Help for the Holidays: Understanding and Compassion

(This is a rewrite of a previous post from November 2014.)

It’s the holiday season! Are you ready to be around people you find challenging? You know, the ones who say things and suddenly you no longer feel very good about yourself. Perhaps drama trails around them like Pigpen’s dirt cloud. Approaching these situations with understanding and compassion can help.

To begin, recognize you are never very far from hurting others. This awareness generally helps with the next valuable action to deal with dysfunction: seeking to understand. Understanding where someone might be coming from, what he might be thinking or feeling, helps us develop compassion for him. Understanding does not require that you agree.

Understanding, and its closely linked cousin, compassion can dramatically change any dysfunctional system, at the very least for you. As you put on understanding and compassion, you will notice you are not so negatively affected by the dysfunction. You more easily notice the dysfunctional barbs, recognize them as a product of the other person’s pain, process the feeling, and realize, “This is not about me.” Once you have metabolized your own reaction, you can then shift your focus onto at least being kind to this person.


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You Have The Power To Endure

I frequently talk about Viktor Frankl with my clients. He survived Nazi concentration camps from 1942-1945. His freedom came when his camp was liberated at the end of World War II. A Psychiatrist, he was intrigued by the motivations and actions of himself, fellow prisoners and guards in this unplanned and unwanted research experiment. After the war, he turned his discovery of the power human beings possess to survive horrific experiences into a therapeutic method: Logotherapy.

In the most unlikely of places, Dr. Frankl made a decision to be the best prisoner he could be. He didn’t execute this perfectly as he admits in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning but his intention gave him purpose and the will to survive.¬†He reasoned if he was able to do this in a concentration camp, then anyone can. As human beings, we have the ability to choose our thoughts, words, actions and attitudes.

My circumstances are not even remotely as challenging as Dr. Frankl’s. Still, I recognize I have the same choices. In simple trivial situations like driving behind a slow vehicle I can get upset about it or relax, recognizing I have no power over the driver. I only have power over myself. I know that unhealthy, illegal and unwise decisions will have a negative impact on me and potentially others so I choose to breathe, be calm, and recognize that my impatience is likely my own responsibility for not leaving enough time for the inevitable slow driver, accident or heavy traffic.

The same goes for the more painful situations in my life. It’s important to note, this doesn’t mean I pretend to be fine. Oh, no! We must be real about the emotions we have in all situations whether trivial or intense. Acknowledge your emotions, understand why you feel what you do, validate your emotions then have a conversation with yourself about what to do. I go into this process in greater length here and here.

Remember, you have the power to decide what you think, feel, say and do in all situations. No one decides that for you.

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The Paradoxical Commandments

“The challenge is to always do what is right and good and true, even if others don’t appreciate it. Making the world a better place can’t depend on applause. You have to keep striving, no matter what, because if you don’t, many of the things that need to be done in our world will never get done.” ~ Kent M. Keith, author of Anyway – The Paradoxical Commandments

The Paradoxical Commandments by Keith M. Kent:

  • People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
  • If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
  • If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
  • The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
  • Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
  • The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
  • People favor underdogs but follow top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  • What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
  • People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
  • Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

I resonate with Kent Keith’s ideas. Our job is to leave a positive mark on this world through our actions and words. Our ripples may be small or large. The size isn’t the point. The healthiest approach is to detach from the outcome or reach of the good we do and do good anyway! ūüôā

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Experiencing The Unpredictable

I laugh when the very thing I write about catches me and spits me out! We planned a once in a lifetime trip for my husband’s mother. She is Norwegian but has never set foot on the soil of Norway…or anywhere outside of the United States. My husband¬†had been promising her he’d take her there someday. ¬†At 81 someday needed to happen soon! So we decided to take the plunge this summer. The itinerary is planned, tickets purchased and passports are ready to go! Then, the unplanned jumped out and smacked us. My father-in-law’s health plummeted and my mother-in-law needs to stay with him. Go figure!

At first I was understanding. Then this nasty poison crept in. I realized we planned this whole trip for her! What!? You mean we’re spending all this money and taking time away from work (which for me with a private practice means zero income) and she isn’t even going? What?! Visualize¬†my red face, temper rising, anger beginning to leak out all over the place!!!

