Change Your Story, Change Your Life with John Delony

Change Your Story, Change Your Life with John Delony

Change Your Story, Change Your Life

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

Music in this episode is by Tess Parks with their song, “Life is But a Dream.” 

Change Your Story, Change Your Life

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate,” — Carl Jung. 

Most of our thoughts happen a few layers beneath the threshold of our awareness. There, they assemble themselves into stories. Stories about the world, our place in it, and what will help us create the outcomes we want — and avoid those we don’t. 

As an experienced therapist and life coach, I know the power of stories, and of taking an active role in rewriting yours. Here’s an example of a story at work: Your friend asks if they can borrow some money. As you decide whether or not to lend it to them, you don’t have to manually consider the kind of person you are and what that person would do, the nature of money and money lending, or what friendship means. You’ll probably just do what feels right, and that feeling will be based on your unconscious stories. 

Your story may sound like, “I’m a generous person, and this is what generous people do for their friends. Money is a renewable resource. I don’t need to worry about the possibility of losing a few hundred bucks when I can always cultivate more.” 

Or, it could sound like, “I’m a wise person, and wise people know that lending money is something to avoid. Money is a limited resource that I have to ration carefully, or I could end up bankrupt or out on the street.” 

You base your decision on the stories you’re telling yourself that you’re probably not even aware you believe. 

Thinking in stories is a handy cognitive shortcut that frees up a lot of your brain’s processing power for other things. But what if your stories are making you feel bad about yourself? Or limiting your potential? Or creating unnecessary stress over things that aren’t even true? 

To make radical, positive changes in your life, you have to become aware of your stories and begin interrogating them. On today’s podcast episode, we’re going to tell you how. My guest is Dr. John Delony, an author, educator, and host of The John Delony Show. In his latest book, “Own Your Past, Change Your Future,” he lays out a clear process for bringing your unconscious stories up to the light and challenging the ones that aren’t helping you. 

I hope you’ll tune in, on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Change Your Story, Change Your Life

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

Music in this episode is by Tess Parks with their song, “Life is But a Dream.” 

Spread the Love, Happiness & Success

Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Apple Podcasts



Change Your Story, Change Your Life with John Delony — Episode Highlights

We’re all carrying around stories, whether or not we know it. 

If your stories help you feel good about yourself, and worthy of love and respect from others, you’re going to have a greater well of inner resilience to draw upon, and it’s going to be easier for you to have meaningful relationships and make positive changes in your life. 

But if you’re carrying around stories that make you doubt yourself or expect the worst from others, you’ll have a harder time doing the things that make your life better, and you’ll have a hard time creating healthy relationships

So, how can you choose stories that help you build the life you want and rewrite those that aren’t so helpful to you? This episode of the podcast has some helpful insight. 

Stories of Your Life

We inherit many of our stories from our family of origin and culture. Some of these stories will be positive. You might have a story about how you’re capable of anything you’re willing to work for, for example, or that you’re the kind of person who deserves kindness and respect from others. 

But even stories that seem benign can have a powerful influence on the course of your life, especially if they’re left unexamined. I’ve spoken with clients who didn’t pursue the careers they wanted, as teachers, artists, or writers, instead taking jobs they don’t care about in fields they can’t stand, which are now unleashing all kinds of stress, depression, and burnout in their lives. 

When we drill down into the process that led them to this unhappy place, we eventually hit stories from their parents about money and what constitutes success. When they speak these stories out loud, it becomes clear to these clients that these stories aren’t theirs at all. They’ve built lives they don’t want, based on stories they don’t believe. 

These clients often come to see me amid a “quarter-life crisis,” a mini-meltdown that has woken them up (painfully) to the gap between what they have and what they want, or who they are and who they want to be. Believe it or not, these clients are lucky; some force deep inside them is rejecting their inherited stories, giving them an opportunity to start a new chapter that’s more in line with the life they truly want.   

How Vulnerability Helps You Change Your Story

One of the keys to recognizing your stories and changing them is having close, open friendships with people you trust

When there are friends in your life who you know have your best interest at heart, and who will give you their unvarnished feedback, you have a sounding board for your unconscious assumptions, the meaning you’re making from events, and the self-limiting beliefs that you’re not even aware you hold. 

It takes vulnerability to share your stories, remain open to hearing points of view that differ from your own, and to be open to changing your beliefs. You have to let someone see you, flaws and all, and be open to the idea that you might not have it all figured out. But friendships like this make life worthwhile — and help us take control of our stories rather than letting them control us. 

Change Your Story by Tuning Into Your Feelings

One sign that you may be buying into a story that isn’t true for you is having thoughts that don’t match up with your feelings. For example, you might “love your job,” but feel like you’re having a panic attack every Sunday afternoon as you prepare for the week ahead. Or you might be “happily married,” but long for more love and connection with your partner. 

When we disregard our feelings because they don’t match up with our story, we miss out on opportunities to make changes that could make our lives better. If you can approach your emotional states with curiosity, and tune into what they may be trying to tell you, you can use that data to guide your life in the direction you want.

Admittedly, this can be easier said than done. Many of us were raised to wallpaper over our feelings or view them as a sign of weakness (particularly true for men in our culture). If you’re used to shoving your feelings aside, tuning into what they’re trying to tell you may take some practice. But it’s well worth the effort: We need to remain connected to our feelings to be emotionally healthy, have good relationships, and live our best lives

Rewrite Your Story. Literally. 

Journaling is a powerful tool for rewriting your story. When you feel yourself spiraling into dark feelings over a situation, it can help to pause and write down the thoughts that led you there. 

You might be thinking, “My client hasn’t responded to my email, and that’s because they hate the work I delivered, I’m not cut out for this; I’m doomed to fail.” Most likely, you’re not consciously thinking all of this. It comes to you in a flash that feels like dread, anxiety, or shame. 

Your feelings seem out of proportion with the situation, so you dismiss them. But this is a missed opportunity. If you could drill down into the thoughts causing these feelings and question whether what they’re telling you is accurate, you could replace them with more accurate stories that don’t drain you of motivation and energy. 

