How We Heal

In light of what has happened recently in Stillwater, Oklahoma, my amazing hometown since 1998, I feel compelled to write about trauma. Trauma research is both prevalent and compelling. I find that even a small amount of understanding of the nature of trauma and it’s effects on people is helpful. But even more important than understanding what trauma is, I want to help people know how to help. 

Trauma is defined as an experience that causes psychological injury or pain. Trauma can be experienced first hand or second hand. That means for an experience to be traumatizing, one does not have to be present for it to do so. There are many documented cases of PTSD from the actions of tragic events such as 9/11 from people who were nowhere in the vicinity of the attacks. 

To simplify this (and probably horrify my trauma research friends), I would like to explain it as this: trauma is processed in a part of the brain that is not meant to store memories. When trauma is experienced, that part of the brain that is processing the events also will hold things such as vivid sights, sounds, intense feelings and thus, when we access those memories, they are full of imagery. This is a major difference to where non-traumatic memories are stored. They are not full of vivid images or intense feelings. Think back to your last birthday…unless it was a trauma, you can easily conjure some images…some pleasant and some not so pleasant. But you won’t find yourself re-experiencing the feelings you felt at the time. You likely will not experience even the less than pleasant memories as intrusive and unstoppable. But with a trauma, touching base with this story can create a re-experience of the feelings you felt in that moment, numbing, difficulty pushing them back down which can lead to sadness, numbing out, crying at seemingly inappropriate times, sleeping problems, hyper vigilance (all senses on high alert), jumpiness and not caring about anything or anyone. 

The goal of treatment is to move the traumatic memory to be stored with all those birthday parties, where it belongs. The goal of trauma work it to  be at the point where you can think about the event but not be swept under by the powerful motion of remembering.

There is a process by which this occurs. The person who has experienced the trauma HAS to talk about it. And not just in broad strokes. They have to talk about the smells, sights, sounds, feelings, the thoughts that struck them and that are still going through their heads. 

And someone has to listen. To sit with this person in the darkness of their experience without saying anything cliché. Without cutting them off because it’s hard to hear. It’s hard to hear because if you are truly listening, you’re feeling it with them. But listen and feel WITH them you must. Until they are exhausted and cannot talk any longer. Listen for faulty beliefs such as “I should have done more” or “It was all my fault.” Help them challenge that. Help them see that they did their very best in that situation. 

And for God’s sake don’t just say “I’ll pray for you.” That’s just not enough. Actually hold their hand and pray WITH them in that moment. Let them hear your words. 

Above all, if what you hear is bothersome to you, perhaps you find yourself experiencing some trauma from the experience of listening, well, then you need to talk to someone too. 

This is how we heal, people. By processing it until all the hurt is sorted out. It’s done slowly, carefully and lovingly. Please know that you can reach out to your therapeutic community and know we are here for you. Let’s stand together: still strong, still loyal, still true. 

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.“ Leo Buscaglia


Whitney Warren-Alexander is a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist, Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor who resides in Stillwater, Oklahoma with her family. She owns the Warren Alexander Group, a group private practice serving the mental health needs of Stillwater and surrounding communities. She is also proud to call Oklahoma State her Alma Mater. 

Marriage and Men: Not Your Grandfather's Marriage

In the last 200 years, expectations for marriage have seen a dramatic shift. Marriage was traditionally a way to preserve family, livelihood, and community. Marriage was not a vessel for interpersonal happiness like it is today. In fact, interpersonal happiness was not seen as a worthwhile goal until the more recent history. Blame it on the fact that survival for the majority in developed countries is not on the forefront of people’s minds in the same way that it was in the past. With progress comes change, and with expectations for marriage, the change has been subtle but very distinct.

Today, when you speak with people about their expectations for marriage, you will hear things about ‘marrying my best friend,’ ‘partners in life,’ ‘growing old together.’ Contrast to what their grandparents might have said: ‘He is a good man and will make a good provider’ or ‘She will make a good mother.’ Just for a moment compare the differing expectations. Current couples have the expectation that a romantic partner and best friend committed to their personal happiness is the point of marriage. No mention of the roles of a husband or wife or the fulfillment of said roles. That’s because today, roles are much more dynamic than they were 50 years ago. Couples of the more recent past could exclusively focus on their role of being a caregiver or provider with little mention of being a best friend.

In his book “How Can I get Through to You?” Dr. Terry Real discusses his observation in working with men, that the expectations now given to men are not only different than they were for men of the past, but that they are not in line with the skills traditionally given to males in their culture. We now expect men to be an emotional caregiver to his wife and children while still requiring the stoicism of the caregiver. He must be a careful blend of emotional about all the right things and unemotional about all the right things.