In church a woman prayed, among other things, to speak blessings instead of cursings…healthy conviction began sinking in…well, after I had a little fit! Now I am amazed at my behavior. Really, Karen? You are incredibly self-centered sometimes. I must give myself grace as I always tell my clients and yet, I do hope that one day I can be more concerned about others than myself. Oh, and roll with the unpredictable a little earlier in the process.


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Broken Trust

broken trust
I’ve done this…I was the one who broke a lot of people’s trust. ¬†This visual is seared into my brain. ¬†At times it creeps in and fills me with all kinds of horrible memories and a painful churning¬†in my stomach. ¬†I have learned over time to remember that I am forgiven and free. ¬†I never see my past actions as acceptable, but I am acceptable. ¬†Although some people may never trust me again, and I understand why, those who know me now, see me not as my past but as my present.

What about you?  Are you the one who was hurt by another who broke your trust or were you the one who did the breaking?  No matter how this quote hits you and the emotions it stirs up, you have the power to be free.

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Guilt Part 3: What’s Shame Got To Do With It?

While similar in some respects, guilt and shame are on opposite sides of the spectrum from one another. ¬†Guilt says, “I did something wrong”. ¬†Shame responds to the state of being guilty (or the perceived state of being guilty***) with the belief, “I am¬†bad”. ¬†Guilt is centralized on a response to an action. ¬†Let’s say I stole a pack of gum from a store. ¬†Whether I get caught or not, I did something wrong. ¬†If I experience guilt as a result of my action that’s a good thing! ¬†I have a conscience that recognizes the laws of my community. ¬†If I take that guilt and allow it to move toward shame, I will begin to believe I am a bad person for stealing. ¬†The guilt has shifted from a judgment of my actions to a condemnation of my very being.

Guilt can bring healing and restoration.  If I recognize my infraction, own that I did it, then apologize and ask for forgiveness from those affected by my actions, the guilt need no longer weigh on my conscience.  I am free from it.  It may be on a police record or kept in the minds of those affected but I can move on, aware that I have the capacity to do something wrong and do all I can not to do it again.

Shame brings condemnation, misery and separation. ¬†Shame tells me I am no good, never will be. ¬†If I stole that gum and then went past guilt into shame, I will believe there is nothing good about me. ¬†I am a thief. ¬†I can never be trusted. ¬†I can never make this right. ¬†I will carry it like a weight until I die or learn to let go of the shame. ¬†It will affect my relationships because in the back of my mind is this shaming belief that I am no good. I’ll believe people can’t see me as good, they just see that I am a thief. ¬†It might negatively affect my choice of occupation or how well I perform at my job. ¬†Sometimes our response to shame is try harder, be better than everyone else in an attempt to prove I’m not that bad. ¬†That motive isn’t healthy. ¬†It’s also like being on a hamster wheel because we never really know when we’ve done enough. ¬†Usually people who employ the approach of attempting to overcome shame through performance implode at some point in their life. ¬†We weren’t designed to operate that way for the long haul.

Sometimes we aren’t aware of our shame; we don’t realize we have it. ¬†It’s there, though. ¬†All people with a conscience likely have at least one shaming message going on in their minds. ¬†What’s yours?

***This brings up another topic entirely, another kind of guilt and how it causes shame so I’ll save this explanation for Part 4: The Challenges of Perceived Guilt and Shame.

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A Series on Guilt Part 1: What is Guilt?

For starters, guilt is not an emotion, it is a state of being. ¬†For the average person it may seem that I am splitting hairs, but for the therapy world, it’s helpful to know the difference. ¬†If you are sick, you don’t necessarily need to know that much about your body to describe it to your doctor; however, your doctor better know details about human anatomy and system functions in order to treat you. ¬†Emotions generally fall into four categories: joy, anger, sadness and fear. ¬†Notice guilt isn’t one of them, nor is shame, the paralyzing cousin of guilt. ¬†The common denominator of emotions and most states of being is they are all centered in your brain. ¬†Each is a result of thoughts. ¬†The thoughts are generally a reaction to an outside stimulus, either in the moment or any amount of time later.