Change Your Story, Change Your Life

It’s important to challenge stories that aren’t true. The emotional states that our thoughts produce can be self-reinforcing, coloring your thinking and leading you to see the possibilities in life, or to see nothing but insurmountable obstacles. Rewriting your stories helps you feel better emotionally and build habits of mind that move you forward

By changing your story, you can make peace with the past, feel better about the present, and begin designing a future that reflects your true self.  


Change Your Story, Change Your Life: Episode Show Notes

[03:15] On John Delony’s Book

  • John narrates how he had all the academic and intellectual answers to his experiences, but he still couldn’t see the problem with himself.
  • He wrote this book because it’s not only about him, but it is also about his friends, family, and his community.

[09:35] The Cracks in the House

  • John realized he was seeing something that was not true. He was getting paranoid, thinking that his house had problems.
  • He shares how he was crawling in the mud in the middle of the night, with heavy rain pouring down on him, because he was afraid his house would fall apart. This was the first moment he realized, “Maybe it’s me.”
  • John did not know what he was doing wrong.

[15:13] Are Your Stories True to the T?

  • Sometimes, what you see is not the truth and what you experience is not real. Norms and stereotypes are factors that push the unreal narrative in our brains.
  • Denying and rationalizing your experience is a way for your brain to cope.
  • It took a friend to make John realize that his house was fine and strong, and that it was he who was crumbling.

[22:10] Recognizing a Story from Trauma

  • John says that the best way he recognizes whether his stories are true is by writing them down.
  • Writing these stories allows you to externalize and shift them.
  • Verbalizing your internal conversations can also help you process these stories.

[29:49] How These Stories Develop

  • These stories develop from the moment that we are born.
  • The cultural and societal norms we are all born with push the narratives we tell ourselves.
  • Some people experience big T traumas, while others experience small t traumas that add up over time. We rarely realize that the weight and effect of these two different traumas can be similar.

[36:00] How to Rewrite Your Story

  • Dealing with grief is a big step toward rewriting your story.
  • Society has developed a culture of pathologizing any uncomfortable feeling, including grief.
  • Grief is a core experience everyone must process.

[46:47] Rewrite Your Story with Others

  • Surrounding yourself with people who have the same experiences as you can help you rewrite your story.
  • John notes these people should be outside of your immediate crew (spouse and children).
  • Rewriting your story means you are unearthing your trauma and changing the perceived narratives in your head.

Music in this episode is by Tess Parks with their song “Life is But a Dream.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to if further questions are prompted.

Lisa Marie Bobby: We all have stories we tell ourselves — stories about who we are, who other people are, what we can expect from ourselves, what we can expect from others. These stories develop over a lifetime of experience, and they develop whether or not we want them to, or whether or not we're conscious of it. And so we are all carrying around stories, whether or not we know it. If you have a set of stories that help you feel good about yourself or feel empowered and strong, you're going to have inner strength and resilience, and it's going to be easier for you to feel good and take positive action. 

If you have stories about yourself and others where you are worthy of love and respect, and you can expect good things from the people around you, your relationships are going to feel easier and happier. On the other side of all this, if you're carrying around stories that make you feel bad or doubt yourself, or see the worst and other people, you're going to struggle sometimes. And that's okay. The good news is that we can all recognize and take ownership of our stories, and we can change them. My guest today is here to tell us how. I'm so pleased to be speaking with Dr. John Delony today. 

He is the author of a new book called Own Your Past, Change Your Future and he's done all kinds of cool stuff. He is a best-selling author, he's the host of the Dr. John Delony Show. And he has two PhDs, one in counseling education and counseling supervision, and the other in higher administration — oh, higher education administration. He's now doing all kinds of fun stuff with Ramsey Solutions. He's been a professor, a crisis responder — which is so interesting — and now he's here today to talk with us and with you about how to see those stories and how to change them. Dr. John, thank you.

John Delony: You are so kind, good grief. You're so kind. Thank you so much for inviting me to be on your show.

Lisa: Well, I'm excited to talk with you because this is good stuff. Okay, question number one: Am I pronouncing your name right?

John: Yes, it rhymes with lunchmeat. It was a rough childhood for sure.

Lisa: Oh my gosh, I didn't even think about that and now I'm not going to be able to not think about that.

John: No it's your — yeah, there's a long line of Delony baloney chanter, so it's all good.

Lisa: I was Lisa pizza. Although —

John: Pizza’s good, refined lunchmeat is —

Lisa: My father's name, though, is Luke, and he was very intentional about giving both my sister and I names that would be difficult to rhyme with because of that.

John: Well done. Luke and puke, huh.

Lisa: Yes.

John: I see that.

Lisa: Delony, bologna. 

John: Delony, bologna. And John, it's a toilet, right, so it is what it is.

On John Delony’s Book

Lisa: I'm sure we'll have plenty of opportunities to talk about childhood trauma. Nice segue into —

John: That’s the crux of the book is people made fun of me and I couldn't handle it, right? 

Lisa: Oh, well. So this is really good stuff and really important stuff. I mean, I've been a therapist for a long time. And honestly, at the core of pretty much every issue on some level is the narrative that people have. The conversation they're having with themselves about themselves, the things they're telling themselves about their partner. I’m a couple's counselor by trade and so that's kind of a big deal. And so it's so important to get your arms around this stuff. So I'm so grateful for your book, and I'm so curious to know how this book came about. Like you could have gone in a lot of different directions with your career. How'd you choose this one?

John: It's 10 years in the making. I walked it and lived it. And the most disorienting part about it was I had all the academic answers. I had all the intellectual answers, and yet I couldn't see it. I was right in the middle of it, and I couldn't see it. And I couldn't understand the effect it was having on my loved ones, on my wife, little kids, on my neighborhood. As I begin to slowly walk through, you got to walk through the ugliness to get to the other side, and started heading off into the darkness flanked by some really lovely people who helped along the way. 

I started realizing, “Man, this isn't just my story. This is my friends’ stories and their marriages and their infidelity problems and their finance problems and they're — like, “Oh, this is my community's issue, this is our country.” So these narratives were much bigger than me. And I had a ringside seat to live it. And at the same time I was experiencing this, my job was in sitting with other people, when the wheels have fallen off, right? And so, in one case, you're able to walk alongside people and help them. And another case, I didn't even see it in my own mirror. So how do you help somebody get from point A to point B, when you don't even — when you're lost at sea as well, right? 

