Remember All Relationship Problems are Not Solvable.

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There is a wide range of conflict in every relationship.

There is a wide range of conflict in every relationship.  Whether the conflict is a minor irritant or a real bone of contention, avoiding talking about the conflict will inevitably lead to emotional distance.

In the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, relationship expert John M. Gottman divides problems into two categories:  Solvable Problems and Perpetual Problems.

Solvable Problems are usually temporary and related to a daily function or need. They are stressful but can be worked out.

Example: “You forgot to pay the water bill.”

Perpetual Problems are usually related to your requirements. Requirements are core to who you are and what you want in life. They are rooted in your personality (one partner is an introvert and the other is an extrovert) and background (one was taught to be financially thrifty, the other is more free-spending).  

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Every relationship has both solvable and unsolvable problems.

Example: One partner is more social and wants to go to parties and social occasions. The other requires quieter time at home.  Neither are not getting their needs met.  The social one feels under-stimulated and the introverted one feels drained from too much socializing.

What Solvable Problems are present in your relationship?

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What Perpetual Problems are present in your relationship?

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Categorizing problems in this way provides a helpful starting point for understanding how to begin to unravel dissention in your relationship.

Next, explore resources available to help improve communication in your relationship. Participating in couple’s counseling, attending a class or workshop, reading books or watching You Tube videos pertaining to relationship skills are all positive steps.

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Tapping into resources to help improve communication is critical to a healthy relationship.

Additionally, here are some general truths about relationship conflict to bear in mind:

There are no absolutes. Whether the conflict is solvable or unsolvable there is no indisputable right or wrong.  There are only two subjective opinions born from different family histories, personalities and temperaments.

Negative emotions are part of every long-term relationship. Even though it can be challenging to listen to your partner’s negative emotions, it is essential. This is especially difficult to do if you were raised in a family that did make room for negative emotions.  However; if negative emotions are not permitted, closeness will fade, and the relationship bond will eventually break.

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It is essential to listen to your partner’s negative emotions.

This will be especially difficult is you were raised in a family that did not make room for negative emotions.

Focus on partner’s positive traits.  When in conflict, focusing on your partner’s shortcomings will gas on the fire. Conversely, reminding yourself of your partner’s positive qualities will help quell negative feelings.

Feeling safe is key. Your partner’s ability to communicate will be severely hindered if she does not feel safe, appreciated and accepted.  Do your best to make sure your partner feels emotionally supported prior to discussing any potentially hot-button topics.

Mary Delaney is a writer and licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Healing Childhood Emotional Neglect, Finding True Purpose, Relationships, and the Creative Personality. 

www.creativecorecounseling.com


The Village Effect by Susan Pinker Provides Insight into a Common Human Struggle

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I continue to return to The Village Effect by Susan Pinker even though this book was published a few years ago. This is one of those rare books that, for me, provides insight into the elusive question of what it means to be truly happy. Though we no longer live in villages and none of us are willing to give up on new technologies to go back to “the way it was,” - the kind of face-to-face contact that village communities provided, science shows, is critical for not only happiness, but also resiliency, longevity and to some degree physical health.  Opportunities for face-to-face connection with others have dwindled significantly.  We no longer naturally cross paths with people or neighbors on our way to the butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. Now, connection takes effort. Now, we’re forced to make plans to see each other.  Now, we can see each other next Thursday evening between 7:15 and 8:00 depending on traffic and barring any work emergencies. We hustle. Juggle. Calculate. We adults could benefit from having a homeroom too. Just like middle school kids. A central place to gather for a daily check-in. To borrow notes or joke swap or fist bump. I can’t tell you exactly how to create a “homeroom” for yourself, but I can assure you this book places you in closer proximity of answering the burning question - “What’s missing in my life?”

Mary Delaney is a writer and licensed psychotherapist. Her 28-Day Relationship Rehab workbook will be available in 2019.

CAN'T GET NO SATISFACTION: The Pursuit of Truly Restorative Leisure Activities

by Mary Delaney, MS,LPC

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There’s a reason we’re groggy. Statistics show that over five hours a day is spent on leisure pursuits that aren’t truly restorative.  In fact, the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that we devote the largest chunk of our down time on the least emotionally satisfying activity – TV watching.

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Though binge watching Netflix and immersing ourselves into social feeds can feel immediately gratifying (the brain releases dopamine and provides instant comfort) - resting on the couch isn’t producing the restorative effect that we think.  Not by a longshot.

Hedonic (immediately pleasure-producing) leisure pursuits have little revitalizing power. Need proof? Flashback to a marathon watching weekend of Game of Thrones, (no judgement, we’ve all done it) and ask yourself if you felt truly refreshed by the time Monday morning rolled around. Probably not. Turns out, our bodies don’t require as much passive rest as we might think. 

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Instead of numbing out to video games and online shopping, Positive Psychologists recommend making “eudaimonic” (instead of hedonic) happiness our goal.  In the Annual Review of Psychology, Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci from the University of Rochester describe the eudaimonic approach as more focused on meaning and self-actualization rather than the hedonic pure pursuit of pleasure.

Eudaimonic activities can be social, altruistic, creative, or have a sense of play. 

Socializing in any way (church, club, meet-up) pays big emotional dividends. Having social bonds protects against depression and helps us feel more connected in an increasingly more disconnected world. 