Women are more likely than men to file for divorce. What I believe this suggests is that we, collectively, are failing miserably at teaching men to fulfill their new and emotionally- complicated tasks. In my practice, I see women and men frustrated with their male partner not living up to the expectations of what one of my clients called “The Oprah Dad.“ This idealistic father is emotionally available for his wife, his children, carries the role of provider and caretaker and spiritual leader equally, and does it with a smile.

So how do we prepare men for this bold new frontier? Well, it starts with training. Ask yourself a few questions to see if you are preparing your sons for this new marriage contract.

  • Are we teaching our young men as boys to value nurturing? How many parents encourage their male children to play with dolls? How many parents teach their children how to nurture children while they are playing with these dolls?
  • Are we teaching our children to label their emotions and assume responsibility for them? John Gottman calls this concept “emotions coaching.” This parenting style allows children to learn how to adequately label what they are feeling and help them come up with solutions for dealing with this emotion.
  • Are we modeling healthy nurturing of relationships in front of our children? Do your children see you holding hands, laughing, going on dates?
  • Are we actively teaching our male children the importance of empathy and other caretaking skills? This includes those “car conversations” where we discuss the importance of learning how to be kind to partners and listen and pay attention and attend to their emotions.

If these questions leave you panicked thinking ‘I don’t even know how to do that-much less teach my children!’ fear not. Emotional aptitude is a skill that CAN be taught, much like the mechanics of changing a tire. It takes time, perhaps reading a book or two, watching Youtube videos or consulting with a professional. (Pretty much the same steps I took the last time I had to tie a tie minus the book reading.)

In short, marriage is not for the weak or faint of heart. It requires constant tending and a set of skills that many are forced to acquire in adulthood. Learning these skills may be difficult, but less so than the alternative.

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Pablo Picasso

Whitney Warren Alexander, LMFT, LADC is in private practice in Stillwater, Oklahoma where she resides with her husband, son and two yappy dogs. She has been in private practice since 2009 and currently is the owner of the Warren Alexander Group. You can like her on facebook by clicking here.

 

Happiness Isn't the End-All & Be-All

Hi, my name is Courtney Palmer and I recently began working at the Warren Alexander Group. As I move into this new job and this new year I reflect about what life is about. I think about what drives me and it reminds me of an article I wrote for a local Edmond paper.  I think it is still very applicable so I thought I would share it!

Even as I write this article, I want to say, "Um...I'm sorry, what?" Isn't that what we are all striving for? Aren’t we all looking for ways to increase those positive feelings of happiness? People (including myself, mind you) make goals and decisions that are influenced by the payoff of happiness. Think about it, our job, housing, marriage, kids, friendships, food, exercise, etc. All of these things are started or stopped with happiness in mind. Happiness can have a strong influence on our moods, our decisions and how we rate our success in life.

I’ve been contemplating about how many people I know who are getting divorced. I feel like they are beginning to equate to my friends who are getting married. Generally, I hear people going into marriage say how happy they will be while people divorcing note how "they just aren't happy anymore." For many, one of the requirements to continue marriage is consistent happiness and feelings of love and joy.  

I recently heard Craig Groeschel, the head pastor of Lifechurch.tv, say "If you go chasing after happiness, you will never find it." My initial thought was "Well, that sucks." One of his points is that happiness is absolutely fleeting. It is a by-product of other things, like decisions and relationships and is, therefore, NOT the end goal. We tend to believe that if we aren’t feeling happiness then changing our circumstances is the answer to feeling happy again. This seems to be the great barometer for needing to make changes, whether they be physical, emotional, spiritual, mental or relational. Rather than choosing to make changes to increase happiness, one needs to make changes with other benefits in mind. For example, when there is little happiness in a marriage, changes could be made to increase intimacy and trust between partners. The focus is not on the lack of happiness but on relationship improvement.  

I do want to note that I am not saying that living in misery is how one should live or that one should stay in an abusive situation. That may not be showing necessary respect or care for yourself. What I am saying is that there has to be something else you are striving for...something else that you can use for a barometer.

Believe me, I hope that my life is filled with moments of happiness. I hope that I have feelings of deep bliss! I am learning that it cannot lead my decisions. Lately, when I do make decisions with the thought, “It will make me happier” it usually leads me to be compulsive and make decisions I will regret later.

When I make a decision based on life goals that I am working towards, they are thought out and while these decisions may not lead to immediate happiness, moments of happiness will absolutely be part of the journey.

To reference this article, go to http://edmondlifeandleisure.com/happiness-isnt-the-beall-endall-p9867-102.htm

Courtney Palmer is a Licensed Marriage and Family therapist and a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor who specializes in working with couples and families but also works with individuals.

When 'I don't know' is good enough

Reflect on this scene with me: Carrie has been dating Doug since their junior year in college. They are now getting ready to complete graduate school and start the next phase in their lives. She has been looking at wedding rings and dresses and making little comments, meanwhile, Doug is sweating bullets because he just isn’t sure. He has doubts about the timing, the quality of the relationship, his own ability to commit, etc.  Doug, after much heartache, decides to come clean with his Carrie that he is not on the same path as her. He says “I just don’t know” when she asks him if he wants to marry her. 