This is just a journey back to how do we get well, and it all came back to, “Why did I think this was the right path? Who told me I had to do this? Where did I get this thought that I'm too unattractive to be loved? Why did I think my wife was leaving her shoes out just to ruin my day? Why does my four-year-old son say, ‘No dad’, and I instantly go to, ‘Because I'm a terrible father’? Where did these stories come from?” And that narrative inquiry really set the stage for “Oh, man, we are all chasing stories.” And then the physiology, our bodies are responding to these stories day in and day out for our entire lives. And you can't fix the body and mind unless you address those stories.

Lisa: Yeah, definitely. So, it's one thing, I totally hear you. Have all the academic knowledge, right? And to intellectually know — and I mean, this is what you get taught in counseling with like, cognitive behavioral therapy, it's a known thing, right? And until we feel it, and live it, and we're like, “Ooh, I'm — am I doing that? Yeah. Oh, I am.” Like, it gives you this different perspective to be able, I think, to teach it.

John: I'm trying to reframe the thought and my body is screaming, “Run! Run!” And so I can have all of the right cognitions in the world, I can look the book up and look it up in the DSM. But I've got to own what's happening inside of me. And my body is saying, “Fight everyone, because everyone's an enemy right now, especially those who are saying they love you. They're the scariest, right? Why?” So it's walking backward, reverse engineering this thing and say, “Why is my body responding?”

Lisa: Yeah, well, I'm feeling like our conversation can go in one of two directions right now. And in door number one, I could ask you about some of the things you have observed with clients who might be struggling with thoughts that are not helpful to them, stories that they want to ultimately reevaluate. Or door number two is that I could ask you to talk about how some of those stories and experiences showed up in your own life in a more detailed way. But I would not want to assume which one of those doors is right for you.

John: Oh, I love having a conversation with a therapist. You're so hospitable. We can have the cheese or… My friends are like, “Hey, we're having pizza, get over it.” I will reverse it and say, we can go — this is your home, so I'm happy to go into any door you'd like to go into.

Lisa: Alright, well, I just want to be sensitive, because you know what, I need to like, check my own boundaries sometimes. I do this with my friends, too. Because I'm a therapist. And so it's like, as my guest on this show in our professional role I wouldn't want to like push you into the pool. 

John: Oh, no, no, That's what I signed up for to get shoved into the pool. And you just made my heart feel good. My wife — I'm just endlessly curious about folks. And when you are walking alongside people in any capacity, particularly in your work as a therapist, it's natural. A natural next question is, “Well, tell me how often y'all are having sex? Tell me what that's like for you?” And my wife has told me over the years, “That's not a great dinnertime question with people we don't know that well,” and I just — it's the next right question. And, anyway, the fact that you just mentioned that makes my heart feel good. And so same team, I love it. No, let's go to the deep end of the pool, we'll go wherever you want to go. 

Lisa: Thank you. We get very weird [inaudible] to of counseling school and like asking weird questions, and people are like, “Why are you looking at me that way?” And then I think professional development, we kind of like figure it out. I think sometimes I err on the other side sometimes, like in personal relationships. I think, “Oh, that's a therapist question. Don't ask that.” When actually it probably would be just fine to ask.

John: My wife would love it if I had that filter. Well, I don't have that filter. Good for you.

The Cracks in the House

Lisa: Anyway. Okay. Well, thank you for being so open here. So with your permission, I mean, I'd love to hear about what was going on for you when you had that first spark of self-awareness and what was going on in your head when you're like, “Maybe this isn't —”

John: Yes. So I think it's important to acknowledge if you're just now listening to this on a podcast. I'm in every privileged cast there is. I'm 6’2”, 195 pounds, white, male, my parents are still married, and grew up in Texas, and my mother and dad had me in Sunday school every Sunday. So I've checked all the boxes. And then there was just a path that we were given, not we in my house, but we in my neighborhood, in my community, you go and you get these type of grades, and then you perform this way on this athletic field, and then you go to these set of schools, and then you — even going to grad school wasn't a question. 

It wasn't, like, “I wonder if I could,” it was an expectation. You just, “Now we're going to go to grad school,” right? And part of going through those — part of this journey is you're going to rack up six figures in student loan debt. You're going to work all hours of the night, grinding it and killing it and dragging all those, whatever words. So really, I just did what was laid out in front of me. And I followed the track as best I could. And I tried to be hospitable and kind, and say I was sorry, and learn and listen.

I had some — my parents have two remarkable, adventurous lives as well. And so I was really given a ringside seat into some really important life lessons early on. But I showed up, and you blink your eyes, and I'm a senior leader at a really nice university. And my wife is a brilliant researcher and professor, and we have been trying to have kids for several years and we finally were fortunate enough to have a young child. We're making a combined income that my granddad couldn't wrap his head around. He worked at Houston Power and Light for 35 years and got the gold watch.

I had all the fancy credentials and the titles, and I just got accepted to a management program, a leadership program at Harvard. I was doing all this stuff, and I was running my full-time job and then I took a faculty role too. I was doing all the stuff and at some point, my body said, “Hey, we're out. We're done.” And it started with a little bit of a paranoia here, like, “Hey, do you notice that everybody's seeing that, and they didn't see it.” And now I know it was off-the-chart clinical anxiety and I lean towards obsessive-compulsive and I didn't know what that was. I just knew that I was seeing things that nobody else was seeing. And when you're in the eye of that hurricane, I would have a contractor come over to my house and say, “Hey, will you look at this, I think this thing's caving in on me.”

They would look at it and measure it, and then come back and say, “Your house is fine.” And he would drive off. And my first thought is, “That guy doesn't know what he's talking about. He's crazy.” And again, I'm — my job is going great. I'm clocking in and clocking out, I'm doing good work. I'm getting good performance reviews. And so, my story is not one of “And then I exploded ended up in rehab.” Mine was more typical of the millions and millions and millions of people who are living life with this low-level hum of dysthymia, this low-level hum of anxiety, and we've just come to believe this is the way life is. And that we all just have to gain weight and become less mobile and you stop having sex the longer you're married because it's — and Netflix is more important than intimacy and connection.

