How to have a useful argument



Often when we are angry enough to argue with someone we are more interested in letting them know how we feel than in focusing on a particular outcome, and that’s often how fights play out (you’re an asshole! No, YOU’RE an asshole!). It ends up being more of a monkey-brain thing than a logical, thought-out process. It is very rare that if you shout at someone (YOU’RE an asshole!) that they will agree with you (I know, you’re right, I’m sorry!)

Firstly, we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their actions. I didn’t MEAN to be an asshole, therefore I’m not one. This isn’t always rational: if I step on your foot by mistake, it still hurts you, regardless of whether I meant to or not.

Secondly, it’s not helpful to relate BEHAVIOUR (something you did) back to IDENTITY (who you ARE), and as soon as you’re calling someone a name, you are attacking their IDENTITY. They will almost always defend themselves (fight) or withdraw (flight).

Thirdly, once someone is in fight-or-flight mode, their body isn’t set up for learning: their neurology sends blood to their extremities (which is why toddlers clench their fists and stamp their feet when they are angry) rather than to their brains, effectively stopping them from seeing your point.

There’s another way to argue in a relationship, although it feels counterintuitive when you’re cross. Here are some tips:

  1. Disengage when you’re ready to shout. If you’re shouting, you are in fight mode. The other person will hear your tone of voice rather than your words. Rather take a time out and re-engage when you feel calmer. This is not the same as avoiding the conversation: it isn’t swept under the rug. Tell the other person that you need time to process, and commit to returning to the conversation when you are both calm. It isn’t sulking.
  2. You also don’t need to stand still and be shouted at. Withdraw from a situation like that calmly and commit to returning to it when you are both feeling more rational. Ideally negotiate this course of action before hand, when you are both in a good space. In couple therapy I often spend time teaching couples to lay ‘ground rules’ for arguing, including a ‘time out’ clause. If you can’t manage this on your own, and your fights are regular and vicious, consider speaking to a therapist.
  3. Be clear on what you want the OUTCOME to be. If you are looking for change through the conversation, be clear on that change, and focus on what you want INSTEAD of the past behaviour, not on the past behaviour itself. For example, instead of saying “You never help around the house! I always have to do everything myself!” decide what you want to ask for: “I would really like more help around the house. Do you think you could help me with the dishes this week?” The second option is not attacking and therefore does not invite defence. It’s more likely to open a discussion rather than being an invitation to a fight.
  4. Avoid generalizing. Statements involving ALWAYS and NEVER are inevitably unhelpful. I can’t say “You NEVER help me” because you will be pulled to point out ways in which you DO help, and we will simply get into a back-and-forth argument where neither one of us will win. Rather, if you have a grievance, keep it in the moment: I don’t like THIS THING that you did and I would rather that you do THAT THING going forward. Listing years worth of shortcomings can only produce years worth of reasons/excuses. There is no time machine: we can’t go back and fix past mistakes. We can only move forward.
  5. Focus on the SOLUTION not the problem. Not “You never spend time with me!” which is likely to create guilt and defensiveness. Rather “I miss you. Let’s meet for coffee next week.” Keep the solutions clear and tangible, and future focused.
  6. If you can’t think of the solution immediately, open it for discussion. For example if your child isn’t doing their homework, ask them what would help them to focus more, and be open to experimenting. Also with kids it’s useful to negotiate consequences and agree to them when you are NOT fighting. Calmly sit down for a family meeting and discuss options. Then when the need for a consequence arises, offer one warning and then implement the agreed-on consequence. Because it’s been decided before, you’re less likely to over-punish out of anger and they are (slightly) less likely to resist because they’ve already agreed.
  7. Name-calling is NOT helpful, EVER. There is a vast difference between saying “my husband did a shitty thing” (implying he could choose not to do that in future) and saying “my husband IS a shit” (which relates to who he IS, which he can’t change).
  8. Don’t be discouraged by backsliding. Even if you employ all these strategies you may still have the occasional ugly fight, especially initially as you struggle to establish new habits. It’s ok to disengage, take a breather, and then try again. If you’re finding the habitual responses too strong to change, consider some therapy.

Author: Joce©Psych in a Box

FAMILY FEUDS: How People behave doesn’t always tell us how they feel!

We have all been subject to the behaviour of people we love or respect that completely throws us.  How can they be so rude? So uncaring? How could they be so abusive? So angry? So harsh? How could they be so dismissive? so cold etc….. We could come to the conclusion that… they don’t care, they are heartless, they just use people, they don’t ascribe value to anyone but themselves.  We are basically trying to make sense of their behaviour and in doing so ascribe a ‘type’ to them and place them in a box.