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Multiple studies show that doing something altruistic (helping your neighbor’s kid with his math homework, weeding a community garden) helps us feel more capable and connected.

In my opinion, engaging in your creative “flow” state is at the top of the eudaimonic list.

Becoming engrossed in a creative project, hobby, or pursuit temporarily inhibits our prefrontal lobe, enabling us to experience a deep sense of calm and mindfulness.  Also, research reports that senior citizens with a “flow hobby” are also less susceptible to dementia.

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If you find your flow with another person or by participating in a group project, you amplify the restorative effect even further. 

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Play is something we do with no known outcome or goal.  To me, play is very mindful because it demands our attention (otherwise we may get bonked in the head with a ball). Engaging in play regularly (at least once a week) can help us lighten our emotional tread and give our tightly scripted lives an opportunity to breath.

There are also negative physical consequences to practicing passive leisure. It probably comes as no surprise that passive couch potatoes have a greater risk of heart disease and a greater accumulation of stress hormones.  The reverse is also true. We now have empirical proof that spending time outdoors (especially in nature) helps reduce stress hormones and improves heart health.

 Painting by Jane Roberts at  JaneRobertsArt.com

Painting by Jane Roberts at JaneRobertsArt.com

 Painting by Jane Roberts at  JaneRobertsArt.com

Painting by Jane Roberts at JaneRobertsArt.com

 Painting by Jane Roberts at  JaneRobertsArt.com

Painting by Jane Roberts at JaneRobertsArt.com

So, putting down the remote and picking up a more restorative eudaimonic activity may be key to your emotional well-being.  Reserving time on the weekends to toss a frisbee, pick apples, help a friend, or learn a new guitar chord will help you feel more relaxed, revived and rejuvenated come Monday morning.

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Mary Delaney is a writer, licensed psychotherapist, and Relationship Coach.  Her areas of interest include Healing Childhood Emotional Neglect, Finding True Purpose, Relationships, and the Creative Personality. 

www.creativecorecounseling.com

TURF WARS - HOW TO NAVIGATE POST-BREAK-UP FRIEND REDISTRIBUTION

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Recently, a friend we’ll call Sam experienced a sudden break-up.  “I’ve never felt so alone,” he said.  “At the time I need my friends the most, they’ve all seemed to scatter.”  Feeling isolated and confused, he wonders about his next step forward. 

Unfortunately, when a love relationship ends, we lose friends, too.  A recent survey revealed that men and women lose an average of eight friends in the wake of a breakup. 

I’m writing this for two reasons:

First of all, losing eight friends from a breakup sounded like a lot to me.  So, I did some spot checking.  Sure enough.  After my non-scientific qualitative inquiry of similar people who also experienced a breakup, eight seems dead-on. 

So, if you’re feeling alone and confused like my friend Sam, know that what you’re experiencing is actually quite normal.  Though it may not lessen the pain to read that fact, it may bring solace to know that losing friends post-break-up is not uncommon.

I also thought it would be helpful to shed some light on specific reasons why our friends seem to scatter in the aftermath of a breakup. (I’ll get to that in a moment).

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My second reason for writing this is to share some useful tools.  If you’re in post break-up friend reconnaissance there is hope! With some pride-swallowing and swift action, you can emerge on the other side of your break-up process with salvaged friendships.

Now, back to why friends scatter.

There may be several causes for this collateral damage.

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Friends may feel forced to choose sides, opt for distance because they “don’t want to get caught in the middle,” or just can’t seem to muster the emotional bandwidth to tolerate our cascading tears.  

Not knowing exactly what to say may also be a primary reason for post break-up evasion. 

After all, 20% of all Americans have an avoidant-attachment style.  Our avoidantly-attached pals may be stricken with a case of cat-got-your-tongue. At a loss for words, they may decide to say nothing at all rather than risk saying, “the wrong thing” and potentially make matters worse. 

Now for my second reason for writing this – to provide tips to help navigate the potentially choppy waters of friend re-distribution.

Below are a few tips on what to do and what not to do:

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Don’t bash your ex.  Talking negatively about your ex to mutual friends will only make them feel uncomfortable.  Trash talking of this sort will force your friends to take sides.  Which isn’t your motivation. If you want to hold onto your friendships, don’t say anything that would place them in the crossfire. Avoid any pettiness, rumination of details of the break-up or general criticism.  Though tempting because your feelings are hurt, you will only regret it later and likely lose those friendships in the process.

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Acknowledge the elephant in the room.  Don’t beat around the bush or avoid the obvious. Sharing mutual friends with an ex can get tricky, so being pro-active in your communication with them will help ease any tension.  Be candidly compassionate about your breakup; “We tried everything we could but in the end, we just weren’t able to make things work.”  Let your friends know that you understand how they feel, too.  Address any uncomfortable feelings head on. 

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“I know this feels a little awkward for all of us…”

“I know you must feel shocked by our sudden break-up...”

“I know you must feel torn because we’ve all been friends for so long…”

 Clarify your expectations. Getting a jump on such otherwise clunky conversations will help all parties.  Even though it may feel awkward, being verbal about the terms of your post-break-up friendships will help everyone navigate with more grace and less egg-on-the-face. 

“Despite the fact that my ex and I will no longer be together as a couple, I would love it if we could still continue being friends because you mean a lot to me.”

“Since you’ve known (ex’s name here) longer, I’d understand if continuing a friendship with me so soon after our break-up might feel awkward.  After some time passes, I hope we can reconnect.”