If you just — right, you just follow the path. And it was, during this time, part of my job was getting called in to make the phone call, right? So I would call and let a parent know, “Hey, your son or daughter has just passed away,” or “Hey, your son or daughter is in ICU and you need to quickly get on the plane and come,” or “I'm walking your child into a psychiatric hospital, you need to get her as quick as you can.” So that was part of my job or taking students who are highly intoxicated and making sure they got into EMS and then got to the hospital. So I was trafficking other people's trauma and they called me in when the wheels have fallen off. 

I'll never forget sitting in my backyard in the middle of the night and it was raining. And I was crawling around in the mud with a flashlight in my mouth looking for cracks in the foundation of my home because I was convinced that this was happening. That my house was falling apart and that rain was going to flood in there and split the foundation. Again, saying it out loud is absurd. It just doesn't happen, it's not a thing. But I was convinced it was and there was this moment of lucidity where I sat up and I realized, “Oh, this is when they would call me to come sit with this guy.” And it's me and that was the first moment that I — the first little crack, the light got through the crack and I thought, “Maybe it's me.” 

A few weeks later, we sold our house, we moved into a residence hall, and I got in my car and drove and sat with a buddy who's a medical doctor, an MD, and I said “Hey, brother, I'm not okay.” And that was the first time I ever uttered those words out loud. And that started me on a long journey towards what if we — what is happening? That this is how I'm ending up.

Lisa: I got it. Thank you for telling me that story that like, I think William Burroughs called it “That Naked Lunch Moment” where all of a sudden we're like, “What am I doing?” And how interesting. If there were a Freudian in the room with us right now, which there is not like, fascinatingly symbolic, like, “This house is falling apart.”

John: I mean, it couldn't be more Freudian if I tried. Yeah, it was just silly. 

Are Your Stories True to the T?

Lisa: No, not silly. I mean, I'm sure that's what it felt like on many levels and so but what you're also sharing something that I think is so instructive for everyone, and just I too had those moments of like, “Wait, just a second, a different flavor.” Through the filter of my life experiences and personality, but I think it's that first flash of recognition when we’re like, “Wait a minute, maybe the story I'm telling myself right now, is not true with a capital T.” And that I think, is the hardest thing for all of us. Because, what we think, what we see out of our eyes, what we perceive happening in the world through our filter, what else is there? You know what I mean? Like, I'm looking at a cup, right now, you're going to tell me like, no, but to have that sort of psychological distance around, “What I'm telling myself is perhaps not objective reality,” is so hard.

John: The part that they don't tell you in the movies is when you have that realization, there is no music that swells. And there's no great soundtrack and your supermodel spouse doesn't come outside, your romantic partner, and say, “It's all going to be okay”, and you hug and then the next day, the light, that's not how it works. There was no music, I was covered in mud, and I was getting rained on, and I was laughing and crying at the same time. And I went back inside and went to bed, and I didn't sleep. 

I woke up the next morning, spun up and knowing, “Okay, that might have been me, but maybe not.” And it's a long slog through those stories, through childhood trauma, through big T, little T stuff, through physiological chemical imbalances, through all of it, and it takes a while. And that's just not how Hollywood has drawn it up for us. And so I wish you could say that, “Man, if everyone could just have that moment of, ‘Tada,’ that's —”

Lisa: “I understand now.”

John: Right? And it's all better. That's the moment it starts, right? And then the heavy lifting takes years, and you got to invite people with you along the way because we can't all do it ourselves. That's the part that nobody told me. Right? That, “Oh, that’s it. Maybe it's just me. Alright, now we can begin.” And I thought that was the end of a journey. That was just that was the prologue.

Lisa: Well, and too, that the experience, I think, if I put myself in those shoes, and in my own life, it doesn't actually feel good. 

John: No, it’s the worst!

Lisa: It’s sort of terrifying and it's very easy, I think, to avoid or deny or rationalize things that we tell us. So it would have been, I mean, it's a real credit to you, I think, and your, your strength and your health that in that moment, because it would have been easy to say, “Or there could actually be a crack in the foundation. I'm going to keep looking until I find it because —” but you didn't do that.

John: Can I tell you this? I can take the strength of that moment. But let me tell you, I had called over contractors, I called over professionals, I called over work colleagues who had some experience in construction. It was when I call over a college roommate, who at that time had been my friend for 10 or 15 years, and someone who I trusted dearly, and I trust with my kids and my family. I called him and his father was an architect that he'd grown up on construction sites. And I said, “Hey, I haven't got to meet your new son, you haven’t got to meet my son. Let's get him together and take some photos. And by the way, when you're down here —” 

He drove three hours, him and his family. And he walked me out, looked around the house, I was given him my rigamarole that I gave everybody and it sounded like A Beautiful Mind. I was like it was, it sounded like one of those YouTube conspiracy theory guys who takes this and then this and then this and draws a straight line is like, look, and you're like, “What are you talking about?” That's what I sounded like, right? But it all made sense. And he took me out and we were looking at it. And he's a quiet West Texas, stoic, and he just said, he's a banker by trade, if that gives you anything of his personality. And he said, “John, your house is fine. It's strong and it's firm.” Then he said this. “I don't want to hear this anymore.”

What I didn't know is that my wife had called him and said, “I'm scared. Not that John's going to do anything or hurt anybody. But something's not right and I don't understand.” And then it was I could say that the light came on because I had this moment of strength and bravery. You know what I did? I reached out to somebody and said, “I'm not seeing this. I know I'm not seeing something”. And he was the first guy that I thought, okay, maybe I trust him. I trust him with my family. Maybe it's not me. And even when he left I thought, “He didn't see it.” But that was the seed that was planted, right? So I think most healing starts — almost all healing starts with human connection and a real relationship, right?

Lisa: Absolutely. You have to be vulnerable enough with somebody to allow them into your experience and be open to their feedback, their assessment, that trust, I totally get it. That makes a lot of sense to me. And was also very brave to do. And I also hear you saying that you had to do that. I'm thinking right now that there's things, and I'm sure you know this, but like get diagnostic labels, but they're just sort of like different iterations of the similar things sometimes, like hypochondriasis, right? It's like going to doctor after doctor like, “No, something's wrong. Look, again, I need another test.” And it's like, but that same sort of, not the diagnosis itself, but just what anxiety can look like, in different ways. There's different stories, and it's very similar. That even though it's like information doesn't make us feel better.

