|Mourning? - Yes. Forgiveness? - No.
||I do not understand why the principle of forgiveness is held in such high esteem. The process by which we come to terms with the past is through mourning.
|#207: The Importance of Theater in the Digital Age
|| “Theater may be the cure for what ails us in the digital world.” So said an article by Tracey Moore in The Chronicle of Higher Education ( April 8, 2016 … ...
|Why Self-Compassion Isn’t Self-Indulgent
||So many of us think that self-compassion is the same as self-indulgence. That is, we think that self-compassion means sitting on the couch and zoning out while we watch TV. For hours and hours. We think self-compassion means shirking our responsibilities. We think it means … ...
|The Story of a Trans Father
||Ms Faludi found her father’s sex-change "had only added a barricade, another false front to hide behind." She is startled to find Stefánie embracing a "florid femininity"
|What Do You Think of Jennifer Lawrence’s “New Normal?”...
||A post or two ago, I shared a personal experience about ordering a pastry and eating it with peace and happiness. This was significant because I did this even though … ...
|Changes in brain networks may help youth adapt to childhood adversity
||A new study reports a neural signature of emotional adaptation that could help researchers understand how the brain adapts to childhood adversity and predict which kids may be vulnerable to developing later psychopathology.
|One small step for babies, one giant leap for humankind
||Even before they stand up, infants have a rough idea of how to walk; they just need some time to lay down the right neural wiring. Understanding how babies take their first steps can also help us to improve the rehabilitation of patients recovering from spinal cord injury, and children with cerebral palsy.
|Today I Love That I’m Here
||Today I love that I’m here and this is where I’m supposed to be for now. I love that we all have places to be and times when we should … ...
|The Number One Goal of Every Parent who has...
||Be better than the parent or parents you had. I don’t say this to disrespect any parents out there, quite the contrary. I say this to honor your legacy and … ...
|Why Tuesdays Are More Inspiring Than Fridays
||We all want to be happy and inspired. But what if the pursuit of happiness blocks the arousal of inspiration?
|How Mindfulness Can Help Couples Cool Down
||We’ve all been there: Your partner says something that rubs you the wrong way (or vice versa), and you launch into an argument. As you both get increasingly revved up—blood pressure rising, stomach churning, fists clenching—you lose your ability to think straight or see one another’s point of view—a sign that your levels of cortisol, the body-brain’s stress hormone, are running high.
Before you know it, one (or both) of you explodes and says something jaw-droppingly nasty, something you can never take back. What could have been a minor disagreement has escalated into a major conflict, and you both come away feeling hurt, disappointed, and dissatisfied with your relationship. And that dissatisfaction might lead to more—and more heated—conflicts in the future.
How can couples avoid this vicious cycle?
A recent study offers some hope. Researchers from the University of Wyoming and the University of Oregon observed 88 romantic couples as they discussed a conflict in their relationship. Before and after the conflict, the researchers took saliva samples from both partners to measure their levels of cortisol—an indication of how stressed they were feeling.
Immediately afterwards, the researchers also asked each partner what they were experiencing during the conflict. Specifically, they wanted to know how much the partners approached their conflict with mindfulness, the moment-by-moment, “non-judgmental” awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations—an ability to notice and accept what we are experiencing in the present, without judging those thoughts or feelings as “right” or “wrong.”
The results, published in the journal Hormones and Behavior, showed that partners’ cortisol levels generally spiked during their conflict, a sign of high stress. But those with greater mindfulness seemed to recover more rapidly: Their cortisol levels were quicker to return to normal after the conflict ended, suggesting they were keeping their cool. That was true for both men and women.
“Mindfulness helps partners to regulate their own responses and more fully accept one another,” the researchers suggest, “resulting in less negative fallout from conflict when it arises.”
Why does mindfulness carry these benefits? Further analysis revealed that mindfulness during conflict helped romantic partners not take things so personally, regulate their emotional reactions more quickly, and empathize with their partner more deeply. The researchers surmise that while mindfulness helps people remain more engaged during constructive conflict, it also enables them to disengage more quickly from conflicts that become destructive.
How might these findings be applied with couples in the midst of conflict? Over the 20 years that I’ve worked with couples in my private marriage and family therapy practice, I have developed a three-step process for helping partners practice mindfulness to cool down from conflict, usually without even using the word “mindfulness” at all.
To do that, I draw on the two different aspects of mindfulness that the researchers define in their study.
1. Pay attention
The first is called “attentional mindfulness,” meaning how well each partner can intentionally tune into his or her thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations during the conflict, without getting too wrapped up in those thoughts or emotions, instead observing them from a safe distance. In the study, people who scored high in attentional mindfulness during the conflict generally agreed with statements like, “I was aware of my thoughts and feelings without over-identifying with them.”
One of my favorite interventions, which encourages attentional mindfulness, is simply to ask, “What are you noticing now?” I find that there can be tremendous benefits simply by shifting my clients’ attention to their own bodily sensations—clenched jaw or fists, tightness in their throat or chest, churning in the stomach—and by labeling their feelings as they arise and escalate: Anger, sadness, fear, and shame are the most common ones. Noting their patterns of thoughts and behaviors helps see them for what they are: habitual and automatic, well-grooved into the brain’s neural circuitry. And like any habit, these patterns don’t need to own or define us; they’re something we can change.
2. Be accepting
Then I can guide each partner in “attitudinal mindfulness”: being open, interested, curious, accepting of their own experience (the researchers also refer to it as “mindful curiosity”). In the study, partners who scored high in mindful curiosity generally agreed with statements like “I was curious about each of the thoughts and feelings that I was having.”
