yourself less stressed and enjoying the holidays more!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hard Times

Hard times have hit us big time! People have lost retirements, houses, jobs, and careers. Investments have plummeted and, depending on who you listen to, there is no end in sight.

While many of us will agree that "money isn't everything" and that "you can't take it with you," we would probably agree also that these kinds of financial hits put stress on our lives in other areas.

People get depressed or feel anxious. Sometimes they play the Blame Game. There is a feeling of confusion, not knowing what to do next.

The thing is this: We will all hit hard times in one way or another all along our life path. The trick is to not let it destroy our lives. Here are some thoughts about that:

1) Keep talking. I find that when people can talk with their loved ones about how they are feeling, it creates a climate of openness and support that can help them through it. Also, in a healthy talking relationship, there may be less likelihood of turning to addictions or maladaptive behaviors.

2) Regularly assess what you DO have. It is easy to get so focused on the loss of a job or a pension that we lose sight of what we do have. "I still have my family." or "I still have my faith." or "We still have our love." Remember, that people have weathered things like the Great Depression of the '30s and come out of it with their families still intact. It is a matter of keeping focused on the positives in your life so that you don't lose hope.

3) Keep busy. If you are out of work, make looking for a job your full time job. Volunteer at a community helps agency, the library, or a hospital. Don't allow yourself to just sit around and do nothing. It isn't good for you emotionally or physically.

4) Accept what is. That doesn't mean accept your situation in a way that is unhealthy and leads to depression and hopelessness. Accept that what has happened has happened and that nothing will change that. Instead of staying stuck in the "it's not fair" mode, tell yourself "It is what it is" and move on.

5) To accomplish acceptance (#4 above) it probably will involve some grieving. Allow yourself to go through the stages of grief in a way that will produce a healthy outcome for you. Do you know the stages? If you were going through a job loss or loss of investment money, it might look like this:
  • Denial -
"I think they made a mistake when they laid me off. They'll probably
call back soon and rehire me."
"The investment guy doesn't have his facts straight. We didn't lose
that much money."
  • Anger -
"It is not fair for them to lay me off after all these years. I hope my
boss gets fired too."
"My investment guy is an idiot. This loss is his fault."
  • Bargaining -
"If only I would have gone to college. They wouldn't have laid me
"I should never have invested in that high risk stock."
  • Depression -
"That job was the best one I've ever had, and I'll never find one as
good as that again."
"I'll never be able to make up the money I lost."
  • Acceptance -
"That was a good job, but it is gone. I will move on and find another
"I have no control over the stock market. All I can do is the best I

Finally, as I've said in previous posts, it is extremely important to take good care of yourself during hard times. Exercise, eat right, and get good sleep. Without those three things, your body and mind will be depleted and you will not be able to function well or make healthy choices.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lies We Believe

Often, in my work with clients, we begin to uncover some of the lies that they believe that are adding to their distress.

"I will never be good enough."
"I must have a great job in order to be happy."
"I have done terrible things, and God can't possibly love me."
"I can't trust anyone."
"I must please people in order to be accepted."
"I can never say no, or people won't love me."

The list of lies could go on forever, it would seem.

Lies are sometimes very subtle. They are packed in under layers of life experiences and are sometimes rooted way back in childhood.

You had a critical mom? You probably have some lies you believe that are related to that.

You had an angry father? Your dad probably planted some lies in your head when you were little.

You had a teacher or a coach who made you feel bad about yourself? You probably believe some lies related to your relationship with him or her.

Lies are subtle, but once we discover what they are we can begin to tell ourselves the truth. Once we believe the truth, we will notice that we begin to feel less distressed in many cases.

So here's a place to start: The next time you feel anxious or depressed or stressed, notice what is buzzing around in your head. Write down some of those negative things that you are telling yourself.

Then take that list and see if they line up with truth from God's word. Remember that sometimes lies are partly true, so you have to look carefully.

If you are having trouble discerning if they are lies, then maybe a trusted friend or your pastor could help you pull it apart and separate lies from truth.

