Dysfunctional Family Roles

Dysfunctional Family Roles

Dysfunctional Family Roles

How to Deal With Trust Issues

Dysfunctional Family Roles

Functional vs Dysfunctional Family Roles: Ever wonder why you are the way you are, especially in terms of your patterns in relationships and habitual ways of relating to others?

As a long time Denver therapist and life coach I can assure you that we’re all a sum of many things: our innate temperament, our personalities, our thinking styles and our accumulated life experiences. But the dynamics of the family system that that you were a part of growing up can having a profound impact on you too, for better or for worse.

If you’re interested in personal growth, self development, and improving your relationships, at some point it is vital to ask: Who  was I in my family? What role did I play in that system? Who did my family want me to be? What did my family bring out in me? Most importantly: Who did my family need me to be?

Understanding the functional and potentially dysfunctional family roles that shaped you can give you insight into yourself, and a deep level of self understanding that leads to choice and empowerment.

Today’s episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast is taking a deep dive into understanding the power of family roles, how dysfunctional family roles can create long-term impacts on the adults we become, and how to use this awareness to grow into the person you want to be.

How to Overcome Dysfunctional Family Roles

Our families shape our way of thinking, feeling and behaving. Unless (or until) we do deliberate personal growth work in life coaching, evidence-based therapy in Denver (or online therapy), or couples counseling, we will subconsciously bring these ways of thinking feeling into adulthood. Some of the patterns and expectations we unknowingly carry with us are helpful to our adult relationships, and some are not.

If we want to create positive changes in our adult life and relationships, it’s important to understand how we were forged in the crucible of our family of origin.

I’ve seen time and time again, as a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach, that as my clients do this work they become aware of themselves in an entirely new way. Most people come into contact with the fact that they are reflexively operating on a set of core beliefs, values, expectations and habits that they didn’t even know they had. Many of these “operating instructions” instilled by families of origin are positive and helpful. But some are not.

Let’s face it: We were all raised by fallible, imperfect humans who were almost certainly operating on the subconscious legacy from their own family of origin. It takes both hard work and support to become the clear-eyed, self-aware, mindful and compassionate parent and partner that intentionally cultivates healthy family dynamics. Most people never get the opportunity to do that type of personal growth work.

As a result, our parents didn’t know what they were doing either. If they came from (mostly) healthy, nurturing families, that’s (mostly) what they gave to us. If your parents grew up being forced to participate in dysfunctional family roles, unless they were privileged enough to do high-quality therapy, they probably subconsciously re-enacted those old ways of being in your family growing up.

On the bright side, the fact that you’re even reading this and learning about these subterranean psychological forces gives you awareness and power that your parents probably never had. You get to deliberately make changes in yourself that lead to your ability to create an entirely different outcome for your family.

But the first step is developing a genuine understanding of how the legacy of dysfunctional family roles may be operating in you. That’s what we’re talking about in today’s podcast!

Dysfunctional Family Roles: What they are, and how to transcend them.

Listen to today’s episode of the podcast to:

  • Learn how your role in your family of origin can affect your relationships in adulthood.
  • Know the impact of our early experiences in how we manage stress and anxiety.
  • Get insights and direction into how you can break the patterns of your dysfunctional family role (and cultivate the strengths of a healthy family dynamic).
  • Learn to recognize other people’s patterns and see them with compassion.
  • Discover how you can be independent and empowered in creating the relationships you want.
  • Know how you can build real and lasting changes in your family life and relationships.
  • Discover strategies to improve your family dynamics.

You can listen to “Dysfunctional Family Roles” on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App, and anywhere else you listen to podcasts. Or, you can scroll down to the bottom of this page to listen right here on GrowingSelf.com.

If you’re more of a reader, I’ve provided some episode highlights (below) as well as a full transcript. Otherwise, thanks so much for listening, subscribing, and sharing this with anyone in your orbit who could benefit from hearing it.

Family Of Origin

How did your experiences in your family of origin shape you?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Growing up, who did your family need you to be?
  • Are you the same or a different person when you are outside the family system?
  • How do you feel about yourself when you’re with your family and when you’re with others?
  • Do you change when you’re with other people and go back to your patterns when you’re with your family?

Considering the answers to these questions can begin the process of giving you some insight and self awareness around how the dynamics of your family of origin impacted you.

Psychodynamic Therapy, Attachment Theory & Family Systems

Tackling your deepest, most entrenched patterns often requires the support of a great therapist. There are many effective ways to accomplish this work, but it can be very helpful to work with a therapist who understands psychodynamic therapy, attachment theory, and family systems. In these evidence-based types of therapy, you will have the opportunity to explore your family roles, your patterns in relationships, and why you are the way you are. This type of therapy focuses on first raising self-awareness and insights. Then, once that is established, a good therapist will help you begin to actively experiment with new ways of being that help you overcome dysfunctional family roles, and begin practicing new ones. 

Family Roles Follow Us Everywhere

We think of our patterns in relationships as being exclusive to how we show up in our actual families. Not so. Your habitual ways of relating will also show up in your friendships and even your working relationships. Family systems dynamics appear whenever groups of people form, because people naturally assume different roles in relation to one another. When the roles are complementary, cooperative, and flexible, they make for a healthy relationship.

Healthy Family Roles vs Dysfunctional Family Roles

Dysfunctional family roles are characterized by inflexibility and that they serve to maintain homeostasis. (Meaning that when one person stops engaging in the dysfunctional family role other people in the family fall apart). In contrast, healthy family roles are flexible, supportive, and interdependent. The individuals in a family don’t “need” each other to be a certain way in order to be okay. A child can be imperfect or sad without a parent becoming overwhelmingly anxious or angry. One member can step into another’s role. In a healthy family, for example, both parents can be nurturing at times. Both parents can also be appropriately authoritative at times. 

In contrast, the roles in a dysfunctional family are rigid, fixed, and distinct. The members must stay in their roles in order to maintain the functioning of the others. When one steps out of their role, it disrupts the system, and places an enormous amount of pressure on individuals to resume their dysfunctional role. (Often at the expense of their own mental and emotional health and wellbeing). 

Understanding Dysfunctional Family Systems

There is not a cutoff line between a functional family and a dysfunctional family. It doesn’t have an on and off switch. Instead, it is a spectrum.

In some families, someone tends to over-function. This person makes up for the deficit of another who is not functioning fully. People in codependent relationships easily over-function in fulfilling their caretaker or enabler role.

There is also someone who plays the victim. They always blame their problems on others. This person is always having a hard time, usually because of mental health issues. The victim also often has a substance abuse problem because that’s how they cope with the unfairness of life.  

These are the other roles commonly found in a dysfunctional family. Listen to the full episode to learn more some of the most common dysfunctional family roles including:

  • The Problem Child (aka, “The Scapegoat”)
  • The Family Clown
  • The Lost Child
  • The Gold Star Kid

In extremely toxic family systems, the roles are more rigid. There isn’t enough space for everyone. The three primary roles you will see are:

  • The Abuser
  • The Protector
  • The Victim

When a person is in a healthy family, they get to inhabit many different roles — or better yet, just be themselves. They can be funny and nurturing and accomplished, and they can also be sad and in need of help and even lazy too. They can be their whole selves, and it’s all okay. In healthy families the roles that do emerge tend to be more task or responsibility based rather than serve an emotional purpose. (Think, one person usually takes out the trash or manages the finances). But again, there is flexibility. For example, even if a family member goes away for a while, the family can adjust and cooperate because they are an interdependent system.

Examples of Dysfunctional Family Roles

In this episode of the podcast I talk through a number of examples of disfunctional family roles in order to illustrate how they all work together.

A family composed of a victim-feeling mom, an enabling dad, a perfect daughter, a clown son, a silent child, and a problem child is a stable family system. However, just because it’s stable doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Being in a dysfunctional family system creates an artificial sense of stability. If any one of the family members decides to change for the better, the others would be forced to confront their problems, disrupting the system.

Self-awareness and recognition take an enormous amount of emotional health, emotional stability, and emotional regulation skills. Dysfunctional families can’t do that easily. Professional family therapy is often required.

The Path of Growth

This podcast was intended to provide information and awareness about the fact that dysfunctional family roles exist, and to help you think about to what degree they may have impacted your life. However, this podcast is in no way meant to resolve these patterns: It can’t. Growth and healing from dysfunctional family roles is a process — often a long term one. However, you can absolutely change and overcome the impact of dysfunctional family roles. Through the awareness and self reflection that you get from therapy, plus guidance around how to experiment with different ways of being, you can take action to change yourself. And when you change yourself, you will become a force of positive change in your family too.

Dysfunctional Family Roles —Resource List

If you think you’ve been impacted by dysfunctional family roles that are affecting they way you think, feel and behave as an adult, the most important thing you can do is get involved in effective therapy. Look for a highly qualified therapist with a background in psychodynamic therapy, attachment therapy, and / or family systems. If you’d like to do this life-changing work with one of the therapists at Growing Self, the first step in getting started is to schedule a free consultation session to discuss your hopes and goals and see if it’s a good fit to work together.

In addition to therapy, there are some self help activities that can support your work to overcome the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional family role:

I have shared valuable advice on coping with dysfunctional family roles. Which part of the episode was the most helpful? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.

Back in touch soon, with more Love, Happiness and Success advice for you. 

xo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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Dysfunctional Family Roles: Podcast Transcript

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Access Episode Transcript

Dysfunctional Family Roles —Podcast

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

[playing Stars by Ayla Nereo]

Isn’t that a great song? That’s Ayla Nereo—I hope I’m saying that right—Ayla Nereo and the song is called Stars. Such a nice song. We’ll listen to it together more at the end of our show today, but I thought it was a nice intro for our topic. Today, we’re talking about something I think incredibly, not just important, but also interesting. And I think it will be very relevant for you and the kinds of questions and concerns that you’ve been bringing to me lately. I’ve been hearing from a lot of you through Instagram, through Facebook, and certainly through the blog at growingself.com with questions about your relationships and how to improve them.

And we’re taking a deep, deep dive into this topic today. We’re going to be talking about family systems. Specifically, family systems and the way that our roles in our families of origin can shape us as adults and have a pretty big impact on the way that we feel in relationships. The kind of partners that we choose, the way we relate to others, the way we communicate, the way we manage stress and anxiety can all often be found in some of our earliest experiences.

And my hope is that by talking about these things today with you, you will be able to recognize and notice where some of those might come from inside of you. And also be able to more compassionately see this in perhaps your partner, or your mom, dad, brothers, sisters, family of origin, and also even in your friends, and extended circle to be able to gain awareness of who people are, why they are the way that they are so that you have some insight and also like direction for how you can begin to break some of these patterns, if you decide that they are actually not serving you well anymore. And really feel empowered to act more independently and create the kind of life and relationships you want. I know that this sounds like very big stuff, and it is. And I feel like we kind of need to go here because, again, I get so many questions from you guys about specific relationship kinds of questions lately.

And I think it’s very easy, and even tempting, for relationship coach types or family therapists to say, “Let me give you some strategies. Try this specific thing”. And the risk here is that while the specific strategies can be very helpful, they are often blown away like a little dandelion puff in a hurricane. And the hurricane, the much more powerful thing at the root of why these relationship experiences are happening, why you’re feeling the way you do, are in these family of origin issues. And so for me, to hand you this little dandelion puff and say, “Good luck with that,” it feels like not me being a good friend to you or truly of service to you. And so I really wanted to talk more about the issue of family systems to provide you with a little bit more meaningful and hopefully helpful guidance that will lead to your making real and lasting change in your life and in your relationships. Not just one more piece of dandelion fluff, three little tips to change your life kinds of things. There’s a time and place for that too. But I mean, we are keeping it real here on the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

And if this is your first time tuning in and you’re wondering what in the hell you have just stumbled into, I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I’m the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I’m licensed as a psychologist. I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m a board-certified life coach, and our practice at Growing Self, we say we specialize in love, happiness, and success. We do a lot of couples counseling, marriage counseling, but also, like, take a holistic approach to life. So we’re doing individual therapy, life coaching, also career coaching, and professional development coaching, because all of these different aspects of life are intrinsically related. You are a whole person. And to have any of these things: love, happiness, or success, it really involves paying attention to all of them and, really, particularly the stuff at the center that impacts the way you think, feel, and behave in all different aspects of your life.

And again, the family systems, ideas, we’re going to be talking about today are incredibly impactful. It goes into the way you feel about yourself, the way you take care of yourself, the way you manage your own emotions, the way that you communicate, also directly impacts the way that you relate to other people, the expectations that you have of your partners, the kind of partners you select, your responses to people, particularly in moments of stress. And it is absolutely incredibly salient to the way we relate to coworkers, or tasks, or the way we show up on the job, or the way we communicate in professional roles, or even the role that career or work serves in our lives are all directly rooted in some of our earliest life experiences.

So I’m excited to talk about this with you today. And as I’m recording this, we are going into the holiday season. And I think it can be very helpful to talk about family roles, and family dynamics, and family issues because much of the time around the holidays, we get to spend more time with extended family. Although, this particular year, as I’m sure you’re well aware, the year of the pandemic, this is different. You may or may not be spending the holidays with your family of origin, or you may be in a situation, like many of the therapy or coaching clients that I have here at Growing Self, that I hear people on my team consulting about are increasingly adults now bunking with their parents again, or siblings again or having your mother-in-law move in with you, just because of the pandemic situation and the realities that many families are facing. There is an increased incidence of multigenerational households. So you’re having the opportunity to splash around in family of origin. Dynamics may not be contained to just a challenging Thanksgiving dinner. It may be waiting for you at the breakfast table, eating cereal and calmly looking at you first thing in the morning when you get up and pad into the kitchen for your coffee. So lots of excitement, and let’s call it an opportunity for growth.

So diving in to the topic of understanding family roles and understanding, in particular, dysfunctional family roles compared to healthy family roles and family systems. Again, this is a huge, huge topic. And I feel a fiduciary obligation to give you a disclaimer, is that I’m going to be talking about a lot of things on this podcast today. And many, many books have been written on this subject. The subject is one that has been studied for decades by people who have devoted their entire careers to this. There are whole university programs that will train you for years on the different facets of this topic. And so we are going to be going deep, but please know this is a drop in the bucket of the complex and fascinating topic of family systems. And so I hope that this is one informational tool that you use along your path of growth. But do not think for a moment that this is all of it. There’s much, much more.

I’ll be throwing other resources out for you as we talk through things. And of course, there’s much, much more on various aspects of this topic on the blog at growingself.com. You’ll hear me referring to those through the podcast. But instead of boring you with a lot of specific links and titles, for all of them that I’ll be mentioning, if you just go to growingself.com, and go to the expert advice page, we have hundreds and hundreds of blog posts, articles written by experts, other podcasts, videos, all kinds of stuff, and there is a search bar on that page. And so if you hear me mention a resource over the course of this podcast or like, “I want to learn more about that,” that’s where you’ll find it. Just go to the blog at growingself.com, and type communication, or boundaries, or whatever it is into that search bar that I’ll be mentioning. And you will find the article in question as opposed to having to write everything down as I’m discussing, because who has time for that?

Okay, so jumping in. Let’s start with a question. When you think about your family, your family of origin, the people that you spent most of your time with growing up, and what that experience was like for you, most of the time, I would like for you to take just a second and consider who you were when you were in that situation? Who did your family kind of need you to be? And how does that maybe feel similar to or different who it feels like you really are when you are outside of that family system? Did you sort of feel one way about yourself when you were with your family? And then when you went to college, or moved out, or built your own life and your own family, did that change? And do you notice yourself kind of being drawn into those same types of patterns when you’re back around your family?I’ll just pause for a second to let you reflect on that.

Because our families shape us. We’re born with personalities. We’re born with basic ways of being. But then it is because of our role in the family that we were born into is where we really learn how to be in relation to others. We learn who we are. We internalize a kind of narrative about ourselves. We learn what to expect from other people. We kind of develop ideas about who other people want us to be. It’s where we develop our ideas about our worth as people. Like, “What do I need to be or do in order to be loved and respected and cared for by others?” 

And this is not conscious stuff. This is so subconscious. It is preverbal much of the time. But it’s also very real. And it matters because we take this with us into our adult lives, whether or not we want to, whether or not we’re even aware of it. And, we kind of need to know who we are, and where we came from, and what shaped us, and why we do the things we do in order to be empowered, to create positive changes if we want to—if we want to. And it is the case that many people, I would say most people—all people, really, I mean, even people who come from the most difficult and traumatic family backgrounds, it wasn’t— very rarely—is it ever like all bad. We get so many good and valuable things from our family experiences.

And so this is no way to bash families, because I would venture to say that when we reflect on the best parts of ourselves, many times—our values, the things that give us meaning and pride—there are so many wonderful things that we pick up along the way from our families of origin. And those are all to be embraced, and shared, cherished, and feel so grateful for. And it is also the case that we sometimes have developed ways of relating to others in our families of origin that made perfect sense. And were really even necessary at that time in our lives, but that when we get older, and get into adulthood, and create our own families, and own relationships, we can arrive at the conclusion that those old ways of being are no longer serving us or helping us achieve the goals that we have as adults. Or that we are now partnered with someone that our old family of origin way of being is not really compatible with, and that we need to make some changes in order to have a really healthy relationship and family. And so the process of being able to do that begins with awareness and beginning to reflect on “Who am I?” and “Where did that come from?” Now we’re going to be talking about this.

But I also want to just say out loud and very clearly that there is a certain breed of therapist, a certain type of therapy, that’s called psychodynamic therapy. It was born out of kind of the Freudian school of thought, the sort of original therapy. But psychodynamic therapy is all about exactly this. How did your earliest relationships shape you, and why are you the way that you are? It is very insight-oriented. And if you get involved in psychodynamic psychotherapy, you will spend many, many, many, many sessions talking about family roles, and relationships, and why you are the way you are, and this all makes sense. And this is the thing that I personally have like… kind of makes me crazy. Many, in my experience, psychodynamic therapists will analyze all of this, and be like, “Okay, your dad was cold and emotionally unavailable. And your mom was depressed. And so this is why you avoid conflict”. And you’re both like, “Okay, yeah”. And there’s this like triumphant, “Okay, so we figured it out”. And then the therapist is like feeling very pleased with themselves for having figured this out. And you’re like, “Oh, okay. That makes sense”. And then that’s where it stops.

It’s like that insight was the goal of the therapy. And many times if you have been involved in this kind of therapy, you may have had this experience. If you’re like, “Okay, well, all right. Well, now I know that. So now what? Like, what do I do with that?” And the therapist is like, “Well, you know, we need to process that.” What does that mean? Okay, and so I have a reaction to that. And my way of being as a therapist and a coach is much more practical. And it’s not to knock that self-awareness and that insight. We need to have that in order to be able to make conscious changes, and understand ourselves, and have compassion for ourselves. But there also needs to be more. And so, our way of being here at Growing Self is a more direct route like, yes, okay. We need to figure it out, make sense of it. But then we need to actively work to change it. And so you’ll— if this is— you’ve been in therapy before and what I’m describing to you today sounds a little bit different, that’s why.

It is because really my primary orientation is more of a coach. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m a licensed psychologist. That is part of my background. But I think a bigger part of my work and way of helping clients is through more of a coaching model, which is, “Okay, what do you want to do with that?” Like “What’s your goal?” So with that in mind, if this is something that you want to explore, the first step of gaining that foundational self-awareness—with the assistance of a therapist, or coach, or not— is to first notice, or even do some journaling around who do you become when you are around your family, and how is this functional in your early life

And figuring that out, like when I reflected on that and was well, well into my 20s before I even considered any of this as a possibility, realizing that when I was around my family, I kind of needed to hide certain parts of myself. I had to be fairly like rational and kind of stable. Family therapists are also made in the crucible of their family system. And that was very much my role as a child. And while that was helpful to stabilize my family, there were consequences to me later in life in terms of my own relationships and my ability, I think, to be as vulnerable or authentic as I wanted to be, and I think on a deep level, craved. But in my family, it wasn’t really okay for me to do that. So that was something that I had to do a lot of work around as I got older and wanted to have a good relationship with my husband. That’s been an area of growth for me. And this can look like so many different things. And I’d like to invite you to sort of reflect on how you feel, or what you find yourself doing or saying, or ways of being when you get around your family that are maybe a little bit different than who you really are or who you want to be.

And with that in mind, I also want to share that family systems are always present in the sense that people in families are really any group. You see it in coworker kinds of groups or working relationships too, is that people will always kind of naturally move into different roles. And that is very healthy, particularly when roles are cooperative. They are complementary, and also when they’re flexible, they can change as needed. And also, a virtue of a healthy family system or a healthy relational system is that people can grow and change without it creating disruption in the rest of the system.

So like, for example, and this is a very superficial example, but I’m sure you can relate to it in your own life, like in in my house, I do not take out the trash. I don’t know what day the trash comes. It always surprises me. My husband, he rolls our trash cans out to the curb on the correct day of the week. He knows what time they’re going to be there. It is just not something that I think about. It is his role in our home to think about that and to do that. Therefore, I just don’t. Now, there have been times when he’s gone out of town. And thankfully he’ll text me or something like, “Don’t forget to take out the trash, okay?” and I can go do that. I can be flexible in that role. Or God forbid, if he got sick or something like, I would do that. It’s completely fine, I could step in to that role.

And so there are practical kinds of functional roles in families that people just kind of have their little jobs, and so that everything comes along. But there are also emotional and relational roles in families. In healthy families, these roles tend to be cooperative, flexible, and like much less fixed. Like, in a healthy family, both parents can be nurturing at times. Both parents can also be appropriately authoritative at times. Sometimes mom makes breakfast. Sometimes the other mom makes breakfast, if that’s a same-sex couple, or sometimes dad makes breakfast. There’s this flexibility and a— what am I trying to say? People can make space for each other and behave like this healthy interdependence, as opposed to what happens in a dysfunctional family system with dysfunctional family roles. Those tend to be much more rigid, much more fixed, much more distinct, and functional in an emotional way that when people stop their roles or try to move out of those roles, the system becomes disrupted.

And so people stay in those roles, and they become increasingly rigid for like matters of emotional safety, and sometimes even literal safety or survival. They’re not flexible. And also, in a healthy family system, the roles are good for people. Everybody feels okay. And while nobody is perfect or needs to be perfect, there is a— people are able to be authentic. It’s healthy, it’s nurturing. Nobody’s being harmed by any of the family roles. Whereas in a dysfunctional family system, the roles that people inhabit are often not really healthy for them. They’re not the highest and best for them. And also, people feel locked into those, not consciously but subconsciously, because if they try to be different, it will be very disruptive to the system. And they might experience personal consequences, or the system might experience consequences.

And I know we’re talking about this very theoretically right now. So let me let me go into some more concrete examples so you can understand what I’m really talking about. So when we look at a dysfunctional family system with dysfunctional family roles, people from, oftentimes, early childhood, get kind of shuttled into various adaptive roles to support various parts of the system. And these roles, over time, tend to turn into like almost personality features or identities. And they have a almost global impact on the way that people relate to others, both inside their families and outside of their families. A lot has been written about different types of roles. There are many of them. But I’ll just go over some of the most common ones so that you can think about, “Hm, is this me? Was this happening in my family or not?”

In dysfunctional family roles, there is quite frequently a perfect person who gets the gold stars—who is amazing, who is responsible and conscientious, and does not need to be told to do their homework, and will clean their room, and pick up after themselves, and kind of often inhabit like a caretaking role as well. Like “Oh, somebody needs to make dinner. I’m going to go ahead and do that.” Caretaking for other children in the family and generally like not needing a whole lot. It’s this parentified child many times, but can also have a like achievement orientation. Like they can be stabilizing the family by virtue of being a gold medal winning figure skater at age 13 or gymnast. There are a lot of ways the perfect child can show up in a family.

In addition to having usually at least a perfect one, there is often a dysfunctional family role that is really more like actively a caretaker that is so caretaking, so over the top in terms of rushing around kind of over-functioning and doing things for other people that it can really be kind of an enabling role. That this person is really making up for the deficits of another, or kind of propping up another person that isn’t really functioning fully.