John: In fact, it was a revolution to me to frame something like anxiety, as complex yet as simple as anxiety. What if anxiety’s not the problem? What if anxiety is just the alarm, letting me know, “Hey, you're disconnected, you're out of touch with your relationships,” or “You're not safe? Or you're in a situation where you don't have any control?” What if anxiety was like the smoke alarm in our kitchen, that just letting us know, “Hey, something's on fire,” and I can climb up on a ladder and pull the batteries out of that thing. Or I can duct tape a pillow around it in silence it. My house is still burning down.

What I stopped doing was going to war with my body. When I started counting corners, which is a tic I have when I start ruminating. I now am curious about what my body's trying to protect me from. I don't go to war with trying to stop the thing, because that's like duct taping over my gas gauge on my car. Instead, I'm going to say, “Oh, man, I'm getting low on gas, I need to write fill in the blank.” What are the healthy behaviors that I know for me, I go back to over and over again, that let me know that I'm safe and connected, right?

Recognizing a Story from Trauma

Lisa: I love that analogy, like, take the batteries out of a smoke alarm or… But now also, though, I'm sure that there was a big piece between having that moment in your backyard and then getting to the place where you have all of these, you know, how to manage those stories really effectively, obviously. Actually, right before it before we met, I was in a meeting with another one of my colleagues who's been on the show with me before — Anastasia. She's another couples counselor on our team but she was like, “What are you up to today?” And I told her about my interview with you. And she was like, “Oh, this is going to be a good one. And I'm already thinking about clients. I'm going to send this one too.”

I was like, “Well, what, what questions would you have for Dr. John?” And the first thing that she said, because I think that this is a real hard one, is “How to recognize the difference between you telling yourself a story that is a construct of something that you've lived through historically?” And may not be the most helpful way of viewing a situation? How do you keep that awareness in your mind? Because I heard you say that there was that flash of recognition. But that's in many ways when it just begun. So it's like, beginning to unearth part of that story. How did you get your arms all the way around the whole of it? There was a process there.

John: If I were to distill down the last 10 or 15 years, I really don't know a way. And you're a seasoned therapist, right? I just play one on the radio, you do it for real. And you may have different tools that I can learn from. But the two things that I've distilled down is one: I have to write these stories down and get them out of my head so that I can look at them and this is very cognitive-behavioral. No, but I have to demand evidence for that. 

Here's an example: I was walking out of the house recently, a few months ago, and I kissed my five-year-old daughter on the head. And she just — this like 5:45 in the morning before anybody's thinking rational, by the way, she's five, she doesn't get a vote into my day or my life. We don't let her buy guns or alcohol ‘cause she's five. But I kissed her on the head and she shook that little beautiful blonde hair of hers and she said, “I wish you never existed.”

My wife came across the table like, “Mo ma’am, we treat each other with respect. We talk to each other with respect in this house. We don't talk to each other like that way.” And my daughter went on to say, “All he ever says is you're so beautiful and you're so gritty and strong and brilliant. I can't live like this, and I'm not going to take it anymore.” To which, she's five, right? She is five. And I'm pathological about screens. I don't even know where this comes from. This came from her soul, right? 

I smile and I looked at my wife and I was like, “I didn't have this class in grad school, right?” And so we crack up and I walked out on the front porch. But here's the thing, if I'm being honest, the first thing that went into my mind as I walked out on the front porch, in the dark, out in the car — I live out in the woods out here — was, “Of course, because you suck at being a dad, you're never here.” And it was a season I'd been on the road, I travel a lot speaking all over the country. I've been on the road for weeks on end and that was the first story. And when I think of that story, there is a biochemical consequence. My body floods itself with adrenaline and cortisol to protect itself from that shame and that not-enoughness, right, and that failure. And, “Oh, yeah, remember you’re a dad.” 

All those stories come flooding back in and there's a physiological consequence to it. My heart beats faster. And I had to stop and write that — I either write it down — in that moment, I'd been doing it so long — and catch myself and say, “No, it's not true.” And I'm talking to myself as I'm heading down the porch to the gym, “But it's not true. I'm a great dad, she's five, and it's 5:45 in the morning,” right? And I'm going, my brain is going to go, “Oh, he's back in the driver's seat. We're good,” right? So the first one is, I'm going to write these things down and it's annoying and I've been doing this forever. And I still carry a small little journal with me in my cool GORUCK backpack designed to carry heavy weights and do like cool, tough stuff. And I'm a Texas May — whatever.

I still have a little journal that I write stories down in when they get stuck on loop in my head, and I can look at them at arm's length and demand evidence. The second one, the only other way I have learned to deal with these stories, is I think this is the chief enemy of our time is I have to have cultivated trust in intimate relationships with other people, especially other tough guy boys like me, and to be able to say, “Hey, am I seeing this, right?” And we have a deadly crisis of loneliness and disconnection in this in this culture. And I have to have people in my life that say, “Hey, I get really fu —” Like, I had this conversation with my wife, “Am I hearing this right?” And my buddies will be like, “No, you moron, don't say that.” 

Because one of them's a banker, and one of them runs an HVAC company. And you're they're not therapists, and they're not gentle. But they tell me the truth and so it's sometimes I have to go see a therapist, I have a coach, right? It depends, I got to have people in my life. And so those are the two ways that I've learned to get down into the stories, get through my biochemistry, and try to get to the truth — is this real? And if you may have other ways to do it, but those are the two that have been most effective for me.

Lisa: I would not add anything else — externalizing it, saying it out loud to another trusted person, that you have the kind of relationship with, to accept their feedback or perspective. And it could be a counselor, it could be a coach, it could be a very good friend that you've cultivated that relationship with. And then also certainly, writing — I do that to this day. I write down things, I journal, and it helps me shift. And I do think that with a lot of practice, I find myself even doing this. I'll say something, maybe I haven't, I'm having a day when I'll feel discouraged. And I'll say, something negative about something that's happening to my husband and I will say out loud, “Stop that.” I will say a different thing. There was an, “I'm the worst mom in the world.” And then I'll be like, “You know what, I'm not actually the worst mom in the world.” And I'll do that like out loud with people. So there's like a whole nother level of self embarrassment right there. But that’s another strategy.