Next in this story, Carrie is bemoaning her fate to her friends and family. She immediately assumes he is cheating, not happy with what they have and wants to try to do better, that there is something wrong with her, or that he truly does know what he wants, he is just too scared to say it because it will hurt her feelings. What follows is a series of ultimatums, back and forth drama and lots of hurt feelings. Probably, I would guess, are all the things that Doug wanted to avoid. 

But what if Doug was telling his truth? He just really didn’t know? He wasn’t hiding something, in fact, he made a revelation that could have made the two come closer together, if Carrie could have soothed herself and accepted “I don’t know” as enough and not a reflection on her. 

So when did the revelation that a person is truly confused become not good enough as an answer? 

Authenticity and vulnerability are necessary in healthy relationships. They are foundations in healthy communication. And sometimes, when a person reveals themselves to be confused or unsure, why is this not celebrated as a step toward an authentic relationship?

This is because, in my opinion, that we, as human beings, make very little room for the unknown. Because when there is unknown, we can either stay present, open, mindful or fill in the gaps with our worst fears. Guess which one people usually do? 

Think about how we deal with uncertainty in other arenas…let’s say your child is uncertain about what breakfast she wishes to eat. Do you allow her the time to choose or do we pick for her, because you are in a rush? What about if your partner is unsure about the job path they wish to take. Do you allow them space for the unknown, or do you push for an answer?

Uncertainty makes people either want to avoid or fix, when in truth, the healthiest thing we can do for ourselves is to stay honest, open and present. Just to be. Allowing space for the unknown, that is, accepting the idea that some variables cannot be answered, is actually considered key in healing from issues such as trauma, anxiety and depression. 

How do we get to this personal nirvana? Well, mindfulness practice is one way. Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”

I could blog about mindfulness from now until infinity, but will begin by saying that spending time focusing on your five senses, allowing yourself to be present in this very moment, for a few minutes daily retrains your brain to respond to fearful stimuli with a deliberateness rather than reacting with knee-jerk words and behaviors. 

What if Carrie had been practicing mindfulness? Perhaps she could have responded to Doug by saying “This really scares me. I had all these plans that are being threatened. I don’t know what to do when I can’t plan my future so this is hard but thank you for being honest with me.” 

What would happen if YOU could practice mindfulness? When your work  your children’s lives, your spouse presents uncertainty. Maybe instead of backing away or forcing an outcome, maybe you could learn to be present in your body in that moment. Then what could happen?

“Depression lives in the past. Anxiety lives in the future. Peace, joy and calm live in the present." -Lao Tzu (Whitney’s version)

Whitney Warren Alexander, LMFT LADC, owns and operates the Warren Alexander Group, a group mental health practice serving Stillwater, OK and the surrounding communities. 

Love Means Learning How to Say I'm Sorry

So if vulnerability is indeed the birthplace of connection, a Brene’ Brown idea, I can think of no situation as a partner that is more vulnerable than saying that they are sorry. Truly sorry for something. Most of us don’t intentionally hurt those we love and, as a result, may not see the value in apologizing. People think ‘I didn't intend to hurt their feelings so they need to see that and get over their feelings.‘ Other people may find that apologizing to their partner in a sincere manner does not restore the relationship the way that they were hoping which is both confusing and disheartening.

Dr. Gary Chapman is a marriage counselor who wrote the book “The Five Love Languages.” His concepts about how people speak and understand love differently has helped many couples learn how to speak the language of connection that their partner does. If you are unfamiliar with his work, I highly recommend check his website and his ground-breaking book out. 

In his book co-authored with psychologist Jennifer Thomas, “When Sorry Isn’t Enough” the idea that not everyone says and understands the concept of being sorry in the same way has been instrumental in creating the stage for healing in relationships. 

Have you ever sincerely apologized to your partner and still feel “it” hanging between you? Do you believe that your partner almost never apologizes? Do you find it hard to let things go with your partner, even after they apologize? All these issues could be related to the five languages of apology. The languages are as follows:

Expressing Regret: In essence, this language is both saying “I’m sorry” and being sincere in this expression. Expressions of regret are NOT effective if done out of manipulation. As one partner once told me in counseling “I will apologize, but SHE has to do it too.” Nor is “I’m sorry” to be uttered to get what you want such as kinder treatment or sexual favor. In the examples below, note the sincerity and humility in the words.
    
Examples of Expression of Regret: 

I am truly sorry for how I spoke to you. I can see that my words hurt you, even if it was not my intention. 

I obviously was not thinking well at the time and, while it was not my intention to hurt you, I did. I am so sorry. 

I promised you that I would do the dishes before you came home and I dropped the ball. I am sorry.