Finally, remember that you have believed the lies for so long, that they may very well feel like truth to you. So when you begin to tell yourself the truth, it may feel so foreign that it may feel like a lie. That can be a difficult place to be, but keep going. See if you can't turn it around.

You'll be glad you did!

Monday, August 30, 2010


One of the things that clients often talk about is contentment. They struggle to really be content with where they are, who they are, what they have, and on and on. I think that most of us have struggled with that at one point or another in our lives.

In Philippians 4:11, Paul writes, "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances."

If you go back and look up what the word "learned" means in the original language, you will find that it is the kind of learning that is a process. Further, it is a process of learning that ends with the learner actually being different. An inside change. Not cosmetic. Not putting on an act. It is a deep down inside contentment.

But because it is a process, it didn't happen overnight. We don't know what kind of a person Paul was before his conversion. What we do know is that he learned to be content. We can also learn to be content.

Rabbi Hyman Schachtel is credited with saying, "Happiness is not having what you want. It is wanting what you have."

It takes a shift in thinking, among other things, to become content. It may also take working through some issues to discover where the discontentment came from or where you're stuck. You may have some depression or anxiety that needs to be dealt with, or possibly some obsessive thinking.

Once those things are taken care of, then it is a matter of focusing on the good in what you do have. Look for the good in your life, starting with the God that you serve. Then look at the good people in your life who bring you joy. Look at the needs you have that are being met.

I'm not suggesting that you go into denial and don't think about the difficult circumstances. Of course you should. But think about them in constructive ways. What can I do to change this situation? What can I learn from this?

Think about the difficulty, but focus on the good thing. Many times in difficult situations it is tempting to focus on the difficulty.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Helping Children Deal with Grief

Loss is a part of life. We all face losses of different types all along our journey, and some of those losses happen when we are still children.

I often have parents ask me, "How do I help my child deal with this loss?" Questions often center around dealing with funeral attendance, talking about the person that died, dealing with emotions, talking about death. Those are good questions, and here are some of my thoughts and opinions:

1) If you plan to include children in the funeral service, explain to them ahead of time what it is and what they can expect to see there (i.e. the body in the casket, flowers, etc.). My personal preference is to not have children younger than four at the service, but parents have to make that decision themselves.

2) Children should absolutely be involved in the family gatherings. It is good for them to see that loss can occur and that the family is still together and supporting each other.

3) Talking about the death is helpful, and parents should talk honestly and openly. It is not a good idea to tell children that "grandpa went to sleep and is in heaven," because that may make the child fearful of going to sleep. Be honest.

"Grandpa was sick, not the same thing as when we get a cold or a tummy ache. He'd been sick for a long time and he wasn't getting well. So he went to be with Jesus in heaven."

"There was a bad accident, and Aunt Jill died."

"Grandma was very old, and her body got worn out. When that happens, people's bodies just don't work quite right, and they die. That's what happened to Grandma. She died and went to heaven."

4) Answer children's questions as best you can in an age-appropriate manner. Don't give too much information, and be aware that questions may come up over the course of weeks/months, so one conversation about it will probably not be enough. Let the child set the pace.

5) It is also okay for you to talk about your own feelings with your child. It is good for them to understand that you are feeling sad, so that they can observe you getting through the pain. They will understand from that, that death is a part of life, that life goes on, and that after a loss we can feel joy again.

6) Allow the children to talk about the person has died. Don't remove their pictures from your home. It is good to talk about happy times with grandpa or the camping trip with Aunt Jill. It helps the child to remember that they still have that person in their memories and their hearts.

7) Sometimes it can be helpful for a child to do some sort of activity as a part of their grieving. Make a scrapbook of fun times with the deceased person. Make a memory box. Plant a tree or some flowers. Write in a journal or write a letter to the person and read it out loud. Anything that is meaningful to the child.