John: My wife thinks it’s hilarious. I'll be walking through the living room. And I'll, that goes back to helping control my thoughts. But I'll be walking through the living room and my wife will hear I'll just be like, “No!” And because I've started having an imaginary conversation with my boss and of course, I always win with the last witty statement, right? And I showed them. I'm never going to have that conversation ever. That will never take place. And by the way, it'd be disrespectful if I did. That's not even who I am as a character. But it just feels so good in our bodies. This is the thing I didn't know; our bodies get addicted to the chemicals of winning, they get addicted to the chemicals of engagement and of stress. And so I literally have to stop. I will walk into the living room and I'll go, “Nope.” And my wife will just roll her eyes because she knows I'm stopping that thing before it gets off the tracks, right? I'm not going to go down that road. I'm going to have a different conversation with a real person in the real room with me, right?

How These Stories Develop

Lisa: I get it. Oh, that's awesome. Well, and you bring up such a great point. And this is actually another question that I wanted to ask you about because you had written about this in your book, and you just brought up something that is so important, and I think is very helpful for people to understand is that we have physiological reactions to things that we think about. Your feeling mind cannot tell the difference between things you're thinking about, and things that are actually happening. And so we have responses to whatever we're telling ourselves. And you talk in your book about how a lot of those old stories or kind of automatic responses can be rooted in trauma — big T trauma, little T trauma, and also just life experiences. So I'm so curious to hear your perspective on how these stories develop, and just what you've seen with that.

John: I think we're launched out of the gate. And so I think the first set of stories are the ones you're born into, right? This is just how we do Christmas. We aren't those kind of people that buy cars like that, whether nice cars or cheap cars. I would never take a job in an office like that. We are here — we're a long line of fill in the blank, right? And so you are born into this is just the way we do life, like so I'm always running my mouth in my house about how stupid screens are. “I can't believe people would give their children smartphones.” But well, now I have a 12-year-old and a six-year-old that are parroting me. Like they'll see their friends and be like, “I can't believe that.” I'm like, “Dude, you're going to get beat up. Don't say that. Right? Don't be that kid.”

That's just the world they know. And we have the same thing about you've grown up in a family where God's not real, or you grew up in a family where God loves you, he's your best friend, and he wants the best for you. Or we grew up in a family where God has just watching you and if you get a step once, he can't wait to torture you for eternity, right? And then I hand that off to a seven-year-old and expect them to carry that cosmic weight. So we're born into these stories, and they're cultural and they are local, they are national. We're born into these stories. 

Then there's the stories that were told, either explicitly or implicitly. You're never going to be able to fill in the blank. Or, “Hey, if you wear that shirt, you look makes you look pudgy, and the boys won't think you're pretty and you want them to like you, right? Yeah, yeah.” That those become stories that become a part of us. And, unfortunately, and fortunately, depending on the stories you grew up with, the stories you're born into, and the stories you are told, become the stories you tell yourself. And all of them have a biochemical consequence, with our stress response, with our love response — all of those come at a cost. And often the story of a little girl saying, “Hey, Mom, look at this picture! Hey, Mom, look, look, look!” And mom's just scrolling and scrolling on her Instagram or Pinterest or whatever. And the little girl say, “Hey, mom”, and mom's just going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it looks great, honey.” 

That little girl doesn't know, “Man, mom's obsessed with the stupid phone, I'm your daughter.” That little girl's body tells her, “Something about that little machine is more lovable and important than you, figure that out.” And that little girl will solve that problem forever and ever and ever. And then she's going to become 34 and someone's going to call her in the office and say, “Hey, we've identified you. We think you’re vice president-material.” And her first thought is, “I can't do that. I can —” That's a story that has continued to rattle around in her heart and mind. Literally, you know, you've heard the old saying, “Our childhood biography becomes our adult biology.”

This thing rattles through forever and it's got real-life consequences. And until she can pause and say, “Why was my first response that I can't be a vice president? I made the grades, I got the degrees, I've kicked butt in this job. Why is it was my first thought that I can't do this?” That's where true healing begins.

Lisa: Yeah. Well, and that's so interesting to think about, too, because it's I think that we can think about trauma and damaging life experiences as being big and dramatic and obvious. And sometimes, they can be. And I think that certain life paths are just inherently more difficult than others if you're dealing with cultural oppression or discrimination. And there are also subtle kinds of trauma that are very easy to miss. They feel almost just like part of life, but they can still leave an impact.

John: The analogy I love to use is this. We're all born with a backpack. And as I said earlier, I was born with very few rocks or bricks in my backpack. Friends of mine were born into abusive homes or homes that one of the parents has left, or into poverty, or they're the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood. They were born with weight already in that backpack, and then you throw in abuse or the divorce or the car wreck or the heart attack. And that's like a big cinderblock of trauma getting put in that backpack. Most of us won't experience that. Most of us will experience what I didn't know about trauma until recently, several years ago.

That said, it can be acute or can be cumulative, it can add up on you. And it's the mom passing you off, it's the little boy banging his head and dad saying that didn't hurt, suck it up. And the little boy says, “It did hurt,” but he's big, and he's smart. And so I can't trust my own body. I can't trust my own feelings. And I won't have trust in that forever, right? And so those little micro-traumas, they're small, and they add up and they add up and they add up as little T traumas. And suddenly, over time, the weight in that backpack is the same. It’s a pebble a day, a pebble a day, a pebble a day of, “Oh, honey, yeah, let’s not wear that shirt. You're not pretty in that shirt.” That adds up over time to where, when you're 35, you're 23, that weight in that backpack is the same. And we didn't even know we were carrying it.

How to Rewrite Your Story

Lisa: Yeah. Well, and how hard to excavate these things and create that awareness. Because if it's stories that you've always had, and the way that you've always felt, just how to, again, get that awareness that maybe those things aren't true, maybe you do have ways of shifting those stories. And in your book, you mentioned that in your experience, it can be very helpful to grieve as part of that process. Can you tell me more about that?