Accepting Responsibility: this language means saying “I was wrong.” Wr-r--rrr-oo-n-g. Whew, that can be a tough one to put out there. Studies show that personalities with high desire for control struggle with this language. Consider the husband who said “My wife never admits when she is wrong. I know she feels bad because she makes my favorite meal the next day but I just wish she would say it!” People may choose to speak other languages instead of this one, but for someone who truly needs this language to heal and forgive their loved one, NOT saying “I was wrong” stands as an impediment to having the connection that they crave with their loved one. I was wrong takes some serious shame resilience. It means being able to acknowledge that you made a mistake without saying you are a bad person. One parent told me that when their son finally admits he is wrong he says “Fine, I was wrong. I am an idiot. You are perfect and I am stupid.” This is not truly accepting responsibility, it is merely an expression of anger and shame. 

Examples of Accepting Responsibility:

How I ended things between us last night was wrong. I just went to bed without saying a word to you. That was selfish and wrong. 

I realized that the words I said to you about your family were done in anger and were not appropriate. I need to learn a better way to communicate with you about things that make me angry instead of calling names. 

I repeated a mistake that we have talked about before. That was wrong of me. It was my fault. 

At the time, I was not aware of how my actions would affect you. Now that you shared your feelings with me and even though it was not my intention, I realize that I was in the wrong. What I did was not ok. 

Making Restitution: “How can I make this right?” The third language is the idea that the offender must make attempts to repair what was damaged. In this language, knowing your partner’s love language becomes important. To learn more about these languages, please visit www.5lovelanguages.com. I will blog about this concept at a later date. Essentially, what you need to know is that love is spoken and received in the form of a “language.” The five languages, identified by Dr. Gary Chapman are: Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Gifts, and Acts of Service. If you offend a person and their apology language requires you to make restitution, you will need to speak their love language to effectively do so. 

Bob and Jill came to therapy because of the way Jill treated Bob’s daughter from a previous marriage. After working through this issue in therapy, Jill stated that she thought Bob still had not forgiven her. She noted that she had apologized and admitted that she was wrong. She even had been using the tools she had been learning in therapy. Bob agreed that this was all true but that he could not completely forgive her and did not know why. After identifying Bob’s apology language as restitution, they next identified his love language as acts of service. The couple was able to identify ways that Jill could restore their relationship by offering to pick up her stepdaughter, take her on outings, help her with her chores or help her with her homework. Jill admitted she had been afraid to do this because she did not know how it would be received. After speaking both languages Bob, the matter was able to heal. 

Statements of Restitution:

What can I do to make up for what I have done?

I have broken this promise to you before. Would you like me to put it in writing?

Can we make a plan to restore what I have taken from you? What do you think would be fair?

I realize that my words were hurtful in that meeting. Please allow me to send out an email to the attendants to admit my wrong doing and set things straight. 

Genuinely Repenting: saying “I want to change.” The word repentance has significant religious overtures. However, it truly means “to turn around” or “To change one’s mind.” It is more than saying you are wrong or offering to fix things, it is about agreeing to not make that mistake again. 

In cases where a partner consistently offends their partner by doing or not doing something, the repetition of the same mistake negates any apologies that are given, even in sincerity. “I truly do not mean to do it again,” said one husband who loses his temper and yells, “but when I do it again, I see something die inside of her.” 

Sometimes, the apologies are not sincere. “I mean yeah, sometimes when I drink I act like an idiot. But I was like that when she married me. She should just accept the apology and go on,” said John. Do you think this person is going to change? Doubtful.

The most important steps to note about repentance is that the person apologizing MUST be sincere and want to change and they must make a plan for change. 

After one particularly bad incident, John finally agreed that he needed to change his drinking behavior. He spoke the words his wife had been wanting to hear for years, “I need to change. But I don’t know how.” They agreed to have John get an assessment by a substance abuse professional and follow the therapist’s recommendations. Now this couple can begin to heal. 

Not knowing HOW to change is the easiest problem to fix. As a therapist, I can supply a lot of ideas as can pastors, books, websites, etc. What an outside program or helping professional cannot supply is the desire or willingness to change. That must come within a person. With this language, the fear of failing often causes one to not embark on the journey. It is important to note that the concept is “progress not perfection” is what is needed. 

Statements of Genuine Repentance:

How could I say that in a way that doesn't come across as critical?

I know that what I am doing is not helpful. What can I change to make this situation better?

This pattern has been around for a long time. I truly want to change but know I may fall down at times. I would really appreciate it if we could come up with a way to stick with my changes and encourage me as I go along. Can you be my teammate on this?

Would it be ok if we came up with some sort of code word to make me aware of when I am doing this again? I want to be a good partner and might need help at first recognizing when I am disappointing you. 

Requesting Forgiveness: stating “Can you forgive me?” Of all the languages, this one seems the most vulnerable. Mostly because you are humbling yourself and have no control over how the offended person responds. Seeking forgiveness verbally sends the message that you truly want the relationship to be healed, that you recognize you did something wrong and that you are willing to give the future of the relationship into the hands of the person offended. 

