Five Tips for Relationship Success in the Midst of Stress

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Five Tips for Relationship Success in the Midst of Stress

By Erica Rivers, LPC-S, CPT, MBA

It’s pretty understandable that as tensions get high and the stress piles on that relationships often bear the burden and struggle.  We can see this in any type of relationship – parent-child, spouses, and even with coworkers.  The higher the levels of stress, the increased possibility of conflict.

So, here’s a few things to keep in mind to help salvage those loving feelings:

  1. Know your own coping skills and use them – for instance, it’s good to have an actual list of go-to’s for when you are stressed out (i.e. kayaking, drawing, jamming to music, playing games, yoga, meditation, walking, self-hypnosis, massage, prayer, journaling, chatting with friends, coloring, baths, etc.). Like literally list them out.  Have a go to list that is at least 10 items and cue in when you start to notice the physical signs of tension.
  2. Lower the automatic defenses – it’s easy to quickly defend when we feel attacked or criticized and it’s the opposite of most of our natures (mine, at least!!) to listen well, interact with the feedback, and then respond with validation and a plan of action to care well for the other person. It’s so easy to jump to “you’re wrong and here’s why” and yet, that’s not helpful (trust me, I’ve tried that route… a few thousand times… it doesn’t work).
  3. Be proactive in loving and/or kind behaviors – if there are things that you know are life-giving to the soul of the other person, jump in. Do it!  It doesn’t have to be big.  It can be a small gesture.  Make a meal that they like or buy them a coffee.  Put a sticky note up with affirmations.  Help cover a shift for them.    It all depends on what that person needs to feel valued and loved.  We’re all different and none of us have a magic formula.
  4. Choose timing wisely for hard discussions – not late at night, not after coming short on being able to pay the bills… Wait, if possible, for a time when good brainstorming for positive solutions can happen.
  5. Walk in grace and forgiveness – Those sound churchy and yes, they can be religious concepts but truly, it’s good for everyone to figure out how to do these two things with ourselves and with others. The more we can see through the other person’s eyes and understand their pain points, the easier it is to be gracious and to forgive when necessary.  It doesn’t mean that we accept abuse or mistreatment, but rather, it means that we can respond kindly and not hold on to bitterness and resentments.  Boundaries are good but they don’t have to be so rigid that it hinders relationship success.

Aaaaaaand none of these are easy but they are good to think about and to grow in.  Times of stress are abundant in most of our lives so actively working on relationships during is pretty important.  Keep pressing on!  The good times are worth it.

Mindful Connection

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Mindful Connection

By Erica Rivers, MA, LPC-S, CPT

With the upheaval of our normal lives due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we’ve all spent more hours than normal in front of our television screens binging on shows that hook us with their last-minute cliffhangers, and that oh so tempting five seconds to the next show, and before we know it, we’re an entire season in.  I will say, there have been some quite creative series out there and yet sometimes I’m left wondering where the time went.  There definitely is a fun element to just getting to stay in and relax!  It’s quite healthy to calm the hustle and bustle of our society for a while with a little down time.  It’s also good to take a step back and re-evaluate our priorities with time, finances, and people.

So, in between shows, let me just encourage you to take the time to play some games, to have some real chats, and to go for a walk (when it’s not raining).  Take some time to make this quality time with your loved ones.  It’s not a huge message and it’s certainly not rocket science, but be careful to not simply numb out in front of a screen for the precious remaining days of social distancing.  Rather, let it be intentional, purposeful time.  Yes, watch some TV, play a video game or two, eat some popcorn, and sleep in but also, make sure that you are really connecting with the people stuck at home with you (or use technology to connect with people not in the same house!).  Also, get some of that “quiet” time in – time to read, breathe, meditate, soak in a tub, play a musical instrument, or do some art.  Let yourself refresh right now.  Let this challenging period of isolation make you more connected, mindful, and stronger overall.

Even Though It’s Sticky, We Can Get Unstuck

Even Though It’s Sticky, We Can Get Unstuck

By Erica Rivers, LPC-S, CPT, MBA

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Do you ever feel trapped or stuck?  Whether that’s in a job, a relationship, a financial situation, or something else completely, you’re certainly not alone.  In fact, that’s often the time when we as counselors will first meet a client – when they are in that tight spot and can’t seem to see a way out.  We all get to that place sometimes and it helps to have an outside perspective to see things from a different angle, whether that be from a friend, spiritual advisor, or a therapist.  Sometimes we are so close to a situation that we cannot see the bigger point of view.  It’s like standing close to a brick wall and just seeing a couple of the bricks, whereas if we take a few steps backward, we can get a better picture of the whole wall, look for doors/windows, and notice any patterns that are there.