If you recall, I did a podcast a little while ago around codependent relationships and what those look like in marriages and in families. Oftentimes, people who have strong codependent tendencies and find themselves falling into those patterns in their own marriages were the caretaker or enabler in their family of origin. And so they’re very used to this like, “If I don’t wake my mom up for work or make my little brother breakfast, mom might not get to work, or my little brother might not eat the breakfast. And so I need to be very vigilant and kind of like motivating everybody to do what they’re supposed to be doing.” You often see that in families where there is a parent who is chemically dependent or has a substance abuse problem. Very, very common.

Additionally, dysfunctional family roles, there is usually at least one victim. The person who is having a really hard time, and who is being treated unfairly, and who isn’t feeling good, and who went to see the therapist. But that therapist didn’t give them good advice. “And I don’t think that I like them anyway. So I’m not going to go anymore.” Kind of can have on like some murder-y sorts of tones, but often this person can have mental health issues in a family, or always sort of have a problem that makes them not feel good. It’s usually the fault of someone else and that other people in the family need to sort of help them because they are not being treated fairly, and not feeling good, and have chronic migraines. “And I just don’t think I could deal with this today.” That’s sort of the victim-y kind of role. The victim person is, often in alcoholic or chemically-dependent families, the one with a substance problem because they need to have four glasses of wine at night to cope with the stress of their unfair life and the cruel world. And so they’re just going to drink the whole bottle. You know, it’s like that kind of mindset goes along with the victim mentality.

You will also commonly find a problem child in a dysfunctional family role. There’s at least one kid in a dysfunctional family who is acting out, and being bad, and doing poorly in school, and is clearly the problem. And if only this child could get it together, all this stress would be reduced in the family. And so this is the kid who gets taken for therapy appointments to fix this kid. And the rest of the family is like, “What? We’re fine. It’s the kid that’s the problem.” And that this can often be like a rebellious sort of angry child. And this could look like all different things.

There is very frequently and in certainly larger families where there is space for all of these roles to be inhabited. You will generally see a clown show up. The clown is the sort of irrelevant, irreverent, possibly hyperactive, usually entertaining and witty, good talker, can sometimes even be anti-social but gets away with it because they’re funny. But it’s kind of this “look at me” kind of distracting force in a dysfunctional family. Often starts using alcohol or other substances as teenagers or young adults, but usually have a good time. And you can often also find a silent child—a lost child—in a really dysfunctional family.

And all of these roles make a lot of sense when you think about the way they work together, and variations of these roles can be found in lots of families. And also, just let me add that there is not a cut off line between a healthy, functional family and a dysfunctional family. It’s not like an on/off switch. There is a spectrum. And in healthy, functional, happy families, you will also see people going into various family roles and sort of emotionally occupying these kinds of spaces, but in a very gentle way that aren’t extreme.

They are also flexible. Yes, there’s probably always going to be one kid that’s a little bit of the gold star kid. But sometimes, that kid can goof off and eat all the Cheez-Its and not always have to be perfect, right? Or another kid can be the family clown and sort of the fun one but is also okay for them to have a sad day and tell their family about it. And that’s all right. Like there’s a flexibility to it. And in many families and in a parental dyad, one person notices when, “Somebody needs to buy stamps,” or “Has that bill been paid?” There’s that one person who’s kind of the nerd, and the other person who’s like, “I think we should go on a hike this weekend. You know, we’ll clean the garage later”. So there’s always this stuff, but it’s gentle.

The person who’s like, “Let’s go on a hike,” could also say, “We are out of so many things. I’m just going to go ahead to the grocery store. You guys make a list. Let me know what you want.” Like, they can also be in that kind of functional role. And maybe the person who’s a little bit more of the taskmaster can also say, “I am going to get a massage. You people fix yourself lunch. I’ll see you later.” Like it’s not rigid. There’s space for people to be all kinds of different ways, even if primarily, they are usually the one that buys the stamps. It’s healthy. It’s flexible.

And so on the spectrum of healthy families on one side and more dysfunctional families on the other, at the lower ends of dysfunction., if we get into more extremes of dysfunction, is when you’ll see a lot of rigidity around these roles. And they will be very extreme, that people are very much fully inhabiting these roles. And in really, really bad toxic family situations, there isn’t even enough space for all of these different roles. You see three primary roles, and I’m talking about families in which there is abuse, very serious substance abuse problems. The roles are an abuser or an oppressor, a protector, and a victim, and that’s about it. And people stay in those roles, and it is incredibly toxic and unhealthy for everybody involved.

And so we’re not talking about that end of the spectrum. That if you’ve come from a family where that was happening, that is, you require specialized treatment, often in the form of trauma-focused therapy to recover from some of that stuff. And so, if you would like to learn more about that very far end of the pathology spectrum, you could Google—it’s called the victim triangle based on Karpman’s work, which was in the 60s, I believe. So anyway, just that is not on the blog at growingself.com, okay? You want to Google that elsewhere because that’s trauma. Trauma-focused work really requires a specialized kind of therapy that we don’t really do at a Growing Self. But I wanted to mention that because if you have lived through that life experience, you probably should get that type of therapy. And I hope that provides you with some guidance about what to do with that.

But there is also quite a continuum of dysfunctional on one side and healthy on the other. There is a lot of space in the middle that, honestly, most families are kind of in, where not everybody is perfect, not everybody is fully actualized. Maybe mom and dad do have some issues, and you see some of these family roles popping up, but it’s kind of like matters of degree. And the reason why these roles start to happen and perpetuate is because families are systems, like work groups are also systems. But families, because they spend so much time together, form these systems that maintain themselves because people react to each other’s reactions. You’ve heard me talk about— if you’ve listened to the show before, you’ve heard me talk a lot about this dynamic when it comes to couples. And so like, husband and wife having reactions to each other’s reactions that then elicit more reactions, that kind of keep that cycle going. And it happens between two people. But it also happens within a family in a way that it all sort of sticks together and works together.

So, for example, imagine a family of five, or seven, or however many, sitting around the dinner table, and the family clown falls out of his chair because mom and dad start to get into a tense conversation. Nobody else notices. But the clown immediately falls out of his chair and starts flopping around like a halibut on the floor. Everybody would be like, “What? What are you doing? Get back on your chair!” Right? And mom and dad are getting irritated with each other because mom is kind of drunk at dinner. So Dad is getting irritated. At the moment of the clown falling out of the chair, the perfect child will say, “Oh mom, I’m going to the national championship for fencing. I think, you know, and I’m also getting nominated to be the captain of the fencing team at school,” which in her mentioning that immediately soothes mom’s kind of underlying anxiety.

Mom, the victim— she doesn’t have to think, “Oh, maybe I’m drinking too much, and my family is suffering as a result.” Because she’s like, “Look at this perfect child. I’m such a good mom. My child would not be this perfect if I wasn’t such a good mom. I’m going to have another glass of chardonnay to celebrate this, as a matter of fact.” And so it like maintains the system. Now, mom also is probably drinking too much because dad is working nonstop. He’s working ten, twelve hours a day. He’s always preoccupied. He’s kind of working himself to death and doesn’t really have anything else to say when he gets home because he’s exhausted, because dad is totally worried about making enough money to pay for the fencing lessons, paying all the bills, making sure that all the stuff happens, and that we can continue paying for this nice house in the suburbs to pacify mom, and her desire to be like good enough, and maintain her social status. And he is not getting any of his emotional needs met because he doesn’t trust mom, who’s a little bit erratic and doesn’t believe that she’s even competent to pay the bills if he did hand that over to her and let her be responsible for it. So he’s kind of in that enabler, caretaker role in the family.

And then, there’s the kid who is upstairs in her room as the family is eating dinner, refusing to come down because she is smoking pot out the window, and cutting her arm with a razor blade, and making melodramatic videos on TikTok, “Goodbye, cruel world,” to get fifty people being like, “Are you okay?” And the mom and dad are both very preoccupied because we have got to get her into therapy like right away, possibly residential treatment. And as soon as we do, that will be so much less stress because dad won’t have to work so much because the kid will be on the other side of therapy. And how are we going to pay for residential treatment, which is like twenty thousand dollars? And so it’s like all perpetuating, all perpetuating this.

And the kid with a problem has everybody’s attention because she’s clearly not okay and wait, there is— we have another kid right? Where? What is his name again? Oh, the one who’s in the closet reading books with a flashlight? I think he’s on, like, book 17 of some 27-volume sci-fi series that he’s read for the fourth time. Who doesn’t talk to people or plays video games for like 11 hours a day. Like, that’s the kid that hides because there’s no space for him to get any of his needs met.

And so when you— this is kind of stereotypical example. But if we look at this system with all the different parts, the sort of victim-y feeling mom, an enabling dad, a perfect daughter, clown son, another kid who’s clearly having issues, and the silent child, like this is an incredibly stable family system. All of these people are in roles that support the roles of the other person. And it’s very, very balanced. If any one person in the system started to change, or become more emotionally healthy, or self-actualized, it would be incredibly disruptive for the rest of the system because everybody else would be confronted by their patterns, by their difficult feelings. And it would be emotionally uncomfortable. And while we think of these family systems, I mean, none of these roles are good for anybody that I’m talking about. But they’re familiar.

They’re sort of safe. They’re sort of known. Like, imagine if we start at the beginning and the clown kid, instead of falling out of his chair is like, “Mom, you’re drunk. Dad, you’re being mean to mom. What is going on?” That kid would get punished and maybe sent to his room, and maybe start turning into the problem child because parents cannot cope with that kind of confrontation because of their own unresolved pathology. They’re like, “I’m going to make that kid the problem.” Right? As opposed to saying, “You know what? You’re right. I am drinking too much.” Or dad saying, “I am totally emotionally unavailable and so focused on overfunctioning for your underfunctioning mother that I don’t even know what’s going on around here half the time.”

So, I mean, that kind of self-awareness and recognition takes an enormous amount of emotional health and emotional stability, emotional regulation skills. And in dysfunctional families, people can’t do that. So everybody has to stay in their roles in order to kind of just get through it. And so, again, these things can exist on a spectrum, but that’s why they become so inflexible is because as soon as somebody starts to change, it requires other people in the system to change. And what you can always expect in a family system is that if you try to change and have a healthy relationship with appropriate boundaries and a level of authenticity that would be considered healthy, if you bring those things back to a dysfunctional family system like, “Mom, I want to have a more authentic relationship with you. And I think that we need to have authentic conversations about how we’re both feeling,” and you and your mom have been in dysfunctional family roles for a long, long time, your mom is going to be, “Why are you being so mean to me? You are so selfish. You always make everything about you. Don’t you care what I’m going through?” And will essentially beat you back into that old position where you’re like, “Oh, okay. Mom. I got a promotion at work. Did I tell you about that?” She’s like, “Oh, really? Tell me more about that,” because that makes her feel good. That’s what she wants from you. And so it’s like through our interactions, these roles all get reinforced.

So going back to the original question that I posed to you, who does your family want you to be? And who did you have to be in your family in order to maintain the system? What did you get in trouble for? What did you get attention for? What did you get positive attention for? What did you get negative attention for? In our little story about the problem child up in the room, cutting her arm with a razor blade, and crying, and on TikTok, she’s getting a lot of negative attention that is very functional for her. She’s feeling loved, and cared for, and taken to therapy appointments, and all kinds of things. And people reaching out to her on social media telling her that there’s so much to live for. That is negative attention, but it is attention, and it really works.

So it’s like, “How is this functional? How is this working?” are always the questions to be asking. And also know that systems are always balanced. One thing that you will see very green and inexperienced therapist is looking at a family or a couple and seeing, “This is the person with the problem. And this is like the good, nice, functional person.” That is never true. People are always balanced. And you see it over and over again, even in a couple where like one person has the problem, they are “problem.”

And you see this like in recovery. So there was one partner who was abusing substances. They get into recovery, they do their treatment. They do the work. They get into this healthy place, and you will often see the codependent spouse who had been the one who was overfunctioning and so upset with their partner for not getting it together, like, as soon as they do get it together, the partner who had been over functioning, oftentimes, is all of a sudden like getting depressed, and withdrawing emotionally, and starting to wonder if they even want to be in this relationship anymore after all that they’ve lived through. Because now they are in the situation with a healthy, emotionally available partner who would like to have a authentic, emotionally intimate, sexually intimate relationship with them. And this partner, who was the overfunctioning, codependent one, had, in actuality, been very protected from any kind of vulnerability, or any kind of challenge to be working on their own stuff because they got to be the perfect one in the relationship when their partner was an alcoholic.

And now, all of a sudden their partner is saying, “Well, you know, how can we do this better? Here’s what I need from you.” And that can be incredibly uncomfortable. That as difficult as that dysfunctional role was, in many ways, it felt safer and more comfortable for them than having to risk trusting someone or being vulnerable with someone who might actually be able to be emotionally available and responsive to them. Intimacy is very scary, and particularly, people who are coming out of dysfunctional families are very wary of authentic emotional intimacy. So don’t ever think that it’s— there’s actually a good one and a bad one in a family.

You see this a lot like with the perfect children. The straight A valedictorian squash champion who finally goes off, gets into the Ivy League school, and goes off to college, and sort of immediately falls apart, and has to be hospitalized for anorexia, and suicidal ideation because they’re eating like one crouton every day because they can’t cope with all the pressure, and these sort of self-imposed things. And they’re very, very fragile in actuality. Particularly when they’re confronted with, like, “What do you want to do? What makes you happy? Do you really want to keep being the international squash champion or would you rather do something else?” Totally blows them apart when they have been in these very rigid family roles.

So there’s a lot here. And if you’re just sitting here trying to take this all in, I want to say, I know, I know that this is a lot, and these are very, very different ideas. These are family systems ideas. And there is so much that’s been researched on this through the 50s, 60s, this whole family therapy movement in the 1970s. I mean, this is big, big stuff. And I feel like in our day and age when people want little quick, digestible nuggets of “tell me what to do,” or “tell me what to say,” or “give me a strategy for fixing this relationship thing,” again, it’s so tempting to say, “Okay. Try this. You unload the dishwasher Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He does it Tuesday, Thursday,” and whatever those kinds of superficial fixes are totally ignoring the whole foundation that a relationship is built on. And so when you go into these family systems ideas, you begin to see how they interact, how they impact people, and maybe even how they have been impacting you, whether you have been conscious of it or not.

And so this podcast is in no way intended to serve as the work itself. Right? I mean, to really be digging into this, and specifically what it looked like in your family and in your family currently, you know, it involves a lot of deep digging. Family therapists will do things called genograms, which is like an assessment of family roles. Different kinds of assessments, a lot of like structured interviewing to sort of flush out like, “Okay, who are you? And tell me about your brother,” and all these different things. We could do enactments, like recreating certain situations. But also, even, I think, through really solid cognitive behavioral therapy or cognitive behavioral coaching, we’re still going into, “What are some of the core beliefs that you have internalized without being aware of it?”

You may have heard a podcast that I released a while ago about the shadow side. We’re getting into, “What do you believe without knowing that you believe it? How do you automatically feel without fully being aware of why?” Oftentimes, our clues to our family of origin roles can be found when we feel dark feelings, when we feel guilty about things that we probably shouldn’t feel guilty about. But if you find yourself feeling guilty anyway, there’s a good chance it’s related to a dysfunctional family role. Or if you’re feeling angry, or victimized, or if you’re feeling a lot of shame about something that happened, or anger towards another person—resentment. These are oftentimes clues, not always, but it’s like— a good family therapist would be like, “Sounds like you feel guilty a lot and in situations that not everybody does feel guilty. And so let’s pull on that string together and see if we can figure out why this makes sense that you would feel guilty when you know somebody else has a problem. Take me into this feeling. And how does this make you want to behave?” I mean, like these kinds of questions can begin to get into it.

And so, again, this kind of work is very much a process that’s beyond the scope of this podcast. But it’s also really important. And if you have been one of the many people that has reached out to me lately with a specific relationship question, “Dr. Lisa, what do I do in this situation?” Believe it or not, me talking about these things is an attempt to meet your need in a more meaningful and authentic way than providing you with sort of a superficial fluffy strategy that probably won’t work, or at least not long-term. Like it might work for a little bit, but it won’t create real and lasting change because the origin of the dynamic that is happening in your relationship or with your family member is worthy of deeper exploration. And whether or not you are aware of it, you are participating in this dynamic, and it is contributing to the result that you’re getting.

And so, me telling you to say “please,” and “thank you,” or use I statements is not helping you understand what your role is, related to the current relational dynamic, or where it came from, and what is keeping that alive inside of you in terms of the core beliefs, in terms of your negative emotions, in terms of what you feel like you need to do in order to be worthy of love, and respect, or care, or consideration. And without that kind of awareness, you can’t really take meaningful action because this isn’t strategy; this is a growth process. I talked about my work that, again, I did not even know this was a thing until I was well into adulthood. And realizing that when I get stressed out, or when I’m feeling vulnerable, I tend to withdraw emotionally from my husband. And that was creating problems in our relationship.

And so I was like, “Okay. How do I make my relationship better?” And had to confront, like, why do I do that? And let me think about why that made sense as a functional part of my family of origin, and that that allowed me to be able to really change it. But even now, I still have to be aware of that when I’m getting stressed out or when I’m feeling threatened, and I feel myself kind of withdrawing. I have to very actively say, “No, I’m not going to do that. I’m okay. Say what you’re feeling. Be authentic, trust this person. It’s okay. You can talk about it.” And I kind of have to move myself into that space of who I want to be, which is hard won through a lot of effort and through not, I think, just the therapy strategies around realizing why but the coaching strategies around “How do I manage my anxiety in such a way that I’m able to stay in the ring with people, and be authentic, and communicate appropriately, and say what I want to say, and what I need to say?” I mean, those are our very real and deliberate relational skills that we need to learn.

So again, closing questions, “How do you react when you get stressed? How do you try to cope with anxiety or fear when you’re feeling vulnerable or insecure in a relationship?” You see it in a lot of ways. People who feel unlovable and are worried that they’re not good enough for that caretaking role, or even a perfectionistic role, you’ll see them in relationships when they’re dating, like with promiscuous sex, like kind of using sexuality as a way of gaining love or attention. Caretaking, over-giving to people, not having healthy boundaries with people, not being able to say no to people, coping by sort of gentle self-harming behaviors. Even like eating all the banana bread, or drinking too much, or sort of anaesthetizing themselves with various substances or activities.

And so, when you think about this and what you do when you’re stressed, and who you feel like you have to be around your family, and contrast that with, you know, who do you get to be when you feel healthy, and safe, and emotionally accepted? Those are the clues. Those are the clues, and while they’re not the whole answer, they’re the breadcrumbs on the trail that can guide us to the ultimate truth. And, I’ll also share, I am a huge advocate for self-help. I believe that you can read books, and you can listen to podcasts, and you could do online classes, and get so much benefit from those. Journaling is helpful. It’s all good. And I don’t think that the answer to growth is always in private therapy or coaching.

But when it comes to tackling these kinds of things that we’ve been talking about today, we all have blind spots because these patterns and ways of relating are so ingrained. They’re so baked into us that we literally have no idea that we’re doing anything until we are in a relationship with someone who is either getting upset with us for being the way that we know how to be. And we’re like, “What? What’s wrong with you?” Or when we are in a relationship with someone like a therapist or a really good coach who can see what we’re doing, maybe we start engaging in those kinds of behaviors with a therapist or coach, which is a thing it’s called transference. Somebody shows up to my office with a loaf of banana bread, I am going to want to talk about why that just happened, and why they thought that that would be something that I wanted or needed from them. And like going into those relational kinds of patterns and doors.

So it’s being in a helping relationship with someone who can shine a light on those blind spots and help us understand our own patterns and ways of relating because when those things are lifted up into the light, we can see all of it. We can see the good things, and the things that we’re so grateful for, and the things that we love, and cherish about our families and about ourselves. And we can also see the old patterns that maybe we needed to do in our families but are no longer serving us well as adults. And then we can make intentional choices to do things a little bit differently so that we can get better results in our most important relationships.

So thank you so much for listening to these ideas with me today. And I hope that they helped you. Again, listening to me talk about this stuff is not the work. This is me standing here with you, pointing my finger in the direction of the road that you will need to walk down to achieve this growth process. But I hope that just by virtue of listening to this podcast, you are more aware that the road is there, and that there is an invitation for you to walk down it and do that work if you feel that it would be helpful on your journey of growth and personal development.

If you have follow up questions for me or would like for me to expound on another topic that would support you on your journey of growth, don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can leave a comment for me on the blog at growingself.com. You can get in touch through facebook.com/drlisabobby or track me down on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby. And last of all, thank you so much, all of you who have left positive reviews for the podcast, either on iTunes or Apple Podcasts, or Spotify.

This is a labor of love for me. It is intended to help others. That’s why we don’t do advertising. I’m not doing affiliate programs or pushing weird things on you guys. It’s really intended to be genuinely helpful. And your reviewing it or sharing it with others is the payment. You are paying it forward and putting this information in front of other people who need to hear it. When you leave a review or share it on social media, you are giving one of our fellow travelers the opportunity to stumble upon it. So thank you in advance for your generosity. In doing so, you just might change a life in the process. Thank you.

Okay, that’s it. I’ll be back in touch next time with another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. Bye-bye.

[playing Stars by Ayla Nereo]

 

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How to Deal With Covid 19 Anxiety

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | Love, Happiness & Success

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How to Deal With Trust Issues

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Listen: I know from years of experience as a Denver therapist, marriage counselor and relationship coach that being wary of others after being hurt is normal and healthy — at least to a degree.

In my opinion, having “trust issues” can be a good thing. It takes a long time to get to know people, and not all people are trustworthy. Part of having healthy boundaries is practicing discernment: figuring out who is emotionally safe for you (and who isn’t) and then acting accordingly.

If you’ve been burned in the past, it’s normal to feel twinges of anxiety as you become increasingly vulnerable with a new person. You’re still getting to know them and figuring out whether or not they’re trustworthy. Let’s not label healthy apprehension as problematic “trust issues” that need to be eradicated. It’s your emotional guidance system’s way of being protective of you, and telling you to slow down and take your time to get to know people.

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Particularly if you’ve been hurt in past relationships, it’s absolutely normal to have “trust issues” that need to be worked on in your new relationship.

But here’s the thing to know: There is a difference between healthy caution and strong boundaries, and persistently feeling anxious about your relationship even after your partner is showing you they are trustworthy and emotionally safe.

If you are in a relationship with someone who is (generally, if not perfectly) kind, emotionally safe, and consistent, and you’re still watching their every move, feeling like an over-caffeinated feral cat ready to run for your life at the slightest twitch… you might have trust issues.

What are trust issues? Having trust issues means that the source of your mistrust and feelings of insecurity are not due to what’s happening in the relationship, but are stemming from unresolved wounds you experienced in past relationships. If you have been hurt in the past (particularly if you’ve survived a toxic relationship) and never really worked through it, you could be with the most honest and trustworthy person in the world and still struggle to trust them fully. Because your feelings of mistrust have nothing to do with them, specifically. You’d carry armloads of anxiety with you into every relationship.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Yep, that’s me.” [Raising hand] “Right here. I have trust issues.” I’d like you to know that it’s really important that you work on trust issues and not blow them off or live with them for too long.

The reason is that if you have unresolved trust issues in a relationship that run rampant, they can wind up harming your relationships. Even sabotaging them. And as your unresolved trust issues implode your relationships, one after another, it will only create more hurtful experiences and increasingly entrenched “trust issues” for you to work through down the road.

If you’ve become aware that you might have trust issues, especially trust issues in relationships, it’s important to take action to resolve them.

How to Get Over Trust Issues

That’s why  on this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, we’re talking all about how to overcome trust issues. I’ll be answering questions like,

“What are trust issues?”

“What causes trust issues?

“Why do I have trust issues?”

And most importantly: “How to get over trust issues?”