8) Finally, there are some books that you can read to the child that may be very helpful. Check with online sources or your local bookstore, but here are a few titles to get you started:

Sarah's Grandma Goes to Heaven by Maribeth Boelts
The Goodbye Boat by Mary Joslin
Talk to Me Grandpa! Talk to Me! by Dawn Bernstrom Fullerton
Sarah's Grandma Goes to Heaven by Maribeth Boelts
After the Funeral by Jane Winch
Summerland: A Story about Death and Hope by Eyvind Skeie

It is very important that children grieve in a healthy way, because it sets the tone for how they will deal with loss throughout their lives.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Time Out!

Sometimes the couples that I counsel talk very early on in the counseling process about their pattern of conflict. Often their arguments escalate until one or both of them are over the top angry. Rather than the problem being solved, it becomes more and more complicated as emotions get out of control and hurtful words are unleashed.

Since one of my goals is to help people to communicate better, I offer some tips to help clients learn to deal with big anger. When you get to the point of anger where you are literally in "fight or flight" mode, you are probably not going to talk rationally and it is not a good idea to continue.

So what should you do? Take a time out! Take a "purposeful time out." A purposeful time out is not storming out of the house and peeling rubber in the driveway.

Signal your partner that you need a time out by labeling it as a time out and giving it a end point target. Say something like, "I can see that we are both angry so let's take a time out and we'll talk about this in an hour." Or "I am feeling angry, and I don't want to make the problem worse. Give me an hour and I'll come back and talk to you about this at 5:00."

Then you take the time out and at the designated time you come back and try again. If the anger escalates again, you take another time out.

Here are some tips for what to do during the time out:

1) Remember that the purpose of a time out is prepare yourself to be able to come back and solve the problem with your partner.

2) Preparation for coming back together involves calming yourself down. Go for a walk. Journal. Pray. Do whatever it is that helps you to calm down.

3) Preparation for continuing to talk also involves preparing what you want to say. Think about how to share with your partner your concerns and your feelings about the problem. Do this with respect. No name calling or labeling. No bringing up the past. No use of trigger words such as "always" and "never."

4) Also use the time out to try to see the problem from your partner's point of view. Work on empathy for him or her.

5) Focus on the good about your partner. Is he a good provider? Is she generally nurturing and caring? Is she generally helpful? Is he a good father? Do you enjoy her jokes? Does he usually make you feel loved? Those are things that can help you to frame the problem in a way that can lead to a healthy discussion and then a positive outcome.

Remember that when you continue on and let anger escalate, the damage done can be devastating. You may say things that will hurt your partner and you may hear things that are hard to forget. Time outs will help minimize the damage.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Grief and Loss

Loss is a part of life, and we all experience it. Some people just keep going and "stuff" those feelings. Some people allow themselves to feel the pain. If you have experienced a loss, there are some things to keep in mind as you go through the grieving process.

1) It isn't helpful to stuff the feelings. If you do, then you are carrying the grief with you and the grief actually will get bigger over time. The next time you experience a loss, the stuffed feelings will now be compounded with the new loss. It is important to let yourself grieve with each loss.

2) Remember that the feelings of sadness, anger, shock, and guilt are all a part of the grieving process.

3) It is very important to take care of yourself during this time. Make sure you are getting nutrition even if it is only a few bites per meal. Sleep regularly. Get some exercise several times a week. Nutrition, sleep and exercise are essential ingredients to staying well during this time of loss.

4) This is a time to really allow those around you to help you and comfort you. Don't isolate, even though you may feel like doing that. While some "alone" time may be good and healthy, try to balance that with time spent with others. Allow family and friends to help out and comfort. A meal. A cup of tea. A chat. Anything that is an expression of nurture and care.

5) Remember that grieving is a process that takes time. How long it takes depends upon many factors. There is no timetable. Be patient with yourself, and don't allow the impatience of others ("Aren't you ever going to move on?") to dictate how long you grieve.

Sometimes it may be helpful to reach out to a pastor or a counselor to help you through the grieving process. It is important to be able to talk about your loss and the myriad of feelings in a place that is safe and nurturing.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Change Your Thoughts

The Bible is filled with scriptures about thoughts and how they affect us. Here are a few:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8

For as as a man thinks within himself, so he is. Proverbs 23:7

We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
II Corinthians 10:5

I believe that our thoughts can affect deeply how we feel. I often tell people, if you change how you think then you will change how you feel. That may seem like a very simplistic approach, but it is a useful tool in dealing with many situations in our lives. That may be why recovery programs often deal a lot with what they call "stinkin' thinkin' that causes people to stay stuck.