“Though I was invited to your wedding (ex’s name here) is your best man.  I feel that my presence at your wedding would make things a little uncomfortable. So, instead I’d like to take you to lunch to celebrate your nuptials at a later date.”

After you’ve made your point, ask them how they feel.  Your frankness will allow them to be more forthright. 

Remain friendly with your ex.  Hopefully, you were able to end your relationship on a more positive note.  Though that can be challenging, remaining friendly with your ex may be the best way to diffuse any awkwardness in the future with mutual friends.  Especially immediately after the break up. This way your mutual friends will breathe easier if they don’t sense any animosity between you and your ex. 

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By the way, you score extra credit emotional maturity points if you can actually say something complimentary about your ex, “Alex is a thoughtful, kind person, but we weren’t meant to be together long-term.”

Despite your best efforts, we can’t predict or dictate what someone else will ultimately do.  We may refrain from negative talk, be proactive with communication, clarify expectations, and remain friendly with our ex, yet some friends may still find it necessary to pick sides. 

Though we can’t control the outcome of such turf wars, we do have control over whether or not we remain open-hearted, expressive, and human. 

And we never come up empty when we acknowledge and express our feelings.

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Self-expression is our lifeblood.  Our humanness.  Our breath.  Speak out and speak up even when it feels uncomfortable. 

Martin Luther King Jr. summed up the importance of such expression when he wrote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Mary Delaney is a writer, licensed psychotherapist, and Relationship Coach.  Her areas of interest include Healing Childhood Emotional Neglect, Finding True Purpose, Relationships, and the Creative Personality. For more information  visit  www.creativecorecounseling.com

ASSESSING POWER DIFFERENTIALS IN ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS

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Recently, a friend of mine (that we’ll call “Chad”) talked to me about the abrupt end to his decades long relationship.  He was devastated. Blindsided. Shocked. Bereft.  His partner (the breaker-upper that we’ll call “Simon”) stated that he felt the relationship was no longer on “equal footing.”  Chad said he wanted a divorce, and he wanted it fast.

The lack of “equal footing” Simon was referring to is called a “power differential.”  Power in a relationship is typically determined by factors like gender, age, money, status, and attractiveness - all those elements that society takes into consideration when assessing someone’s level of “desirability.”

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We all have different levels of power in our romantic relationships. One partner may have more power because he or she is considered better-looking. The other may have power from a high-profile job.  An unequal balance of power; however, can sows seeds of resentment.

Let’s examine the power dynamic in Simon and Chad’s relationship.  Simon, a celebrated trial attorney, earned significantly more money than his artist - husband Chad.  Simon also had a dense social circle of equally successful individuals that included fellow attorneys, business executives, and entrepreneurs. They both enjoyed the perks of Simon’s social network – keys to beach-front vacation homes, complimentary theater tickets, and box seats to professional sporting events.

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Since Simon was on much better financial footing, he paid the mortgage, utilities, and car expenses while Chad covered most of the groceries and incidentals.  For years, Simon seemed content with this arrangement.

According to Chad; however, Simon seemed to become more and more withdrawn over the last two years. He seemed to have a shorter fuse about things that would have otherwise been trivial; and a shorter supply of time to devote to their relationship.

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Attributing his change in behavior to work stress, at the time Chad wasn’t particularly alarmed by Simon’s distancing. Chad also reported that the sex had also fallen off.  In fact, it had been months since the two had been intimate.  He blamed the sexless-ness on declining testosterone levels, common to many men in their late forties.  Chad’s face fell as he spoke of these telltale signs.  As if the pain of reality was suddely coming into focus.

Another couple I know (two women) also have a power imbalance.  One has a lucrative career as a software engineer and the other works as a substitute teacher at a Montessori school.  The latter; however, acts as the “frontline parent” raising their seven-year-old son.  Though the software engineer contributes more money into their collective money-pot, the frontline parent contributes most of the time, energy, and attention required for home-keeping and child-rearing. 

Their roles work for them.

Maintaining a balance that works for both parties is key.

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The best protection for any relationship with an imbalance of power is communication. Review the power differential in your relationship from time to time.  Discuss whether the current roles are still working. Resentment, defensiveness, and distancing behaviors like Simon’s ̶ typically indicates that a deeper issue is brewing.  If you notice such changes in your partner or detect a resentment stirring inside of you, lovingly discuss possible ways you’d like to right the balance. If a large power discrepancy is present, then check in regularly to ensure that one partner isn’t feeling exploited or taken for granted. 

Though discussing deep, emotional issues can create unease, it may protect the longevity of your relationship and prevent an outcome like the one that Chad and Simon experienced.

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Mary Delaney is a writer, licensed psychotherapist, and Relationship Coach.  Her areas of interest include Healing Childhood Emotional Neglect, Finding True Purpose, Relationships, and the Creative Personality. For more information  visit  www.creativecorecounseling.com

PRACTICAL STRATEGIES FOR UNEARTHING TRUE PASSION

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“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

– Henry David Thoreau

That sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? But, how can we live a passion-driven life if we don’t know what truly makes our hearts sing?  I used to believe that most people just needed encouragement to pursue their passion - a road map, a Sherpa, a gentle nudge in the right direction. I also used to think it was simply a matter of “manning up” – a matter of filling our lungs with air, then shoving off toward our dreams with gusto.