Guilt is a function of our brain when we have done something wrong or something we perceive is wrong. ¬†This function helps shape us to move toward the common good rather than just benefitting ourselves. ¬†Guilt is imperative for the health of a community. ¬†A person with Antisocial Personality Disorder (Sociopath) sees himself as above the law in all respects. He does not feel guilt or remorse for his actions. ¬†Without guilt, we have an ‘It’s all about me” attitude. ¬†Every person has this attitude some of the time but those with Antisocial Personality Disorder have it in nearly all circumstances. ¬†This can be taught or it can be a malfunction of the brain; some people with Antisocial Personality Disorder are a result of their environment, some are a result of DNA and some are a result of a combination of both.

Guilt is often misunderstood. ¬†Some see it as bad, but it’s not. ¬†No more than the emotions of anger, sadness or fear. ¬†These functions of our brain help us live in community in a healthy way through being authentic and connecting with others. ¬†When we eliminate any one of them, we damage ourselves and healthy interactions. ¬†The movie, Inside Out portrayed this beautifully.

Your first action is to notice your guilt. ¬†Ask yourself some questions about it. ¬†What did I do that I am feeling guilty? ¬†What is the standard by which I am measuring my actions? ¬†Does this system make sense – is it in the best interest of both myself and the common good? What if someone else is telling you that you did something wrong, but you don’t see it that way? ¬†Find out what that person’s reasoning is. ¬†Is it for both the good of you and the common good or is it some arbitrary set of rules that don’t make any sense?

Next week I’ll continue this series with how to process your guilt in a healthy way that leads to restoration.

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You Always Have A Choice!

Viktor Frankl space choose

What I love about these words from Viktor Frankl is the clear communication that we have a choice. We can choose how we are going to respond or what we are going to think or how we are going to act. Now I know it sometimes doesn’t feel like we have a choice but that is an illusion. Unless you have a diagnosable brain malfunction that makes it literally impossible to choose, you can choose. Viktor Frankl survived being a prisoner at Nazi concentration camps in the 1940’s. I think he knows what he’s talking about. Think about your circumstances, how they seem so awful and you think you don’t have a choice about how you respond. Now think about being in a concentration camp where you literally have no visible choices. Dr. Frankl has communicated to us from real life experience that we always have the ability to choose how we will respond in any circumstance.

What is it that you are facing right now that you think you don’t have a choice? Is it true you don’t have a choice? Do you have to yell at your partner because you are so angry that she won’t listen to you? Do you have to believe you are not enough because that’s the message others have told you? Do you have to go on ruminating on everything you have to do because that’s what you’ve always done? The answer to all three and many more is, No! You get to choose. Right now you can choose to believe that you have value and worth. You do. Simply because you exist, you matter. You can choose a healthier way to communicate your frustration with your partner. You can stop those runaway-train-like thoughts. You really can. I know all of these for a fact because I have done each one.

It seems really hard at first to start choosing and not being a victim to the world around you. Don’t give up. Stay with it. If you find you need help, then reach out for it. You may need a counselor/therapist. Go for it! You have a choice there, too. ūüôā

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Personalizing Tolerance Continued

As promised, though with a bit of a delay, we are picking up where we left off two weeks ago. ¬†I gave you the assignment of noticing yourself when faced with opinions, beliefs or attitudes that are different from our own. Just to recap the assignment, you were to notice what happened, what you thought, what you felt and what you did in a situation that would call for tolerance. ¬†If you didn’t do the assignment, think of something now. ¬†A time when someone you know did or said something you disagreed with. ¬†Got it? ¬†OK let’s move on.

What were your thoughts when this occurred? ¬†Did you think how stupid the person is? ¬†Some sort of shaming attitude toward them? ¬†That’s what it is, so I figure let’s just call a spade a spade. ¬†We often lump a person into a whole definition based on one action. ¬†I do this, I know from first hand experience. ¬†I’m thinking of a Facebook post I read in which a friend stated a belief of hers, a belief I do not agree with. ¬†My first thought was, “Oh, seriously! ¬†You have to swing so far to one side and tell your readers we’re nuts if we don’t agree.” ¬†What was your thought?