I will share with you the signs of trust issues. You will also learn how a lack of trust can hurt you, your partner, and your relationship. As a licensed psychologist and relationship coach, I will discuss how you can start overcoming trust issues and start feeling more secure in your most important relationships.

Tune in to the full interview to learn how you can let go of your trust issues to:

  • Learn how to overcome trust issues that create problems for your relationship.
  • Find out the causes of trust issues.
  • Learn how to manage feelings of anxiety in relationships
  • Understand how and why you should take responsibility for your emotions and response.
  • Know the effects of trust issues on your relationship and partner.

Ready to start? You can listen to this “How to Deal With Trust Issues” podcast on Spotify, on the Apple Podcast App, or scroll down to the bottom of this page to listen to it on GrowingSelf.com. (Or anywhere else you like to listen to podcasts.) While you’re listening to this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast!

If you’re more of a reader than a listener, keep reading to learn more about about “how to deal with trust issues” and get an overview of what I’m discussing in today’s show…

What Are Trust Issues?

You might think that that people have “trust issues” related to a partner who has betrayed them in the past. This a reasonable assumption: many people wouldn’t trust someone after they’ve been betrayed and their trust has been damaged. 

However, having “trust issues” in a relationship where trust has been broken is not an “issue.” It’s a normal, healthy response to be suspicious of someone who may not be trustworthy. (As evidenced by past experiences.) Repairing trust in a relationship is an entirely different thing than having “trust issues” that you carry around with you. 

Please check out “Sorry’s just not good enough: How to repair trust,” and “Repairing Trust After Infidelity” for more on this topic.

There’s a distinction between broken trust and the trust issues I’m going to talk about today. In this episode, I will talk about feeling mistrustful or not feeling safe in a relationship even if nothing terrible has happened.

Learning how to deal with trust issues and insecurities in a relationship in which nothing bad has happened is challenging. Having these types of trust issues are also really common.

Signs of Trust Issues

These are the signs you should watch out for to recognize whether or not you have some trust issues to work on:

  • You’ve been hurt or betrayed by people in the past.
  • You doubt your partner despite the absence of betrayal.
  • You often question if your partner is trustworthy or is telling the truth.
  • You are extra-vigilant for any signs of lying, cheating, and concealing.
  • You perpetually feel anxiety or insecurity about your relationship.

People With Trust Issues…

Someone with trust issues will often have feelings of anxiety, worry or doubt about their relationship.  This can result in big feelings, and attempts to get more information from your partner (which can wind up feeling to them like they’re being accused of something they didn’t do).  For example, a mistrustful person might ask for additional evidence regarding their partner’s whereabouts or what they were doing… but have a hard time believing what ever their partner says.

If their partner can explain their whereabouts, or provide reassurance, that additional information might temporarily soothe the anxiety or insecurity, but it’s a trap — it doesn’t resolve the underlying cause of trust issues. Even if, in the moment, the explanation or reassurance helps, its only a matter of time before you start to worry again. 

It’s exhausting.

Unfortunately, the constant cycle of worry – requests for information / reassurance – temporary soothing – more worry is exhausting for your partner too. If you have trust issues it feels like you’re always asking for reassurance that you’re emotionally safe. But your partner may feel like nothing is ever enough, and that they are not emotionally safe with you. It turns into a negative pursue / withdrawal relationship cycle that just keeps spiraling down.

Trust Issues in a Relationship

Trust issues — if not dealt with and worked through — will eventually damage a relationship. Someone with trust issues will be worried most, if not all, of the time, which will place a great deal of pressure and strain on the relationship. This negatively impacts communication and emotional safety for both partners.

If you’re in a relationship with someone who has trust issues you may feel like: 

Over time, if your partner has unresolved trust issues you may begin to view them as being excessively needy or demanding. The problem is that without lots of reassurance, the mistrustful person might think that you don’t love them, or that you’re doing something behind their back, or that you are angry with them.

If you are in a relationship with someone who is always thinking bad things about you, you aren’t going to feel loved, respected, or trusted. The relationship will stop feeling emotionally safe for you as a result.

Over time, you will feel yourself withdrawing emotionally — a self-fulfilling prophecy of your anxious partner’s worst nightmare come true!

How to Fix Trust Issues

Trust issues will not heal or go away on their own. You need to actively address them. The first step is to recognize that unresolved trust issues are damaging your relationship. Therapy for trust issues is particularly useful if you become aware of longstanding patterns of feeling anxious or insecure in your relationships.

If you decide to pursue therapy to resolve trust issues, you should be sure that your therapist knows how to handle this type of relationship problem. Ask your prospective therapist these questions:

  • Why do you think people have trust issues?
  • What is your process for helping someone overcome trust issues?

Your therapist should provide you with a coherent answer and explain it in ways that make sense to you. In particular, a therapist with a background in attachment theory, emotionally focused couples therapy and / or cognitive behavioral therapy can help.

Relational Trauma + Attachment Styles

Sometimes people develop trust issues after having had bad experiences in past relationships. It can be helpful to understand these past experiences as a “little t trauma” that needs to be resolved and healed.

Other times, particularly if trust issues are longstanding, you may discover over the course of therapy that the cause has more to do with your attachment style than with one specific “relationship trauma.”

What are attachment styles?

Attachment styles are the ways we relate to others that we developed through our early life experiences.

Most people are generally secure in their attachments to others. They trust people until given a reason not to do so. However, people who’s earliest relationships were not always safe or consistent can develop “protective” attachment styles.

  1. Avoidant Attachment Style — You can become overly critical of others or actively reject other people. Avoidant people don’t trust anyone enough to get close to them and think they don’t need anyone.
  2. Anxious Attachment Style  — People with an anxious attachment style feel insecure and doubtful of their romantic partners and may need extra reassurance. They might also unconsciously anticipate rejection. This anticipation isn’t something they consciously do.

Even people who are generally or were formerly secure in their relationships can exhibit qualities of the above attachment styles after having experienced a relationship trauma, which is wholly natural and valid. Particularly after ending a toxic relationship, you may need to heal and recover to feel safe in your relationships again going forward.

“Why Do I Have Trust Issues?”

If you’re reading this and beating yourself up because you may have trust issues, it’s time to stop. Having self-compassion and understanding that there is a reason you feel the way you do is the first step of healing.

Being compassionate with yourself cultivates healthy self awareness, and this is vital. Without awareness of your trust issues, you may find yourself becoming hyper-vigilant and suspicious of your partner. Instead, the work ahead of you is learning how to provide yourself with soothing and reassurance to manage your anxiety in relationships.

Healing Trust Issues

To heal trust issues, you need an understanding of what’s going on inside your head, self-awareness, and compassion for yourself. People with trust issues have experienced relational trauma, and it would help both partners if they understood that these feelings are real and normal. However, their feelings are not related to the current relationship.

If you have trust issues, you need to learn how to manage your anxiety and respond to your triggers effectively. Having individual therapy or relationship counseling can be helpful. Be kind to yourself, your partner, and your relationship by taking responsibility for your feelings.

Tips to Overcome Trust Issues

Here are a few resources that can support your work to overcome trust issues.

  • Go through a process of evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy with someone who understands relational trauma and attachment styles.
  • Take online courses, such as our Happiness Class. It will not explicitly resolve your trust issues, but it will set your expectations. 

By undergoing therapy, you can reprocess your relational trauma, learn how to handle your anxiety, and know your triggers. These things will lead to a healthier relationship and set you on the path to healing.

Just remember, that this type of healing can be quite slow. It’s important to be committed to the process of therapy. Especially if you’ve had trust issues for a long time (or trust issues that stem from early life experiences) this is not going to go away overnight.

But you can learn to understand them, manage them, and cultivate safety and security in your most important relationships.

Wishing you all the very best on your journey of growth and healing…

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

 

 

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How to Deal With Trust Issues

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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How to Deal With Trust Issues: Podcast Transcript

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Access Episode Transcript

How to Deal With Trust Issues — The Podcast

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast. 

Could there even be a more perfect song to set the tone for a conversation about trust issues? I don’t think so. What we’re listening to right now is a band called Monk Turner + Fascinoma with a song “Trust (Is Just A Word)” from their album Emergency Songs. I don’t know about emergency songs, but they’re all fantastic songs, so you should check out Monk Turner + Fascinoma if you want to learn more about what they’re up to. 

But in the meantime, we are here today to talk about trust issues and how to deal with trust issues and insecurities, particularly when it comes to relationships. And the reason why we’re talking about this today is because I get this question a lot. And if you are one who’s reached out to me through Instagram or Facebook or on the blog at growingself.com with questions like, “how do I trust again after I’ve been hurt in the past?” or one of the many, you know, variations of that question. I want you to know that I have been listening and collecting your questions and this show is for you. Today we’re going to be talking about why people have trust issues and things that you can do to overcome the trust issues so that your relationship is no longer stressed, strained, or damaged by trust issues because that can happen. And we’ll talk about why.

Now, if you have a question for me, or would also like to pose a topic for an upcoming podcast, I hope you get in touch with me. You can always track me down on Instagram at @drlisamariebobby, Facebook at Dr. Lisa Bobby, or of course jump into the fray. You can cruise over to growingself.com and join the vibrant community of commenters and questioners and discussers. That is often found at the bottom of blog posts that you’re interested in. So enough about that. Let’s jump in to today’s topic.

Today, we are talking about trust issues. And I want to make a very careful and deliberate distinction. People often have trouble trusting their partners after they have experienced a damage in trust. So in past podcasts, I’ve talked a lot about how to repair trust in a relationship after betrayal has occurred. I’ve talked about how to restore trust after an affair as a separate topic. And those situations are different than what we’re talking about today. We’re not talking about that. Because there’s a difference in having trust issues in a relationship after an actual betrayal or breaking of trust, like an affair like financial infidelity, like someone had a substance use disorder and there was all kinds of broken trust and lies and betrayals that happened, you know, over the course of their disease. And so, when couples are setting about to repair trust that has been broken in the context of a relationship, it requires a very special process to do that. And also, I don’t see that kind of mistrust as necessarily being problematic.

In fact, I view that as being a normal, expected, and actually quite healthy response to not fully trust someone who has demonstrated that they are not trustworthy unless and until you go through that process of repair and healing that takes time and effort on both sides, and is a very special special kind of work. So if you are listening to this podcast hopeful that that is what I’m going to be talking about, I would actually refer you back to those previous podcasts I’ve done. You can scroll back through the podcast feed of the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast to find them. Or you can also go to the blog at growingself.com and onlet’s see what are we calling itin the main nav there’s like an expert advice tab. Click on that and then you’ll see a search bar in addition to like the most recent articles and podcasts, not just for myself, but from other experts on our team. But in the search bar, you could just type the word ‘trust’ and you will see all kinds of articles as well as links to those past podcasts about how to repair trust after betrayal. And I hope you do check those out because that’s a hard path and people doing that often require a lot of support. But hopefully the information you find there will give you a head start.

Trust Issues: Not the Same Thing as Broken Trust

So, that is not what we’re talking about today. Today, what we are talking about are trust issues that happen when you don’t feel safe in a relationship where nothing bad has happened. It means not feeling safe or secure with your partner, even if, as far as you know, you are actually emotionally safe with them. So when you have more broad trust issues that you’re carrying around with you, you could be in a relationship with the most honest, trustworthy, committed person in the world and in a relationship where nothing bad or weird has ever happened and still think, “I don’t know about you,” or “I’m not totally sure that I can believe this,” or “ what if something is actually happening that I just don’t know about yet?” 

So when we have trust issues that are our trust issues that we’re bringing in places with us, those are the kinds of things that can be happening on the inside, even in a great relationship. And to kind of go into this just a little bit deeper, here are some signs of trust issues just to kind of help you reflect on whether or not you resonate with any of these experiences. So generally speaking, people with trust issues, in the absence of a betrayal in that particular relationship, will often worry about whether or not their partner is being trustworthy, whether they’re being told the truth, whether there’s something going on behind the scenes that will sooner or later come out and hurt them. And so because they sort of have this kind of, you know, running fear in the back of their mind that something could happen or something is happening, I just don’t know yet. They’re oftentimes very, very vigilant for any signs that their partner might be lying or cheating or concealing things. So they’re like looking for signs that they’re not quite safe. 

Signs of Trust Issues

And also, another sign of trust issuespeople with trust issues aresince they’re always kind of like simmering in this broth of ambient anxiety or feelings of insecurity about their relationshipbecause of that sort of inner emotional state, they often have a lot of just like general insecurity. So if they don’t have a great deal of overt reassurance and signs that they are loved and cherished, they will start to feel scared that they’re not that important, that they’re not loved, and that means that sooner or later they will be rejected or hurt. So it’s not just a vigilance for like, signs of lying or cheating, it’s also thisin the absence of really like being lavished with love and attention and affection, they fear that they aren’t loved. So like neutral things can lead them to feel a lot of anxiety and to be kind of reactive, even when nothing is happening. 

So it’s as you can imagine a really hard situation for both people, you know, someone with trust issues is really feeling worried a lot of the time. And because this anxiety makes them feel so reactive in relationships, it can create a lot of stress and strain and pressure on the relationship and, you know, lead to damaging the relationship over time. So it’s super important to be aware of any trust issues that we are carrying around. And also really learn how to overcome trust issues because if you don’t, the trust issues themselves will begin to create problems in a relationship, and then you’ll really have something to worry about. So we need to understand trust issues. 

And so, you know, what I often see in my work as a, you know—in Growing Self I do marriage counseling, couples counseling, relationship coaching, also dating coaching, but additionally, like individual therapy, life coaching, and I have had trust issue conversations in the context of all of these different situations. But particularly in couples work, if one person in a relationship has trust issues, and they are, you know, doing that hyper vigilant thing where they’re like looking for signs that the other person is hiding things or lying or not being completely honest, or if they are really like needing these over-the-top-expressions of love and adoration, and without that they feel worried that they’re not loved.

What that does, and I say this with love and respect, but understandably, because people feel upset and anxious, they can become sometimes really demanding of their partners, for their partners to do certain things or say certain things or “treat them a certain way so that they feel less anxious,” or if they’re not, you know, talking about it, they can just go into this really like sad place and really feel bad and jump to a lot of negative conclusions about the relationship when they’re not getting what they feel they need to manage their anxiety. And then they start to withdraw from the relationship assuming that a breakup is right around the corner. 

Trust Issues in a Relationship

And so as you can imagine, either of these things becomes really exhausting for the partner of someone with trust issues. It leads to that partner feeling like they’re always walking on eggshells, or feeling like their partner is always upset with them, or finding them lacking, or not loving them the right way, or that their partner doesn’t respect them enough to trust them, that their partner doesn’t think well enough of them to trust them, or doubts their character. And that feels really bad, you know, to the person who is in a relationship with someone who has trust issues. And again, this kind of dynamic can really damage a relationship and, you know, paradoxically create the situation that the person with the trust issues is most worried about, which is that over time, their partner will begin to view them as being unreasonably needy or demanding, and will in fact withdraw from the relationship or start to feel ambivalent about the relationship, which of course, as you can imagine, sends someone who has trust issues anyway through the roof with anxiety because they can see that their partner is maybe concealing things or withdrawing or feeling a little bit more ambivalent.

I’m not saying this to be scary, I’m saying this to be real and to help create an understanding of why it is so important to be taking responsibility for trust issues that we are carrying around with us. And to do something about it, we can’t just like, you know, hope it gets better. This is not one of these things that just kind of gets better over time. We really need to be like working on it intentionally in order to make a change. And the other thing that I routinely see as a marriage counselor or relationship coach is that people with trust issues, they often as we discussed, feel sort of suspicious of their partner, and have a tendency to jump to negative conclusions about their partner’s motivations or things their partner is doing or how their partner feels.

And because it’s sort of fear-fueled, they feel that those things are true because they feel afraid. And what that fear does is it leads to this kind of heightened emotionality where people with trust issues will also often become quite like accusatory, attacking, you know, like kind of ambushing their partner with like, “what about this thing?” And really, you know, like demanding answers, demanding information, demanding explanations, and because their fears are not really reality based, it turns into this thing where nothing their partner says or does will quell this anxiety, or at least not for long, like even if they say, “Yes, I was with Tim. Here is a text fromhere’s a screenshot of my text with Tim.” Or you know, whatever it is that the person is wanting more information about like, it might soothe anxiety in that moment, but because that anxiety is kind of bubbling around inside of them all the time, it’s kind of like that whack-a-mole thing. Like, it’ll come up in a different situation where they will again be potentially accusatory or attacking or suspicious. 

And, you know, if you’re in a relationship with someone who is routinely accusing you of various nefarious things, various nefarious, I can’t believe I just said those two words next to each other, but I did. You were here. Anyway, but nefarious things. You know, if you’re in a relationship with someone who is accusing you ofkind of all the time of bad things being partnered with someone who has unresolved trust issues. So, you know, over time, what happens in couples is that there’s this emerging sense of, you know, it will lead to a relational dynamic where you actually do start hiding or concealing things from your partner because you feel like it will upset them. So whatever it is, so it’s better that they don’t know.

And also, if you are in a relationship with someone who has major trust issues, and is always thinking bad things about you, you aren’t going to feel loved or respected, or trusted, or that they hold you in high esteem. And the relationship will stop feeling emotionally safe for you as a result. And so again, you do see that withdrawal, and ambivalence start to happen because of being partnered with someone who has unresolved trust issues. So, you know, over time, what happens in couples is that there’s this emerging sense of, you know, one partnerthe partner with a trust issuesreally believes that if only their spouse or their partner would do things differently, or say things differently, or finally provide them with all the information that they need to feel safe, their anxiety would go away, which is not true.

But there’s, you know, frantic efforts to try to get those things from, you know, an increasingly tired partner. And the person who is partnered with someone with trust issues will begin over time to feel that their partner with the anxiety is just this, like, black hole of insecurity and anxiety, and no matter what they say or do, it’s never going to be enough to touch that inner anxiety. So they stop trying, you know, and then of course, the relationship dynamic intensifies, with the already anxious person even becoming more anxious, and the already kind of detached person who’s kind of backing up a little bit will start doing that more explicitly. 

So that is a real risk to any relationship you are in. If you are a person who has your little suitcases packed full of trust issues that you’re bringing around from one relationship to the next, and if any of what I just shared resonates with you and sounds familiar, it sounds like these trust issues really are impacting your relationship or your relationships, if there’s a string of them that have that have, you know, experienced this kind of dynamic. And so it’s time to work on them. And I just want to say too that knowledge is power. And I could sort of understand why me being so just like, transparent and honest about like, you know, “Okay, here’s the deal,” could feel worrisome and, you know, might make you think, “Oh, geez,” but I would like to just reconceptualize the feeling as motivation for change. You know, anytime people grow and change and do things differently, it is because they are motivated by not wanting to have, you know, the experience that they have been having. Not wanting to feel anxious anymore, not wanting their relationship to be damaged by trust issues. That is fabulous. And we need to be motivated in order to grow. So I’m okay if you’re not feeling great about thinking about trust issues in this way because that is the energy that is going to mobilize you and lead to healing and wellness, if you do something productive with it. So we have to be real. 

I will also say that therapy for trust issues is very effective provided that you are doing evidence-based therapy with someone who really understands kind of the underpinnings of trust issues and why they happen. I’m going to outline some of this for you so that you can be an educated consumer. But you know, also if you do decide to pursue therapy for trust issues to improve this, as you are interviewing prospective therapists to find the right person, I would encourage you to be asking questions around, you know, “why do you think people have trust issues? What is your process for helping someone overcome trust issues?” And if whatever therapists you are talking to cannot provide you with a coherent answer that makes sense to you, they might not really know how to help you in an organized kind of effective way. So just stick that one in your back pocket.

But to provide you with more information, so you know more about what kinds of questions to ask, and so you can kind of organize what’s happening inside of you, you know, for the purpose of changing it. It’s important to understand what causes trust issues in the first place. But very briefly and simply, trust issues in relationships are created by relational trauma of some kind. So when I work with clients and in therapy, or in some cases coaching, but it’s really more of a therapy thing—when I work with clients in therapy who are seeking to get over trust issues, I find it really helpful to conceptualize their experience as a kind of subclinical PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, and to set up our conversation here is a very quick and dirty PTSD lesson so you can understand what I mean by this. 

Very briefly: whenever we humans live through something that is highly traumatic, we subjectively experience terror. So like this hugely physiological fear response, you’ve heard of the fight, flight, freeze response. That’s what I’m talking about. And it is evolutionarily adaptive, and our brains basically save us by changing our physiology in the moments when we’re going through something that’s super traumatic. You know, our heart races, our breathing shallows, our circulatory system changes, our digestive system changes, our immune system changes, and it’s all response of, you know, our body’s way of like, saving your life in that terrifying, dangerous moment. And when we are put in this physiological space, it changes the way our brains work. 

And here’s the punchline, it changes the way that our brains encode the memories of the traumatic events. When you have experienced a trauma you will not remember it as a normal memory, you know, like, birthday party, junior high dance, like, high school graduation, it is not that kind of memory. It is a traumatic memory. It lives in a totally different part of your brain than normal memories do. And it sort of like lives there and hangs out. And whenever someone who has been traumatized is exposed to anything that is similar to that past like life threatening experience, this huge traumatic stress response will be triggered, and they will essentially re-experience the terror and the horror and the paralysis of the original traumatic experience. And so, then what happens is that people who have this like intrusive flooding, terror, re-experiencing thing start working really hard to avoid that triggering and not re-experiencing because it’s horrible. 

So the classic example would be, you know, the combat vet who comes back from Iraq or something, and you know, almost died and had people around him die and will hear a car backfire down the street and like disassociate into this like state where they’re completely flooded and like, you know, having big flashbacks, and so that happens periodically to this vet, so that vet, you know, quite understandably develop a very serious substance use disorder in efforts to anesthetize themselves and protect themselves from having that experience, which you know, isserves them well in one respect, but of course, it creates serious consequences and another. A sexual assault survivor, same thing you know, in a sexually intimate situation he or she can re-experience all this kind of flooding intrusive thoughts, feelings of terror, have nightmares about it, which leads them to avoid, you know, situations of sexual intimacy or develop substance use disorders that are kind of compensatory. So that’s my little PTSD mini lesson. 

And I also just want to say very, very explicitly, I, while I am a licensed psychologist, I am a licensed marriage and family therapist, I do not specialize or treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and no one in our practice here at Growing Self specializes in this particular disorder. So if you have lived through a, you know, life endangering experience, or you know, saw someone else being victimized violently, and if you listen to my little description, and you know, think, “Yeah, I might actually have that post traumatic stress disorder.” You require specialized trauma-focused therapy with someone who has significant training and experience and specialization in those disorders. That is not what I do.

There are people out there who do that type of work, it’s wonderful work. So I just wanted to mention that because if you’ve lived through that, and you’re experiencing symptoms of like, ‘capital T’ trauma, post traumatic stress disorder, you can absolutely heal, and you deserve to have effective treatment. So look for evidence-based forms of trauma informed cognitive behavioral therapy. There is experiential reprocessing kinds of therapies that work. There’s some evidence to support a type of work called EMDR. And so I would look for those. So that was my little public service announcement to just, you know, educate you around things and what you might look for if you want to seek treatment for that, or if you know, somebody who does require treatment for that sort of thing. But again, that is not what I do. And that is not what this podcast is about. 

However, I wanted to talk about the “big T” trauma, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder response because it’s relevant. There is also “little T” trauma. There are difficult, unpleasant life experiences that we live through that also leave a stain on us emotionally and psychologically unless and until we deliberately resolve them. And I believe that relational trauma falls into this category and can have a similar impact on people as full blown PTSD, but not nearly to the degree of PTSD. But in some ways it is sort of similar. So going through a terrible breakup, or being in a relationship with someone who betrayed you, or cheated on you, or abandoned you can create this relational trauma. I think that “little T” relational trauma is super common and this is something that I often work with, and that we often see here with our clients at Growing Self. People who have sustained “little t” relational trauma, and that trauma shows up aswait for ittrust issues in relationships. They have lived through something hard and scary. And they went through this experience, and now, when they are in slightly similar relational situations, they are experiencing this similar type of triggering, and flooding, and anxiety that needs to be soothed and resolved. And so it can lead to, you know, hypervigilance, safety seeking, which in the context of relationships is always, you know, demanding information or evidence. But you know, it’s related. 