To feel safer and to protect ourselves we can see the person as ‘bad’.  In psychology we sometimes call that splitting or demonising vs idolising.  When we come across behaviour directed at us that we don’t like, we may split it off.  The attacking person is then ‘all bad’ and we can’t see the other parts of them.  What if we had the capacity to hold ambivalent emotions? That is, the persons’ behaviour is bad but they are also good.

Can we determine from their actions, their behaviour, what they actually feel?  Human beings are complex creatures, I know I am one of them 🙂  External behaviour is only a small part of the whole story, it is often only a description of a defense mechanism, a coping strategy, a lack of capacity to hold or tolerate an emotion or an expression of vulnerability of a perceived threat.

When we are on the receiving end of dismissive, rejecting, humiliating, belittling  or aggressive  behaviour it is always difficult.  It surprises us, it confuses us and ultimately it hurts us.  The interesting thing is that we often respond by displaying behaviours linked to our internal emotions, just like they did to us (we mirror the same process that the ‘attacker’ used).  We withdraw, or show anger or are dismissive…

So what is the expression of anger about?

  • Anger could be feelings of vulnerability, feeling not valued, feeling used,
  • Anger could be feelings of sadness, feeling hurt, feeling rejected
  • Anger could be about fear of feeling dependent or attached
  • Anger could be an expression of a lack of capability to bear certain emotions
  • Anger could be a myriad and a combination of a number of feelings

Because we often respond to the behaviour, we are responding to an expression of something very different to the root cause.  This is how misinterpretations start as we have only considered the behaviour… and this is also how misinterpretations grow and grow and grow and grow.  We become hypervigilant and add more and more ‘facts’ to this story of who this person is.  The perpetrator.  This is how family feuds start and get entrenched in the history of the family.  The children of the children all get subject to a misunderstood history that now becomes the ‘TRUTH’ and the’FACTS’

It is a fact that not everyone feels safe enough to self-reflect, some people have an obsessional defense, a need to self-protect at all costs.   This behaviour may have been created at a young age and they may not have insight.   Without the capacity to self reflect it is hard to be authentic and have a real conversation. We need to know what is acceptable behavior and what is not acceptable.  But… we also need to develop the art of real communication, cutting through the messy emotions, not holding onto the perceived injustice as a precious toxic object and – we need to find a spirit of generosity – firstly for ourselves and then for the other.

We don’t need to fix the other, in fact we always need healthy boundaries, but we also need to go inside ourselves and look at our relationship to the other.  After all we have to live with ourselves for ever.  Both parties of the dispute should go inside themselves to find a place of understanding.  We need to rather focus on understanding our emotion behind our behaviour and then possibly we can gain insight into their emotion behind their behaviour.   Then and only then do we stand a much better chance of the issue being resolved through true communication.

Some things we can do:

  1. Awareness: We need to decide whether we want to hold onto the injustice or the resentment. Whether we want to continue to hold anger, blame and judgement of the other.
  2. Communication: This does not mean discussing the source of the feud, it means reconnecting. The feud can only be discussed once there is a healing, once there is a relationship, a connection.
  3. Boundaries: Part of the communication is to set boundaries in the relationship and the first boundary necessary is that the feud does not get discussed for at least 3 months!  There will be space to express your pain only once there is a reconnection.
  4. Spirit of Generosity to the other: You need to decide to do for yourself, even if the family member is not going to reciprocate your sentiment.
  5. Accept people for who they are, we are all flawed human beings and no one gets it all right. See the family members as people that come with their lack of capabilities
  6. Treat the other with respect and courtesy – even if they don’t show you the same respect.  Respecting someone does not mean roll over and become a doormat, on the contrary you need to maintain self respect too, however, you  don’t have to mirror their behaviour and become reactive or discharge. Be true to yourself, speak from your heart.

For the non-feuding family on the sidelines:

  • This will impact you so… Take care!!! The unease and shrapnel damage to all the family members is palpable.  Feuds have a far-reaching effect on the whole the family which means as the feud plays out the entire family is no longer at ease,
  • Typical behaviour includes one party staying away from family functions when the other party is there, missing birthdays, Christmas, even weddings and funerals.  It is sad to experience your once ‘together’ family as ‘split’
  • Allegiance is not required – you are allowed to love both sides and it is natural to feel uncomfortable in your relationship with them because this hurts you and you too are grieving – the current death of a relationship.
  • You may feel – this has gone too far, it’s just silly, why can’t they just sort it out, both parties are stubborn, they are acting like each other – however this is something they have to address,
  • Be authentic and honest and let each side know how this impacts you but ultimately the reconciliation and rebuilding is their task.