Next, what did you feel? ¬†What emotions did you notice? ¬†Emotions generally fall into four categories: anger, fear, sadness and joy. ¬†I felt anger. ¬†It was like I was being told I’m stupid and the emotion that followed was anger. ¬†I could feel the anger physically, too. ¬†It was in my face. ¬†My cheeks felt hot and my head had a lot of pressure in it.

What did you do? ¬†I felt the anger. ¬†I thought about the post. ¬†The friend had passion about the subject. ¬†It’s something important to her. ¬†Do I have to agree with her position? ¬†No, I don’t. ¬†Did I need to write a comment telling her I don’t agree. ¬†Not really. ¬†I didn’t see the point of it. ¬†I chose not to challenge her belief. ¬†Her belief does not affect me directly in any way. ¬†By not saying something, I was not shirking my responsibility for my own boundaries. ¬†This was simply a situation where one person expressed her thoughts about something and I didn’t agree. ¬†No point in starting a war over it, telling her I thought she was wrong. ¬†She came to her belief in her own journey and I want to honor that. ¬†Again, it doesn’t hurt me for her to have or express her belief. ¬†Sure, I got angry, but that’s because I saw the post as a bit of an attack. ¬†It wasn’t. ¬†It was just a passionate person sharing something she believes in.

What did you learn about tolerance in your own back yard from this exercise? ¬†I would love to know! ¬†Feel free to post a comment or email me: ¬†If you have specific situations that you want help with and wouldn’t mind me using them as an example, let me know that, too. ¬†I can change identifying information so it remains anonymous.


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Dreading the Holidays: Setting Boundaries

The previous posts for this series have, in part, led up to today’s post. Before we can set boundaries, we need to be aware of our thoughts and emotions, attempt to understand where the other person is coming from, drop our pride and seek peace. Sometimes, we have taken these steps but they do nothing to curb our frustration, hurt or anxiety about being around really dysfunctional people. This is the place for boundaries. A boundary in this context sets a clear expectation in a crazy-making situation. Let’s say you have a brother who drinks excessively. Your memories of holiday gatherings with him involve everyone enjoying themselves at the beginning but after the alcohol starts flowing, over-indulging Al starts getting loud, obnoxious and is picking fights. Maybe his hands are roaming to places they don’t belong or his language is distasteful and hurtful. What do you do?

This requires a preemptive conversation with Al. Before the holiday event have a conversation with him either in person or over the phone. If in person be sure to have at least one other person with you for safety. Let Al know that you love him and you want to see him at the annual family holiday party. Unfortunately his drinking has contributed to past behavior which has been uncomfortable for you. He is welcome to come as long as he agrees not to drink alcohol. Chances are Al isn’t going to take this well. He may throw it back at you in some way, that it’s your problem not his. That’s OK. You just stay calm and use a gentle tone while maintaining your stance, “You are welcome to come as long as you agree not to drink.”

Generally, we don’t like setting boundaries because we feel mean. In reality, the meanest action is enabling a person’s unhealthy behavior. Yet, in the spirit of trying to keep the environment copacetic, we placate Al and essentially just keep putting drinks in his hand and feeling miserable while we do it. We know the answer, it just feels so harsh. Rehearse to yourself again and again, “The meanest thing I can do to Al is be untruthful and pretend everything is ok.” In addition, “The meanest thing I can do to myself is continually put myself in harm’s way.”

When we stand up to dysfunctional behavior, two positive trajectories can begin. The first is you are developing a backbone: a healthy “no” muscle that speaks what you are OK with and what you are not. The second is you give the other person the opportunity to see how their unhealthy behavior is affecting connection and relationship with others. This realization has the potential to move a person toward healthy change. Al could see that his drinking is hurting others around him. He could recognize his drinking is a problem and if he doesn’t address it he may push his family away. The Als of this world don’t always see this, that is not your concern. Your work is to set a clear healthy boundary. What Al chooses to do with it is up to him.

Previous posts intros series: Dreading the Holidays, Dreading the Holidays: Understanding and Compassion, Dreading the Holidays: Dysfunction with a Dose of Curiosity, and Dreading the Holidays: The Power of Peace

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