Now, another really important thing for us to be considering is to also, and again, this is so far beyond the scope of a podcast, but in my efforts to be like fully just real and transparent and honest with you, I also want to fully inform you, and so to talk about this other aspect of trust issues I think is important. When I am meeting with someone who shows up or a couple where I can see that trust issues are impacting relationship negatively, a big part of my process is to do a really careful assessment to understand like why this makes sense. And also just sort of get a sense of where this is coming from. 

Now, you may have also heard me talk on past podcasts about something called attachment styles. So brieflyattachment styles are very general ways of relating to others that we developed often through our early life experiences, either in our family of origin or in, you know, childhood or preteen kind of social or romantic experiences can also impact attachment styles. And most people are generally secure, meaning that they tend to think well of themselves and others, and generally trust people unless they have a reason not to. And, I will also just say that even someone with a very secure attachment, who comes from a perfectly lovely family with good enough parents, and nothing bad ever happened to them, they can also become anxious in relationships or even avoidant in relationships, depending on what’s going on in the relationship itself. So there’s no, you know, even securely attached people can exhibit some of the other stuff that I’m going to talk about. 

But for people who had, you know, significant relational trauma early in life, like, you know, really inconsistent parenting, or parents they couldn’t totally trust, parents who weren’t emotionally safe, maybe not physically abusive, verbally, or emotionally abusive, or parents who are rejecting, or maybe addicted to substances that, you know, impaired them—having these kinds of early life experiences can lead someone to have an anxious attachment style, where they anticipate rejection, they anticipate not being able to trust people, and it’s not like a conscious thing, it’s sort of just like a baked in feeling that they can’t trust people. And people with an anxious attachment style often need a lot of reassurance and feel insecure and doubtful of their romantic partners. So it can look like somebody having trust issues can actually be an anxious attachment style, which needs to be handled differently in therapy.

So that’s why it’s important to think aboutor, you know, another attachment style that is also relatively common is if people have had experiences with, you know, caregivers early on that weren’t safe, that they felt like they needed to protect themselves from or were failed by over and over again, they may develop an avoidant attachment style where they become kind of super critical and rejecting of other people, and they don’t really trust anyone enough to get close to them. Sort of this, “I don’t need you, I don’t need anybody,” kind of emotional space, which can also really impact relationships. 

Again, totally beyond the scope of this one particular podcast, but an important variable to consider. I would, if you’d like more on this subject, would refer you back to the blog at growingself.com. You can go to that search bar on the blog page, type in the word ‘attachment’ and you will see past podcasts I’ve done specifically on the subject of attachment styles, as well as a number of articles that I have had colleagues write on the site of growingself.com. There are also marriage and family therapists just to provide insight into attachment styles and how they can impact you and what to do to manage them. If you are not securebut again, healthy, securely attached people will become or appear avoidant or anxious in certain relational situations, certainly in conflictual relationships. And in relational dynamics, like the ones I was talking about at the beginning of this episode, you know, a perfectly secure person who is in a relationship with a very anxious person who has a lot of trust issues, or even an anxious attachment style, will over time become increasingly avoidant in efforts to protect themselves. Also, you can take a perfectly secure person and put them in a relationship with someone who is really critical and avoidant and rejecting and they will very predictably become anxious in response. So these things are fluid and dependent on what’s happening in the relationship too. So it’s never that simple. Never that simple in my field, is it?

Anyway, so it is important to think about where these trust issues are coming from. And also, I always like to kind of come at this with the primary orientation of, and how does this make sense. You know, again, even if you weren’t, you know, in a family where you developed compensatory attachment styles to survive, but have simply lived through difficult life experiences, have had relational trauma with past romantic partners, somebody who hurt you, or betrayed you. I mean, if you were in a relationship with someone who cheated on you, or turned out to be a sociopath, it is totally normal that you would feel anxious and afraid the next time you’re in a relationship with a new person, even if he or she has done absolutely nothing wrong because you’ve lived through something that was really, really scary and very real.

And so that fear, and that ‘little T’ trauma response is absolutely valid. It is normal, it is expected, and it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person, or that you’ve done anything wrong because you’re having that experience. It’s just like your body’s emotional guidance system saying this happened, and that you need a process of healing and recovery in order to feel safe in your relationships again. But I think it’s important to keep these things in mind because, again, unless you have a lot of self-awareness and can like, say, “Oh, I am getting triggered right now. This is a trauma trigger.” It can be easy to, like, point to things that are happening or not happening in your relationship as being the source of your anxiety as opposed to having that self-aware understanding of, “Oh, this is my trauma trigger that’s happening right now.” And without that self-awareness, it’s really easy to go into that space of vigilance and suspiciousness and being attacking, or really needing like a ton of reassurance in order to feel safe, and over time, that will hurt your relationship. 

So, again, I hope that that just provides a foundation of understanding. And again, if you are in a relationship where patently bad things have happened, and your trust has been brokenif you’re in a relationship or your partner had an affair, or there’s financial infidelity, substance use, it requires a different healing process. But, if you have, or are, you know, over the course of our conversation recognizing that you are having trust issues that are related to traumas of relational traumas in past relationshipsthat is something that you will need to take responsibility for and do something about in order to overcome them. And the reason again why this is important and is hard is because when we are experiencing a really intense, emotional experience to saylet’s see how many times I can use the word experience in one sentence. When we’re having a really intense emotional experience, particularly if it’s a fearful or anxious emotion, we will feel scared, and we will look around, we will scan our environment for things that support that fear, and you will always find them. If you are feeling anxious and scared, you will always find them. 

I mean, think about it. You know, I have worked with people who had trust issues and had relational anxiety and it could be literally something like, “He didn’t put the cereal box away. I wonder why he didn’t put the cereal box away. He must have been distracted. Why was he distracted? Was he texting with someone? Is that why he didn’t put the cereal away? Was he messaging someone on Facebook? Maybe it was just thinking about her? Who was he messaging? Who would he message? That pretty girl he went to high school with? The oneI saw her she liked the photo that he posted about our vacation. Oh my god, what if she’s been sending him her vacation photos? And I bet there’s pictures of her in a bikini and she’s probably liking them.” And then this, you know, the person with anxiety, is showing us full lot of anxiety and can easily spend like the next three hours ruminating and feeling so anxious and like coming up with all these different scenarios in their head. And then their boyfriend or husband or whatever walks in the door four hours later, and it’s like, “Were you going to tell me about Kimberly?” You know, and this person’s like, “What is going what did I just walk into?”

But there are just these very well developed ideas that have bloomed inside of her head about all these things that could be happening that were you know, triggered by a cereal box not getting put away. And then it turns into, you know, this back and forth like, “Who’s Kimberly? I don’t know a Kimberly.” And then the person with anxiety is like, “Don’t lie. Kimberly is the woman that you went to Facebook or went to high school with that you’re Facebook friends with. You’ve been messaging with her,” and like, “No, I haven’t.” And then you could say, “I saw her like your vacation photo, you’re totally lying to me right now.” 

I mean, you know, some people are like nodding their heads in recognition of arguments that may have happened at their house. And I know it seems kind of funny when you talk about it sort of out of context like this, but this is the sort of thing that trust issues and relationships can easily turn into if you’re not really conscious of the impact of fear on you, and how it makes you think, and how it makes you feel, and what it makes you do. And that is honestly the first step. Because, you know, what we’re talking about this people are always like, “Okay, well, how do I get over trust issues? What do I do to overcome my trust issues?” And what’s important to know is that while the first key step in healing trust issues is understanding what’s going on inside of them, and having that self-awareness, and also having compassion for themselves because, you know, the people with trust issues have experienced relational trauma, it’s helpful to understand that their their feelings are very real, they’re happening for a reason. But those feelings are not in alignment with their current life experience. They are out of proportion to what is happening in objective reality. And that right there is really, really hard. 

How to Fix Trust Issues

I will spend weeks with a client, months with a client, on that one thing, you know, “Is this out of proportion to my experience? Or is something actually scary happening right now that I should be worried about?” People with trust issues have a very difficult time differentiating whether or not they’re safe in relationships because even if there’s no evidence that they’re not safe, it is so easy for their traumatized minds to say, “Well, but, what about this?” or, “Maybe I just don’t know yet.” And also the fact that they feel unsafe, even if there’s nothing bad happening, and this is really difficult to unwind if someone has been in a relationship where there was relational trauma in the past, and that there were periods in that relationship that felt very safe for them. So like, you know, somebody say, “I never suspected anything with my ex-boyfriend, either. He was so wonderful and so loving and communicative and affectionate. And then one day he drained my bank account and vanished. But before that he was perfect, too.” So then when they’re in a relationship with someone who is perfectly nice, that in itself can feel like a trauma trigger because their abusive, horrible ex was also very nice sometimes, too. 

And so this is why it’s really, really important to get into good therapy for trust issues, evidence-based therapy for trust issues, like CBT can help you figure out what part of your fears and worries are coming from inside of you that are related to relational trauma. What is that “little T” relational trauma response doing, and differentiating that from what is a valid concern about something happening in your relationship that you should be talking about with your partner. People who have been traumatized in relationships have a lot of trouble figuring that out, and that is a core skill that must be achieved is figuring out how to like manage anxiety and stay in a good place, and figure out what is actually a problem vs. what is my trauma response? And also, how do I manage my feelings of anxiety independently of whether or not my partner is doing something or saying something the way that I imagined would make me feel better? Because that’s a really important piece of this puzzle too. So that clarity is super vital. And so individual therapy for trust issues is definitely important. 

And I will also say that it can also be super helpful to do couples counseling or relationship coaching if you have trust issues, and it is not a couples therapy to try to make your partner say or do all the things so that you don’t feel anxious anymore because no one else can change the way you feel on the inside except for you. And so if you are, if you’re like, “But what if he did this, I might feel better.” You possibly temporarily you would feel better, but really, that’s like you have to take responsibility for the anxiety first. And so if you are currently attempting to manage your anxiety by controlling your partner’s behaviors, I would encourage you to listen to a podcast that I recently did about codependence and relationships. And you can find out more on that topic again, on the blog at growingself.com. Type ‘codependence’ into the search bar and you’ll see articles to help understand why, what I’m talking about there. 

But, sowhile you should manage your expectations that couples therapy isn’t going to get your partner to change so that you don’t feel anxious anymore, what it can do is help both you and your partner understand together what happens for you on the inside when you feel scared, and why that makes sense based on your life experiences. And by talking about this openly with your partner in a safe space, your partner can begin to have more empathy for what you’re going through because it really is hard, and it is very, very real. But they can have more empathy for you in these moments. And they can also stop taking your anxiety personally and like as a statement that you’re upset with them, you know, and that can help them stay emotionally closer to you instead of withdrawing. And also good couples therapy can help you two figure out ways of turning towards each other in these moments. And so I would recommend what—and being able to turn towards each other and connect and really like feel loved and supported and connected in these moments when you’re feeling scared can be enormously soothing. You know, there’s a real benefit to secure attachment with someone who loves you. And to beto feel scared and be able to say to someone, “I feel really scared right now,” and have them be appropriately responsive to you, give you a hug, tell you they love you can be enormously soothing, you know, so that could be really, really helpful.

And so to find a good marriage counselor to help you with that, I would recommend looking for a marriage counselor or a couple therapist, again, who understands relational trauma, and who practices either The Gottman Method of marriage counseling or emotionally-focused couples therapy, those are both evidence-based forms of couples counseling that can be really effective for this kind of thing. So that can help your relationship. And also a side benefit is by talking about these things openly in couples therapy, your partner will also I think feel encouraged to be understanding what’s happening and also see you be taking responsibility for the anxious responses that you’re having in certain situations, and see the work that you’re doing to change that, you know, particularly if you’re working with a therapist who’s encouraging you to take responsibility for those moments, to manage your anxiety, and to provide you with accountability for doing that. And also working with you to develop solid cognitive and behavioral strategies for managing that anxiety. That can be really helpful and healing for your relationship too. 

So, you know, what those specific cognitive behavioral therapy strategies are is obviously, again, beyond the scope of any podcast. It is not a here’s, you know, three quick tips to totally overcome all of the historical trust issues that you have for a reason, like there’s nothing I’m going to say in this podcast, you’re like, “Oh, I feel better now.” But to go through a process of evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy with someone who understands relational trauma will help you understand what’s happening inside of yourself, and help you develop both cognitive and behavioral strategies for soothing yourself and manage your anxiety in those moments. So that not just you know, you feel better, but also that you are more in control of what you’re doing in your relationship so that you’re not, you know, inadvertently behaving in ways that are damaging to your relationship as a result of your anxiety. So, you know, again, I would recommend looking for a therapist who does evidence-based therapy, who understands relational trauma. 

Other resources for youthere are online CBT courses which if you don’t feel quite up for, you know, therapy with a person, which honestly, in this situation, I would really encourage because when you’ve been traumatized in a relationship, and when you’re carrying around these kinds of trust issues, it can be really difficult to kind of gain that self-awareness that you need. And also like the feedback, you know, the perspective to figure out when you’re safe and when you’re not safe, and sort of make sense of the past experiences vs. make sense of the present experiences, so certainly online CBT courses, like, you know, the happiness class that we have here at growingself.com can provide a foundation of some of those specific CBT skills. They’re not going to be specific to resolving trust issues, and that type of work—again, just to set your expectations—it’s a process I mean, you know, progress is usually measured in months, sometimes longer when you’re doing therapy for trust issue because there’s a lot of kind of unwinding, and figuring out what happened, and reprocessing of trauma, learning how to manage anxiety, learning what your triggers are, learning how to appropriately kind of turn towards your partner in those moments, and also to have like a sounding board for, you know, to have somebody who knows you and cares about you. So you can come into our sessions and say, “My husband didn’t put this cereal away. Do you think he’s having an affair with Kimberly?” And your therapist will be like, “Let’s break that down a little bit,” as opposed to, you know, these automatic assumptions and associations that can very easily happen when you have trust issues. 

So, you know, to have somebody just to bounce things off or, you know, to be able to say, “Yeah, you know, he’s been coming home really late a lot and he isn’t returning my calls. And I went past his work and he said he was going to be at work and he wasn’t there. And then he told me that he, you know, had a flat tire on the way home.” And you know, for therapists to be like, “Yeah, that actually sounds like something that we should probably figure out. I’m glad we’re talking about this.” You know, so just figuring out like whenthat we need to listen to anxiety vs. when it is an artifact of old relational trauma. 

Anyway, there’s a lot of information here in this podcast. As always, I hope I didn’t overwhelm you. But I also hope that me kind of just being super honest with you, and going into depth about all the different things to think about when it comes to resolving trust issues helps you, you know, understand the cause of trust issues, what you can do to overcome trust issues, and also provides you with that motivation and kind of direction for your next steps. You know, if this is the thing for you, and you want to change it, with the goal being to create a situation where you feel more secure and confident in your relationships because you deserve that. And also, so that you can create really healthy and enduring relationships with people who, you know, deserve to be loved and respected by you, too. So I hope this helps and I will be back in touch with you soon for another episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast. Bye-bye.

 

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Long Distance Relationship Questions

Long Distance Relationship Questions

Long Distance Relationship Questions

Love From a Distance: Making it Work.

Love From a Distance: Long Distance Relationship Questions

Since we do so much online marriage counseling, online couples therapy, and online relationship coaching here at Growing Self it’s only natural that we routinely work with couples in long-distance relationships seeking long-distance couple’s therapy online. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot as an online marriage counselor specializing in long distance relationships about the special strengths and vulnerabilities unique to long distance couples.

For starters, long distance couples have so many strengths! Most people see a long-distance relationship as a challenge or not an ideal situation. However, when you have strategies to make your long-distance relationship strong and successful, a good long distance relationship actually offers many opportunities and positive aspects that a typical relationship does not.

With the right formula and a strong foundation, love can bridge any gap. Distance, after all, makes the heart grow fonder.

Questions About Long Distance Relationships, Answered.

In this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, I’m answering questions about long distance relationships and how to make them work. Despite the downside of physical absence, there are many unique opportunities for growth that a long-distance relationship can provide. While it has its challenges, it also has advantages. I am ecstatic to bring this topic to the table and share some insights and best practices to help long-distance couples get through the bouts of doubt. 

Tune in to this episode to learn more about what makes a long-distance relationship work. 

Long Distance Relationship Questions: The Podcast

If you’re in a long distance relationship, here’s what you’ll get from tuning in today:

  1. Learn the different kinds of long-distance relationships.
  2. Discover actionable strategies that successful long-distance couples use to deepen their relationship.
  3. Learn how to manage anxiety and feel secure in a long distance relationship.
  4. Understand some vital long distance relationship questions that you and your partner need to be asking each other, if you have long term intentions.

So much great information for long distance couples in this episode. Listen right now to “Long Distance Relationship Questions” on Spotify, on the Podcast App, or scroll down to the bottom of this post to listen to this episode.

If you’re a reader, you can scroll through the highlights and / or access the full transcript of this episode below.

 

Long Distance Couples Therapy Online

Let’s get a super-basic long distance couple’s therapy question out of the way first: “Do you provide long distance couples therapy by three way video?”

We get this question all the time, and the answer is Yes! Our experienced relationship experts routinely work with long distance couples for online relationship therapy and online relationship coaching via secure, three way video.

For more common questions about our therapy and coaching services you are officially invited to our FAQ / Help Center page or you can also spend some time with our chatbot. (Lower right). Now that one is out of the way, so we can move on…

Kinds of Long-Distance Relationships 

Did you know that there are different kinds of long distance relationships? And that depending on the kind you’re in, you’ll have different things you’ll need to think about and do to make it strong?

For example:

  • One kind of long-distance relationship is when a long term, married, or committed couple who lived together is now living apart. It can be a temporary separation, usually due to work or military deployment. 
  • Some couples have a more permanent or semi-permanent long-distance relationship, and that’s just the kind of way they operate. 
  • Another type of long-distance relationship is when a couple becomes a long-distance couple during the early stages of relationship development or dating. 
  • There are also long-distance relationships that develop from meeting once in person, sometimes while on vacation. 
  • The last kind of long-distance relationship is when people meet online and don’t physically interact — all their interactions are over the internet. This kind of relationship is happening more frequently due to the pandemic.

Advantages of Long-Distance Relationships

Long distance relationships can work. Long distance relationships can flourish! Here’s why:

  • Long-distance relationships can give a different kind of individual growth. 
  • There are many opportunities for personal growth that are sometimes hard to achieve when couples are together every day. 
  • A long-distance relationship challenges people to change and evolve to keep the relationship strong and healthy despite the distance. 
  • The independence and individuality that long-distance relationships bring about can keep the relationship vibrant, novel, and engaging. 

How to Nurture a Long-Distance Relationship

The secret to having a healthy, strong, and satisfying long distance relationship is to very deliberately find ways of maintaining your connection so that you both feel loved and cared for despite the miles between you. Here are some things to think about:

  • Long-distance relationships have mostly conversation-based interactions: this is a huge strength.
  • Invest in conversations to deepen the connection. Remember, your partner needs to hear from you even if you don’t feel like talking. 
  • You have to manage your expectations regarding who you think your partner is and what kind of person they are, especially when your day-to-day interactions are limited. There might be some things about your long-distance partner that you haven’t seen yet.
  • Work on emotional responsiveness and open communication in order to keep your connection strong.

Questions For Long Distance Couples

Part of the “success strategy for long distance couples” needs to be making sure that you’re on the same page about what you’re doing. (You may need to have this conversation periodically!)

Part of what our relationship experts do when providing long distance couples therapy online is a comprehensive assessment to understand the strengths and growth opportunities of your relationship, including a couple’s most important long term goals, values, and hopes.

Here are a few long distance relationship questions to get this ball rolling:

  • What are your long-term goals as a couple? 

  • Is the relationship feeling good for the both of you? If it stops feeling good, what will you do?

  • What are your values? What is important to you?
  • How do you maintain your connection as a couple? 
  • What would you consider to be a deal-breaker in a relationship?

For even more, we invite you and your partner to take our “How Healthy Is Your Relationship Quiz” to get insight into your relationship’s strengths and growth opportunities. This is a low-key way to have  connecting conversations about how to grow your relationship together. 

And, free advice from a marriage counselor:  If you are not able to have productive conversations about these (or other) essential topics, that is a sign that it might be time for couple’s therapy or relationship coaching.

Enlisting the support of a relationship expert can help you improve your communication, connect on a deeper level, learn how to show each other love and respect in the way that you need it, and get on the same page about your long term needs and goals. If you’d like to get involved in long distance relationship therapy online, the first step is to schedule a free consultation session. 

Understanding The Needs of Long-Distance Relationships

It’s additionally important to consider the unique needs of long distance relationships. Here are just a few things to think about:

  • Knowing each other’s love languages can help maintain the connection amid the distance.
  • One of the biggest challenges for long distance couples is that or both partners may experience heightened anxiety or insecurity, which requires responsiveness, reassurance, contact, and information. Here’s more info about “How to Feel More Secure in Your Relationship”
  • The lack of physical presence can be a point of conflict. 
  • Couples therapy or relationship coaching can support in creating conversations between a long-distance couple. 

Advice for Long-Distance Couples About to Cohabitate

Many long distance couples long for the day when they’ll be together again. The challenges they face when moving in together can therefore surprise them.

  • Couples have to plan and handle their reintegration carefully when they reunite.
  • There is an opportunity for growth in conflict. Welcome it and deal with it constructively. 
  • Find ways to get to know each other on a deep and realistic level. 
  • There are many opportunities to be emotionally available and to be vulnerable with each other. 
  • Do not get attached to any particular outcome, especially for long-distance couples in the early stages of dating. 

5 Powerful Quotes From This Episode

“And so one of the biggest stress points for long-distance committed couples that are having a temporary separation is that they have to reconfigure all of those roles so quickly. And it can be challenging to do that.”

“There is also a neat opportunity for a healthy interdependence, and opportunities for individual growth that are sometimes more challenging to achieve when long term couples are, you know, breathing each other’s air every single day and sort of doing the same thing.”

“And so, you know, it’s almost like a fire that needs some air to breathe. relationships can be like that too.”

“But again, even just having those conversations with each other can be the opportunity to really learn so much about each other- long term goals, values, hopes and dreams. Also the way people operate in terms of their willingness to bend on your behalf.” 

“Conflict in a relationship is always simply a sign that there are things that need to be discussed and worked out. All conflict is an opportunity for connection. It is not a bad thing to have conflict in a relationship. That is an opportunity for growth.”

Enjoy this Podcast?

Learning how you could create love, happiness, and success for yourself has never been this easy. If you enjoyed today’s episode of the Love, Success, and Happiness Podcast, I hope you subscribe where ever you listen to podcasts. (And consider leaving a review!)

Post a review and share it! Did this podcast help you? Or did it make you think of someone else who could really benefit from having this information? If so please share this with your family and friends so they can discover how to handle long-distance relationships. 

Have any questions? You can contact me through our website or find me on Instagram or Facebook. You may also reach out to us and inquire about online therapy and life coaching. Growing Self is also on Instagram and Facebook.

Wishing you all the best, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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Long Distance Relationship Questions: Podcast Transcript

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Access Episode Transcript

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness & Success podcast. This is another one from the band, An Eagle In Your Mind, a band that I am slightly obsessed with right now, doing good stuff. This particular song is called “If You Open The Door” and I thought it was a great mood setter for us today.

Today we’re talking about love at a distance, long-distance relationships, and how to make them work. I really wanted to speak about this topic, because we have been getting, I think, even more couples than usual and long-distance relationships here at our practice at Growing Self. More questions from long-distance couples coming through on the blog at www.growingself.com, through Facebook, through Instagram

And understandably so, because long-distance couples really do have unique challenges and also unique strengths, but really need to approach different aspects of their relationship differently than real life couples do. And so we’re getting so many requests for long-distance couples. 