Author: Debra©2018Psych in a Box

MOURNING: When a Client Dies

A patient of mine passed away this week, and it left me with a flurry of thoughts and feelings. When a client dies, after they have spent years and countless hours in therapy sharing their innermost fears, joys, dreams, heartache and love, where does the mourning go?

Therapy is a special kind of relationship. It only works if there is a true meeting of emotions with genuine care. As therapists we spend each hour of therapy weaving through the threads of a persons life, trying to connect the strands to make the full tapestry, and this is inevitably done from a place of compassion, care and even love.

In the world outside therapy there are many different rituals for mourning that are intended to provide comfort for family and friends. They involve shared stories with family and friends but also a space to share the loss and pain. They may make us feel a little more connected to the person who is no longer there as we try to comprehend the permanent intangibleness of ‘death.’ We see other people suffering with the same excruciating grief that we feel and we know we are not alone. Talking about grief does not make it go away, but it does allow us to have a space within which to try to articulate all the thoughts and feelings swirling around in our heads and in our guts. It creates a place to try to make sense of this utterly devastating, breathless pain.

As a therapist you are not privy to this world. Yours instead is a very private, isolating pain that cannot be shared with anyone. It is a form of disenfranchised mourning, as it cannot be acknowledged by society or those around you. The relationship is not  a regular, normal one and it is also a private relationship that needs to be honoured and respected with all the ethical boundaries, just as you would have whilst your lost patient was alive. Today I sat quietly in my therapy chair to reminisce, gathering my thoughts and memories of what happened in the therapeutic space. I lit a candle and said a few words, out aloud, and then said goodbye, for now.  Next week I will speak to my supervisor or a colleague so that someone can witness and be there with me for a moment, while I sit with the grief and pain of loss.

Dearest D,  You were such a vibrant, dramatic, courageous person who worked remarkably hard during our 6 years of therapy.   While we untangled the threads of your life,  you helped me grow as a therapist and as a person. Thank you for your curious sprit, your ability to create and imagine, you kindness and the generosity of your soul.  Thank you for inviting me into your most intimate sanctum. It was a privilege and a blessing to walk the journey with you. You will be remembered and you will be missed. ♡

Author: Debra©Psych in a Box

ADDICTION: 6 thoughts on how to manage when you love an addict in active addiction


Addiction, insidious bastard that it is, does not only affect addicts. It can be like a nuclear bomb in a family, flinging destruction in all directions. Loving an addict is very hard work sometimes. Addicts are so much more than their addictions, but it can be hard to see the person you love behind the smokescreen of ridiculous behaviours and addict thinking when they are in active addiction.

The concept of a co-dependent relationship refers to one where two peoples’ lives are so entwined as to be enmeshed. Often it’s based on a rescuer/victim dichotomy, where one parter must constantly prop up the other. Co-dependent people struggle to imagine life without each other and may feel each others’ feelings as if they were their own. If you’re in a relationship with an addict it’s a good idea to check wether your relationship has healthy boundaries in it, or whether you feel that your own sense of self is being eroded.

The temptation to rescue the addict from the consequences of their addiction is strong. However, if you never allow that person to experience negativity, you can’t expect them to stop. Neurologically every cell in their body is telling them that using is helping them; unless there is some powerful information at odds with that, they will never see a need to stop. Sometimes, they need to fall hard before they can bounce back up. But drawing boundaries can be incredibly difficult. Here are some tips to help you with this:

  1. Have your own life.  Don’t hang around waiting for your husband to get back from the pub before you can go to gym/see friends/do the shopping. You may well wait forever. Go and do things that YOU enjoy. Constantly waiting for someone breeds nothing but resentment. Also, you are very easy to take for granted, sitting there on the couch in wounded optimism. Once you start taking your own life seriously and giving yourself permission to enjoy it, they may begin to value you more, too.
  2. Take care of your own mood.  Look at yourself: could you benefit from some support in the form of therapy, perhaps? Are you eating well, exercising, sleeping enough? Are you clear on your own boundaries? If you value yourself, take care of yourself. If you don’t value yourself, you can’t expect others to.
  3. Never argue with someone who is intoxicated. It’s pointless. You’re not having a conversation with them; you’re talking to the substance and there is no point at all in doing that. Wait until they are sober. And if the same situation has led to the same fight repeatedly, get some outside help.
  4. You can’t control someone else’s behaviour, but you don’t have to expose yourself to it. If you’re in a horrible situation where your partner is overindulging, let them know you’re going and leave. You have every right to protect yourself.
  5. Don’t feel bad for things other people do. If your wife has drunk herself into a stupor at a friend’s home, just know that it’s not your fault. You are not required to feel the embarrassment for her, or to make excuses for her.
  6. Know that substance use is often a response to emotional struggles, but don’t take ownership of your partner’s wellbeing. You can support them, but you cannot undertake the journey for them. remember that although they are ill, you are not responsible for their health. you can point out what you see, preferably in a kind and sober context, but whether they will defend against your input or whether they will hear it is beyond your control.