No other language creates the amount of fear quite like requesting forgiveness. This is likely why many people do not do it. One couple worked on healing their relationship after the wife gambled away thousands of dollars in therapy. She was repentant, accepted responsibility and genuinely regretful of her behaviors. She sought to make restitution whenever possible. But her intense shame over her actions made saying “Will you forgive me?” a difficult task. After much work, she was finally able to move from shame to guilt and ask her husband to forgive her for the betrayal. This was exactly what he needed to hear. 

Examples of Requesting Forgiveness:

I am so sorry for how things turned out between us over this situation. I know I did not handle things appropriately. Will you forgive me?

You have every right to be angry with me and to never speak with me again. I value you and our friendship. Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?

I would like to encourage people to read this book. It has been an eye opener to the healing connection of apologies and has revolutionized by work with couples. If we could sum up all the languages together, it might look something like this: “I am sorry. I was wrong. I want to change and I also want to make amends. Will you forgive me?” The question I would like to leave you with is, what is more important: your pride, or your relationship? Are you standing in the way of your own healing? 

“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” 
― Criss Jami 

Whitney Warren Alexander is a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist and a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor in private practice in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She specializes in working with couples. Examples of stories published in her blogs are used from her practice with permission and names are changed to protect confidentiality.

Setting boundaries: Loving others by letting them down

I believe there are times when the best way to love someone is to let them down, sometimes even letting them hit rock bottom. This oftentimes means watching the ones we love get hurt. And you know what? It sucks, it hurts, and it doesn’t feel like you’re loving them at all. 

Most of us like to think of ourselves as helpful people. We give our little brother $200 when he’s having a hard time making ends meet, we help our friends out when they need a free babysitter, and we answer a call from our cousin at 2am because she’s been having a tough time with her new husband. In short, we go out on a limb when it’s someone we care about or someone we’re trying to form a relationship with.  

That’s the stuff relationships are made out of, right? It’s the give and the take—you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The trouble begins when things get out of whack. You know things are off when you’ve been scratching your friend, your little brother, or your Aunt’s back for two years, you’ve lost feeling in your fingers, and there’s no sign of that itch going away any time soon. 

  • Sign number one of things gone awry: it’s been too long. You’ve been giving your brother $200 per month for the past eight months. You know that without your help he couldn’t pay the bills. You also know that he stopped his job search three months ago and spends most of his time playing video games. As long as you keep paying him, he won’t have a need to look for a new job. Something needs to change. 
  • Sign number two of things gone awry: you can’t take care of yourself because you’re too busy taking care of someone else. You’ve been watching your friend’s twins twice a week until 11pm.You’re missing out on sleep and quality time with your partner. You’re tired at work and your partner is getting frustrated with your unavailability. Something needs to change.
  • Sign number three of things gone awry: the relationship is imbalanced. You answer that 2am call from your cousin but when you need to call her to cry about your dog passing away, she’s “super busy” with work. You call the next day, and she doesn’t answer. You call again and she’s “not in a place where she can talk.” You’ve come to a point where you are willing to help her with her emotional difficulty but she’s not willing to help you. Something needs to change.

When something needs to change that means you have to set a boundary and it’s probably going to be hard. You’ll have to be clear and consistent about the boundary you set. Try the following: “Lately I’ve been able to do ______ for you. Your friendship means a lot to me and I want to continue to be there for you, however I am going to need to support you in a different way. I will no longer be able to _______.” 

You’ll likely experience some push-back after setting a boundary and that’s when you need to remain strong. It can feel like you are letting someone down but in reality you are giving them a chance to learn a tough life lesson. You are loving them by setting boundaries.

Melissa Oliver, LMFT, is a licensed marital family therapy working in part time private practice at the Warren Alexander Group in Stillwater, OK.  She works with individuals, families and couples. 

Cutting for Coping?

The idea of people hurting themselves in order to feel relief seems counterintuitive to most of us. We react with fear, horror, disbelief and defensiveness; blaming others or ourselves in order to make sense of a phenomenon we don’t understand. These acts, when performed by people we love, become a source of panic. 

Conventional wisdom states that cutting behaviors are associated with the desire to complete suicide or are an attempt to get attention. In some cases this may be true, but for the majority of people who self harm it is a way to alleviate pain, communicate that they are in pain, disrupt a state of numbness or act as a way of defining oneself separately from others. 

As a family member or friend who does not use cutting as a method of coping you can probably think of much healthier ways to alleviate pain, be in the moment, and express or define yourself. You likely have skills that allow you to regulate your emotions and have a tool-kit of coping methods that you utilize during difficult times. For those who turn to self harm their emotions are dysregulated and the tool-kit either empty or shallow.