John: We have a culture that's just pathologized any uncomfortable feeling. And this is going to sound like a strange thing for a guy that's an optimist and who believes in hope and laughs a lot. But I want to bring us back into connection with sadness, and frustration, and annoyance, and boredom. And these are core biological responses, they’re core feelings. And we have a culture that's just wallpapered over them, either with pharmaceuticals, or with distraction, or with Netflix, or with — dude, now Amazon just tells me what I — it knows what I want to buy, before I even do. It just tells me, “Hey, you're going to like this, right? Here's your next book to buy, okay?” And Netflix, just, “You're going to really like this show.” It's automated our everything. 

Grief is a core experience that every culture throughout history has had and that we have overnight, dissolved it, we've done away with it. Your spouse dies, you get three days off, and then we're going to have you back in the office. If an extended family, if a cousin or grandparent dies, “I'm so sorry, if you've got some vacation time, you can take it.” And if you're an hourly employee, “You just have to see if you can afford the grief, right? And then we're going to have you back at the office.” That's the world we're in now. We have pathologized discomfort. Why? Because it makes us uncomfortable when people around us are uncomfortable. We don't have any skills, we don't have any tools to lean into somebody else's grief with them. 

All grief is — my definition of it is — it's the gap between what you hoped for or what you thought would happen, and what actually happened, that's it. And it can be as big as, “I thought my dad was going to be around forever and he died.” “I thought this relationship was it. I went all in on this and she cheated on me, she left me. I went all—” like there's grief there, right, that is deep and it's the black hole that therapists and coaches have dealt with forever.

Then there's the little stuff, the teeny tiny stuff that goes like this, “Hey, honey, you wanna go grab dinner tonight?” “Yeah, that'd be awesome.” And I'm all excited because it's Taco Tuesday. And can't wait because I love eating too many tacos and they're only $1 so I don't feel bad about it. And my wife hops in the car, and she's like, “Let's do this. And by the way, we're not going to that nasty Mexican food restaurant, we're getting burgers.” I can stop right there. And instantly my body goes on defense. 

I'm going to do one of two things. I'm going to not address it. I'm going to turn the radio up a little bit louder because I'm kind of ticked off. I'm going to sit about an inch, a little bit more leaning the other way, and I'm going to be really violent with my silence — fine. My wife's going to say, “What's wrong with you?” And I'm going to act indignant, “What do you mean what's wrong with me? What's wrong with you? Why?” I can go down that road. I'm going to drive a little bit too fast.

Or I can do this really quickly, I can think in my head, “I wanted to have Mexican food.” This is small G grief. I've never said it like that. But this is saying, “I really wanted Mexican food, but I'm going to honor my wife and burgers are good too.” And now I'm onto the next, now I can re-engage in this relationship. She didn't even know she had unplugged from it and so I get to own my response to these things. And it goes back to the stories I choose to tell myself and you have to sit in grief, whether it's tiny, or whether it's big, and if you avoid it, your body will solve for it year after year after year.

Lisa: Yeah, this is great. And I'm so glad that we're talking about it. Because what you're saying is really acknowledging grief and sitting with grief and making space for all of those dark feelings that are —

John: A common question I'm getting is “Alright what — let's — how do we get back to normal?” And I want us to stop and say, “Hey, however you believe in it, a million people just passed away. A million. And we're livestreaming a war that's never happened in human history, like that's happening right this second. And by the way, right? Our kids have missed this, and you missed weddings, and our loved ones had to go to funerals with no people in attendance, or our grandparents had to die. We need to stop for a second.”

Yes, we have to keep going to work. Yes, we have to keep eating and paying our bills. But we need a collective season of grief for a minute, we went through a hard, hard thing. And what happens next is going to be hard, too, and we need to do with intentionality, not just sprinting off to the next flashy, exciting thing and the loudest music, right? It's how our bodies are designed to operate. And the more we go against nature, the more we run from our bodies, and the more — we'll pay that toll at some point.

Lisa: Yeah. Again, I'm so glad you're talking about this, because the goal of wellness is not necessarily feeling good, although that can be a happy byproduct. But it's really, that core piece of emotional intelligence is being very comfortable with all of your feelings and being able to not, you know, push them away, but rather even use them to say, “Oh, I'm telling myself a story right now.” And that you have to have this information, and you have to have time and space for the harder parts. And part of the reason I think I'm feeling so glad that you, specifically, are talking about this right now is because — and I do not want to gender stereotype —

John: Oh, come on with it. I love it. 

Lisa: No, really, I think that particularly to have male role models, talking about this kind of vulnerability and how to make space and recognize and sit with these kinds of dark emotions. I mean, men in particular, I think, are socialized to believe that it's not okay to not be okay. And here you are saying this is actually the path forward and talking about how to do that. I'm so glad you are because I wish there were more of that in our culture. It's usually, the counseling field is dominated by women and —

John: Well, I'm grateful for that. I had a ringside seat. My dad is a wonderful man. He's a college professor now, but for my childhood, was a homicide detective in Houston, a major city. And he was a SWAT hostage negotiator. So when someone was going to blow something up, or someone was going to kill somebody or themselves, they called my dad in, and he would walk in and sit with people in the biggest messes and reconnect humanity to them.

I had a ringside seat to what happens when there is no ecosystem of how to be well. And that didn't exist in the 70s and 80s, for cops. It didn't exist in the 70s, or 80s, or 60s, or 40s for our veterans, for guys who are just getting out of the mines and then go to bed and then clean off and get back in the mine in the morning. 

We've created this myth almost overnight, just a few 100 years old, that just simply isn't isn't accurate — it's not right. I do have a responsibility, I think, to give people a picture, here's what I believe and here's what I know. Most men that I interact with, and I worked with a lot of tough guys, I spent years as an MMA guy, all that stuff is great. I spent a lot of years with a lot of tough guys, still do. Most of them are desperate for that level of connection. There's just not a picture of what it looks like. Because their dad didn't know that, didn't have those tools in their kit. Their granddad sure didn't have those tools in their kit and their granddad was off in World War Two and they didn't — right? 

I feel a keen responsibility to say, “Hey, I look like you. And I like the same things you like. And I promise I'm a better hunter than you are. And I drive a Prius because — I wrecked it the other day, so that's fine too. And here's what hugging your son looks like. Here's what looking in your 11-year-old son in the eye and kissing them on the face and telling them, ‘I love you and I'm proud of you,’ looks like. And here's what accountability looks at. Here's what connecting with your wife and your daughter. Here's what listening and not trying to solve everybody looks like.” So, yeah, I feel that responsibility because we can look around at our world that was mostly created by men. And it's not going well, and so we've got to do something different and to do the old thing just faster, and louder, and harder is not the way forward, right? So we got to do some things differently.