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Looking over my margin scribbles (I take a lot of notes), I realize now, that’s not the case.  Despite all of the talk about living a passionate and purposeful life – the truth is, most of us don’t have a clear picture about what makes us feel passionate in the first place.

So, before hitching up the wagons and heading out in the wrong direction, let’s take some time to explore what truly makes us tick.   Below are a few strategies that have helped me find my true North.   I hope you find them equally illuminating.

PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT MAKES US JEALOUS –  Susan Biali writes about this concept in Five Steps to Finding Your Passion.  I think this is a great place to start. She suggests that we notice what accomplishments, pursuits, or successes of others stir up our internal embers of envy. If someone has something we truly desire, then jealousy is a natural reaction.  Jealousy, in fact, may indicate hitting passion pay dirt.  For example; if an acquaintance just aced her LSAT exam and I feel a pang of envy – well, then maybe I need to get off my butt and apply to law school, too.  

https://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/susan-biali-md                                            

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PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR OWN EXPERTISE – I noticed that many individuals who claim to be passionless are often, in fact, full of passion.  They talk about certain topics with heartfelt effervescence.  Sometimes, our true passion may be right under our nose. I use this strategy in session:  I ask clients to tell me about some areas of interest extemporaneously for five minutes.  Though responses range from baseball statistics to the history of theatre, everyone seems to have at least one area in which they can talk with astounding clarity and conviction. Topics in which we can speak “off the cuff” may be passion pay dirt.  Dig there. 

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FIND YOUR FLOW –Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1993 ground-breaking book Finding Flow is still ground-breaking when it comes to helping us identify our passion. Csikszentmihalyi’s book asks us to identify which activities we are engaged in when time seems to fly. When we are totally engrossed in an activity in which time distorts, we are likely in our state of flow.  Whether the activity is painting, writing, reading financial reports, or helping a child with algebra homework – it likely indicates a passion point.  So, if you want a quick way to identify your passion, notice when your clock seems to spin quickly.

WHAT BOOK STORE SECTION DO YOU GRAVITATE TOWARD? The last time you were at a book store, in what section did you spend the most time? Science? Architecture?  Philosophy? Home improvement? The section in which you browse most may serve as a litmus test for our passion.  Our mind craves to know anything and everything it can about what stokes that fire in our bellies. As a young reader, I typically thumbed through books in the psychology/self-help section.  Decades later, I’m a psychotherapist.  A close friend with a life-long cook book obsession, finally quit his day job as a research assistant and now owns and operates a successful catering company.  

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Similarly, if you’re reading this article online, glance up at your browser. Notice what websites are bookmarked.  The websites you’ve bookmarked may represent a continued area of interest consequently offering clues to an underlying, enduring passion.

Whether using the tips suggested here, reaching out to a life coach or therapist or simply by becoming still and listening intently to your own truth, I honestly hope you find your True North, your passion, your purpose, whatever makes your heart sing.

Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist and relationship coach.  Her areas of interest include reclaiming lost emotions, finding true purpose, overcoming childhood emotional neglect, the creative personality, and long-term recovery. 

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For more information go to www.creativecorecounseling.com

TEN TRIED-AND-TRUE RELATIONSHIP TIPS

Over the years of relationship counseling and coaching, I’ve compiled an extensive list of relationship tips to help clients deepen their connection by building trust and understanding. Here are ten of the most effective, tried-and-true relationship tips to help a fledgling relationship get back on track or to bolster an already healthy one.

1. Build Relationship Rituals.

The Gottman Institute recommends that couples discover rituals as a way of building stronger bonds and deepening emotional connections. Take some time to talk about the rituals that are most important to you and new ones that you’d like to introduce. Creating even small rituals like sharing the same appetizers at your favorite restaurant builds shared meaning, comfort and familiarity.  

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2. Learn to Validate.

Empathizing with your partner's emotions is one of the quickest ways to deepen your relationship. Validating your partner's emotions (“I can really hear you say that you’re frustrated by your boss’s expectation of working over the weekend") - will show your partner that you care and understand. 

  There is no greater gift you can providing sincere, undivided, supportive listening.  Validation helps ease negative emotions, build trust and intimacy.

There is no greater gift you can providing sincere, undivided, supportive listening.Validation helps ease negative emotions, build trust and intimacy.

3. Support your partner's passion. 

In the movie Bridesmaid's Chris O'Dowd's character (Police Officer Nathan) surprises Kristen Wigg (Annie) the morning after a romantic sleepover with an equally romantic gesture.  Annie, a former cake store owner, has suppressed her love of baking since the disastrous close of her bakeshop. 

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Nathan, sensing Annie's dormant passion, surprises her by sneaking out to purchase essential ingredients to cake bake. Lining the counter with mixing bowls, spatulas, and ingredients, Nathan anticipates Annie's would-be-jubilant return to her favorite pastime.

Though his gesture fumbles in the film, Nathan beautifully illustrates how to support your partner's passion in real life.

4. Match your partner’s level of enthusiasm.

When your partner feels passionate about something cue in and respond with equal intensity. 

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Mirroring your partner’s strength of emotions is actually a form of validation.

If she exudes excitement for breaking her personal best in a 10 K road race (“I can’t believe I did it!”) ramp up your response accordingly (“What you’ve done is truly amazing, I am so proud!”).