Self injury is most often a symptom of an underlying issues. While more females than males turn to cutting as a coping mechanism there is still a considerable amount of self injurers who are male. Treatment for cutting behaviors focuses on decreasing the cutting behavior and increasing coping skills but also attempting to reach the core issues that contribute to the desire to cut. 

 Cutting behaviors often start in adolescence and incidences can run from a one time attempt to a lifetime of self injury behaviors. Early detection and intervention during the teen years can help significantly in reducing the likelihood of cutting becoming a core coping strategy.   

Here are some tips on how to help your friend or loved one when you've noticed or fear that they have been turning to self injuring behaviors:

DO NOT punish them. Punishing only isolates and shames the individual and can increase cutting behaviors. DO stay calm, DO share your concern and worry and DO encourage them to seek professional help.

DO NOT ignore it. Ignoring it discounts the pain that the person may feel and allows for the continuation of self harming behaviors. DO talk about it, DO set a good example by demonstrating positive and healthy coping strategies and DO encourage them to seek professional help. 

Lastly, DO NOT assume that because they are cutting they are suicidal. DO assume that because they are cutting they are hurting, DO show them compassion and DO encourage them to get professional help.

Disclaimer: If your family or friend does indicate that they are having suicidal thoughts get them help immediately. 

Shame Resilient Parenting

Disclaimer: As a helping professional, I have found that the concept of shame has been a game changer. I love how it has helped me understand human behavior and helped clients reshape their behavior. For those who don’t know much about it please read and watch everything that Brene’ Brown has ever done. Seriously, just look up her Ted talks on Youtube.

So, as a very basic definition of shame, you must first know that shame is an insidious voice that we all have inside of us. It’s that inner critic who says means things to us. If you don’t have it, you’re a sociopath. Shame pipes up telling us that we are less than, makes us worried about what people will think or makes us think that we will never measure up. It makes our mistakes personal attacks on our worthiness. 

Many of us can talk that monster down. We call this "shame resilience." But some do not. If left unchecked, shame will make you either puff (get angry, lash out and blame), people please (kiss up or make nice in an inauthentic manner), or disappear (shut down or go away). 

For example, let’s say that you get a call from your child’s principal that your son has been suspended. If this creates a shame message in you such as ‘I am a horrible parent. I can’t believe my child has done something so terrible as to be suspended,’ your shame has put your worthiness on the line. When that happens, a parent might react in one of the following three ways. To “puff” might mean that you yell at your child or blame their friends for the incident or the school for their mistreatment of your son. To “people please” might mean that you bribe your child to be good in the future or try to kiss up to the administration to get them to see you for who you are, a darn fine parent. To disappear might mean that there was no discussion with your son about the infraction. That you tell no one and do not speak of the incident. 

I often say that having a child is agreeing to a lifelong battle with parental shame. Even the best at shame resilience can succumb the “shoulds” and “supposed tos” of parenting. It starts before they are born. You should stop drinking coffee, you really should breast feed, you really should not sleep with your children in your bedroom, you‘re not supposed to let your children watch television before a certain age. The list goes on and on. 

Every day parents are faced with “good parent” and “bad parent” decisions according to all the magazine articles and facebook posts. A good parent would make their children a warm breakfast before school. A bad parent provides milk and a sugary (delicious) cereal. A good parent would be home for their children when they get off the bus each day. A bad parent comes home late from work and brings pizza. 

So parents either learn to create a shield of defense around their shame messages or revel in the self doubt that the shame creates. If you‘re the “shield from shame” parent, your shame messages and subsequent behaviors and thoughts are relatively unchallenged by anyone. There is no opportunity to reality check your shame messages. Or, if you are the “revel in shame” parent, every parenting decision you make is up for debate. Every behavior and thought, no matter how brilliant or sound, is approached as a group project, opening yourself up to feedback from just about any source. This person’s shame messages are worn for all to see and for all to soothe. So we are left with shame message and either getting no feedback  or becoming so dependent on others for soothing that you have no real respect for yourself and neither do your children. 

Now that we know what are the three unhealthy reactions, let’s talk about the one healthy response. Authenticity. Being real. Making space for the ugly messages in your head and not reacting to them at all. Talking to a trusted friend or partner and deciding how you want to handle a situation based on your authentic self. Reality checking with yourself that something as simple as pizza or cereal does NOT make a parent good or bad. Being vulnerable with someone who is healthy and trusted, not the entirety of social media participants. 

When we can push past shame, we can begin to create solutions that actually address the problem. Shame makes things personal (YOU are a bad parent because your son flunked his math test). Shame resilience allows us to maintain our worthiness and concentrate on behaviors (You have not taken enough time to help your son study for his math test). When a parent can concentrate on behaviors with their worthiness safely stowed inside them, they can help. When they concentrate on proving or disproving their worthiness as a parent, well, then the solution is lost. You are lost in that quagmire rather than helping your son with his math. 