And I have to tell you the funniest thing. Recently, we started noticing long-distance couples reaching out and saying, “Do you guys do couples counseling for long-distance couples through three-way video?” And, like, yes, we see so many long-distance couples, and we did prior to the whole pandemic situation. I think we’re probably even doing more of that now. But it’s like how else would we do couples counseling for long-distance couples if not through a three-way video call? So the answer is an absolute yes. If you would like to do long-distance couples counseling with us, we have two of you in different places and a couples counselor in the middle. 

And now under normal circumstances, certainly we have had some long-distance couples, like fly in for a weekend and do like couples counseling intensives. But we’re not doing any of that right now. Maybe in 2021. We’ll see how it goes. But what we do have tons of experience with, of course, is working with long-distance couples. And so I am going to be talking today about long-distance relationships and best practices to make them not just work but work really well. And let’s just dive right in, shall we? 

Actually wait, no. I do want to mention that I’m going to be talking about different variables related to long-distance relationships in this episode. And in addition to this episode, I did another podcast on this topic. I think it’s been a couple of years, but also really good stuff. I interviewed a marriage counselor on our team who had a lot of experience with long-distance couples, as many of our counselors do. But anyway, so you’ll want to look back on the podcast feed to find that one if you would like to hear more. 

And then in addition, on the blog, at www.growingself.com, we have several articles around long-distance relationships and couples counseling for long-distance relationships with different perspectives besides just mine. I have a number of colleagues with a great deal of expertise on this subject. And so you’ll want to cruise on over to the blog at www.growingself.com, and do a little search in the search bar for long-distance relationships or three-way couples counseling for long-distance couples, and you’ll see all kinds of information there. So I wanted to mention that just to resource you.

But for today, one of the things we’re going to talk about first is the fact that believe it or not there are different kinds of long-distance relationships. And depending on what kind of long-distance relationship you’re in, there are different practices and ways of handling certain situations that will improve your relationship, but you have to take into consideration what kind of long-distance relationship is this. Because otherwise, it won’t be the right approach for you and your unique situation. 

So with that in mind, one kind of long-distance relationship is when there are married or like long-term committed couples in long-distance relationships. Two variables here. Many times, it is a couple that has been together for a long time prior to living apart and usually the reason why they moved away from each other. Sometimes, work obligations is the most common. Certainly, military families going through a deployment kind of situation will experience this sooner or later. But that’s what I have most often seen. Sometimes people need to live apart, in the event that somebody has to like be with another family member, like caretaking for a parent who is in a different state. So there are all kinds of reasons why. But it is a long-term married or committed couple who lived together, and did a relationship for a long time, and is now living separately, either for usually a temporary period of time, but sometimes not. 

Now, there are also long-term married or committed couples who have permanent long-distance relationships or semi-permanent long-distance relationships. And that’s not a temporary thing due to a job or deployment. But that’s just kind of the way they operate. And those typically work really well for both people if they are using the best practices that I’m going to be sharing with you today. 

I think it can be generally harder and more stressful for couples who are circumstantially long distance when prior to that, they lived together for a long time, because it’s very disruptive. All couples and all families create roles, and responsibilities, and kind of organizational systems in order to manage their shared lives together that depend on both people participating. And so one of the biggest stress points for long-distance committed couples that are having a temporary separation is that they have to reconfigure all of those roles so quickly. And it can be challenging to do that, but then also to reintegrate once a couple comes back together again, that can be a stress point that we’ll talk a little bit more about. 

Now, another different kind of long-distance relationship is one where a couple has become a long distance couple at a much earlier stage in their relationship development. So sometimes, they had been dating for a while or either talk, maybe talking, about marriage at some point, but like, they are not in the same kind of stage of development as a long-term married or committed couple. Their relationship is newer, I guess. 

And sometimes, that can be the same sort of thing, like somebody has to leave for a job, or work, or school, and for whatever reason that the relationship just wasn’t quite in the place that it needed to be in order for it to make sense for somebody to pack up their life and move to Indiana with the guy they’ve been seeing for three months or whatever. But there’s a lot of interest, and excitement, and people want to be together, and care about each other. But the relation just hasn’t evolved to the point where it made sense to move together. 

And in this situation, one of the primary challenges and obstacles is how do we continue to deepen our relationship, and get to know each other, and have our relationship progress and evolve as it might if we were in the same town continuing to see each other multiple times a week and do sort of a normal relationship path? And so there’s that, like how do we progress as a couple? 

And also in this situation, there can be a lot of anxiety, and like insecurity, and worry for partners on each side, because their contact with each other can be much more limited and not being able to be together on a more regular basis in person. And that in itself when people are in that kind of anxious or insecure feeling place, particularly in a new relationship can lead people to behave in ways that are different than they would if they were together in real life. And those ways of coping with the anxiety and the things that people might need to have from the person that they’re dating can be different to the degree that in itself can put stress on the relationship and create its own set of problems. So we need to talk about that.

Now, there is another. We’re not done. There is another kind of long-distance relationship that happens surprisingly commonly. I have talked to so many clients, usually individual therapy or coaching clients that I see who will come bouncing back in after a vacation or something and say, “I met the most amazing person while I was in Cancún or whatever.” I’m like, “Great! That’s exciting.” And my client lives in Denver and their love interest lives in Chicago. And now we have to figure that out. 

And so, that’s getting to know someone who, from the very beginning, they may have only met, met once in person. And so again, how do we continue progressing in the relationship and from the very get go? How do you get to know a person in a way that is boundaried, and healthy, and slow enough to be appropriately cautious, but also giving you opportunities to really get a clear sense of who someone is and figure out whether or not you would like to pursue a relationship with them? Because you know, you can’t just meet up for a cocktail on a Thursday night with somebody who lives in Chicago when you live in Denver. That is different. So lots, lots to talk about there.

And then lastly, another kind of relationship that is a whole other animal is a phenomenon that occurs when people meet online and do not have any interactions with each other in real life. IRL, as the kids say. Their entire early-stage relationship is conducted exclusively online. And in the context of this pandemic situation that we are all enjoying so much, this is happening more and more. Like even people in the same town will have first, second, fifth dates by video conference, or FaceTime, or Zoom, and get to know each other that way. 

And because the online dating, so not just online dating apps, but literally online dating has so many different variables, and opportunities, but also potential pitfalls. I have actually created a podcast that will be airing in a few weeks on this specifically as a separate thing. I think we’re entitling it something like “Pandemic Dating.” But even prior to the pandemic, more and more frequently, people might meet online through social media, or friends of friends, and be in different states, and have that whole getting to know you process online. And there can really be a unique set of pitfalls and perils when you begin a relationship from the outset through that medium. So that deserves its own separate podcast and that will be coming out for you soon.

But today’s discussion is going to be focused on the three primary kinds of long distance relationships that I’ve discussed. So committed couples who are now living apart. And then couples who date and are then disrupted. And then also couples who randomly meet each other and then want to figure out how to establish a relationship with a long-distance situation.

So there are, believe it or not, as well as challenges in long-distance relationships, there are also some advantages that many couples enjoy. Like we think of a long-distance relationship as being non-ideal and it certainly is for some couples. But for many of them, it can really be a very interesting, and growth promoting, and satisfying way of life, particularly for established, committed couples. 

While there are certainly the challenges that I described at the outset of this podcast around roles and responsibilities I mean, certainly when children are involved there is also a really neat opportunity for a healthy interdependence, and opportunities for individual growth that are sometimes more challenging to achieve when long term-couples are breathing each other’s air every single day and sort of doing the same thing. People in long-term relationships always have to grow, and change, and evolve within the relationship in order for that relationship to be a really genuinely healthy, and satisfying, and vibrant relationship over the decades. And so, it’s almost like a fire that needs some air to breathe. Relationships can be like that, too. And so in a long-distance situation with an established couple, they’re doing different things. They’re having, maybe time and energy to pursue other hobbies, or hang out with other friends, or go other places, or be around other people, and just have different life experiences that will grow and change them independently. 

And so the neat thing can be when they do come back together again, or have opportunities to talk and hang out, there is, I mean at a basic level, more to talk about sometimes than when you’re doing the same thing as the other person every single day and watching the same TV shows, right? So there’s like, novelty, and interest, and conversation, and just interesting things. And it can really also be a neat way to put each other in a position where you can learn about different aspects of each other or grow in different ways. And that is the kind of energy that keeps a long-distance relationship, I mean, a long-term relationship interesting over many years are opportunities to do that. So if you’re a long-distance couple, you have that built in which can really be to your relationship’s advantage. 

And also, in addition to that, when you are in a long distance-relationship, a committed long-distance relationship, it requires a couple to have conversations around, “What are we doing? What do we want? We need to talk about this. And do we want to be doing this two or three years from now? What are our long term goals as a couple? What do you want? What do I want? How do we get that into alignment?” 

And having like, kind of deeper, in some ways, more meaningful conversations than couples who are just kind of like falling into the same rut and just sort of doing the same thing over and over again without thinking about it too much or talking about it too explicitly. In order to have a satisfying, healthy, long-distance relationship, you have to be doing that, and talking about plans, and coordinating things. So lots of opportunities there. 

Now, what is I think true for all long-distance couples are also, the question that comes up around, “How do we stay emotionally connected as a couple? How do we remain each other’s friends? What are the rituals that we need to have in place to stay connected, to stay emotionally and even physically intimate with each other?” Because, again, there aren’t natural opportunities to do that day-to-day if you’re living apart. And so the building of those, the intentional building of those is very important.

So when it comes to the second kind of long-distance relationships, where people have been developing a relationship and that relationship development has been disrupted because of a move or a separation, the question is really more around: how do we continue to develop our relationship, and get to know each other, and learn to love and trust and connect with each other in the context of this long-distance situation? 

Again, there are real opportunities here. When you are dating someone long distance, the opportunities to connect are almost exclusively around talking with each other, either on the phone, or through text, or through video calls, but it’s very conversation-based. So I can’t remember the last time I sat on the phone talking to my husband for an hour-and-a-half about things, right? Certainly, we talk about things, but a lot of times it’s in 10-minute increments in between childcare duties, right? But with this situation, you really have the opportunity to invest a lot of time into conversation-based interactions. And in doing so, you really can have the opportunity to get to know someone even more quickly and on a deeper level. 

So conversations around who are you and what’s important to you? And where did you come from? And what do you want? And tell me a story about your life. Or tell me a story about your day. These are all doorways to getting to know someone and to deepening connection. 

I think that one of the big challenges here is the possible I won’t say possible. I will say frequent experience, which is very common in long-distance relationships, which is sometimes the difference between our ideas about who someone is versus the reality of who someone is. Like the whole story. And so, what we humans always do is that when we have little bits of information, we tend to extrapolate many other things from those little bits of information that are reality based. 

And our constructions are pretty much always in alignment with what we want things to be, right? And particularly when we’re very excited about someone in an early-stage romantic relationship, we tend to have all kinds of highly optimistic ideas about who someone is and what they really like. And when you’re talking with someone, periodically on the phone or on a video call, or maybe you get to spend a weekend together once a month or two, there can be limited opportunities to gather enough information about how people really are when they’re stressed, when they’re disappointed, when they don’t feel like talking. How do they handle conflict? How do they solve problems? How do they load the dishwasher? Like, those kinds of things can be absolutely missed, when you’re spending not that much time with each other, or when your opportunities for kind of day-to-day interaction are limited. 

And even if you are spending time together in person, that time is often a short-term couple of things and it oftentimes feels more like a vacation. You’re getting together, and it’s like we’re gonna go do these fun things, and we’re so excited to be together. And people are behaving and feeling differently than they do when you live together day-to-day. I mean, it’s just a different experience. 

And not that it can’t be fun, and wonderful, and all good things, and you can certainly deepen a relationship. Just always keep in mind that there are going to be new things that you will learn about this person, as you get to know them and spend more time with them, which, you know, can vary in terms of their importance. 

I personally have worked with couples who spent most of their relationship like a one to three year long relationship long distance and just loved each other to pieces. “We’re having the best time.” And then, they decided eventually to move in together or get married and had all kinds of things that surprised them. And that would, maybe not deal breakers, but we’re creating conflict and disappointment, and that really needed to be worked through constructively, and that they had not been aware of prior to living with each other or getting married. So just keep that in the back of your mind. 

And it can be really helpful to figure out, how can I get to know this person as they really are? So don’t try to keep it necessarily light and fun. I mean, super early stage of relationship, fine. Keep it light and fun. But if you’re really considering this person for long distance or long-term relationship potential, figure out what you need to know. Like what is actually super important to me? What is a deal breaker? Let me hear about a bad day or also noticing how they operate when they are maybe busy or stressed. How emotionally responsive are they? Are they able to answer your bids for connection? Are they giving what you what you need, even in the context of a long-distance situation? 

And I’ll just share; it may be a big mistake to assume that relationship issues that you’re experiencing in a long-distance situation are just because it is a long distance-situation. It is also worth considering that if someone isn’t emotionally responsive or isn’t available when you want them to be in the context of a long-distance situation, it may be that that could be the way that they actually are, and that it is not likely to improve if you were together day-to-day. 

And that may not be true. Some people just aren’t great technological communicators. But don’t make too many excuses or blame too many things about the relationship on it being long distance, because people tend to be consistent in the way that they behave in many different situations. Of course, long-distance situations do, again, present their unique set of challenges. So there’s that. But it can be hard to figure out what is ultimately the truth. 

And it’s also, I think, a stressful situation for many couples who are developing their relationships and getting closer and closer together to figure out, “When should we move in together or be in the same town together? What do I need to be seeing or experiencing with you from a distance in order for me potentially or you to feel comfortable with packing up our lives and moving to Omaha to be together?” Particularly, if you’re still in a phase of our relationship where it would be prudent to live close to each other and see how it goes. And I think it’s wonderful to be cultivating a relationship with someone where it seems like there’s enough opportunity there to find out whether or not it is a good long-term match. But that can be a hard decision to make if your relationship has been long distance exclusively prior to that. 

And then, there’s also all kinds of conversations around who’s going to move? And what is that going to look like? And should we move in together? And is that okay? Do I have a backup plan if that doesn’t work out? There are so many things to consider. But again, even just having those conversations with each other can be the opportunity to really learn so much about each other long-term goals, values, hopes, and dreams. Also the way people operate in terms of their willingness to bend on your behalf. That in itself can be a very important, I hate to use the word metric, but let’s do it as a data point, when it comes to evaluating whether or not this is the person for you. So there’s this. 

And I think that this dynamic is even more pronounced for couples who meet each other in a long-distance kind of context and have to, from the very get go, figure out how to do all of this from the very beginning. And whether it’s orchestrating time together or regular calls and routines or dates. Like what does that look like online? So those are things to be thinking about. 

And now, some of the things that we have found to be super, super helpful for long-distance couples are really like, and just to say this out loud. Just like with any relationship situation, there are very rarely like hard and fast rules. Like if you want a good relationship, do this, not that. I mean, there are some things that are easy to generalize, but every person is unique. Every couple is unique. And there are so many “correct” ways to have a really high-quality, long-distance relationship. 

So it is not the job of a couples therapist to tell you what to do. It is our job to help you as a couple create systems, and ideas, and practices that work for you and your unique needs. But I will just share some of the questions that a good long-distance couples therapist would always be asking you and encouraging you to be thinking about and talking about. And I just offer these so you could have some of these conversations on your own if you’d like to, but certainly conversations related to what are our long-term goals as a couple. How do we feel about this long-distance situation? Is one of us okay with it and the other person not okay? What do we do with that if there’s conflict around it? Is this feeling good for both of us? And also, what how are we going to handle this if it stops feeling good for both of us?

And relatedly, I think that there’s always an important conversation to be had around, what are your values? What is actually more important to you? Is it more important for you to live in Omaha than it is for you to be in the same location with this person you’re in a relationship with? Or is your pursuit of this career goal more important to you than being with your partner in person? And is that true just for now? Or will that always be true? 

And helping people get clarity around what they want and what their priorities are in life, not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of their partner, who can then to have all the information, make informed choices about what they want to do long term. Because if you’re in a relationship with someone who is always actually going to prioritize their career goals over their connection with you and your family together, you should know that, particularly before you invest a whole lot of time, and energy, and years, and have children with this person, right? So those kinds of conversations are really, really important. 

Secondarily to that, many couples can experience challenge and friction in long-distance relationships when it comes to, “How do we maintain our connection as a couple? How do we feel close to each other day-to-day when we live apart? How do we not just maintain but strengthen our attachment to each other?”

And this can often involve developing different aspects of a relationship. It can involve building a new sort of way of being friends and partners to each other. Lots of opportunities to increase your emotional intimacy. And beautiful things can come of it in terms of rituals, of connection, and things that you do with and for each other in order to help each other, not just know intellectually, but experience, to feel that you are just as important as you always were, even if they’re not able to show you day to day through small things. 

People who tend to have like a love language that’s oriented around conversation, and emotional connection, and words of appreciation. For those types of people, this maintaining connection can feel much easier in the context of a long-distance relationship. People who really need a lot of like physical connection — hand holding, hugs, things like that. Or acts of service — doing things around the house for each other can feel like a little bit of a crisis. But if you’re in a relationship where those things are not really possible in the same way, a couple has to get creative. How do we make it possible or more possible? It requires effort, but it is definitely achievable. 

And also, for many couples in long-distance relationships, sooner or later, there will be a, most of the time, for one, sometimes both partners, to experience a little bit more anxiety or insecurity than they would in a relationship, because it’s a long-distance relationship. So it’s, “We were supposed to talk at eight, but you weren’t – where were you? You weren’t home? Who were you with?” Like those kinds of things. Or you know when people seem less emotionally available or kind of distracted. That’s like more fraught than it would be many times if you’re living together. 

And in these situations, people need more overt, like, reassurance, maybe more contact. There needs to be more information. And that often needs to be really freely given. There has to be a lot of priority around, “How do I show this person that they’re important to me, that I am their partner, that I care about them, that they can trust me, they can count on me, that this is a stable situation in the absence of my physical presence and my ability to be there with them day to day in real life?”

So that can be a point of conflict for many couples. And again, as I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast, when people are anxious or feeling insecure, it can create a pursue-withdraw dynamic in a relationship, as I have discussed on many past podcasts. I will refer you back to those for more information. You could listen to the communication podcasts I’ve done. 

But there needs to be a lot of sensitivity to that and what anxiety is doing to you. Or also, if somebody is wanting more from you. If you experience yourself kind of withdrawing from that, to be just real conscious of that, and how it may be impacting the relationship situation in even more dramatic ways than it would if you were together in real life. Because if you don’t have that much time together, your interactions in those small moments become the majority of what people have to understand you. So there can be a lot there that’s worth discussing. 

And I will say on that note, I think that is probably the reason why the majority of long-distance couples decide to pursue couples therapy or relationship coaching in a long-distance context is because when they try to have these conversations, it feels very difficult, or it winds up feeling frustrating, or it turns into a conflict, or they’re not getting their needs met from each other despite having conversations around that. And if you have these conversations and have that experience, that can be a real good indication that it might be time to have some more support and helping you really kind of figure this stuff out if communication is feeling hard or if you’re asking for change and change isn’t happening. Those can be signs that it’s time to get some support.

So those are things to be considering and to be doing for long-distance couples. In addition to those points of conversation, it’s really important to have deliberate, intentional conversations, particularly for that first type of long-distance relationship a married or committed longer term couple who has been living apart that is now anticipating reintegration and to be planning in advance for that reintegration process. 

Certainly, for military couples and families where one person is active duty and has been on deployment and is now coming home, that needs to be handled thoughtfully. Because, in the meantime, it is highly likely that his or her partner has established all kinds of new routines, and rhythms, and ways of doing things. And then for you to walk in the door, and throw down your coat, and start messing around, and doing things, and touching stuff, and moving things around, like that may or may not be welcome or helpful. Just talk about this. 

And also for the person on the other side. If you have hopes or expectations that your partner is going to walk in the door, and throw down their coat, and start doing laundry, like to be talking about that at the very least to help them understand what those expectations are and how they can be helpful to you. And just together, as a couple, figure out what that’s going to look like and expect that there will be friction, which is good conflict in a relationship, is always simply a sign that there are things that need to be discussed and worked out. 

All conflict is the opportunity for connection. It is not a bad thing to have conflict in a relationship. That is an opportunity for growth. So expect it. Welcome it and have a plan for how you’re going to deal with that constructively. Because it’s constructive. It’s always constructive. When you handle conflict productively, it is constructive. 

For people in a newer relationship, last words of advice for you would be to be really deliberately considering and actively participating in ways that you can really get to know each other on a deep level and on a realistic level, so that you can make informed choices about the potential for a future with each other. And there are so many opportunities again, to be emotionally available, to be vulnerable with each other, to be emotionally responsive to each other, particularly if one of you is feeling anxious about something. So many opportunities to show each other who you really are. 

And also very, very helpful to if/when the time is right to potentially move in or move closer to each other, find ways of doing so where you can mitigate the risk to each other, in the event that you know either it’s different than you were hoping it was or if, for some reason, it doesn’t work out. Be thinking about how you can get to know each other be in the same place without it being this like do or die, life or death, like super pressure-y situation. Because that in itself can add like a weird and difficult pressure to a relationship that a relationship doesn’t typically experience when people are getting to know each other who do live in the same town. That would be absent of that kind of pressure. And so just to be thoughtful about that.

And then, while it is so difficult to do this when you are really excited about someone, and you’re in love, and really hopeful about your future together, I always caution clients in my work as a dating coach is to not get attached to any particular outcome and really be kind of focusing on, how am I feeling in this relationship? Does this feel good to me? Is this working for me? Is my long-term happiness and satisfaction dependent on this person and making all kinds of changes and then I will feel happier and better about the situation? So like, just being really clear and honest with yourself about those things.

And I think approaching it with an attitude of cautious optimism that, “They seem really great and I’m really enjoying this so far. And I’m really looking forward to getting to know them better.” Before really like making major life decisions on your experiences of them so far. 

Because everybody is a mixed bag. Every relationship has aspects about it that are wonderful, and aspects of it that are challenging. And the key to having a really happy, healthy, enjoyable long-term relationship is not finding your perfectly compatible, perfect soulmate who does not have any issues, because everybody does. It’s finding a person that has 75-80% of the things about them you really like and appreciate. And those things outweigh the 20-25% of them that is actually non-ideal, possibly annoying. That’s always going to be there. That part doesn’t matter. Does the good outweigh the bad significantly enough? And just know that that bad is there. You just may or may not know what it is yet. And so the point of dating is to figure out what that is, and if it is stuff that you can live with. So just keep that in mind unsolicited advice from a jaded dating coach.

So I hope that these ideas were helpful to you. I hope it kind of opened the window into some of what we do with long-distance couples that we see for couples therapy online or the work that we do as dating coaches, and just kind of like giving you some of the questions and strategies and things to think about, so that you can use them in your own life and make good decisions about it.

And of course, if you are in a long-distance relationship and would like to pursue couples counseling through a video or if you’re in a dating situation and would like to do some dating coaching about how to handle long-distance relationships, we are always here for you. Come on over to www.growingself.com. You can schedule a free consultation, and we can talk get to know more about your situation, and how we may be able to help. 

Or otherwise come over to www.growingself.com and browse around all the other articles and podcasts that we have just for you around long-distance relationships, about strengthening your connection and your strong bond, about communication strategies. It is all there for you, so I hope you come take advantage of it. And I will be back in touch with you next week for another episode of Love, Happiness & Success.

 

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HOW TO HAVE DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS: “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” “It’s not going to change anything.” “It will just start a fight.” “I’m just going to keep my mouth shut and my head down.” “I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”  We have all, myself included, used these kinds of mental excuses to avoid having difficult conversations. We all have “trigger topic” conversations we’d rather avoid — from opening up to your partner about sex, to having different opinions on politics, having an issue with someone’s parenting styles, or gently pointing out subconscious bias in gender roles or racist stereotypes. These tough conversations are hard to have.