5. Support your partner's platonic and familial relationships.

Science shows that strong social bonds are essential for emotional well-being.

So, encouraging your partner to sustain social connections with others (meeting a friend for coffee, participating in a book club) will enhance your partner's level of contentment.

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Your partner will appreciate and feel loved and supported by your efforts to help her maintain relationships connections outside of your marriage/partnership.

6. Remind yourself of what drew you together in the first place. 

When working with couples I love learning about what made the first sparks fly (the first thing I noticed was your amazing smile, etc.). 

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Revisiting those initial feelings often arouses those same old feelings with renewed appreciation and awareness.

7. Be Kind.

Venerated relationship researcher John Gottman, Ph.D, has found that stable couples display a ratio of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction or criticism.  Based on these findings, he is able to predict a couple’s success with over 90% accuracy.  

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Increasing compliments, encouragement, validation, praise and support while decreasing negative comments and interactions will greatly increase the likelihood of relationship success.

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Anything less than a 5:1 ratio may mean trouble on the horizon.

8. Spend time outdoors.

Since science is proving that time spent in nature can have a revitalizing effect, experiencing time outside together as a couple may bring an opportunity to bond in nature, decrease stress and help relish the moment.

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The increased blood flow to the prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for mood and cognition) may also help gain emotional insight and perspective over any problems. 

9. Speak your partner’s love language.

Learning your partner's love language may be the quickest way to deepen your emotional connection. 

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According to Gary Chapman, partners rarely speak the same language of love.  Yours might be Physical Touch (holding hands, backrubs, etc.) while your partner's is Acts of Service (helpful acts like taking out the garbage, setting the table, etc.). Identifying and speaking your partner's love language will help your partner feel more loved and appreciated. 

To learn how to identify love language go to http://www.5lovelanguages.com/profile/.

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10. Soften your approach. 

Beginning a confrontation or request harshly will put your partner on the defensive.

Use “I” statements and avoid blame. Start by politely stating the facts, using “I” statements, and avoiding blame and appraisals.

“You promised to empty the dishwasher two days ago and now I have no room to put these filthy dishes piled up in the sink!” becomes, “The dishwasher is still full from two days ago I feel frustrated because you promised to empty it.”

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Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Healing Childhood Emotional Neglect, Finding True Purpose,  Relationships, the Creative Personality, and Long-Term Recovery. For more information go to www.creativecorecounseling.com

ADDICTION IS TWICE AS LIKELY IN THE LGBT COMMUNITY

Lately, a few of the people I work with have asked about the prevalence of addiction in the LGBT community versus the general population.  To be able to answer that question astutely, I did a little digging. Here’s what I found:  

1)      The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published findings of a large sample study that revealed 36.3 percent of sexual minority males and 41.1 percent of sexual minority females used illicit drugs in the past year.  Corresponding percentages for sexual majority adults were 20.4 percent for males and 13.9 percent for females.

2)      The Center for American Progress echoes the same sentiment estimating that 20 to 30 percent of gay and transgender people abuse substances, compared to about 9 percent of the general population.  Again, roughly twice as likely.

3)      The Center for Substance Abuse Treatments reports twenty to twenty-five percent of gay men and lesbians are heavy alcohol users, compared to 3-10% of the sexual and gender majority. 

So, the published information I unearthed offered the same general conclusion: addiction and illicit drug use is approximately 2 times higher in the LGBT community than that of the general population.  A principal driver of this disproportionately high rate of substance abuse is likely the stress that comes from daily battles with discrimination and stigma as well as a lack of culturally competent health care services. Hopefully, whether you’re a practitioner, a client, a member of the LGBTQ community, or a member of the sexual majority (a person who does not identify as LGBT) you’ll bear these statistics and possible underlying causes in mind. 

Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Healing from Childhood Emotional Neglect, Reclaiming Lost Emotions, Finding True Purpose, Relational Living, Attachment, the Creative Personality, and Long-Term Recovery. For more information visit www.creativecorecounseling.com

Taking Breaks Increases Productivity

Researchers have recently studied work performance habits using a time-tracking device and have identified what’s called the “52/17 Rule.” The 52/17 Rule indicates that the most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes before getting back to it. Turns out, taking incremental breathers to sip hot cocoa in the break room actually increases our productivity. Our brains are simply not built to focus for extended stints at the computer, a desk, in a toll-booth collecting quarters, or anywhere else for that matter.

Bearing this new information in mind, I’ll be the first to admitꟷI’m addicted to working non-stop.  My mind lasers with vise-grip focus until I’m done with my work. I’ll be in my own cognitive bubble, unreachable, unflappable, and probably a little bit cranky until I press “save,” “publish,” or “send.”  The kitchen could be on fire and I wouldn’t even know it. Fishing for a reaction, I mentioned this addiction to a friend. Tilting her head she responded, “So what? Isn’t that a good thing? I mean you’re getting stuff done.  That’s cool.”

But it’s not cool.  It’s not a positive addiction (not that addictions are ever “positive”) like…I don’t know… eating kale and drinking Kombucha.  And I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only American pulled by our leftover Puritan beliefs that suggest (or at the very least imply) the virtuousness of remaining in constant work-motion. Adages like “Don’t rest on your laurels,” and “Don’t let the grass grow under your feet,” have been woven into our culture and, for me, fester deep beneath my breastplate.  I work and I work and I work and rarely pause for a downbeat. The more I learn about mindfulness, the more I discover how tightly coiled I am, and how destructive that can be. But I’m learning.