Shame resilient parenting is a tough undertaking. It requires the voice of other shame resilient people in a parent’s world, helping them talk back the monster. It requires parents to slow down and respond rather than react to shaming situations. Above all, it requires parents to know that they are worthy but not perfect. That they can be a good parent who can learn from past experiences and grow without puffing, people pleasing or disappearing. 

“Shame isn't a quiet grey cloud, shame is a drowning man who claws his way on top of you, scratching and tearing your skin, pushing you under the surface.” 
― Kirsty Eagar, Raw Blue 

 

Whitney Warren Alexander owns and operates a group private practice in Stillwater, OK. She is a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist and a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor. 

The Big "D" Word

Being a couple’s therapist means addressing personal and societal fear of the concept of divorce. I have sat across from many couples and individuals struggling to make a decision to stay in their relationship or go. This is a very tumultuous time in a person’s life and not a decision that is made with cavalier attitudes. 

I could talk about that process for hours on end, but today I want to address the moment or moments long before a person sits across from a professional considering two options: stay or go. These moments are tangible and, when understood, can actually improve a relationship if handled appropriately.

What makes people consider divorce as an option? Even while the divorce rate in this country remains a steady 45-50 percent (depending on how you interpret the numbers), premarital couples are shockingly optimistic about their own odds. I have never met a premarital couple that went through with their marriage that said “Well, we might get divorced. We don’t have the best odds.” They all believe that they will be the other half of the first marriages that survive a lifetime. 

There are popular sweeping generalizations that assume current marital partners have a “throw away” mentality, don’t understand commitment, or aren't open to hard work. Some people believe that divorce is a spiritual issue, even though devoted church goers have roughly the same divorce rate as their non church attending counterparts. 

I am not here to make sweeping generalizations. I am here to offer an observation. I believe that divorce becomes a thought when a partner believes that they are in a situation all alone without the presence or support of their partner. Dr. Susan Johnson might define it as an attachment wound, a time when a person was going through a difficult time and wanted to lean on a partner and the partner was unavailable. Couples can survive attachment wounds, or times of intense loneliness if they are acknowledged and infrequent. If they are not, these moments can plant the seeds of negativity toward a partner and self preservation in self, both of which spell the eventual death of a connection.

These moments take different forms. They can be one stand out memory. One woman reported that it was the moment her child was born with health problems. Her husband left to take care of a work issue and went home afterwards to care for their other children. She felt unsure, panicked, and completely alone. “I will never forget how awful I felt in that moment. I believed that I didn't even matter.”

Other people describe the incidents in a more gradual way. “I was caring for the children alone, making dinner alone, cleaning up alone, putting the kids to bed alone and going to bed alone. It only takes so long doing this when you begin to see you don’t need them. And maybe you don’t even want them.”

Alone is a state in which we humans are not wired to thrive. We are attaching creatures. Attachment theorists point out examples of war-torn countries with orphanages filled with young babies and only a few caretakers. These children were fed and changed but not held or interacted with on a consistent basis. Many of them died. In others studies (Check out Harlow if you are interested), young monkeys are given the option of a cage with a soft cloth makeshift “mommy” with no food provided and a cage with a wire “mommy” who provided food at all times. The rhesus monkeys spent significantly more time with the cloth mothers than the wire mothers and later even used the soft cloth to feel safe while exploring new places. I cannot stress this enough, humans crave connection. And when they do not get it in a consistent manner, the results are devastating on a relationship.

One of the most damning parts of couple's therapy is that many couples come to therapy “too late.” Often one partner has been hurt by the persistent lonesomeness, the wounds from this have scarred over and that partner has made up their mind to never get hurt like that again. They close up to vulnerability and any chance of having a truly connected relationship with that person. And that is when divorce moves from a thought to an option. And it can happen to anyone. Anyone. 

People don’t leave their partner alone in important moments because they are cruel and mean. Usually, they are completely unaware that they have made a dastardly mistake. It is often years before the offended partner acknowledges that moment that has grown and spread like a cancer. Take the earlier examples of attachment wounds: the man who left his wife at the hospital mistakenly assumed that he could ease his partner’s anxiety more if she knew the children were cared for. The partner who was not participating in life in the second scenario suffered from depression and it was all they could do to go to work and make money for the family to survive. They thought they were doing a good enough job. People do not hurt their partners because they are bad, they do it because they don’t know what to do instead.

If I can implore one thing of you, the reader, it is this: If you feel alone in your relationship, do not assume you are stupid for wanting what you want. Do not assume your partner does not care because if they did they wouldn't have hurt you like that. Just acknowledge that you feel alone. Then tell your partner. Maybe they do too. 

And if you are the one hearing this message from your partner, remember, you are not a bad person. You are not being attacked. Often people just don’t know what to do because if they did, they would have already done it. Understand that if your partner feels alone that all they need is for you to commit to doing something different. If you don’t know what to do differently, commit to learning. Maybe it will involve reading a book together or separately, going to counseling, attending a relationship seminar, going back to what you did when you were courting. 