Author: Joce©Psych in a Box

ADDICTION: an insidious, sneaky bastard

One of the things I work with regularly is addiction. Addiction can come in a range of shapes and sizes but there are some principles that remain the same, regardless of the poison in question.

We all have the tendency to form habits, but if there is a genetic predisposition, emotional trauma or mental health issues then we can be susceptible to developing an addiction.  We all struggle at times and we all try to silence painful emotions at one time or another but when we use substances to escape and anaesthetise our emotions, we succeed in feeling nothing, we lose the only way we can know what is hurting us and to understand why and without that our problems that can become overwhelming.

The human brain is the most fascinating and complicated organ: this tiny convoluted mass of grey is at the core of our existence.  We use it to breathe, to create, to work, to love, in fact in every human activity.  This grey matter is the control room for every basic body function and helps us to understand our experiences and make choices all day long. A healthy brain is multifaceted but works as a finely tuned instrument to shape our thoughts our emotions and our choices in a healthy way.   When we put alcohol and drugs into our brains compulsively over time this changes the chemistry of our brain: it changes the way our brain functions.  This is done by activating the brains’ reward system by releasing tons of dopamine.  Dopamine makes us feel pleasure and overstimulating this neurotransmitter with alcohol or drugs creates a chemical euphoria which reinforces the behaviour of drug or alcohol use and then we learn to do it again and again…. resulting in an addiction.

You can think of addiction as a little devil on your shoulder (this is a METAPHOR – you’re not actually engaging with anything demonic here). This little bugger grows or shrinks depending on how much you feed him. If you let him, he will become a slavering demon that will eat your life. But he generally starts small. The more he eats, the hungrier he gets. And he never, ever goes away.

Let me say that again: he doesn’t go away completely EVER. Rehab can’t kill him. But it can shrink him, and when he’s smaller he’s easier to manage. Managing addiction means having a tiny part of you that insists that if you use X, you will feel good, and having to recognise that as the little bastard, and say NO to him again and again and again. Which can be utterly exhausting, and incredibly difficult, especially when you are in a bad space. That’s why healthy self-care habits are absolutely vital, and why best practice for treatment of addiction includes ongoing support (groups, therapy, psychiatric intervention) and mood management: addiction almost always overlies other mood issues.

The little monster gets very scared when you threaten to starve him. When an addict contemplates giving up his poison, he feels terrified, and his immediate wish is to use as much poison as possible in response to this anxiety.

The addiction monster is an insidious, sneaky bastard. He will lie to you again and again: just this once; you’ve had such a hard day; no one will know; you can stop again tomorrow; everyone else is doing it; you’ve been clean for so long you deserve some fun. It can be very hard to recognise his voice, and to remember that he is striving to be fed, not to help you. He will also happily change poisons: if you give up drugs, for example, it’s very easy to start drinking alcohol. And the process begins again.

The thing is, dealing with this little bastard means fighting with your own brain chemistry. If you have become addicted, your brain has learned to associate dopamine (a reward neurotransmitter) with your substance. It feels good and the devil on your shoulder wants more. And over time there’s a domino effect: the more you make your brain create extra dopamine by using, the more it tries to save itself by removing dopamine receptors, so the more poison you have to use to feel good. That’s called building a tolerance. Continue down that road and eventually you are using just to feel normal, not to feel good any more, because when you don’t use your chemistry is out of whack and you withdraw.

That’s another reason why ongoing support is important: when you stop using your poison it takes your brain a while to catch up and to start using dopamine normally again. In that time it can be very difficult to manage your mood as you’re likely to be low and sluggish. The little bastard will tell you that you can’t have fun without the poison. I always call bullshit on that one: when you were a child you knew how to have fun with mud and sticks. You didn’t need any substance at all. Your brain will remember how.

Withdrawal can also be dangerous. Some drugs cause terrible pain and anxiety, even hallucinations. Alcohol is in fact one of the most dangerous substances to withdraw from: if you are dependent on alcohol you should withdraw with medical assistance or you may risk seizures as your brain desperately tries to regulate itself. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. If you drink enough for long enough, you will become depressed. You can think of it like a hand pressing downwards on your brain, squashing the energy levels downwards. Your brain needs to push upwards hard to compensate and try to keep the energy where it needs to be. If you suddenly stop pushing down, there will be too much energy shooting upwards – and that’s the risk of seizures.