As I write this, I’m testing out this so-called “52/17 Rule.”  I’m writing in 52-minute spurts; then breaking to watch 17-minutes of a Sopranos episode.   After the designated 17 minutes have passed (I’m setting a timer on my Smart Phone), I’m able to jump back into my writing flow midstream and pick up exactly where I left things.  I was skeptical about the 52/17 Rule at first, but must admit to feeling calmer, less prickly and getting just as much accomplished as I did as while operating in Pit-Bull mode. 

I’ve read chapter after chapter on mindfulness, healing, creativity, work-life balance, and the most effective ways to hit the pay dirt of positive emotion.  The words seem to all point to the same cause and effect. Anne Lamott sums it up simply. She writes, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you.” Just another one of life’s dualitiesꟷbreaking through by powering down; moving forward by pausing; and hearing the music more clearly by taking a downbeat.

Turns out this seemingly quirky 52/17 Rule isn’t just another strategy for structuring work flow; but a much grander template for living life, working hard, and knowing how and when to gracefully tap the brakes, peer out the window slates, and sip the cocoa. 

Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Reclaiming Lost Emotions, Overcoming Childhood Neglect, Finding True Purpose, Expressive Arts Therapy, Trauma, Relationships, Attachment, the Creative Personality, and Long-Term Recovery. For more information go to www.creativecorecounseling.com

The Science of Creativity

Though the creative process can seem mystical and magical there are specific neurochemical, neuroelectrical and neuroanatomical that occur during creative thought. Technically, psychologists refer to the creative process as “flow.”  Flow is best defined as “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform at our best.” During flow, time distorts. It either dilates (slows down) or expands (speeds up). Both of these processes can be beneficial to the creative process.

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Outside distractions recede, enabling the creative thinker to become fully immersed in the process.  Performance and creativity are heightened during states of flow as a result of the profound changes in brain function and chemistry described below.

1.       While we are in flow our brain waves experience a significant change. Our brain downshifts from states of wakeful fast-moving beta waves (cycling at 14-40 cycles per second or Hz) to more relaxed, dreamy and intuitive alpha-waves (7.5 – 14 Hz) and meditative, cusp-of-sleep theta waves (4-7.5 Hz). A certain cognitive expansiveness exists when our brain unhooks itself from our more alert, logical, and anxious beta waves and lulls itself into more tranquil brain wave territory. 

2.       The area of our brain (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) where our “inner critic” lives is temporarily silenced during states of flow.   While our DLPFC is deactivated, we are better able to nimbly explore concepts and possibilities without being hindered by feelings of hesitation, self-consciousness, and self-doubt that are more likely present while our DLPFC is humming.

3.       During flow, the brain releases a pleasure-inducing neurochemical cocktail that includes large quantities of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin.  All of these chemicals produce a sense of well-being.  Norepinephrine also promotes laser focus and our ability to link ideas together in novel ways. Dopamine creates feelings of endorsement for the efforts we make, consequently inspiring us to remain goal-direction. Endorphins are morphine-like chemicals (sometimes referred to as the “superhero” hormone) that reduce stress and diminish our perception of pain, helping up to persist through difficult challenges. Rising anandamide levels increase lateral thinking. In other words, it expands the size of the database searched while the brain gropes for connections. Serotonin has a way of making us feel significant which keeps us inspired to follow through with the task at hand.

Studies also indicate that those who experience flow more often in their daily lives have higher levels of self-esteem, report greater life satisfaction, better coping strategies, more intrinsic motivation, and lower levels of anxiety. To those upshots I’d add a great sense of self-efficacy and pride after accomplishing a long and challenging creative endeavor. With these benefits, along with the intoxicating scientific brain shifts it’s easy to understand why some find the creative process so seductive.

Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Reclaiming Lost Emotions, Expressive Arts Therapy, Long Term Recovery, Relationships, Finding True Purpose, Attachment, and the Creative Personality. For more information visit www.creativecorecounseling.com

The Abundance of Minimalism

“Very little is needed to make life happy.”

- Marcus Aurelius

According to the American Psychological Association, the well-being of Americans’ has steadily declined since the 1950’s, despite our increase in consumption of material goods. David G. Myers, author of The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty, writes “Today’s young adults have grown up with more affluence, slightly less happiness, and much greater risk of depression.” So what is consumerism? Consumerism is a belief system that promotes the purchase of material goods as a direct path toward fulfillment. Consumerism suggests that, for any feeling of internal lack, there is an antidote with a price tag – a magic bullet that can be found at any mall kiosk or department store. 

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With online shopping at our fingertips, according to the ideals of consumerism, we are all just mouse-clicks away from feeling better. If consuming goods ferries us to the Promised Land, then a few bucks doesn’t sound like a high price.  But research shows (with the exception of a fleeting initial dose of “feel good” dopamine upon purchasing goods) that buying more actually brings us less life satisfaction.

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Psychologist Tim Kasser writes extensively about how America's culture of consumerism undermines our well-being. He warns against buying into insidious marketing messages that have been on the rise since the Golden Age of Advertising.  In The High Price of Materialism, a video by the Center for a New American Dream, Kasser explains how 150 billion advertising dollars are now spent annually to ensnare consumers into thinking that more is more.  But, research shows that those who value materialistic aspirations have less happiness and greater insecurity. 