That pervasive feeling of alone can be the beginning of the end if it is not uncovered and healed. But if it is addressed, cared for and treated like the wound it is, your relationship has the opportunity to grow in ways you could never imagine. 

“Breakdowns can create breakthroughs. Things fall apart so things can fall together.”-Author Unknown

Whitney Warren Alexander, LMFT LADC is a therapist in Stillwater, OK who specializes in working with couples. 

Will you be my friend?

As a therapist with a robust practice, many people assume that I deal with “crazies” all day. That is simply not true. I deal with normal people. Normal people with normal problems that really get them down. 

One of the problems I hear about so often is loneliness. In a world where we have never been more connected via social networking, cell phones, texting, etc., it seems surprising that loneliness has increased as an issue. Loneliness can exacerbate anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. 

Adults often believe that their loneliness is due to things like the adult friendship culture where they live (“My town is really cliquey“), not being in the same place developmentally as others that they are in contact with (“All my friends are married and I am single”) or that they don’t have enough time. In other words, adults think their loneliness is someone or something else’s problem. Thus, the loneliness continues to exist because if the problem lies outside of themselves, so do the solutions. 

But I disagree. I believe we have a crisis with loneliness because our culture struggles with connection and vulnerability. This affects our parenting, our romantic relationships, our jobs and definitely our friendships. So I want to spell out the steps to making a friend as an adult which is really about learning to be vulnerable with people.

So first off, where does an adult make a friend? If you aren’t in school and work doesn’t provide a setting or an opportunity to meet other like-minded adults, just how do you find these illusive friend material types? Then, if you do find them, how do you make them your friend? In grade school, a simple note with a check mark would do the trick. These days, the awkwardness of exchanging phone numbers increases the complexity of soliciting a friend for the purposes of interviewing. And even if you can meet these people, get their contact information with little incident, how do you know if they are even friendship material?

Let’s walk through this. First off, if you are not engaging in activities of some sort, you must start. I don’t care if you blow glass, attend your children’s sporting events and clubs, work out at the gym or cruise facebook pages. But you must do something. And do something that interests you otherwise the lack of authenticity will either lead you to a crowd that isn’t a good fit for you or the stench of being inauthentic will turn people off. 

So, step one, do some kind of activity. Join something. 

Step two is a little more scary. Actually, a lot more scary. Once you are around people, either virtually or in person, you have to open up a little. A little, not a lot. Brene’ Brown, a renowned shame researcher from the University of Houston, uses the metaphor of lighting when conceptualizing how to share about yourself. Too much information is like looking at a floodlight. People will get overwhelmed and look away. It’s too much. She says to think of sharing like a strand of Christmas twinkle lights. Each bulb represents a small fact or story about you. It’s calming and easier to handle. 

So now we have step two down. You talk about yourself. But not in the conversational narcissist way of dominating the conversations or one-upping others. When sharing, realize that connection happens when your message is “I get it. Me too.” Share small bits. The word to keep in mind is empathy, not problem solving. Let’s say a person talks about their child getting lice at daycare. Instead of launching in to the best natural remedy that worked on your daughter/niece/second cousin, listen to the emotion of the story. If you have a story with a similar emotion, talk about that. Ask questions. That is how we open up in bits. 

So now you have met people, are being open without scaring people off, what is next? The next thing is to invite people to you rather than waiting to be invited. I cannot tell you how many people are waiting to be invited and no one is doing anything. Make it something simple like “Hey, I am going to get coffee after this. Want to come?” “I just bought Frozen and my kids are watching it all weekend. Want to come over and bring your kid?” “I am going to hit balls at the range tomorrow. You should come with me.”

Now that you know all the steps, continue and repeat. 

Lastly, I want to talk about boundaries. I know what you’re thinking, a therapist cannot have a blog entry without talking about boundaries. Which is true. But regardless, it’s important to note that not everyone you use these steps with will be your new bestie. You may open up and they do too and you find that your values are very different. Or your schedules change and you can’t find the time anymore. Or you may find that you really don’t like them. They gossip or complain. Or maybe you are a bit gun shy. I am guessing everyone has been burned in friendship. You opened up and they let you down. Maybe monumentally, maybe on a small scale. THIS IS NOT A REASON NOT TO TRY. 

But setting boundaries means that you don’t compromise. Don’t go places just to fit in. Don’t order coffee even if you would rather have a Diet Coke. Listen to your feelings of discomfort because THEY are your boundary alarm bells. 

Think of the art of adult friendship with a shotgun approach. If you send out a lot of connections, chances are, one is going to hit a bull’s-eye. 

Whitney Warren Alexander is a licensed marital and family counselor and licensed drug and alcohol counselor. She works in private practice in Stillwater, OK. Her area of interest is in helping clients create connections.