Noticing and naming sensations, feelings, thoughts—and accepting them as part of being human—helps my clients take their own experience not so personally. They can recognize that when they feel threatened within a relationship that they depend on for safety and comfort, it’s not surprising that they’d demonstrate evolutionarily hardwired and habitually conditioned responses, such as aggression (negativity) or withdrawal (abandonment).
When I can help them see that their reaction is understandable but not inevitable, they can then begin to take responsibility for reacting the way they are—for their own part in the conflict, for any of their own negativity, either aggression or withdrawal. When either partner begins to take responsibility, that can immediately shift the tension in the couple in that very moment.
3. Engage with your partner
Then I can gently shift the focus of their attention to their partner’s experience. They can be curious. They can listen to their partner’s concerns, fears, and desires. They can re-engage rather than defend against or attack their partner.
It’s important that I do this after having asked each partner to be curious about their own experience first, giving them the chance to regulate their own emotional state to the point that they don’t feel like they have to win their argument in the next two minutes. Then they are better able to maintain that open-mindedness when they focus on their partner’s experience.
Though I’m not measuring cortisol levels in my office, I can immediately see the effects of these applications of mindfulness: more relaxed postures, deeper breathing, more careful listening, more tolerance—and fewer negative behaviors like trying to control, coerce, or attack their partner, or defensively, often passive-aggressively, withdrawing from the conversation.
At best, there’s that magic moment when couples turn to look at each other (rather than making the case against one another to me). There may be a gentle touch on the arm or a passing of Kleenex, or simply a softer gaze and a tentative smile. Then I deliberately ask these two people to pay attention to even this moment in their relationship with curiosity and openness. And to acknowledge that they were able to shift out of a habitual pattern of conflict into a more open, receptive stance.
One significant nuance to the Hormones and Behavior study is that the researchers found that the two different forms of mindfulness—attentional and attitudinal—seemed to provide benefits in different situations.
If a partner engaged in negative behaviors during the conflict—for instance, by showing anger or frustration, by threatening their partner, or by demanding that their partner change their thoughts or actions in some way—the partner who was subjected to those negative behaviors recovered from stress more quickly if he or she scored high in mindful curiosity, regardless of his or her level of attentional mindfulness. Perhaps that was because, as the authors write, approaching the conflict with openness and curiosity “may allow partners to remain connected to their own and their partners’ emotions in a constructive way during conflict.”
However, when one partner simply withdrew and refused to work through the disagreement, the more resilient other partners were those who scored high in attentional mindfulness (though this was only true for men). “It may be that compensating for partner disengagement by distancing from what is happening helps,” they write, “to maintain a sense of equilibrium and/or to empathize with the partner’s perspective.”
The researchers did acknowledge limitations of mindfulness when one’s partner is especially verbally aggressive; in and of itself, mindfulness probably can’t reverse the impact of highly destructive tactics.
Indeed, I have often had to step in and immediately stop verbal attacks and abuse—not allowed—and return each partner’s attention to their own experience in the moment. When safety has been restored and clients have calmed down, I can return them to a process of constructive engagement and discussion.
But in less threatening situations, this new research illustrates how therapists, or even couples themselves, can use mindfulness to cool down a conflict and re-warm up their relationship: When each partner can react with greater equanimity, both partners can recover more easily. They regain a deeper acceptance of the other, recover their perspective taking and communication skills, and thus resolve disagreements more quickly before they spiral out of control.
|Best of Our Blogs: July 5, 2016
||I caught a recent post on our Facebook page and it brought the seriousness of your daily struggles to light. While many struggle with issues with family, work or self-criticism, some are in dire need of support. Some feel all alone. Depression and suicide are two … ...
|Girls & Sex: How to Talk About It
||I just read the fantastic book “Girls & Sex” by Peggy Orenstein. What I love is that while it paints a somewhat dire picture of the landscape for teen (and … ...
|Five Blog Templates for Counselors
||Blogging does not have to be difficult. These five blogging templates will help you learn to structure your thoughts around specific topics. The five types are: An authoritative post Comment on a video Description of a diagnosis or treatment Alleviating a symptom Interview There are … ...
|How to Take Criticism Like a Pro
|| I was a very sensitive kid. Even a well-intentioned correction or constructive feedback would propel me into tears and a swell of self-criticism equal to or worse than the … ...
|Test Your Love: Is It A Sky Rocket? A...
||Love and Summer, it seems they go together as if the season heats the passion of the heart or is Summer love in the air? The Charming thing about romantic … ...
|PART 1: Influential Women Know Why Setting Boundaries is...
||Setting boundaries is critical for making our best contributions. It’s one of the single best strategies that influential women use to ensure that they have a sustainable impact in the … ...
|Can Shame Be Useful in Addiction Recovery?
||In a recent New York Times article, psychiatrist Sally Satel and psychologist Scott Lilienfeld discuss how shame can be useful in recovery from addiction. I find their position to be provocative, perhaps controversial to some. Recalling Erickson’s psychosocial stages of development, one of the early … ...
|The Most Toxic Parents
||The most toxic parents are the parents that do not at all look toxic. To the outside world they appear as the most normal parents of all. Children of such … ...
|Divorce and the Practice of Dating
||Growing up, many of us learned to value and naturally imagine our futures. We fantasized about who we would become when we grew up. That included who our future mates may be and what they’d look like, and our role in caring for our imaginary … ...