Having said all that, addiction is by no means unmanageable. The risk in seeing addiction as an illness is that it almost gives permission to use: the demon tells you you can’t help it because you’re sick. I think of it like diabetes: it’s an illness that will never go away, but must be managed responsibly. If you are diabetic, you shouldn’t live on chocolate cake because your body doesn’t deal well with that. If you are an addict you need to manage your lifestyle choices as carefully as possible to avoid relapse, because your brain doesn’t deal well with certain chemicals. You need to make success as easy as possible, and relapse as hard as possible.

Always allow yourself the help you need. Often family members and friends aren’t enough. Look for professionals. Also, addiction can ruin relationships, so relationship recovery and good healthy boundary work is an important part of your own wellbeing.

The little monster can kill trust, for example. If you’ve promised to stop but haven’t been able to (also a sure sign of addiction) family and friends may no longer want to help you. You can’t expect anyone else to take this journey: it’s all yours. You need to take ownership of your life. Trust can be incredibly difficult to grow back. For a person whose partner drinks and lies about it, for example, the impact is as if they are having an affair with alcohol. It is powerful and hugely destructive.

If the devil on your shoulder is driving your life, get some help. The sooner the better. Not because you are a terrible human being (although you may feel that way, you’re not – you’re just someone wrestling with an awful demon, who has made some shitty choices, which can change going forward), but because there’s a lot of good out there for you if you’re willing to reach for it. You need to find your way back to you!

Author: Joce©Psych in a Box

DEPRESSION is a bitch

Depression plays havoc with your mind. It distorts your reality and if that isn’t enough it can evoke huge feelings of shame and even self-disgust.  The internal self-critic becomes humongous and powerful making you feel less in control and more powerless.

1. Depression’s Bullshit messages:

Your mind somehow screams at you: “You are not meant to be feeling like this!” “You’re alone, you are broken, damaged!” and as you start grieving, it also tells you “you’re worthless, so who would want to be with you?” It tells you “this ain’t gonna change – this is going to be like this FOREVER” and shit, forever is a long time for anyone to endure. But this is just one part of the distortion of depression. There are so many others, like the inability to see that this too shall pass, or the inability to know that these emotions can be met, can be worked with and then will dissipate.

2. The Shame of depression

Depression tells you “you’re weak, hide this part of you, don’t ask for help!” and because this message is ‘out there’ society reinforces it with responses like:

  • just be positive
  • get a grip! everyone has stuff they’re struggling with, find your resilience!
  • you need to just get over it

3. There are people with ‘real big problems’

I always remember a saying that I learnt as a little girl and I thought I loved it – until now:

“I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man that had no feet”

The issue with this saying is that it negates what we are going through. It says “stop feeling sorry for yourself – you don’t have real problems.” That attitude encourages anaesthetisation of emotions. Problems aren’t scaled according to size but rather according to intensity. If they feel intense then they are!!! We need to meet that feeling with compassion, find out what it’s about, and grieve the loss; and there is always loss. With time we learn to bear emotions, to sit in the space of pain, to listen to it and meet it so that it can be allowed form an image and then dissipate and not overwhelm us.

4. Suicidal ideation isn’t always about dying.

It’s so hard to speak about suicidal thoughts. They’re the ones that mean “I don’t want to feel this pain anymore, it feels like this will never end; I can’t find my way out of this place, and I wish I could disappear, or that the world would swallow me up. I wish I could – not feel.” We are concerned about telling others because Suicidal thoughts are like leprosy. We feel we are defective humans and others feel we are crazy. We are scared of instilling fear, panic, rejection and even anger in the people we tell. But…. thoughts of suicide don’t always mean we want to die. They can also mean we need to be listened to. We don’t need a quick fix. Of course sleep, exercise, meditation, eating well etc can help…. but if we are in PAIN the pain (just like a broken wing) needs to be attended to with gentle acceptance and kindness.

5. Depression has many forms

Sometimes depression looks calm. Sometimes you glue a smile on your face or paste on a little laugh (for the outside world). At times it could look like someone hidden in the closet in the dark. It can be you working extremely hard, or the playing computer games endlessly in an attempt to feel better.  It can come when you are successful or when you have just failed at something.  It can emerge when you are just about to embark on an exciting phase of your life, starting university/college, getting married or becoming a parent (in fact grief often raises its head at times of change, because with change comes loss of the familiar) – depression doesn’t discriminate.

Why now? why me? this is unfair….  it’s not helpful to focus on such questions.  The focus needs to be what am I feeling? What is this telling me about the mountain I need to climb? Who can support me while I take each little step? How can I support myself better whist I am feeling this pain?