He further argues that those who fall prey to consumerism are not only more devoid of positive emotion, but also more narcissistic and less inclined toward pro-social values like cooperation and helping others.  Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are all more common to those who value materialism. Turns out the high price tag on materialism is not just in dollars and cents but in positive emotion, connection to others, and self-esteem.

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It’s no wonder that spiritual leaders and philosophers have suggested that we have an inability to reach enlightenment unless our ties to the material world are cut. The prophet Mohammed said, “Riches are not from an abundance of worldly goods but from a contented mind.” Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu taught that one of “Life’s greatest treasures is simplicity.” Buddha, rock star of simplicity, said that “Joy comes not through possession or ownership but through a wise and loving heart.”

We all need stuff to sustain our lives, and a certain number of creature comforts are part and parcel of living in a modern world.  I believe that Kasser is talking about excess spending, too much stuff, and what’s wholly unnecessary. Alleviating our lives from material excess may be one of the greatest steps toward spiritual and creative abundance. Bearing this new information in mind, I’m not promising that the sum of my possessions will dwindle down to a hot plate and an air mattress, but I am committing to idea that less is more. If unhooking from the pull of consumerism creates a better me, a happier more fulfilled me – then you can count me in. 

Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Reclaiming Lost Emotions, Expressive Arts Therapy, Trauma, Relationships, Finding True Purpose, Attachment, and the Creative Personality. For more information visit www.creativecorecounseling.com

The All-or-Nothing Thinking Trap

“Things are not all black and white. There have to be compromises. The middle of the road is all of the unusable surface.  The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.”

- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Cognitive distortions are ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true.  Another way to describe it might be thoughts or beliefs that distort a person’s perception of reality.  Simply put, cognitive distortions are “twisted thinking.” Psychologists typically refer to somewhere between ten or twenty of these distortions.  This writing will focus on the distortion I see most often in my practice – the plague of “all-or-nothing thinking.”

All-or-nothing thinking is thinking in extreme terms of black or white. I’m either right or wrong, I’m either smart or stupid, I either believe in the existence of a Higher Power or I don’t, my life is either terrible or wonderful, I’m either a writer or a therapist.  It is a very polarized way of existing in a very gray world.  It curses us with the false perception that no other options exist.  All-or-nothing thinking traps us into feeling cornered with no exits; as a result, our amygdala sends out a signal to prepare for attack. At that time, our thoughtful, rational higher cortex (the part of the brain responsible for balanced decision making) is obstructed, and our highly reactive, cagey, jacked-up, primitive brain takes over.  Though we are not in actual physical danger, our brain lacks the capacity to distinguish between real or imagined threat.   It reacts accordingly by cuing up the “fight or flight” response. 

Fight-or-flight has historically been our greatest weapon in times of actual danger.  Keyed by our amygdala (there are actually two in our brain), this response has been by far our most powerful and oldest "wing man." During the Stone Age, this type of reactivity kept us alive by reacting quickly to frequent danger.  Temporary loss of peripheral vision, dilation of pupils, rerouting of blood to muscles, and an accelerated heart rate are all physical changes that helped us become better fighters at a moment’s notice. Around 2.5 million years ago it helped us fight or flee from predators like saber-toothed tigers and giant hyenas (yep, they had those back in the day). Today, we are no longer under constant threat so, living in amygdala-driven response is similar to pounding ("mashing" if you live in the South, like me) a square peg in a round hole.  

One of my favorite strategies for avoiding fight-or-flight arousal brought on by all-or-nothing thinking boils down to a slight diction twist. Since our brain reads limiting messages as threats, our primitive brain automatically interprets dichotomous words like “always and never” as warning signals. Such polarizing statements immediately send the message to our brain to become battle-ready.  A small word substitution can make a large difference. Substituting the word “and” for “always” or “never” can immediately unhook dichotomous thinking. For example, instead of saying “I always get nervous,” or “I’m never calm” simply say “I get nervous sometimes and other times I actually feel calm.”

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This slight semantic shift sends a signal to our brain that everything is okay.  Feeling safe again enables us to enjoy moments of life that are likely bypassed when our higher cortex is on lock-down.  Moments like the view of a rising and setting of the sun, the sound of a child’s laugh, and the sensation of a dimpled texture of an orange resting in our palm. Silencing the alarm bells of our activated brain allows us to revel in the savory moments of life that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Reclaiming Lost Emotions, Finding True Purpose, Expressive Arts Therapy, Trauma, Relationships, Attachment, Long-Term Recovery, and the Creative Personality. For more information go to www.creativecorecounseling.com

"Wired to Create" is Top Shelf Reading

  Wired to Create  by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire

Wired to Create by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire

Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist, and Carolyn Gregoire, a senior writer at the Huffington Post, have together created a gratifying overview of research on creativity in Wired to Create. Kaufman and Gregoire debunk the age old idea that creativity exists purely in the right brain.  They explain how, in fact, creativity requires the whole brain, decreed by three main “super factors” of plasticity, divergence, and convergence.  Plasticity, characterized by an openness to explore and engage with novel ideas, and divergence, reflective of a non-conformist mind-set, are processes that occur within the right brain hemisphere during the first broad stage of the creative process.  Convergence refers to the left brain process of testing the ideas to ensure that they are “road-worthy” and make sense in a practical context. The interaction of these processes is seemingly both linear and non-linear; mindless and mindful; disordered and ordered.  The creative person must be adept at paradoxes; adept at both digging deep and treading lightly.