It’s easy to get into a rut with habits that keep us stuck.  Perhaps that is a food or beverage that our body doesn’t process well but we keep eating it anyway because it’s tasty and feels like a reward, even though we know it’s not good for us.  Or, maybe it’s the gambling habit that started small with scratch-off games every now and then but has slowly started eating away at every paycheck and it’s getting harder to pay off bills.  Or maybe, it’s taking a good thing to an extreme like volunteering for the PTA at your kids’ school and soon it’s creating more and more stress and there’s not enough time to get everything done that you need to get done.  It’s certainly not always an easy thing to identify and usually, it’s a combination of habits, behaviors, and beliefs that contribute to the problem.

There’s always something different that we can do.  We don’t have to remain stuck!  Perhaps our hands are indeed tied with our external situation but we can still change our internal scenario.  This means that we can change the way we think about something, the way it affects us emotionally, or the way we cope with it overall.  We can change up habits, creating new ones that serve us better.  We can act differently.  If we don’t like who we are, where we are, or the results we are currently getting, we can make some significant changes.  In fact, in order to get to a new spot, we can make tiny shifts or large, massive alterations.  Either way, it can lead to us being in a completely different spot.  One key, though, is remembering that it is possible to get different results, to have a better outcome, and yes, to feel good!  It helps to know that there is hope in this process, albeit the process of change is often not easy.  Ginni Rometty once said, “Growth and comfort do not coexist.”

Shifting our thoughts or our actions is a challenge more often than not but if we have an aim of where we want to go… of what healthy looks like… there usually are some clear steps that come into focus.  It might be scary to get started but we will never get where we want to go if we don’t even start.  For instance, if you are having relationship issues with your marriage, it can be good to evaluate how you both would want your marriage to look if it was genuinely healthy.  Taking that a further step, it can be good to add in the details of what you would both wish for:  ideally a date once a week, you could talk about emotional issues without fighting, there would be equal contribution to housework, you’d pay off credit card bills, you’d have sex twice a week, etc. etc..  It helps to know where you want to go first before you can take steps to get there.  Otherwise, we can walk around in circles aimlessly.  Sadly, many folks don’t take the time to take a step back and assess the situation that they feel stuck in.  They don’t know where they want to go.  I’ve seen people stay stuck in careers for decades feeling bitter and miserable because they don’t like their jobs and they regret not going into something different.  Thankfully, in many places, there are job choices (and yes, I recognize that this is not true everywhere in the world).  Why stay with something that you hate?  Why not take some small steps (even if you have to do it on the side at first) to get into a field that is more rewarding or that you enjoy a whole lot more?  Sometimes we have to take a step down before we take a step up and many people don’t like that or it might feel too risky.  If you don’t like one route, find another.  It’s your choice.  Just remember there are choices.  We constantly have choices.  They certainly aren’t easy but the more we are apt to do it differently with a healthy goal in mind, the quicker we will achieve it.  Keep changing it up!  Don’t stay stuck!

 

 

 

 

 

Temporarily Rough

Temporarily Rough

By Erica Rivers, LPC-S, CPT, MBA

He was the kind of neighbor that seemed to cut his grass with scissors, knew carpentry, never let a nick go unpainted, and made me question everything that I was doing to attempt to make my house presentable.  I’m not really one to keep up with the Jones’ but let’s just say that I was thankful that there were no neighborhood HOA guardians watching my lawn, paint, and fencing.   He may have even been happy when I moved.  Ironically, though, it wasn’t the front of his house that I enjoyed seeing (and envying!!) when I drove by.  Rather, it was the back where the garage was facing the back alley.  Even then, it really was only when the garage door was open.  Of course, he had a pristinely organized garage but that was less noticeable than the bright orange construction sign that he had dead center of the back of his garage.  The sign read:  Temporary Rough Road.  It made me smile wistfully every single time.  Every.single.time.

That sign showed me that not only was that neighbor a hard worker but he had some life perspective, too.  I admire that.  Golly, we all need that.  When life seems to be drowning us in troubles and when it feels like it’s too much, we need that kind of perspective.  We need that kind of hope.  This problem is temporary.  This road might shake you to the core and make you wonder if your teeth will fall out but there is hope.  There will be smooth road again.  Maybe not perfect road and maybe there still will be bad drivers, but smoother road.  This really cruddy part is temporary.  We can hold on.