Remember there are two opposing forces that we as human beings have:

The thrust to discharge (where we can get angry, frustrated, upset with those around us and this can make us feel overwhelmed and even make us feel like we’re going mad).  In this place we don’t actually feel the pain: we discharge it by railing against the object we have identified as the source of the feeling, and feel the turmoil instead.  Our focus of attention here is the frustrating object (our boss, our parents, our partner, our lecturers, our friends).

The thrust to represent (here we are trying to attend to something within us that needs to be embraced and looked after, to be understood, to be met with compassion and to be remodelled into the unity called ‘self’).  We need to create an image, a picture of the experience in order to have a conversation with our own mind. Here we can embrace  the pain, the sensations, and explore what is happening inside us and start containing it with compassion (and help).  The focus is now on our relationship to the object. We have taken that which was outside of the mind, outside of us and taken possession: it is now part of the mind where you have the power to digest experiences while building courage with kindness, trust and believe in yourself.

You can understand these two processes as follows: imagine that someone punches you in the face and walks away. You can rail against your attacker, perhaps hurt them back, focus on what a terrible person they are and so forth (“discharging”). But the pain remains, and it is in YOU, not in the other person. If you can see yourself as being hurt and needing assistance, you can attend to the pain ITSELF. The hurt requires attention and soothing, regardless of how you engage with the other person.

Depression is an individual and a societal problem that should not be dealt with alone.  We all need support to find our way when lost.  We need to know that it is okay to feel emotions.  We need to get rid of should, could, would – I should feel happy, if only this happens then I would be happy…. Its okay to feel sad.  Just because somethings is UNCOMFORTABLE doesn’t make it wrong. It is as it is: right now you are feeling pain, and making it WRONG doesn’t make it hurt less. It just is what it is and if we can rather meet ourselves where we find ourselves then we have a greater chance of creating a mind that can cope with the disasters that occur in our lives.

Author: Debra©Psych in a Box

PARENTING: 4 things to do to with a tantrum

We’ve all been there: it’s not easy dealing with a wailing kid of any age when we are so overwhelmed and so frustrated that we feel ready to start wailing ourselves. Whining kids also trigger the same bits of the brain that the sound of crying babies does – we are immediately desperate to make it stop. We begin operating from hindbrain fight-or-flight principles instead of thinking clearly.

A wailing kid isn’t necessarily “being naughty”. They’re often simply sitting with big feelings that they are overwhelmed by. Adults can easily be overwhelmed by similar feelings, like jealousy or frustration: I also feel upset when my heart’s desires are thwarted, or angry when someone takes my things, or hurt when I feel like people are being unkind to me: it’s just that I’ve got the forebrain bits in place to deal with it differently. What we need to do as parents is fulfil that forebrain function for our children: we need to help them process. And that can be very hard. Joining the kid in a screaming fight because we are ourselves overwhelmed is only likely to escalate the situation. We need to keep adult as much as possible, although we don’t always get that right – we are, after all, human! And sometimes Mommy needs a time out.

It’s also important to forestall tantrums where necessary. tired and hungry kids are already halfway to a meltdown. Sometimes it’s about attention: having fifteen to twenty minutes of one on one time every day is a quick and easy way to ensure that your child feels like they have access to good times with you, and may head off much of the need for attention seeking. Looking after yourself is also important for your kids as it means you will be better able to be present and relaxed with them.

But regardless of our best intentions, the occasional meltdown in unavoidable. Here are some ways to turn a tantrum around:

  1. Name the feeling. if your child has a label for her feelings you’re helping her create the necessary self insight that will lead her to manage her feelings better later. When she’s little she’s aware only of overwhelming emotion. Giving it a name will help her express it without having to act it out later on. So step one is simply to reflect her feeling back to her: I can see you’re feeling very angry/frustrated/sad right now.
  2. Validate the feeling. There’s always a reason why she feels as she does. You don’t have to agree with her current expression of her feeling, but as you reflect back to her the why of her current emotion you are helping her have insight into herself and modelling empathy. This helps her understand herself and also gives her an example of how to empathise as you empathise with her. You can say things like “it’s very frustrating to not get what you want”, “I know your brother took your toy and you didn’t want him to”, “I can see you really wanted to have ice cream for dinner”. Don’t disagree with the feeling (everyone feels frustrated when they don’t get what they want) but also don’t give in either. Being kind does NOT mean never setting boundaries. Gently and as calmly as possible sit with the feeling itself.
  3. Contain or coach. If your child is fully in tantrum mode you can simply sit with them, or tell them that you are there for them and wait till they calm down. The first two steps often take some of the impetus out of the process. Containing doesn’t mean allowing any kind of behaviour, though. It’s not OK to hurt people or break things when you’re angry. That’s where the coaching comes in, and with little kids it’s often helpful to redirect the behaviour: it’s not OK to kick or hit the dog, but doing something active will definitely draw some of the energy off. Kicking a ball, running, doing star jumps and clapping really hard all draw off some of the physiological effects of what is essentially a fight-or-flight situation. And bodies are build to move when in fight or flight. Reasoning with them may not be possible though: a brain in fight or flight mode will not easily learn.
  4. Debrief. talk about what happened, only once they have calmed down.  Talk about what feeling they had and why it all happened. for example Mommy can’t let you have ice cream for dinner, but you can have some for dessert or tomorrow after school  etc. Boundaries are there for a reason and the PARENT is in control of these. Being negotiable and reasonable is something that can happen when you are both calm, but the final decision rests with YOU. Being kind does not mean not being firm. The experience of being disappointed or frustrated is also an important one at this age. This is how they learn how to deal with feelings that will doubtless occur again and again in their lives. Being supportive with the feelings but firm and consistent with your boundaries creates a kind-but-firm inner parent for them which will ultimately make them feel more secure and stand them in good stead all through their lives.