The book references an historic study conducted by Frank X Barron in which high profile writers such as Truman Capote, William Carlos Williams, and Frank O’Connor, along with leading architects, scientists, entrepreneurs and other members of the 1960’s creative class were given a battery of tests.  After extensive evaluations and assessments, the study revealed the following common personality “strands” that seem to transcend all creative fields regardless of medium.

The Seven Strands of Creativity

• Openness to one’s inner life

• A preference for complexity and ambiguity

• An unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray

• The ability to extract order from chaos

• Independence

• Unconventionality

• A willingness to take risks

The results of Barron’s tests also revealed that creative people are more comfortable being more psychologically intimate with themselvesꟷ they dared to look deep inside, even at the dark and confusing parts of themselves.  As a psychotherapist and an artist, I love the rich bridge connecting the cultivation of inner awareness with the creative process.  To me, the creative “eureka” moment and the twinkling of therapeutic insight are more similar than dissimilar.  In fact, there is so much overlap that they may very well be the same.

Having completed this insightful book, Kaufman and Gregoire’s work does a masterful job of explaining the “murky and ambiguous” process of imagination as well as the inherent qualities possessed by creative individuals who are drawn to it.  This book is top shelf reading.

Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Reclaiming Lost Emotions, Expressive Arts Therapy, Trauma, Relationships, Finding True Purpose, Attachment, and the Creative Personality. For more information visit www.creativecorecounseling.com

 

Trauma and Creativity

Photo credit: Lorenzo Maimone

“You must face annihilation over and over again to find what is indestructible in you.”

~Pema Chodron

Over two decades ago Howard Gardner closely examined the lives of creative geniuses in his book Creating Minds. He identified a certain measure of “asynchrony” (unevenness or turbulence of life experience) as a common thread connecting all of his geniuses.  Some of the geniuses he highlighted included Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot and Sigmund Freud.  All suffered a measure of asynchrony at a young very age. Picasso lived through a devastating earthquake at the age of three and later lost a younger sister due to diphtheria. Eliot was a sickly and bedridden child afflicted with a congenital double hernia. Freud’s family was forced to live off scraps due to his father’s bankruptcy.  

Gardner wrote that all of his geniuses “suffered some kind of breakdown when they were still relatively young.” Composer Johann Sebastian Bach, another example of someone who experienced early trauma, lost his mother and father at a young age both within two months of each other. Perhaps overwhelming emotional experiences like Picasso’s, Eliot’s, Freud’s, and Bach’s provide the grit in the belly of the oyster that lacquers and glazes itself into a beautiful pearl. Perhaps, as the work of Miller and Johnson and as Gardner’s case studies suggest, creative potential is an incandescent by-product of suffering.

People who have experienced trauma are often unable to form a coherent narrative about their experiences.  To oversimplify, the memory-storing part of the brain shuts down during emotionally overwhelming events making their traumatic memories disjointed or all together suppressed. As a result, those who have experienced overwhelming suffering carry around a metaphorical bagful of question marks about their past, who they are and what their world represents. A trained trauma therapist can help clients cobbled together enough of the disjointed pieces of their past so that they can move forward in life without chronic feelings of unease.

Photo Credit. Alex Ronsdorf

Some research suggests that those who have experienced trauma possess a greater aptitude for certain types of creativity than those untouched by trauma.  A 2011 study by Robert Miller and David Johnson revealed that PTSD war veterans had a greater capacity for symbolic representation (an essential skill for artistic and scientific endeavors).  Psychologist Dr. Laura K Kerr referenced Miller and Johnson’s work in Does Trauma Increase Creativity?  (2013) and explained “symbolic representation may be particularly necessary for regaining the capacity to express emotions that are avoided.” Essentially, the traumatized brain is on the hunt to make sense of its experiences and, as a result, perhaps develops a new talent for bringing disparate elements together.  Combining unrelated material in a novel way is a core creative skill.  One of the best ways to illustrate the combining of unlike elements is with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Gutenberg, a stonecutter and goldsmith by trade, adapted screw elements found in a wine press to develop an assembly-line process of printing that was much more efficient. He merged disparate elements of wine making and typesetting to create the printing press. As a result, for the first time in history, books could be mass produced.  

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Similar to the creative process, trauma sufferers grapple to make sense of the disparate elements in their own lives.  One of the goals of healing is to combine memory fragments, emotional wounds, and experiences then step back from the impressionist painting of suffering in order to gain a more panoramic view that “makes sense” to the sufferer. For trauma sufferers, making sense of the trauma may be more similar to the creative process than we think.

A word of caution - rationalizing trauma by “looking at the brighter side” salts the wound. Though perspective born from adversity can be a positive outcome there is never a “good reason” for suffering or victimhood.  Discussing the link between trauma and creativity is meant to help the survivor recognize that they may be, unbeknownst to them, in possession of certain talents that had been quietly cultivated as a result of some of their life’s most challenging moments.

Mary Delaney is a licensed psychotherapist.  Her areas of interest include Reclaiming Lost Emotions, Finding True Purpose, Expressive Arts Therapy, Trauma, Relationships, Attachment, the Creative Personality, and Long-Term Recovery. For more information go to www.creativecorecounseling.com