We need our friends, our loved ones, and yes, our neighbors (in both the figurative and literal sense) to remind us of this point.  We need to remind others, too.  When our relationships are driving us bonkers, when the bills are higher than the income, and when illness strikes, it helps to have the reminder of some hopeful perspective.  Do what you can to hold on tightly to the steering wheel, to feed your soul, and to remember what’s really important.  If there’s something that you can actively do to make it better, do it, and be careful not to blame.  If there’s not, pray and accept.  Hang on, it’s temporarily rough.

 

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Choose Your Response Wisely

Choose Your Response Wisely
By Erica Rivers, LPC-S, CPT, MBA

“When you can’t control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what’s happening. That’s where your power is.” – Unknown

Ah, yes, life can bring curveballs!! I mean, I don’t know about you, but when I reflect on the events of my life, I’m constantly intrigued by the way things have played out. It’s not necessarily good or bad things… it’s more just the “plot twist” that shows up unexpectedly and sometimes we end up in a place that we never imagined. Within that, there is always the task of responding to people. People play a significant roll in our plot twists. Everybody seems to have an opinion, a different viewpoint, or an emotional response to things that might be very different than our own. Goodness knows, our opinions, views, and emotional responses change over time, too! Life shapes us. We change and hopefully we grow as we gain new perspectives.
As we choose how to respond to people, we have certain rolls that we adopt and we have to figure out if the rolls that we have played in the past, serve us well in the present. For instance, some people may have learned to be quiet, submissive, and obedient when people in authority make a request. Others, may have been taught to speak up, ask questions, and push back if something seems unfair or bothersome. Still others may have learned to pout or give the silent treatment if they don’t like the way that something is done. There are many possible responses. Ultimately, as adults, we have to find respectful, assertive ways to convey our thoughts, feelings, wants, wishes, and needs. It’s up to us to advocate for ourselves and perhaps for those who may not be able to advocate for themselves.
Yes, I’m talking about assertiveness. It’s a really big topic in counseling circles. I’ve benefitted from a visual that I learned many years ago (I’m not sure who came up with it) but it has helped me think through the concept of passivity vs. aggression vs. assertiveness (and, also, passive-aggressive behaviors). Here it is a more simplistic version:
Passive-Aggressive

Passive      <————————————————>    Aggressive

Assertive

Just like a pendulum, we can tend to swing from one extreme to another. Sometimes people who have been passive for a while may get tired of taking it and will swing to aggressiveness. From quiet to very loud. For others, if they have been told that they are too angry or forcefully aggressive and received punishment for their behaviors, they might use some more creative tactics to let others know that they aren’t pleased by storming off with a huff or failing to complete a task. We all can use all the above choices and variations thereof. We can swing from one to another, depending the circumstance.
Most of the time, assertiveness is the healthiest way to respond, however, there can be very appropriate times to be passive, aggressive, and yes, even passive-aggressive. Now, let’s define the terms because we often have a misunderstanding of what they are and a difficult time discerning which one we are using in the moment.
Passive – “Accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance” (Google online dictionary). This can look like being walked on, taken advantage of, going with the flow, being “checked out”, or simply not putting forth ones views, opinions, or resistances.
Aggressive – “Ready or likely to attack or confront; characterized by or resulting from aggression. Pursuing one’s aims and interests forcefully, sometimes unduly so” (Google online dictionary). This can look like walking on others, hostility, a “my way or the highway” attitude, or forcefulness.
Passive-aggressive – “Of or denoting a type of behavior or personality characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation, as in procrastinating, pouting, or misplacing important materials” (Google online dictionary). This can look like creative ways to get ones point or displeasure across (i.e. slamming a door, being late to appointments, destroying property of others, or even sighing loudly.
Assertiveness – “Being assertive means that you express yourself effectively and stand up for your point of view, while also respecting the rights and beliefs of others” (Mayo clinic art-20044644). This is where you clearly and directly state your wants, needs, or thoughts in a respectful, kind, and firm way.
None of the above are necessarily bad or good, however, more often than not, using assertiveness is the most effective and helpful tool for creating healthy relationships. It is super hard to do for many, many people, including myself. Now, in some situations, it may be easy for us whereas in other places and with other people, it might be more difficult. For instance, a strong, effective CEO of a company may be very assertive in corporate meetings and with his/her staff but he/she may struggle with assertiveness in social situations or at home. We can absolutely have different levels of confidence in different places and around a different set of people. The key here is clueing in on where we are at on the pendulum during a given situation and then figuring out what might be the healthiest way to respond.
Some good questions to ask ourselves: How do we maintain relationship and keep open lines of communication? How do I convey my message politely if I believe it is important to be stated? How do I get my needs and wants met while respecting this other person may have different needs or wants? Can we both win? What would assertiveness look like for me right now? How can I be firm yet respectful?
We may have a learned way of responding but growing up involves finding better and better ways to promote relationships in our lives. We have to handle them with care and commit to doing things better. We often have to face our fears or discomforts and confront others appropriately and lovingly. Assertiveness is a great skill for all of us to work on for the sake of great relationships!
“In order for us to practice self-control, we must have a goal. We must have something we are saying ‘yes’ to, which necessarily comes with things that we must say ‘no’ to. We use self-control to maneuver ourselves toward this ‘yes.’ This goal must be entirely our won. The minute another person is choosing and managing our goals for us, we have left self-control behind.” – Danny Silk, Keep Your Love On: Connection, Communication, and Boundaries