Author: Joce©Psych in a Box

The TAKE-CARE tracker

So often we want to create new good habits but beware… this could just be an indirect way of saying “I’m not good enough… I need to change ‘me’ to be valuable.”  If this is the motivation for new habits then they will never last.  We can’t build someone up by breaking them down, devaluing or even worse, humiliating them. All you will achieve is a greater need to escape the cycle of self-loathing whole or parts of yourself. New Years resolutions are often about transformation and sometimes about achieving the ideal, the unrealistic, the perfect and in many ways a lack of acceptance and rejection of SELF.

NEW HABITS should make us feel More SPECIAL, More WHOLESOME and MORE valued!

A Common feature in this treadmill-life is that we forget about our needs. We are far too busy to give ourselves a break, to smell the roses, to have a cup of coffee without looking at our phone, even too busy to look after our medical needs like going to the dentist or what about that little mole that worries us every now and then. Ok: this needs to change!!! We need habits that are Nourishing and Kind to your soul.

Lets place ourselves on the weekly ‘take care tracker’

  1. START SLOWLY: allow yourself to slowly build up to it. So if you need to see the doctor and all you do is book an appointment for the end of the month – that’s a big win! If you want to have a healthy diet going from ‘eat everything’ to cutting out TONS is really tough. All or nothing seems so punitive. Maybe initially you could just introduce one healthy juice into your life instead of taking anything out.
  2. MAKE SPACE FOR YOU IN YOUR LIFE: Build your nourishing habit around your existing lifestyle.  Such as, “as soon as I place my children’s breakfast on the table  I will make myself a green juice full of all-the-good-stuff” Or: Go to the cafe after work on Monday for a break before going home.
  3. BE PREPARED FOR YOU: I watch parents organise their children’s extra-mural/ co-curricular activities within an inch of precision.  They have the basketball outfit in the car, the snack, the juice, the candies (for extra energy), the hairband, the tennis runners, the racket etc.  So if you can make it easy for children to flow into their activities seamlessly, why not do the same for you.  So make a healthy lunch/snack for yourself, put your swimming bag in the car, load your audiobook, buy yourself an external speaker so you can listen to music from your phone, place your walking shoes with your water bottle in your trunk. Basically make it easy for you to take care of your needs.
  4. KINDNESS IN ACTION: If we want to take care of ourselves, we need to be mindful of what we would like to do and what is actually taking place every week.  It is not easy to place yourself on the agenda especially if you are used to putting yourself on the back burner to get to later.  Kindness in action means that when we tally the weekly totals (see spreadsheet) we don’t berate ourselves for not having completed the task (eg: Swim 3x a week) instead we look at why it was hard to commit to ourselves, we commend ourselves for the movement forward (Swam 1x this week – YAY) and we try to place ourselves in our lives a little more the next week.
  5. ADJUST THE GOALS IN THE TAKE CARE TRACKER:  Each week we will get to know our selves a little better which means we will get to know our needs a little better and also our ability to achieve our ‘self-care’ goals. This will help to tweak them so that they are aligned with what is healthy, wholesome and helpful in our lives.

The Take-care Tracker can help you to explore and find 10 new habits that would be nourishing for you,  to set your intention of how many times a week you think you could do it, to see at a glance what is happening from day to day and to reflect at the end of the week about how much space you were able to make in the week for you.  Most importantly it’s way to learn how to place yourself in your life by being mindful and being present!

Author: Debra©Psych in a Box

SELF CARE: How to say No (kind of)

It’s surprising how difficult it can be, to utter the word”no”.  Such a little syllable can cause so much inner turmoil! I speak again and again in therapy about setting boundaries, and yet even I struggle sometimes to refuse people things. But it’s so important.