Let's look at why changing your thinking can change how you feel.

I think of the feeling (depression or anxiety for example) as a "fire." The fire is fueled by thoughts. If I think depressed thoughts, I will increase my depression. If I think anxious thoughts, I will increase my anxiety.

This is in no way to say that the way I think will necessarily change my situation. But it is to say that thinking in a healthy way can help the depressed or anxious feelings to lessen or not become worse.

For example, in the case of anxiety, what does the Apostle Paul write?

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7

Paul says not to be anxious, and he says to talk to God about our situation. He says to be thankful. If we do those things we will have peace.

If I am thinking thankful thoughts, it is much more likely that I will see God and His ability to be at work in my life. If I see Him at work in my life, it is much more likely that I will understand that He is in control of my current situation. If I see Him in control of my current situation, I am much more likely to feel less anxious.

Obviously, there are many things that may make it difficult to think that way. That is where a therapist or pastor may be able to help you "get there."

You can't always change your situation, but if you change the way you think, you may be able to go through it with less anxiety or depression.

Food for thought!

Friday, June 11, 2010

What Can You Change?

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
- Reinhold Niebuhr

This prayer is commonly called the "Serenity Prayer." It has been used widely as a way of helping people to find peace. While I don't believe that the prayer alone can help us find peace, I do believe that it holds some nuggets of truth which can be helpful when we feel "stuck."

Sometimes when we are in the midst of a difficult situation, it is easy to begin to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of what we're facing. We look at the big picture, and we feel like we are facing a giant. Sometimes we are. Many times we are.

One of the things I like to do is to encourage people to break the situation down into manageable chunks. In other words, don't try to solve your problem in one sweep. Instead, is there a part of the problem that you could make a change in order to help with the situation? If there is, then work on that part.

Every year after Christmas, our family takes down our Christmas tree and packs up the lights and ornaments for use the following year. With the following year in mind, I always take the job of carefully winding up the ten strings of lights and placing them in the box so that the following year we just simply unwind them and aren't faced with a tangled mess of lights that can take an hour to untangle.

As careful as I am, each year the lights are completely tangled up and I am found sitting at the kitchen table untangling them. I have become somewhat of an expert.

What I have discovered about untangling lights can be helpful in untangling the situations in our lives.

1) Work on one strand at a time. Catch the end of it and follow it, unloop it, and pull it through until it is completely free from the pile.

In life, what that means is identify a piece of the bigger problem that can be resolved, and work to resolve that. For example, let's say you are dealing with a college age child whose car needs a transmission, but he has no money to fix it and wants you to fix it. You are already stretched to the maximum, and can't help. You may not be able to solve his car problems, but you might be able to get him a bus pass to get him back and forth to college. That is an example of solving one part of the problem. It doesn't fix the whole thing (doesn't fix the transmission), but it eases some of the pain of the situation.

2) Don't get distracted by the pile.

In life, what it means is that you can focus on the part of the problem that you are currently working on instead of worrying about whether you will solve the big problem. If you spend your time focusing only on the big problem, you will be back at being overwhelmed again.

3) Have patience.

Problems don't happen overnight. Even problems that appear out of nowhere have usually been brewing for a long time. It takes time to solve problems, and it takes a lot of work. Keep your eye on what you CAN do, and don't fret about what you can't.

4) Untangling is work. Untangling doesn't just magically happen on its own.

What that means in life is that it will take work to make changes that can help alleviate a difficult situation. Sometimes the changes in themselves are painful. Sometimes the changes can even seem to make things worse at first. Keep going. Trust God and trust His voice leading you and directing you.

In most every situation there are changes which can be made. Look for those things, and begin to do the work. You will be surprised that at some point those changes will pay off and you'll find yourself in a healthier place!

Try it!