While there is something to be said for knowing when to mind your own business and respect the healthy boundaries of others, it’s also true that if you’re avoiding having conversations about things that are really, really important to you it will eventually damage your relationship — whether or not you address it directly.

Having unresolved, unspoken differences that feel vast, and “un-discussable” will lead to disconnection. But the sad irony is that it’s often people’s hope to protect their relationship that leads them to avoid difficult but necessary conversations in the first place. 

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Crucial conversations are essential. But once you embrace that new idea, “Yes, we do actually really need to talk about this,” then what? Unless you’ve already gone through communication skills training, relationship coaching, or emotional intelligence coaching, you might not know how to have a difficult conversation productively. That lack of skills and know-how is one of the biggest reasons why most people tend to tiptoe around difficult conversations, OR — on the flip side — engage too aggressively around triggering topics, both of which can damage a relationship.  

Now, more than ever, I believe that we all need to learn and intentionally practice compassionate communication skills that can help us understand each other and build bridges to the center of shared meaning. In this episode of the podcast, I’m shining a light on what it really takes to courageously engage in difficult (and necessary, and respectful, and healing) conversations with the people you care the most about.

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I hope that this episode leaves you with some actionable ideas for how to increase your confidence in high-stakes conversations, and provides you with strategies for increasing your emotional intelligence and communication skills in the process. You can use these strategies with your partner, kids, friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, and more. I hope you do! 

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  • Identify relationships where it’s worth having these conversations and those that require clearer boundaries. 
  • Embrace the discomfort of having difficult conversations.
  • Avoid common pitfalls and knee-jerk reactions in difficult conversations. 
  • Learn to listen with compassion, respect, and empathy. 
  • Find out how to reciprocate openness and willingness to exchange ideas. 

Listen right now to “How to Have Difficult Conversations” on Spotify, or on the Podcast App, or by scrolling down to podcast player on the bottom of the page. If you’re more of a reader, you can skim through the show notes and / or find a full transcript at the bottom. 

Thanks for taking the time to listen to this episode and triple-thanks if you’re one of the courageously kind, heart-centered people in the world committed to having respectful, difficult conversations that heal. The world needs you!

“How to Have Difficult Conversations” Episode Highlights:

How People Usually Respond to Tough Conversations:

When faced with a difficult conversation, most people respond in two ways.

  1. The first type demands understanding from the other party, stating their beliefs but refusing to hear the other person. As a result, it becomes a one-way discussion that usually ends up in a fight.  
  2. On the other hand, some people avoid having the conversation at all. This may come from their fear of conflict or not being able to handle the situation once it blows up.

Either way, we risk damaging the relationship when we fail to approach difficult conversations healthily. 

Courage and Emotional Intelligence

These two skills are useful in having difficult conversations and achieving the best outcome. 

  1. Courage — If the other person is avoiding the topic, you have to take the initiative and broach the subject. We have to be brave and be the ones who bring difficult things out into the light with the people we love so that we can have relationships that are based on authenticity, respect, vulnerability, compassion and connection.
  2. Emotional Intelligence — If you can understand your feelings and underlying motivations, you can have more productive conversations instead of full-blown confrontations. Having high emotional intelligence means you can step back from an emotionally charged situation and assess the steps you need to take. 

Ask yourself these questions to build and strengthen your emotional intelligence:

  • How am I feeling?
  • What are the thoughts behind these feelings? 
  • What do I need to do right now to shift my thoughts back into a constructive and compassionate mindset? 
  • What do I need to do to bring myself back down emotionally so that I am in a place where I can speak respectfully?
  • What are my intentions for this conversation? 
  • How would I like this conversation to end? 
  • Who do I need to be right now to make that happen?

That said, you don’t have to have difficult conversations with everyone. Identify key people in your life and let the rest go. When a relationship becomes toxic or abusive, set clear boundaries. Having difficult conversations is an investment in the people you want to have a future with. Thus, you need to focus on people worth doing this hard emotional work. 

Creating Connections Through Difficult Conversations

Once you’ve identified the people who are worth the emotional investment, the next step is to embrace the discomfort that comes with these conversations. Disrupting the status quo is the only way for you to grow as a person and for the relationship to evolve.

We grow through difficult moments. When the alternative of staying the same is ultimately less comfortable than the discomfort of growth, the only choice is to change. We can do hard things when we’re motivated to do so.

The goal of having difficult conversations is not to have the same conclusion. Rather, it’s about appreciating the other’s point of view, going beyond your motivations, and trying to understand why they think the way they do. We need a sense of mutual understanding to look at a situation through the lens, beliefs, experiences, values, and expectations of another. 

Keeping Your Emotions in Check

Before you start a difficult conversation, you need to understand how your brain processes emotions.

When we are overwhelmed, a part of our brain tends to shut down to protect itself. This part, where empathy is housed, becomes inaccessible during emotionally charged situations and confrontations. 

Thus, you need to develop social and emotional awareness to bring yourself back into a better headspace and continue difficult conversations. At the same time, you have to be aware if the person you’re talking to is emotionally flooded as well. When you notice that either or both of you are at your limits, take a break to calm down. 

The Difficult Conversation “Pre-Game Checklist” 

Before engaging in a difficult conversation, mentally prepare yourself through clarifying your thoughts and intentions. You can try talking out loud or journaling so that you enter into the conversation without too much negative energy. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • How do I feel about the situation? Why do I think that way?
  • Why is this important to me? 
  • How is the situation impacting me? 
  • What would I like to communicate? 
  • What is my desired outcome? What would I do if that doesn’t happen? 
  • Do I want something to change or just to feel understood?

The Importance of Empathy in Difficult Conversations

After you’ve gone through your “difficult conversation pre-game checklist,” the next step is to move past your internal narrative and run a mile in the other person’s shoes.

Here are some key points to help you in empathizing with others:

  • What are the core values of this person?
  • Where are they coming from?
  • What do they need to hear from me so that they feel respected and understood, even if we have some differences? 
  • What do I need to say for them to understand that they are valuable to me?

It’s not about achieving your desired outcome but looking at the situation from their perspective and understanding why it makes sense. When you really listen to another person with compassion, respect, and empathy, they do make sense.

What to Avoid in Difficult Conversations

These are some habits you should avoid when you’re in a difficult conversation. 

  • Refrain from the fundamental attribution error. It’s when you ascribe a person’s bad choices to character defects instead of considering the unique set of circumstances that led them to that choice. 
  • Avoid going into conversations seeking only to persuade someone or change their perspective. 
  • Keep away from judgmental and self-righteous lines like, “If you only knew what I knew . . .”
  • Be aware of micro-habits like eye-rolling or scoffing.   
  • Don’t go into a space of judgment and blame. Avoid interrupting and take the time to ask open-ended questions, listen, and understand. 

If you refrain from these lines of thinking and habits, the other person will feel heard and respected. Since they feel emotionally safe in your presence, you can have more productive conversations, and they will be just as likely to extend the same grace to listen to your side.   

Remember: If you are in a healthy relationship with someone who loves you and cares about you as much as you love and care about them, it turns into an openness and willingness to exchange ideas. And if you have done a really good job of listening and understanding, that will be reciprocated

More Resources

I sincerely hope that this discussion about how to have difficult conversations has provided you with not just an understanding of why tough conversations are so critical to have, but also some concrete pointers about how to have those hard conversations go well.

To continue learning and growing in this area, here are a few more resources for you:

  • We have so many articles and podcasts featuring expert advice both from myself and my amazing colleagues on the subjects of communication skills, empathy, emotional intelligence and more. Use the search bar below to enter the term you’d like to learn more about to view and access them. Here are a few of my favorites: 

I hoped this episode provided a roadmap for having difficult conversations that strengthen connection and understanding in your most important relationships. 

Wishing you and yours all the very best in these perilous times…

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. Speaking of difficult conversations, I’d love to hear from YOU. Which part of the episode was the most helpful? (Least helpful?) If you try any of these ideas I’d love to hear how they went. Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

How to Have Difficult Conversations

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast

How to Handle Difficult Conversations

We all have conversations we’d rather avoid — from opening up to your partner about sex to having different opinions on politics or parenting styles. The reality is, most people tend to tiptoe around difficult conversations or engage too aggressively, both of which can damage a relationship.  

In this episode, I identify what it takes to engage in difficult conversations and explain how to look inward and recognize the other person. I also emphasize that the goal of difficult conversations is not to come to the same conclusion but to reach a place of mutual understanding and respect despite your opposing views. 

Tune in to the full interview to learn how you can engage in difficult conversations effectively and compassionately.

In This Episode, You Will . . .

  • Discover how refusing to have difficult conversations damages relationships.
  • Learn essential skills in having constructive and productive conversations. 
  • Gain a deeper awareness of your own feelings and motivations.    
  • Identify relationships where it’s worth having these conversations and those that require clearer boundaries. 
  • Embrace the discomfort of having difficult conversations.
  • Avoid common pitfalls and knee-jerk reactions in difficult conversations. 
  • Learn to listen with compassion, respect, and empathy. 
  • Find out how to reciprocate openness and willingness to exchange ideas. 

Episode Highlights

How People Usually Respond

When faced with a difficult conversation, most people respond in two ways.

  1. The first type demands understanding from the other party, stating their beliefs but refusing to hear the other person. As a result, it becomes a one-way discussion that usually ends up in a fight.  
  2. On the other hand, some people avoid having the conversation at all. This may come from their fear of conflict or not being able to handle the situation once it blows up.

Either way, we risk damaging the relationship when we fail to approach difficult conversations healthily. 

Courage and Emotional Intelligence

These two skills are useful in having difficult conversations and achieving the best outcome. 

  1. Courage — If the other person is avoiding the topic, you have to take the initiative and broach the subject. We have to be brave and be the ones who bring difficult things out into the light with the people we love so that we can have relationships that are based on authenticity, respect, vulnerability, and compassion and connection.
  2. Emotional Intelligence — If you can understand your feelings and underlying motivations, you can have more productive conversations instead of full-blown confrontations. Having high emotional intelligence means you can step back from an emotionally charged situation and assess the steps you need to take. 

Ask yourself these questions to build and strengthen your emotional intelligence:

  • How am I feeling?
  • What are the thoughts behind these feelings? 
  • What do I need to do right now to shift my thoughts back into a constructive and compassionate mindset? 
  • What do I need to do to bring myself back down emotionally so that I am in a place where I can speak respectfully?
  • What are my intentions for this conversation? 
  • How would I like this conversation to end? 
  • Who do I need to be right now to make that happen?

That said, you don’t have to have difficult conversations with everyone. Identify key people in your life and let the rest go. When a relationship becomes toxic or abusive, set clear boundaries. Having difficult conversations is an investment in the people you want to have a future with. Thus, you need to focus on people worth doing this hard emotional work. 

Creating Connections Through Difficult Conversations

Once you’ve identified the people who are worth the emotional investment, the next step is to embrace the discomfort that comes with these conversations. Disrupting the status quo is the only way for you to grow as a person and for the relationship to evolve.

We grow through difficult moments. When the alternative of staying the same is ultimately less comfortable than the discomfort of growth, the only choice is to change. We can do hard things when we’re motivated to do so.

The goal of having difficult conversations is not to have the same conclusion. Rather, it’s about appreciating the other’s point of view, going beyond your motivations, and trying to understand why they think the way they do. We need a sense of mutual understanding to look at a situation through the lens, beliefs, experiences, values, and expectations of another. 

Keeping Your Emotions in Check

Before you start a difficult conversation, you need to understand how your brain processes emotions.

When we are overwhelmed, a part of our brain tends to shut down to protect itself. This part, where empathy is housed, becomes inaccessible during emotionally charged situations and confrontations. 

Thus, you need to develop social and emotional awareness to bring yourself back into a better headspace and continue difficult conversations. At the same time, you have to be aware if the person you’re talking to is emotionally flooded as well. When you notice that either or both of you are at your limits, take a break to calm down. 

The Pregame Checklist 

Before engaging in a difficult conversation, mentally prepare yourself through clarifying your thoughts and intentions. You can try talking out loud or journaling so that you enter into the conversation without too much negative energy. 

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • How do I feel about the situation? Why do I think that way?
  • Why is this important to me? 
  • How is the situation impacting me? 
  • What would I like to communicate? 
  • What is my desired outcome? What would I do if that doesn’t happen? 
  • Do I want something to change or just to feel understood?

The Importance of Empathy 

After you’ve gone through your pregame checklist, the next step is to move past your internal narrative and run a mile in the other person’s shoes.

Here are some key points to help you in empathizing with others:

  • What are the core values of this person?
  • Where are they coming from?
  • What do they need to hear from me so that they feel respected and understood, even if we have some differences? 
  • What do I need to say for them to understand that they are valuable to me?

It’s not about achieving your desired outcome but looking at the situation from their perspective and understanding why it makes sense. When you really listen to another person with compassion, respect, and empathy, they do make sense.

What to Avoid in Difficult Conversations

These are some habits you should avoid when you’re in a difficult conversation. 

  • Refrain from the fundamental attribution error. It’s when you ascribe a person’s bad choices to character defects instead of considering the unique set of circumstances that led them to that choice. 
  • Avoid going into conversations seeking only to persuade someone or change their perspective. 
  • Keep away from judgmental and self-righteous lines like, “If you only knew what I knew . . .”
  • Be aware of micro-habits like eye-rolling or scoffing.   
  • Don’t go into a space of judgment and blame. Avoid interrupting and take the time to ask open-ended questions, listen, and understand. 

If you refrain from these lines of thinking and habits, the other person will feel heard and respected. Since they feel emotionally safe in your presence, you can have more productive conversations, and they will be just as likely to extend the same grace to listen to your side.   

If you are in a healthy relationship with someone who loves you and cares about you as much as you love and care about them, it turns into an openness and willingness to exchange ideas. And if you have done a really good job of listening and understanding, that will be reciprocated

Resources

I hoped this episode provided a roadmap for having difficult conversations that strengthen connection and understanding in your most important relationships. Which part of the episode was the most helpful? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.

Did you like this interview? Subscribe to our podcast to discover how to live a life full of love, success, and happiness!

 

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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How to Have Difficult Conversations: Podcast Transcript

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Access Episode Transcript

 

How to Have Difficult Conversations

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness and Success podcast.

[playing Plastic and Glass by Keshco]

Dr. Lisa: The band is Keshco with a song that Plastic and Glass—I thought a nice mood setter for our topic today. Today, we are talking about how to tackle difficult conversations in such a way that they go as well as possible.

It is important for us to talk about this topic because there are a lot of difficult conversations to be had lately. Particularly as we are heading into the holiday season in the midst of a contentious political season and with so many stressors and strains and angst and very real issues that people are facing. There is tough stuff to talk about with friends, with family, with partners, with siblings, with ourselves. And how you handle a tough conversation has a lot to do with the results you get.

So today we are going to be talking about why conversations feel so hard sometimes and strategies that you can use to face those moments not just courageously, but also with confidence and a sense of competence. And understanding some basic do’s and don’ts that will allow you to talk about important things we don’t want to hide, but do so in a way that helps you create the ideal outcome, which I think for many of us is to strengthen your relationships, increase connection and understanding and have it be a positive thing for all involved, as opposed to an unproductive conflict, because I think we’ve had enough of that in our lives. Right? So that’s what we’re doing today.

And if today is your first time listening to the show, I’m so glad that you are here. I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I am the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. My background is as a licensed marriage and family therapist. Also, I’m a licensed psychologist, and I am a board-certified life coach. And I am here with you every week to talk about different facets of the life experience and offer you ideas and strategies and support that help you create the love, happiness, and success that you deserve in all the parts of your life.

And so today’s topic, we are going to be talking about a number, a number of things. We’re going to be, certainly, a lot of relational issues when it comes to difficult conversations, but also I think a lot of intrapersonal issues. You know. I mean, we have to get ourselves in the right kind of headspace, an emotional space, in order to handle these moments effectively. And also, I’m going to put on my life coach hat and offer up some specific strategies as well. So hopefully you leave our time together today with a plan.

Difficult Conversations: Why They’re So Important

So, jumping right in. Why do some conversations feel so hard? Think about the conversations in your life that you would maybe rather not have. Right? Think about what those are. Having conversations with your partner about some aspect of your sex life that you would like to have be different. Considering a necessary conversation with an employer or an employee around, “I don’t like what is happening here and we need to figure out a way to handle this differently together in order for this relationship to continue.” Right?

Many times, there’s, you know, married couples or partner couples, particularly with children. There are so many crucial conversations to have around parenting—“You can’t talk to me or the children that way, this is not going to work.” Or, I mean, my goodness, people who have very well-developed and sometimes even aggressive opinions about politics, social justice, issues around racism, and how to handle those moments in a constructive way.

It is very easy, when we’re faced with these kinds of moments, to fall into a way of communicating that can be very almost ultimatum-y. “This is what I want. This is what has to happen. And you’re going to hear what I have to say right now, whether you like it or not.” And that often doesn’t end well. That is a quick path to a fight, in all honesty. And there’s a way to handle this constructively that creates not just communication, not just collaboration, but, really, authentic connection. And that’s what we’re doing on this show today.

I am going to be loading you up with all kinds of resources today. So, either grab a pencil and notebook or open up a note app. Or you can also, if you haven’t already, bookmark the blog at growingself.com, because a lot of the resources that I’m going to be giving you is kind of follow ups. So here’s where you go to learn more, are already on the blog there. In addition to these podcasts that I make for you, I have so many people, therapists and coaches on my team with me at Growing Self who are always cranking out articles and advice and tips on our blog at growingself.com. And there’s so much around how to be a better listener, tips to communicate more effectively, how to manage your emotions when you’re starting to feel angry or stressed out. So, so much there. I just wanted to mention that as the go-to resource so that I don’t have to say it 150 times over the course of this podcast. 

But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, when we think generally about what are the things that feel particularly difficult to talk about constructively, the things that we might even want to avoid or fear talking about, those are often the things that feel the most important. Those are the things that really need to be attended to, or resolved, or at least addressed. Because without that honest and courageous reckoning, our relationships will be fractured, and distance will grow. And unfortunately, that will happen whether or not we talk about it.

Avoidance Leads To Disconnection in Relationships

Many people avoid having difficult conversations because they are afraid of conflict. They don’t want to get into a fight. They don’t want to have an ugly interaction with someone that turns into a throwdown and wisely so—that is not ever helpful. And they don’t know how to handle the situation so that it won’t turn into a yucky feeling fight. So, they try to protect their relationships by not talking about hard things.

But the other side of this is that when you don’t talk about hard things that are bothering you, it will increase feelings of resentment, emotional distance. There becomes this feeling of separation and disconnection in your relationships—the relationships that you’re trying to protect by not talking about things. So, either way, there is a risk to your relationship, either through unproductive conflict or through avoidance.

It happens all the time. I can’t tell you how many clients I speak with, especially lately, who have perhaps a family member with a very vocal social media presence that is kind of diametrically opposed to their own political views. And say this family member is putting out lots of information that is incredibly triggering to say my client. And they feel like they can’t talk about it because it will create this conflict. It will turn into a bad conflictual moment. So, they don’t, and instead, they avoid their family member. They make up reasons to not go down for a visit. They mute them on social media so they don’t have to see what they’re saying, which actually, just between me and you, may be a helpful strategy in this day and age. But they feel like they can’t talk about who they are and what’s important to them and kind of know and be known.

And so there’s this distance and avoidance and it will atrophy relationships in a very real way, especially for couples, too. If there’s issues going on in your relationship that you’re not talking about because you want to avoid the conflict. Those will breed resentment and this feeling of hopelessness and helplessness and, “Well, it’ll never be different.” And all of these kind of narratives around, “Well, that’s just the way they are.” That is incredibly destructive to a relationship.

So, I just mentioned all of these because when it comes to difficult conversations, the number one thing that we need, first of all, is courage. We have to be courageous and brave and be the ones that bring difficult things out into the light with the people that we love so that we can have healthier, more connected relationships—relationships that are based on authenticity and respect and vulnerability and compassion and connection. And it’s hard to do. It’s hard to do.

One of the reasons I have found that people often avoid confrontation. Well, first of all, what I mentioned is having, like, assumptions that it will turn into a conflict. They doubt their own competence to handle the conflict. They, and sometimes rightly so, believe that it’ll just disintegrate into an argument because they don’t know what to do to make it not be an argument.

So, let me talk about that for a second. There are ways of communicating with other people that will very predictably lead to an argument. For example, when you communicate with another person in such a way that is perceived as attacking or critical. The other person, just like the sun rises in the east, they will become defensive with you and they will start coming up with all the reasons why you’re wrong. It is very, very, very difficult for anyone to stay in the ring and have a constructive conversation when they feel attacked. And so, one of the things that’s really important to think about in these moments is how you are bringing up topics and how you might be perceived by others.

And so as so often the case in so many of our conversations here on the Love, Happiness and Success podcast, one of the most important skills that you can cultivate to have constructive conversations is the skill of self-awareness, particularly as it relates to emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence means understanding, first of all, how you are feeling and what is going on inside of you that is leading you to feel that particular way.

So, for example, if you are high in emotional intelligence, you have more constructive conversations because you will be self-aware of the fact that, “Ooh. I’m feeling kind of angry right now.” And “I’m feeling a little bit upset. I am feeling morally justified in telling this person exactly what I think about them for all of these different reasons.” And you will be able to have that kind of meta awareness around, “Oh, my heart is starting to pound. I can feel even a little shaky. I am having all of these thoughts about why I’m right and why they’re wrong. And I know that I need to get myself into a better place before I attempt to have a productive conversation. Because if I go into it the way I’m feeling right now, the way that I’m thinking right now, it is not going to end well.”

And so, the core skills of emotional intelligence are being able to recognize: how am I feeling? What are the thoughts that are creating those feelings inside of me? And what do I need to do right now to shift my thoughts back into a constructive, compassionate sort of mindset? And what do I need to do to bring myself back down emotionally so that I am in a place where I can speak, not just speak respectfully, but also really genuinely maintain my ability to have compassion and empathy for the human that I am attempting to connect with right now, who is important to me? And coming back to, “What are my intentions for this conversation? How would I like it to end? And who do I need to be right now in order to make that happen?”

All of those are very deliberate things that people who are good at difficult conversations do very deliberately to keep themselves calm and kind of soft and centered and emotionally safe, even, to have constructive, connecting conflict—constructive conflict, believe it or not, is the thing. 

And I would also like to add that this is hard. It takes a lot of work on yourself in order to be able to get into this place and learn how to do these things. And you don’t have to do this with everyone. You might decide that there are some relationships in your life that are actually easier for you or even healthier for you to set boundaries around and go ahead and let that distance grow. As opposed to wading into this kind of emotional space with someone who is not going to reciprocate with you.

I wanted to bring that up because we’re talking about having difficult conversations with people and in relational contexts that are important enough and that you care enough about to do this kind of hard work, and those are the relationships that you want to invest in. That’s your family, your spouse, your child, a colleague or an employee or a boss who you really want to have a future with. These kinds of conversations, this kind of emotional work is an investment in your future—an investment in the future, in the well-being of others.

Healthy Relationships Are Mutually Respectful

And I just would like to say that it is important to use discernment in your life and in your relationships to kind of assess where do you need to invest and work harder to understand, to be compassionate and connect. And where is it actually, not just appropriate, but important to set very real and firm boundaries with people and protect yourself.

So, for example, if you are with someone who is being overtly racist to you or others or who is using abusive language or treating you badly, you can go ahead and leave. You do not have to tell them why. You can just be done saying no. “No,” is a complete sentence. You don’t have to explain yourself, and you don’t have to do anything to make that person feel better about it. It’s your responsibility as a healthy person to protect yourself from toxic people, abusive situations, and to do what you can to protect other people who need protection from toxic, damaging, and abusive situations.