The purpose of having good boundaries is to protect your own wellbeing. And you can’t protect yourself if you are desperately trying to keep everyone happy. It’s a fool’s game, because it’s not possible to create happiness in others, and yet we often feel pressured to do exactly that. The inability to say no often represents a fear of disappointing the other, and perhaps a fear of being rejected and abandoned as a result. We are all taught that it is better to give than to receive, and yet if we give away our everything, without replenishing our stores, there comes a point where we have nothing left to give. It’s always a useful journey to explore why it’s so difficult to say no, and why we fear letting people down so much that we will often sacrifice our own needs for theirs.

In the mean time, here are two useful tricks to help you begin to put some boundaries in place:

Step 1: Say “I’ll get back to you”. If your knee-jerk response to every request is “yes”, then you will do yourself a favour by buying a little time. Even if you have to make up an excuse, remove yourself from the situation and give yourself time to think. Ask yourself the question: can I do this comfortably? Or is it going to intrude on other important things? If it’s at work, ask yourself if it’s about your own KPAs or whether you will be spending excessive time helping someone else meet theirs. Work out how important the task is to YOU: is this a reciprocal thing, or do you feel taken advantage of? Would this person drop everything for YOU if the situation were reversed? Give yourself enough time to process before responding. Check your schedule; do you have the time available to complete the favour?

Step 2: If you agree to take on the task, do it on YOUR terms. Say things like “I can’t help today, but I’m available next week”. This way, you feel like you’ve got some control over your time and you’re avoiding the anxiety of saying “no” straight out. You’re offering a compromise. And you’re avoiding the trap of overpromising and under delivering, especially when it comes to work. I’ve seen the hardest workers set themselves up for failure by simply taking on too much.

Practice makes perfect when it comes to protecting your own needs. At first, it feels like a terrible risk to refuse people what they want. Over time it becomes easier, even liberating. And if someone rejects you outright because you wouldn’t drop everything and help them on their terms at your own expense, you may need to examine that relationship. Good relationships allow space for self-care, both at work and in your personal life. As always, your relationship with yourself is vital: it is very unkind to YOU to overpromise constantly. Kindly and gently, look after YOU.

Author: Joce©Psych in a Box

COMMUNICATION: Why you should have important conversations in person

IMG_5590I feel like social media adds a layer of complexity over everything. Looking at everyone’s perfect lives on Facebook or Instagram can be lethal if you’re feeling down. It’s easy to feel that everyone else has a perfect life: pictures of holidays, sleepy happy babies, new cars, raves about new jobs and wedding pictures abound, which can feel awful if you’re in a bad space. It’s important to remember that social media reflects the highlights reel of a person’s life: your new baby may scream for 23 hours out of 24, but as soon as she falls asleep you take a picture and post it – and everyone thinks your little angel is easy and restful. If you’re feeling bad it’s very easy compare how you FEEL with how other people LOOK, and feel like you come off second. Remember that just because it looks easy through the window of social media, the reality may be completely different. The context is absent.

But I digress. I want to talk about communication today, and how I’ve seen it go all runny several times because of text messaging or emails. I remember from my coaching days the adage that “words are ten percent of communication”: only a small part of your message is contained in your actual albeit carefully chosen words. The rest is unspoken: your tone of voice, your body language, the context around your statements are all important. In person if I ask you how you are and you answer “I’m fine”, I can hear the chirpy reassurance in your voice, or I can hear those same words spoken in anger and resentment, and they carry very different messages.

When all we have to go on is text, there is vast room for misunderstanding. We project into the email or message the voice tone we imagine the other person may have intended, without any evidence other than the words themselves and our own expectation. If you’re feeling angry and hurt, or guilty, or resentful, you will read this into the blank words. And there will be no room for kindness, for questions, for changing your mind. There is no real dialogue, only a series of monologues, soliloquies in your own head and your own voice using another’s words.  What is missing is the other persons point of view, the other persons frame of reference. It’s what a friend of mine calls 2D vs 3D communication. Electronic written communication is flat and inflexible; verbal, face to face communication has depth and room for understanding and a possibility for healing.  There is no room for clarity, compassion or healing when the conversation is only in your head.

This is not to say that face to face conversations necessarily end better. But they are absolutely likely to be clearer. Communication is a complex subject and I’m sure I will return to it over and over.

Granted some conversations are easier through the distance created by electronics and written words, and no-one but you can decide how best to communicate your message, but bear in mind the value of a face to face conversation, especially when it’s something important and nuanced.

Author: Joce©Psych in a Box