 

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I’m Biting My Tongue to Love You

I’m Biting My Tongue to Love You. 

Where’s the Manuscript on Fighting Fair and Square?

By Erica Rivers, MA, LPC-S, CPT

“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.” – Sun Tzu

“So let’s leave it alone ‘cause we can’t see eye to eye, There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy, There’s only you and me and we just disagree.”  – Lyrics to We Just Disagree by Dave Mason

Have you ever been all ready for that great date night that you were looking forward to, getting all gussied up for, and then somehow and in some stupid way, you and your spouse/partner go sideways?  I mean, from an attitude of “Yesssss! We are gonna have a night of romance! Bring on the violins and roses!” to, “Dang, why am I with you and putting up with this?!?”.  It happens quickly and subtly most of time and it spirals quickly from something small to something epic.  It’s amazing how quickly feelings of love and adoration can change to resentment and disgust.  Words fly through the air faster than the speed of sound (trust me a nasty look or a tone IS indeed faster than the speed of sound!!!).  Relationships that stand the test of time, have several things in common, and one of those things is how a couple fights.

Fights can get downright nasty, right?  And yet, they don’t have to be that way. It’s actually a healthy thing that people disagree from time to time.  I mean, sometimes the opposing view helps balance things out.  The key is learning to fight in such a way that both parties feel respected, heard, and that each point of view is considered.  A choice at the end that feels like both parties walk away as winners is a really good one.  The quest is how to make that happen!

We often believe strongly that we are right.  I have noticed that in counseling sessions, people are often blinded when they blame the other person.  They simply don’t see the angle that their partner sees and have a fixed belief of the one way that it should be – their way.  So, when things start to go sideways, here’s some important things to remember to make sure that you bring a fair fight and that you remember love:

  1. Breathe, think, and calm yourself – Once you see that you are on a course that could be dangerous, pause, take some deep breaths, and consider what is at stake. Clearly a button was pushed.
  2. Listen, really listen to what your spouse or partner is saying. Try to ask questions to clarify (non-snarky ones, please!) and then explore what might be underneath the situation at hand if it seems significantly emotion.  Don’t interrupt.  For instance, if he/she is commenting on how you never do the dishes, explore how they may be feeling about a lot of tasks and if they are needing help in several areas.  Then, perhaps you can find a solution together.
  3. Explore what you can do differently – Recognize that if your partner is upset, maybe there is something that you can do differently, even if it’s something small. We all need to budge.  We can all love better than we are currently loving.  A good relationship with someone else involves growing ourselves, too.  Avoid blaming.  It simply doesn’t help.  Sure, your partner can do things differently, too – that’s a given – but you can only control you.  So, love the person in front of you and figure out what healthy changes you can make (even if you believe they are in the wrong or need to be the one doing things differently).  And, no, love in this moment may not be a feeling, it’s a choice.
  4. Use kind words and a gentle tone – you can still be assertive while being nice and respectful. Don’t name-call, even in jest, or degrade their character.  Avoid those sweeping generalizations that incorporate the “always” and “never” of the relationship dynamics.  It’s not time to point out how they have let you down in a million ways.  Try to stay in the moment and with the point at hand, not delving into a long history of problems.  Work on solving this one.  Beware of sarcasm, too, as it can wreak havoc!  Offer up hope in the conversation.
  5. State clearly and directly what you want and need and find out what your partner/spouse wants and needs, too. It’s important that both of you have shared what is important to you.  Both parties need to have a voice in the relationship and feel heard/valued by the other.  Do not belittle what the other person wants, even if you don’t like it.
  6. Assume the best of the other and strive to create an atmosphere of emotional safety. Both of you need to believe that the other person is committed to the relationship and wants what’s best for each of them as well as the couple as a unit.  Check yourself for any selfishness or pride.  (That’s not a fun thing to look at but really, those things can be revealed in close relationships.)  We may not intend to be selfish, but we all can be sometimes so if you have an ah ha moment in the middle of the fight, own up to it and apologize for it.
  7. Come up with creative ideas to make things better. Creativity can go a long way!  Be brave and work together to find solutions.