And so, I just want to say that out loud, because sometimes I will write things in the blog about how to be a better listener or how to have more empathic communication or situations like this, how to have difficult and important conversations. And we’ll get a comment on the blog about “Well, what about a narcissist who does these horrible things to me.” And it’s like no, that is a person who you need to set very firm, clear limits with. That is not a situation that is likely to be mended no matter what you do. And to be able to develop kind of the judgment to know the difference.

If you would like resources on boundaries, how to set boundaries, how to have healthy boundaries and still have friends, how to set boundaries with family members, how to avoid unhealthy guilt when you’ve set appropriate boundaries, again, I would refer you back to the blog at growingself.com for podcasts and articles on all of those topics.

But this, this is how do we create connection through difficult conversations. So, we want to be courageous, but not indiscriminately courageous and putting ourselves into bad, bad situations. One of the things that I have found when it comes to these moments, when a relationship is worth investing in, it’s important to me and I know that I have to be brave and talk about something hard, I have found a thought that helps me, and it might help you, too. So, I’ll mention it. The idea that this is how we grow. We grow through difficult moments. We grow when we are challenged to grow. We grow when the other alternative of staying the same is ultimately less comfortable than the discomfort of growth. We grow, we change, we do hard things when we’re motivated to do so. And so I just want to offer that as an idea to you, that embracing the discomfort of these moments and breathing through it and reminding yourself that this is what growth and connection feels like is being authentic, being vulnerable, feeling hard feelings and doing the right thing anyway. This is the path of growth.

And also, I think sometimes reminding myself, if I want to have a high-quality relationship with this person, this is what I need to do. We have to talk because I know that if I don’t talk, I will withdraw. That’s something that I need to remind myself of personally. And I see a lot of my clients struggling with that. The tendency to avoid and withdraw can be pretty significant and to just be very explicitly reminding yourself, “No, this is important, I have to do this. If we don’t talk, we will become distant.” Those are ideas that can help you find the courage to do it.

Another idea I’d like to share that is really helpful for many of my clients, both individual clients and also a lot of the couples counseling clients that we work with, is that the goal of any of these conversations is not necessarily agreement. We do not have to agree with each other about the solution or the perspective or what is the truth with a capital T. What we do need is a sense of mutual understanding, to be able to say, “When I look at the situation through your lens, through your belief system, through your set of life experiences, through your values, through your expectations, I can understand why you would feel the way that you do. That makes sense to me.” And for you to feel the same. That even if someone doesn’t come to the same conclusions that you do about the same situation, that you feel that your perspective is understood and respected as being valid because it is. That ultimately is the goal. 

If we want to take that a step further and get bonus points, we could even move in to a space of appreciation that it’s not just “Yes, I can see why you would feel that way.” It is “You know what? I appreciate the values and the perspectives that lead you to feel that way. Thank you for sharing those with me.” Appreciation is even more, I think, affirming and conducive to emotional safety and constructive conversations.

And then, in addition to these ideas that can sort of help you grapple with conceptually what needs to happen in these moments of difficult conversations, a lot of my clients, either life coaching clients, relationship coaching clients, therapy clients, often find that it is much easier for them to have difficult conversations and be appropriately assertive when they’ve gotten really good at managing their emotions and going back to the emotional intelligence skills that we talked about in the beginning.

And so being able to have strategies in place to help you manage your emotions, understand what kinds of thinking or behaviors lead you to feel anxious or angry, and having a little toolbox of skills and strategies in place to help you feel calm is half the battle. If you can stay calm in a difficult conversation, chances are very good that it will be a productive one. Resources for you in that, I mean aside— you’re always welcome to do individual counseling or coaching. But if you have found that those are, let’s say, growth opportunities for you, I would refer you to the Happiness Class on growingself.com, which is essentially an online cognitive behavioral skills training course that teaches you what are the kinds of thoughts that will make you feel angry, sad, or anxious. How do you shift those into more productive ways of thinking? What do you do with big feelings so that you don’t always have to be reactive or withdraw in these moments? 

So, to kind of boost up your skill set for being able to do that, because it’s really, really important when anyone gets flooded—you, me, everyone we know—gets emotionally flooded and begins experiencing intense feelings of anger, pain, fear, anxiety, what happens is that their brains, our brains, change in the way that they function, like literally. When you are flooded emotionally, you go into a fight or flight space that is very much prioritizing your personal protection. And what it looks like is that people will withdraw and not be able to talk anymore, or they go into attack mode.

Interestingly, the way that your brain changes in these moments is that the most highly evolved and most human parts of our brains—the newest parts of our brain structure, the neocortex—the part where we’re able to have empathy for others, the part where our language skills are housed, the part that allows us to take a big picture perspective or do any kind of if-this-then map kind of advanced planning, our executive functioning skills. All of that in very literal ways, shuts down and becomes inaccessible to you. And so, it’s incredibly important to be able to regulate your emotions during difficult conversations so that your brain doesn’t turn off and you turn into some sort of like crazed defensive or hostile, like lizard brain activated person. Because that sounds crazy, but that is actually what happens.

Beware of Emotional Flooding

You see it all the time in couples counseling. A partner will say something that is clearly very triggering for their spouse, and that spouse will not— it’s like they just freeze. They can’t even continue in the conversation. In addition to managing your own feelings in these moments so that you don’t become flooded, it is incredibly important to develop the social and emotional awareness skills to notice when the person that you’re talking to is becoming flooded because they won’t be able to have a constructive conversation with you if they kind of go past a point of no return.

Some people, it’s pretty obvious when they become flooded. Their little faces get red. They might even start like shaking. But interestingly, men often become flooded and you would never know to look at them. They just kind of shut down. If you put a pulse monitor on their finger in that moment, it would be going at like 110 beats a minute. But to just look at them sitting in a chair, nothing has changed. You can’t tell the internal experience that they’re having. And that that is certainly true for many women as well. But being aware of when people are getting flooded and noticing that and having a plan in place to attend to it and help bring everybody back down is another incredibly important concrete skill to have in your toolbox when you are wading into difficult conversations. And being able to say, “You know what, I think we’re both getting tense. Let’s take a break. I’m glad that we started talking about this. I hope to continue the conversation with you. But I think, yeah, let’s go get a lemonade. Come on. Let’s go get ice cream.” Or something like that. Just kind of like shift away and let everybody calm back down again.

For more on that subject, the growingself.com blog has a fabulous article written by one of my colleagues, another family therapist named Lisa Jordan, who has written an article on emotional flooding and has even more strategies for what to do in those moments when you become flooded or when your conversation partner becomes flooded.

So, there is a lot of pre-work to do to prepare yourself to have a difficult conversation. The pre-work involves the emotional intelligence skills we’ve been talking about and being able to regulate yourself, keep your thoughts in a good place, have the most noble intentions in the forefront of your mind, and also have a lot of empathy for the person that you’re talking with and an awareness for them. But also, I think when a conversation is really important, it’s always a good idea to do a little bit of almost pregame pre-work around, “Okay. How do I feel about the situation? Why do I feel the way that I do about the situation? Why is this important for me? How is the situation impacting me?” and get really clear around what’s going on inside of you and what it is that you would like to communicate to the person that you would like to communicate to.

It sounds so silly, but thinking through this stuff in advance will help you be able to not just communicate your truth effectively, but take some of the emotional energy out of it so that when you say, “I’m feeling really hurt and disappointed that we haven’t had sex in three months, and I miss you, and I would like to be with you.” If you’ve kind of written through what’s going on with you, why it’s important, what you want, when you say that out loud, it will be often like just a more gentle kind of way that is more understandable to the person that you’re speaking with. If you wade into a difficult conversation without getting clarity around that in advance, it is very likely that the energy and intensity that goes along with saying those kinds of things for the first time will be perceived by the other person as critical, blaming, or even hostile or attacking.

That is one of the reasons why talking about what you want to talk about in advance with a coach or a therapist can be so helpful. And that is not the only way. You can also certainly do journaling and get this clarity on your own. But if you’ve said it a time or two to someone, then you can go into the real conversation just from a space of calmness. And since the intensity is already less, it sets you up to be in a position to be a much more receptive listener, I think, because that’s hugely important.

So, doing some pre-work around, what do I feel? Why is that? What do I want? And getting really clear, too, around what is my desired outcome when we are done talking about this, what would I like to have be different? Would I like something to change? Would I like to feel understood? Would I like to have more understanding of this other person? Would I like just to feel more connected and like we’re not tiptoeing around each other or not talking about the elephant in the room? Is that my goal? It’s all okay. But to get clear about that ahead of time.

Now, you think that’s hard? Let’s talk about what’s really hard because the other critical piece of having an effective, constructive, difficult conversation means moving past what’s going on with you and how you’re feeling and what you would like to talk about, and what is your desired outcome, and setting that aside. And before you even get to that conversation, doing some very serious work around, what do they feel? This person that I want to talk to about these things that are bothering me, what’s probably bothering them? Why do they feel the way that they feel? What are their core values? Where is this coming from? What kind of relationship do they want to have with me? What did they need to be hearing from me in order to feel respected and understood and validated and valued and that they’re important to me? And what do I need to be doing, and not just saying, in order to show them that I care about them and that I love them and appreciate them, even if we have some differences.

And that, my friends, is hard work, it really is. It requires a lot of not just compassion and good intentions but also really accurate empathy to be thinking about how someone else probably feels and their thought process and in a way that allows you to make sense of it. This, I think, is particularly important in this day and age when there’s so much polarization around political kinds of things. It’s also very, very easy for couples to get incredibly polarized around who’s right, who’s wrong, what should we be doing. And it’s difficult to get on to the other person’s side of the table, and that is also a crucial skill and well worth your time doing some soul searching around in advance.

In my therapy and coaching sessions lately with clients, there’s been a lot of discussion around either both with couples who have different perspectives and belief systems or individuals around how do I maintain a relationship with someone who has a very, very, very different belief system than I do and one that I might even find morally offensive and just absolutely wrong? That feels like an affront to what I believe people should be. How do I stay connected to this person? And I would invite you to go into a compassionate, empathetic stance that allows you to understand the noble intentions and the highest and best of the belief systems that create the outcomes that you see, even if those outcomes are in practice, sometimes really damaging, damaging to others.

So, for example, and I do not want this to turn into a political conversation at all, but I just wanted to provide you with a model just for ideas to think about. A stereotypical Republican say, kind of belief system at the highest and best says something like, “I am a hardworking, responsible person who I have tried really hard to make good choices and I have a pretty good life because of it. I believe there’s a right way to live. And if people take the hard and narrow path, they usually have good outcomes. And that I believe in my belief system and I think other people should too. And I think that when I look around and see other people having bad outcomes, it’s often because of their own doing. And I shouldn’t have to pay for it or have government swipe half my paycheck in order to support the bad behavior and poor choices of others. I think they can do better. And I think I have the right to defend myself against people who want to take advantage of me. And if I work hard and make good choices, I should be rewarded. And I have all these other belief systems that place value around life and family.” All these other things that when you go into it, noble intentions, noble intentions. And to be thinking about how does this make sense from this person’s perspective?

And on the other side, the same person on the other side of the couch, who maybe has a more progressive orientation would say, “I believe that human beings have inherent worth and that there are many different perspectives and ways of being that are all worthy of respect and appreciation. I don’t think any of us have a monopoly on the way, you know, ‘the way things should be’ or who is valuable in our society and who isn’t, because there is a bias and a hierarchy of value that is often based on race or socioeconomic status. There’s an unequal playing field. And the people with enormous privilege have a much easier time and often take credit for things that are handed to them. They think it’s about their character and their hard work, when they’re actually standing on a platform already.” Progressive people would say, “I think it’s the responsibility of an ethical community to provide support and assistance to those less fortunate in order to help build a large and fairer body of productive and valued members of our community. And that when we invest in people and things like education and health care, mental health and social services and firemen and police and roads and schools, everyone is lifted up. And that I’m willing to participate in that and help create that.”

So that’s one little example. And me just kind of like shifting from one side of that argument to the other. But in doing so, the hope is simply to share what the internal working narrative of people is often who are on different sides of this divide. And how when you look at the same situation from each point of view, it does make sense, even if you don’t agree with a belief system or the outcomes or the values. When you really listen to another person with compassion and respect and empathy, they do make sense, they always make sense. And I personally believe that we all could benefit from having intentional conversations with the goal of understanding those perspectives and seeing the good and the humanity in everyone, as opposed to reinforcing our ideas about why I’m right and you’re wrong.

Same thing for relationships. And as a couple’s counselor, I can assure you that when I am working with a couple and each person on opposite sides of the couch is feeling victimized and mistreated and hurt and uncared for by their partner, when you walk into their perspective, you can understand why. You can absolutely understand why and that none of us has a monopoly on the truth. And that it’s very, very easy for us as individuals to get caught up into our perspective and our way of seeing things. And there’s a very well-documented bias in social psychology where when we see other people doing “bad things” or making “bad choices,” or experiencing difficulty, we view it as because of character flaws, bad choices. It’s very easy to judge others.

When we make mistakes and have consequences or negative outcomes, the tendency is to say, “Well, but I was tired.” “Well, yes, but here’s the situation that led me to react that way.” We have all kinds of reasons why we do the things that we do because of the context of what was going on, the circumstances that made us feel that way, all of the reasons why we did what we did. And I think it would be to everyone’s benefit in this day and age to bestow the same grace to others that other people who are saying things or doing things that you disagree with have reasons and have a context and have feelings that make those actions or ideas make a lot of sense to them. And our role in difficult conversations is to learn what those are. Not have the focus on necessarily being understood, but putting the emphasis on understanding.

I know this sounds paradoxical because often the thing that motivates us to have difficult conversations in the first place is the hope that we could be understood, that we could change somebody’s perspective, that we could have a different outcome for the benefit of ourselves. And while that is certainly valid and generally the motivation that leads us to have courage and wade into these conversations, I would like to offer you a perspective that is much more likely to help the situation end well and lead to all of those desired outcomes. And that is putting your attention and effort on understanding the perspective and feelings of another person. Asking open ended questions where you invite them to talk more about their perspective, without being ready to be like, “Okay, well, thank you, because that’s why this is wrong.” And arguing with them or blaming someone else for the way that you feel or this one conversational strategy I often see, which is taking the sort of pedantic tone, which is that “If they knew what I knew, then they would change the way that they believe and, you know, all this stuff would stop. They would finally see the light.”

But again, like coming into that with a sort of judgmental and self-righteous idea, which is “My way of seeing things is better than yours and so, you should be more like me.” And this is true for everyone. It is true for progressives who really want to talk about diversity and inclusion, unless you’re an evangelical Christian, because that is not okay, right? And on the other side of this, for people to be absolutely resistant to any ideas about social justice issues or race or culture and the very real impact on people because of that and how they, by virtue of their own privilege, are participating in those things, whether or not they know it consciously, shutting all that down. It’s when we get very, very polarized and like, “No, I will not tolerate this point of view. I will not let in what you’re saying.” That is when conversations just go down the tubes.

And so, to be very, again, self-aware of how when you were having a difficult conversation and feel yourself going into that sort of space of judgment or blame or criticism or “let me rebuttal your idea,” would encourage you to move into a space of listening and understanding, open ended questions that are really focused on helping the other person feel heard and respected and cared for by you so that they feel emotionally safe with you and are able to talk about who they are, what they believe, the things that are important to them, and finally be moving into a place of what kind of relationship they would like to have with you.

Practice Emotional Safety Skills

And also in that space of compassion and emotional safety that you create, it creates an environment where if you are in a healthy relationship with someone who loves you and cares about you as much as you love and care about them, it turns into this openness and willingness to exchange ideas. That if you have done a really good job of listening and understanding that in a healthy relationship, that will be reciprocated. To be able to say, “Thank you so much for telling me how you feel when I see it from your point of view, I understand why that makes sense. Is it okay if I share with you how I have been viewing this and what my values are and why this sometimes feels distressing for me when these things are happening, particularly in the context of our relationship, which I care very much about, by the way.” It’s hard to have someone be like, and rare, I will say, to have someone say like, “No, uh-huh. Nope. I have just told you how I feel and what’s important to me, but I will not actually be reciprocating that.” That is very, very rare.

And if it actually is happening in your relationship, I would invite you to consider how mutually respectful and healthy that relationship actually is because relationships should not be one way. And if you are going into interactions with people with very not just sincere intentions, but strategies and skills like the ones we’ve been talking about today, you have the right to be respected and to also be heard, not necessarily agreed with, but understood. There needs to be reciprocity there.

So, there are so many other little micro-skills that I’d love to give you. And it’s beyond the scope of this podcast. But go back to the blog at growingself.com and look— communication strategies and you’ll find all kinds of podcasts, articles, little things that you might not even notice there. Like, are you making little faces when other people are talking? Are you rolling your eyes without even realizing it?

You would be amazed at how many times in a couple’s counseling sessions, I have to say to one partner, “What are you doing with the faces? Come on, let’s stop that.” And really, they’re not even aware that they’re doing it, but making little faces or the eye rolls their partners being like, “Never mind, I’m done. They’re not listening to me. Why even bother?”

So, it’s these little micro-moments. And again, it requires so much self-awareness to stay in a good place, stay open, stay receptive, not make the faces. You know what I’m talking about. Certainly, things like interrupting, jumping to conclusions, rushing to defense. I mean, there’s so much. There’s so much. If you are in a relationship that is very important to you and you are trying really hard to have constructive, productive conversations, and it is just not going well over and over again, that would be an indication. It’s probably time to get some professional help so you can be sitting with a relationship coach who’s saying to either of you, like, “Stop with the faces, what’s going on?” And help with some of the core beliefs or jumping to conclusions or helping around, like listening skills, developing empathy for each other. If that’s feeling super-duper hard to do on your own, always okay to reach out for help.

And also be generous with other people who may not have had the benefit of listening to this podcast or doing the kind of personal growth work that you are so clearly invested in. Just the fact that you’re listening to this right now and thinking about how to have difficult conversations with courage and competence just says so much about you and realizing that I think when you grow in this area, it becomes really obvious when you see other people struggling in these moments. You can see them becoming flooded. You can see them becoming defensive or shutting down or feeling blamed, not knowing how to calm themselves down or switch back into more noble or empathetic thoughts. So these skills are hard one, but yay to you for doing them. I know there’s so much more that we could talk about on this topic and maybe I will record another podcast along these lines again in the future.

But if you have been someone who has recently emailed me or gotten in touch through Facebook or on the blog at growingself.com or Instagram with a question about how do I handle talking to my elderly white aunt about her sort of internalized racism? How do I have a very difficult conversation with my boss or my best friend about something that is really bothering me and feels like it could tank our relationship? Or how do I broach a very important subject with my partner who I love very much, but about a situation that feels kind of unsustainable for me in our relationship?

I just want you to know that I have heard your questions and considered them very carefully. And I hope that the information that I shared with you today has provided a roadmap for how you can have the kind of conversation that you want and have it go well and lead to increased connection and understanding in some of your most important relationships.

And to thank you so much for listening today, if you have questions for me or anything that I can help you with, you are welcome to get in touch with me on the blog at growingself.com. You can also track me down on Facebook, facebook.com/drlisabobby, Instagram, @drlisamariebobby.

I would love to hear from you so that I can make a podcast for you. That’s all for today. And I’ll be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast.

[playing Plastic and Glass by Keshco]

 

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If you find yourself wondering why you do things you shouldn’t and how to change behaviors you don’t like, this episode is for you!

Shadow Self Work

In this episode I’ll be discussing how you can: 

  1. Discover how your shadow self can control you without you knowing. 
  2. Learn tips on how you can get in touch with your shadow self.
  3. Understand how shadow work can help you and your relationships with people.

 

 

Shadow Work: Making Contact With Your Subconscious Mind

The human mind is so powerful and complex that it’s impossible to be fully aware of everything. Most of the time, we are only aware of what is in front of us. A lot is going on in the background, which determines our behaviors or reactions.

Your shadow side lives in the part of you that you’re not fully conscious of…

Your shadow self consists of you with goals, needs, or a voice that you sometimes don’t consciously know of or hear. If you’re not aware of it, it can drive you to make unhealthy or unhelpful decisions. Your shadow self only has control when it remains unknown.

Listen to this episode to get new insights into yourself, and how shadow work therapy can help you get in touch with the deepest parts of yourself. Thought this powerful self awareness work, you can become truly empowered. 

Enjoy the Shadow Work Podcast?

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Post a review and share it! If you enjoyed tuning into this podcast, then please don’t hesitate to leave us a review. You can also share this with your friends so they can shine a light on their shadow self.

Have any questions? You can contact me through our website or find me on Instagram or Facebook. You may also reach out to us and inquire about online therapy and life coaching. Growing Self is also on Instagram and Facebook

Thanks for listening! For more updates and episodes, visit our website. You may also tune in on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, or Stitcher.

To finding love, happiness, and success

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Shadow Work

by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

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Shadow Work: Podcast Transcript

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Access Episode Transcript

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

 

That’s “The Visitant” by the band The Tunnel. I am recording this leading up to Halloween. I love this time of year, not least of which is because I get to trot out gothy music for you, you guys, you little Gen Z’s and millennials. And I’m keeping it alive. So I hope you enjoy it.

And in addition to entertaining myself, I am also playing this in to set the mood for our topic today. Because today, we’re going to be talking about yet another kind of deep and important issue that will benefit you, and your love, happiness, and success to learn a little bit more about. We are talking about Shadow Work. 

 

As always, today’s topic is about me doing my best to support you on your journey of growth. I have recently been getting a number of questions on the blog www.growingself.com, through Instagram, through Facebook that are in this category of “Dr. Lisa, why do I do this?” And the ‘this’ can be many different things. It can be, “Why do I have the same pattern and relationships over and over? Why do I make choices that I later regret? Why do I do things that I know are not really in alignment with my long term goals, hopes, or even values?” Like I had somebody get in touch with me not too long ago, it was like “Dr. Lisa, why do I lie to my partner?” 

 

And these kinds of questions are hard, and they’re very real. And I hear and feel the intention behind them. Which is that you really legitimately do not understand why you do the things that you do. And without that clarity and self awareness, feeling like a little helpless or even hopeless about being able to change these patterns and behave in a way that is more consistent with who you want to be. 

 

But when I get these kinds of questions around, why do I do XYZ? The knee-jerk and true response to this question is I don’t know. I don’t know why you lie to your partner. I don’t know why you cheat on your girlfriend. I don’t know why you say one thing and you do another. I do not have that information. 

 

But what I do know is that this information is contained in a part of yourself that you do have access to. And that with some support and guidance, you can get into that aspect of yourself, get that incredibly valuable information to understand, “Oh, that’s why I do what I do.” And with that self-awareness and knowledge, then you will be empowered to handle things differently, and make changes that stick, and feel more in control of yourself and your life. And the part of yourself that all of those things exist in, all of that information is available in your shadow side.

 

And that’s what we’re going to be doing today on the podcast. I am going to be sharing a little bit more information with you around what that is, how you can make contact with it, and then what you can do in order to achieve that clarity by listening to these parts of yourself that you not only just don’t listen to or maybe even don’t know about. So that again, you feel more aware and complete, and able to do what you want to do, and be who you want to be. 

 

So on this episode, I’m going to be talking about all kinds of things. And in addition to the information I’m providing, I’m also putting together a little worksheet for you that has some tips, ideas, strategies that you can use to crack into this a little bit more deeply. If you cruise on over to www.growingself.com/shadow-side, you will be able to download a worksheet that has some journaling prompts that can give you the opportunity to reflect and answer for yourself some of the questions that I will be posing to you today on this episode. Because, as always, and is so often the case really with any kind of growth work, the answers to the questions lie in new questions and being able to answer those questions. 

 

And that’s one of the real, I think, strengths and almost superpowers of being in relationship with a great coach or therapist is being asked the kinds of questions that will help you elicit the truth and the answers that do exist within you, but that you may not consciously have access to. So if you’re one of the listeners who has been asking questions or leaving comments on the blog, or getting in touch with me on Facebook, Instagram, elsewhere, I’m so glad that you’re reaching out and letting me know what’s going on with you, so that I can be of service to you on this episode and hopefully others. 

 

And if this is your first time listening or if you’re a longtime listener who has yet to pose a question, I would love to hear from you, too. You can comment, question, rant, opine, anything you’d like on the blog www.growingself.com  and always get in touch with me, Facebook @drlisabobby, or Instagram at @drlisamariebobby. I can’t wait to hear from you. 

 

Now, let’s jump right into our topic today. So okay, Shadow Work. We, humans, are incredibly complex. As we’ve talked about on different podcasts in the past, when I was talking to my colleague, Josephine, a while back about being honest with yourself or last year, I think we did a podcast about your subconscious mind and how to connect with it. There are parts of ourselves that are known and parts of us that are unknown. And I am not talking about it in like a really, you know, Freudian way necessarily. It’s kinda just a fact. We all have things going on inside us that are operating outside of the level of our awareness. They’re often subconscious core beliefs, or thoughts that fly through our head so automatically and outside of our awareness that we don’t even notice them. We just have a feeling we don’t even know why. 

 

And also, we have emotional and mental and psychological processes that are operating at a level that is so deep, we don’t even know it’s there. And it’s all okay. It doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with anybody because those things are happening. That is actually the way that human beings work. The human brain is incredibly powerful and complex. And because you are so smart, and your powerful brain is capable of remembering so many things, and so much information, and being conscious of so much stuff, all at the same time. 

 

It would actually be so overwhelming that no one would be able to function at all if we were all completely aware of everything all the time. It would overload the systems. And so our brains typically pay attention to what is in front of us, and what we are consciously aware of, what is occupying our attention in the moment. And everything else is kind of humming away in the background, not a problem in and of itself. 

 

But we do have things humming away in the background that typically have much more power and control over how we feel and what we do than the things we are consciously aware of. And so I know you know what I’m talking about here. I mean, we’ve all had the experience of going on autopilot. Sometimes you’re in the car, and then you get to a place and you can’t quite remember how you got there but you’re there. Or you know, “Wait, did I take my vitamins this morning? I can’t even remember.” 

 

We do things all the time without being consciously aware of them. But we are also – without conscious awareness – having reactions to things. We are making choices. We are responding to things in accordance with what lies beneath much more often than the things that we’re telling ourselves are true or what we want. And it’s important to understand that every person is complex and that we all have pieces of ourselves that we know.

 

The parts of ourselves that we know are often the parts of ourselves that we feel good about, or at least okay about. It’s our public front. This is who I am. The part of yourself that has your personality as you understand it, the part of yourself that goes and talks to people, or does the things. If you were to give somebody an elevator pitch about who you are and what you’re about, that would be your conscious self. 

 

And it is also true for everyone that if you observe yourself over time, the way that you actually behave is often different than the story that you tell yourself and others about who you are, how you feel, what you want. The classic example that everybody in the universe has done, self included, is to say, “I need to get more exercise.” “I need to go to bed earlier.” “I need to eat more vegetables.” Whatever it is. And that your narrative, your working self-concept is that I am a conscientious, responsible person. I take care of myself. I care about my health. I care about the health of other people. I do the right thing. That’s the core narrative, right?

 

And then, we observe ourselves being like, “No, I’ll do it tomorrow. I’m just gonna sit here and drink coffee and eat jelly beans.” You know what I mean? It’s like these patterns, these habits. They’re always operating in us all the time. And so it’s not that we are not thoughtful, conscientious, care about our health, XYZ. It is just that there are other things inside us also, that have preferences, and needs, and hopes, and a voice – whether or not we consciously hear it – that actually have more control over us most of the time than the parts of us that we are aware of. The part of yourself that wants to sit around on your bed for 45 minutes and a towel staring at a wall when you know you are going to be late for work and you really should get ready for work. The part of yourself that just wants to sit there is stronger. 

 

That is your shadow self. The part of yourself that steers you towards having unhelpful reactions with other people or engaging in relational patterns that you know consciously are not good for you is simply stronger. 

 

And one of the reasons why it is stronger is because it – before you gain awareness of what it is, and what it wants, and why it’s doing the things that it’s doing. Because it is unknown and operating without your knowledge or consent, it is able to assert itself in your life. When you shine a spotlight on it and understand it, it immediately loses significant amount of its power right then and there.

 

So, a big part of Shadow Work is really deliberately focusing on the parts of yourself that are currently unknown in order to bring them into the light. Once you do, that is half the battle. And then from there, you can continue acting to deliberately make changes based on your understanding of that shadow side of yourself.

 

So I feel like, again, we’re talking about this a little bit theoretically. So let me give you some examples in addition to the little ones that I shared. You or someone that you know and love probably has developed a shadow side – we often do – in response to often early childhood messages about who we should be. The classic example would be a little boy who gets messages that he shouldn’t cry. He shouldn’t feel or express vulnerable emotions. That’s not who boys are or what boys do. And so because children always accommodate their parents in order to maintain a relationship with them, children will always disown parts of themselves in order to stay close to their parents and try to be the kid that their parents want them to be. 

 

So for many boys that grow into men, their shadow side is often a repository of all of the vulnerable feelings, or attachment needs, loneliness, desire, longing that they were scolded out of having by the time they were five or six years old. So they want to be good. Therefore, they do not have those feelings consciously. But of course, since they’re human, they do still have those feelings. They’re just in the shadow side. They’re tucked away.

 

For women, many times, what do we learn? Girls should be nice. We should share. We should take care of other people and we should always be sweet. And so for many girls who grow into women, they will put into their shadow side the things that others have communicated are unacceptable, like anger, taking care of themselves, prioritizing their own needs and feelings. Sometimes even their sexuality gets put over into the shadow side. 

 

It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t go away. But things that aren’t acceptable need to be put somewhere. And so they’re kept safe in this semi-conscious or subconscious part of ourselves. And they still influence us, but in ways that we don’t understand or expect or feel in control of. 

 

So when we disown parts of ourselves, we are disowning the parts oftentimes that have been criticized or rejected by others. And through the process, we have – sometimes again subconsciously – come to believe that those parts of ourselves are unhealthy or shameful, or that they should be rejected. They shouldn’t be listened to or embraced. But part of doing really authentic, impactful Shadow Work is beginning to reclaim not just parts of ourselves that potentially make us uncomfortable, but is questioning the discomfort in the first place. 

 

For example, as we’ve discussed on this podcast before, dark emotions are your best friend in the whole world. Healthy, legitimate anger is incredibly protective and instructive. In our feelings of sadness or grief even, that is the wellspring of empathy, and compassion, and caring for others. The ability to recognize and effectively cope with big feelings is something that we don’t learn how to do if all of those big dark feelings are getting pushed away into our shadow side to be dealt with later, if at all.

 

So to begin to haul all of these stuff back out and asking yourself really powerful questions like, “How do I really feel about this?” What’s interesting, what I’ve learned over the years as a therapist or coach when I sit down with a client and I say, “Well, how do you feel about that?” The first answer I get usually is what people think they should feel about something. So they tell me, they say, “Well, you know I love him. It’s fine.” And then I ask, “How do you really feel about that?” And we go into like a little bit deeper. “Well, you know, sometimes, when I think about it, I’m really not that happy. You know, I feel frustrated but then, you know, I feel bad for feeling frustrated. I mean, they’re doing the best they can, too.” 

 

Like, there’s all these efforts to kind of minimize and push away again. And it can take me quite a while. Many, many episodes of questioning on different days to finally help someone peel that onion and get into the truth of how they really feel and what they really want. And not even just like what the truth is, but being okay with what that truth is. Because it’s one thing to have something be true and to feel it. But many people feel ashamed or judgmental of themselves for having the thoughts or feelings or ideas that they have. So it can be it can be scary work. And I think that that’s why it’s so important to be in a relationship with a coach or a therapist who can help you. First of all, who can ask you the question 17 times and not accept the first answer – which is the one that is the conscious answer. That’s the one that you’ve been telling yourself. 

 

Our work involves going into the rest of the story to help you uncover the true story, the true feelings, and be able to walk in to that shadow self. And the reason why this is so important, is because unless and until you do this work and begin to understand all the thoughts and all the feelings, they cannot just control but sometimes ruin your life. And I know that sounds incredibly dramatic, but it’s really true. 

 

Like, so, for example, if we go back to that simple scenario that we can all relate to, which is having a bad habit. You do something that you don’t like. You wish you didn’t do it. You tried to stop it, but you can’t and you don’t know why you keep doing it. When we walk into the shadow part of ourselves fearlessly and honestly, we often discover that there are understandable reasons why we do the things we do. 

 

Very often they’re related to comfort of ourselves, needing connection, wanting to feel good about ourselves, wanting to feel pleasure, wanting to feel taken care of, managing anxiety, or managing fears that we’re not even aware that we have. Those are often things that are discovered through this type of Shadow Work. And you may be thinking that this is like more of a deep, super serious therapy thing, right? And certainly, to gain self awareness and make contact with the shadow side is always — whether explicitly or implicitly part of effective therapy — but it’s also really part of good coaching as well. 

 

We think of life coaching as somebody coming in and being like, “Okay, these are my goals. Help me attain them.” And you’re like, “Okay, here’s what to do.” And coaching can certainly have that quality sometimes. But what will also invariably happen over the course of any type of coaching – whether it’s life coaching, career coaching, relationship coaching – is that somebody’s like, “Okay, these are my goals.” I’ll be like, “Alright, here’s how to attain them.” They’re like, “Great, I’m gonna go work my plan.” And then they come back, and they’re like, “Well, I didn’t do the plan.”  I’m like, “Why didn’t you do the plan?” They’re like, “Well, I don’t know why I didn’t do the plan. Why didn’t I do the plan?” 

 

And that is actually the moment where we can then start to get all kinds more information about what’s really going on. And talking about why they do things they do in terms of not how annoyed or frustrated they’re with themselves. But let’s talk about this, about why it makes sense that you didn’t do the plan. I know your conscious mind is telling you this, but if we were to listen to what else is true, and what we always find is that this person in their shadow side, in this like closet part of themselves where all the rest of this stuff is, there are other goals that they are actually achieving. They’re just not conscious of them. 

 

And so we have to uncover the unconscious goals that they are achieving and fulfilling at the expense of their conscious goals in order to help them make progress towards their conscious goals, competing goals. So it can get quite complex, but it’s always so interesting. 

 

So, one great way to really make contact with a shadow self is to connect with a coach or therapist who understands how you’re operating, how we’re all operating on this level, and who can help you make contact with that part of yourself through questioning, through kind of shining a blind spot. Like, “I hear you say this and I see you do that. Help me understand the discrepancy.” So super annoying coaches and therapists ask those kinds of questions for better or for worse. 

 

But in addition to that, there are some other great ways that you can begin to tap into some of this on your own. Dreams are a fabulous window into how we’re really thinking, feeling, and viewing the world on a deep level. And I am not talking about dreams like prophetic dreams or like magical dreams or I dreamt that I lost a tooth therefore it means XYZ. 

 

Our dreams are always just a little window into the part of our mind that we are not fully conscious of during the waking hours. And so sometimes, dreams do not make any sense at all. Sometimes dreams are simply – our brains running through a little program that helps us synthesize and incorporate little bits of information. Part of the reason we sleep and dream is to kind of just literally clean and organize our brain. 

 

And it is also true that when you pay attention to dreams, you can get information from a different part of yourself that may be worth listening to. So one great strategy to get in touch with your shadow side is to simply start keeping a dream journal. And it does not have to be anything complicated. It can simply be a notepad on the side of your bed or a little notes app that you keep on your phone. And first thing in the morning, just write down what you remember even if it was completely dumb, irrelevant. Not all dreams are significant, right? And some of them are. And again, maybe it’s not a specific dream, but patterns of dreams, or themes, or “I had that weird tornado dream again. What could that possibly mean?” Being able to do some exploration around that. 

 

Another fabulous way of making contact with your shadow self is to observe what you do and just even write it down. Log it without judgment, condemnation, criticism or excuse. Just write down what you do, what you actually do. Because we all have intentions that are conscious. We all have reasons why we do the things that we do that are conscious. We have excuses. “I meant to go to the gym, but then you know, I got to be at work, blah, blah, blah.” So fine, like those are all well and good. And those are all your conscious mind telling you what it wants you to hear and what is available. But it is through our behaviors that we really get the truth. 

 

So just begin to notice what you do and perhaps how that is different than what you intend. Again, over time, you can see patterns in your way of behavior that point to the existence of an aspect of your shadow self that you will need to get to know before you can have those behaviors be different. 

 

Additionally, another great window into our shadow self is our reactions to other people, particularly the big ones – either really positive reactions or really negative reactions. But if you are aware of yourself and like why do I have this feeling when I’m around this person? Or why did I snap at somebody in this situation? Or why did I feel this like big feeling when this person did this or did that because it was a little bit out of maybe proportion to what the actual event warranted? What is going on with me right there? 

 

Particularly in relationships with people that we’re close to that can come up – and not just with your romantic partner – sometimes with friends, very frequently with our family members – we can have interesting reactions that if we follow that thread all the way down can really illuminate some important things about patterns, shadow selves, and also particularly when it comes to reactions to your parents. 

 

Part of their – let me say that differently. I was gonna say part of their messaging to you. But let’s just be fair. There can oftentimes be a difference in what particularly children think people are saying or think that people are wanting – that may or may not be true – because they are filtered through our very limited child minds. So your child self may have received a message that a parent or authority figure may or may not have intended to send and it doesn’t matter because it was still incredibly true for that child and therefore true for you as an adult. But I just want to be fair to parents in this situation as well, because all kinds of things can happen in the space between a parent and child in close relationship with each other. 

 

Now, in addition to these self observation practices that I’ve been sharing, including noticing your behaviors, noticing your reactions, you may also consider keeping an ear out for how you hear other people perceive you, particularly if those perceptions that other people have are different than your self-concept. And certainly, we want to limit this to only healthy, emotionally safe relationships, because you may also have relationships in your life with people, who perhaps due to unrestrained forces on their own shadow side, are unnecessarily hurtful, or critical, or condescending, or unloving towards you. And in those cases, it’s often a better strategy to set boundaries and protect ourselves from people who may not be in the best place themselves, as evidenced by their behaviors. 

 

And if you also scroll through the people in your life that are close to, you’ll probably also have friends and family – who you love and who you know love you and who are kind and good and treat you well – who also may share their impressions of you that are worth listening to. 

 

And I don’t know what those may be. That’s obviously behind beyond this, the scope of a podcast. But if I were your therapist or coach, I might help you make a list of some of the things that you’ve heard over the years from people that you trust. Not that we have to agree with them, but just to log them. Because there might be useful information there that is easy for our conscious selves to reject out of hand as being wrong and well, “They just didn’t understand XYZ.” And we can explain away all kinds of stuff, doesn’t mean it’s still not there in the shadow side. So, there’s that.

 

And also, I want to say something. So I am giving you strategies to make contact with the shadow self around dreams, and noticing your reactions, and noticing your behaviors, and kind of how others might perceive you. In order to be ethical and appropriate here, I want to be very clear that where this is helpful to do on your own in the way that I’m describing is when your shadow self is kind of like garden variety shadow self that everybody has, right? We all have aspects of ourselves, things that we’ve disowned, etc., that we need to engage with, and incorporate in order to grow and grow into the fullness of our potential. 

 

It is also true that people who have been traumatized at points in their life, particularly early childhood trauma, can have dreams, super scary dreams, intrusive thoughts, incredibly intrusive feelings, or reactions that are extreme to people or situations that are quite mysterious to them. And they can feel sometimes out of control with their behaviors. Like they’re doing things that they don’t want to do, but they can’t stop doing them anyway. 

 

It’s thought by some researchers in the field of substance use and substance disorders that to a person, everyone who has a profound and debilitating addiction or attachment to a substance is at least partially as a cause of their efforts to protect themselves from the symptoms of often early childhood trauma or neglect. 

 

And so, I just want to say this for the purpose of providing you with information to help you differentiate. Is my shadow self something that I can kind of like get to know and like hang out with and take information from? Or is there stuff in here that is trauma-based and that I really need to get help with in order to recover, because my experiences of what’s coming out of that shadow side are above and beyond what’s kind of normal and expected for everybody to have. What is coming out of the shadow side is actually a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder that needs to be dealt with. 

 

There’s a real difference there. And also, just if you’re listening to this, if you have someone in your life who has been traumatized and who may not fully be in control of themselves or have things that they are really working hard not to feel or deal with, just be sensitive to the fact that there might be a really good reason for that. 

 

Not just that they can’t, it would be potentially even harmful to try to force them to go into that place and deal with those things on their own or through their conversations with you. They really need a very experienced, licensed mental health professional who is specifically trained in evidence-based forms of trauma recovery work. There are many out there: trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR has achieved good results. There are also kinds of exposure therapy that can be super helpful for trauma work. 

 

And I just wanted to bring that up, because I would hate for anyone to hear what I’m saying on this podcast and be like, “Okay, cool. Shadow Work. Got to do that.” And unintentionally stumble into something that’s beyond the scope of this kind of self-help work that I’m describing. 

 

Okay, that’s my disclaimer. Now, when you use these kinds of activities to do your shadow work, be aware of the fact that you are deliberately trying to make contact with something that you can’t see, that you are not fully aware of, and that there is a tendency as a result to avoid. 

 

One of the key indicators that you are connecting with a really important motherlode of shadow self that is important to connect with is a feeling of discomfort and an immediate sort of knee jerk reaction. Like, I don’t want to talk about that. I don’t want to think about that. No, I feel bad about that. I don’t want that to be true. 

 

Whenever I hear that, as a therapist, or coach, I think to myself, “All right. Like we’re getting somewhere.” And so just know that as you do the self exploration work, that can be one of your signs that you’re actually on the right track. And to practice in these moments, mindful self-compassion, and be very actively not judging yourself, not criticizing yourself, not shaming yourself, and really just practicing being like, “What if this is true?” 

 

If that feels too hard to do, and you notice yourself just avoiding and avoiding things all over again, and it feels like it’s like too uncomfortable to stay in contact with, that could be an indication that it’s time to connect with a good life coach or therapist around that.

 

And then also a question that I often ask my clients and that I would encourage you to use on yourself is the question, “How does this make sense?” Which is the exact opposite of our tendency to criticize or shame ourselves. But when we encounter one of those sort of uncomfortable things, ask yourself, “How does this make sense?” And embrace that. Like, if I had to tell myself a story of why this made sense as opposed to like me trying to make this not be true or feeling bad about it – why does it make sense? And that’s often the doorway to not just self-awareness, but a really deep self compassion and empathy for yourself that you do actually make sense. And there is a perfectly good and understandable reason why you do all the things you do. 

 

And that if other people had lived through your life path – and we’re born into the world with your set of circumstances and dealt the hand that you were dealt – they would probably do exactly the same thing, that we are all a product of our life experiences. And so it’s okay. 

 

And even if you encounter things that you don’t currently love, understanding why they make sense will empower you to then be able to say, I’ve been kind of doing this on autopilot. I haven’t fully known why I have done all of these things that I don’t love. It now makes sense to me. Here are the needs that I was subconsciously attempting to have met. Here is the unconscious narrative that has been going on in my head that led me to do the things I did and make the choices that I made. Or here are the messages that I internalized about who I should be that aren’t actually true for me. When I tap into my shadow self and listen to it compassionately, so it really just opens the door to so many, so many opportunities. 

 

So I hope that this discussion has helped you just gain some insight into what this type of work involves and some strategies that you can use to begin to unearth these truths inside of yourself. Because the answers to all of the questions that you guys have been asking me lately, everything from “Why am I attracted to these partners who are emotionally unavailable over and over and over again?” Ask yourself the question, why does that make sense? And pay attention to the answer. To really ask yourself without shame, judgment or criticism. 

 

Why do I lie to my partner? What is going on with me in those moments? I’m not fully aware of having a feeling or a thought, but I’m doing it for a reason. Why does that make sense? What am I obeying? What am I feeling that would lead me to do that? 

 

And beginning to crack into that truth? Why did I or do I cheat on my spouse? My spouse would tell me it is because I’m a monster, and I am a terrible person. I don’t know if that might be true. But also, what is the reason why it makes sense for you to be doing that? 

 

Again, these can be very challenging questions to grapple with on your own, particularly if you are aware of doing things or feeling things that you’re really unhappy with. And especially if you use some of these exercises that I shared with you today. And a true understanding of yourself feels elusive, that could be a sign that it’s worth getting involved with someone who can help kind of like pull you in deeper to those parts of yourself in a safe way. There’s always a balance in growth work. Like it has to be somewhat challenging in order for it to be meaningful and effective, but it can’t be so challenging that it feels scary and like you’re really uncomfortable or emotionally unsafe with the person that you’re working with. 

 

So always step number one is to establish a really positive and trusting relationship with a therapist or coach who can help you and make sure that you feel good with that person. And then slowly over time, allow them to assist you in peeling that onion, and getting deeper and deeper into these parts of yourself that need to be brought out into the light, so that they can be in your conscious awareness and dealt with intentionally and effectively. 

 

Because when you do that, not only will you be happier with what you’re doing day to day, you’ll feel more in control of yourself. You’ll be doing things that are more in alignment with what you want. But there’s also the sense of like integration for the part of yourself that you’ve known about, but also this other part of yourself that maybe you haven’t known about, maybe you have kind of disowned, or rejected. 

 

And in my experience doing this work with people, even though they’re a little like, “Oh, I don’t know what’s there. I’m not sure I wanna make contact with that.” Like when my clients do, they almost always move into this space of developing greater compassion and appreciation for themselves. And like a more compassion and appreciation for other people too, as a result of that work on understanding, and accepting themselves, and making sense of their own life story. 

 

Also, through this kind of deep, deep Shadow Work, you can – believe it or not – attain greater emotional intelligence. Because in that shadow side, as we mentioned, are oftentimes the dark feelings or the challenging feelings that we have pushed away. And through that pushing away, we really sometimes do not know what to do with them when they come up in a constructive way. 

 

And so, we are reactive, or we lash out, or we do weird things in the moment when we’re feeling emotional intensity, because we simply have not had the practice and the opportunity to learn skills of what do I do when I start to feel mad? How do I have productive conversations with people without flying off the handle or not saying how I feel? Because that’s not helpful either. How do I manage stress and anxiety in productive ways? How do I stay in control of myself, even when I am going through something hard, and most importantly, how do I understand the presence of these emotions in others and use their expressions of emotion in order to help me understand them better, and have more meaningful and productive conversations and communication and connected relationships with them? It’s so important.  

 

Another neat byproduct of this work is that when you do it, you will walk through the experience invariably of encountering some uncomfortable things about yourself that again, you need to embrace, and learn about, and appreciate, and accept. And in doing so, you will release any judgment towards yourself that you may be holding. You will feel more confident in yourself. You will feel higher self-esteem oftentimes. 

 

And you will become – I wish there was another way to say this but I’m sure there is – you will become less judgmental of other people. Because you will come to understand that everyone, every single one of us is fighting these types of battles on the inside. And that when people perhaps don’t behave well – just like it was true for you – there’s a reason why it’s true for them, too. And you know, maybe they haven’t yet done all the work that you have done, but to hope that they will and understand that they have conflict inside themselves as well, as opposed to just kind of judging people harshly and casting them away as a result. Everyone makes sense. 

 

So, again, I hope all of this has helped you and inspired you to begin to Shadow Work, either for yourself or with a coach or therapist. Again, I have prepared a worksheet like a little plan with some questions and activities to help you do some of this work on your own. Again, cruise on over to www.growingself.com/shadow-work to download your copy. You can print it out and write in it. And that in itself may be very, very useful for you. I hope it is. 

 

So again, if you have questions for me, or would like to follow up questions about Shadow Work, or would like to hear information about a different topic or other types of questions that you’ve been grappling with, I’d love to know about it so that I can make a podcast just for you. You can leave your comments on the blog at www.growingself.com. You can also get in touch with me on Facebook, Instagram, et cetera. And I look forward to hearing from you and to being with you again on the next episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. 

 

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