 

Fights are normal however, the more grounded couples are in gratitude, loving behaviors, regular discourse, and quality time together as a couple, the better the prognosis.  So, invest in your partner in the good times so that when the struggles arise, you can work through them, knowing you have a solid foundation.  Remember, too, that even if your mate is seeming unreasonable and off their rocker during a fight that we ALL can be that ways sometimes and that most problems can be worked through.  Recruit help, if needed.  Sometimes an outside party like a counselor, pastor, or mentor can offer helpful encouragement.  Keep working on the relationship and don’t give up!

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Loving the Reflection in the Mirror

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Loving the Reflection in the Mirror
By Erica Rivers, LPC-S, CPT, MBA

“You’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company.”

– Diane Von Furstenberg

Have you ever looked in the mirror and felt gratitude for who you are, where you are, and for the life you lead? I really, really hope so! I hope you like the person staring back at you. But, if you don’t, you’re certainly not alone. So many people dislike a lot of things about themselves. We all can be our own worst enemy at times! We criticize our looks, our mistakes, and the areas we lack (especially when we start comparing ourselves to others – now there’s a dangerous trap!!). At times we have adopted shame from people and experiences in our lives. This shame weighs us down and holds us back from putting ourselves out there and from really leading a life of joy, confidence, and connection. We believe lies that were somehow and, in some way, transmitted to us.
As with most things, it is a process to change how we see ourselves. It takes a while to recognize why we hold on to certain beliefs or attitudes and to explore their origins. For instance, I’ve known people who said that they were no good at a certain subject like math or art because they were told during their elementary school years by a teacher, friend, or parent that they weren’t. It can at times be one solo negative voice that shapes a lifetime of belief. On the other hand, it’s amazing how kind, true affirmations can really influence a child (or an adult, for that matter) in a direction of progressive action. As simple as it sounds, a few words of honest encouragement can go a long way. We don’t need fake platitudes, rather, we need bold voices of truth helping us see our value, purpose, and genuine hope.
Having a good relationship with ourselves can be work, also, and yet a lot of times we can run in circles and not get anywhere with it. Notice how popular the self-help section of a bookstore is and how many books, TV shows, or fads people have tried in an effort to feel better about themselves. As an example, a lot of folks believe that if they can look a certain way or attain a particular goal, that they will be happy with themselves. I’m all for realistic goals and personal growth! Heck, I love that stuff however, it doesn’t define us. Goals are great! Growth is great! Fitness is great! Yet, it goes far deeper. It often starts with recognizing where we are harsh with ourselves and where we picked up some of those messages. Then, we can look at how we need to change those messages up. We need some grounding in our value as a human being. To quote, Kristen Harold, a personal trainer and TWU Assistant Gymnastics coach, “No matter what the scale says, it does not define you. You define you.” We need loving, truth-telling people in our lives who are routing for us and who can be our mirrors when we cannot see accurately in our own mirror. We need to learn how to define ourselves with kindness, fairness, and accuracy and sometimes we need several relational and spiritual resources to do that. Although relationships can at times be hurtful to us, there can be great healing from being in relationships with safe people and letting ourselves be deeply known.
A healthy relationship with ourselves can take time as we learn to give ourselves grace and to practice accepting forgiveness and feedback. Set your bar high and strive to grow, but show yourself the kindness that you need as you learn from your trip-ups, uncertainties, and failures. Surround yourself with safe people who will be honest with you, accept you right where you are, point you to Truth, and show you grace in your process.