Lisa: That's a good perspective, and you've offered so much actionable advice and guidance here in our conversation today. I know that your book has even more, but what I heard you say is, I think, to almost adopt a curiosity about what you're thinking, why you're telling yourself this story, and being open to considering other possibilities. And also kind of running your ideas past others. We talked about, certainly, therapy or counseling as being an avenue for that.

But you've also talked a lot about having the kind of relationships that you can be that vulnerable in because, I mean, it's very easy to have a lot of social friends where we talk about stuff, and nobody ever talks about, “Am I crazy?” Or do you like — that's a pejorative word, but like, “Here's what happened, am I thinking about this right?” Maybe as a final note, in addition to people reading your book, what advice would you have for our listeners who really are struggling with that? Or maybe even they have a therapist but I can't be the only person in their lives, right? But is it to develop that kind of community, that kind of emotional intimacy in relationships.

Rewrite Your Story With Others

John: I think it's important to step back and recognize that we are in a very strange, weird moment in history. We have found ourselves profoundly lonely and it's happened. Anyone who says it's because of this, they're just selling you snake oil. There's a hundred reasons why, there's a thousand reasons why. Some of it is architectural. We didn't have air conditioners until a few years ago, and so we had to have front porches and screening porches, and we had to wave to our neighbors because they walked by. And we lived in tribes before that and so we had small communities that we just did life with. And some of it is the technology. 

We used to go to the movies, and go to concerts, and go to church, and go to wherever, and go bowling. And why in the world would I do that when I can have the movie pumped into my living room on my 80-inch flat screen that I bought for $200? That's how much it goes to the movies, the cost to go to the movies? And so why would I do that? And by the way, Netflix knows me better than AMC does. They have a million movies, and AMC has got 14, why would I do that? Why would I go stand up for three hours at a concert when I can have it pumped right into my living room in 4G? And why would I go bowling when I can play Fortnite with Oculus Rift on and like, you know what I mean? 

Like, why would — we've just overnight — why would I go have an uncomfortable conversation in person to person, when I can just thumbs down you on the internet and feel good about myself for a second. And so we've outsourced our friendships to the digital world, which is great, we are super, super informed. I know that my friends love me and they all wish me happy birthday, but I am highly disconnected from them. And so all of this plays a part where we find ourselves profoundly lonely. And so here's as bold a statement as I can make. In 2019, right before COVID, all the mess, I think it was in November, JAMA, the Journal of American Medical Association, came out with a study that I thought was going to send shockwaves through the country, particularly through mental health and medical practitioners. It was the third year in a row that the average lifespan of US citizen had gone down. We were dying younger. 

The first thought, it was a highly political season. First thoughts, murder and crime — it's not. It was what they called diseases of despair. It was suicide, addiction, and organ disease failure like heart disease, liver disease, and things like that. We were lonely-ing ourselves to death. The study got buried because COVID kicked off, and then we had more acute things to deal with. But really quickly, the data is showing us if you are doing life alone, you're going to die sooner, you're going to die more miserable, and the people around you will pay a price too.

You are worth more and the people you love are worth more. So what does that mean that we find ourselves in this weird no man's land? Because none of us know how, we don't have tools, we don't have — we don't know how to make friends. When we were kids, they just dropped us on the same classroom or put us on the same kickball team together and said, “Go get them.”

What do we have to do? We have to find new tools. We got to figure things out. We have to risk, we have to go first, we have to be hospitable, even to people we think who vote differently than we do, and think differently than we do, and worship differently. We got to just go be brave, we got to be a little bit courageous. And we have to know, “I have to have other people in my life.” And for most of us, that means go first. And you're going to get hurt, people are going to burn you, people are going to say no, and that's on them, not on us. And we've got to continue to move forward and make close intimate relationships. 

The one caveat I have is that, usually, it’s not your spouse, and God help us, it's especially not our kids. I know you've experienced this, the number of people who are like, “No, no, my 14-year-old is my best friend.” And I just stop and say, “Your 14-year-old cannot carry the weight of your adult needs. They can't — don't drown your kid that way.” And our spouses become trash bins, right? We just put all the bad stuff onto it, don't do it. You’ve got to go get a group of people.

Often, I've worked with high performers behind closed — that sounds so cheesy and dumb. I've worked with people who are successful behind closed doors and single moms too. But I tell often tell the high performers, you're going to have a group, it's either going to be a court-ordered group, or it's going to be a group of people that you choose. You get to pick, but you're going to have a group at some point. 

It's something that we just have to get over. It's not for debate, it's not for discussion. The question now is, “Alright, great. I don't know how to do this. I have social anxiety. I get worried. I was traumatized by relationships, so every time I get close, my body sounds the alarms.” Whatever is your particular story, know that the end goal has to be, “I'm loved and known in the same breath that I am knowing and loving others.” And that is the cornerstone, whether you're a Navy Seal, or a single mom with four kids. That's the cornerstone of a well.

Lisa: Well, and that's, that's sometimes the hardest and first story to shift, isn't it? Because I know it's very easy to do this: “I could call a friend — I'm busy, oh no.” I'm not going to send the text. That's dumb, right? But the first story is, this is actually fundamentally important for me to be investing in relationships and in friendships, specifically, that's the kind of relationship that you're talking about. It's very easy for us to tell ourselves a story that's not important.

John: So here's the brass text, sign your kids up for fewer things, so that you have time to hang out with your friends. And if you can't bring yourself to not play this baseball, and that soccer league, and his horse riding lessons, and the math club, then skip a game once a week. I promise, in the long run, your relationship with your children and with your spouse is going to be deeper, and more healthy, and more whole if you will take time to be with other people who are just like you, who are doing life together, that you're doing life with, separate and apart from your immediate crew, right? It will pay dividends; you're worth that time.

Lisa: That's wonderful advice. Well, this has been such a great conversation. Any last words of advice for our listeners? Or where should they find you if they would like to learn more about you and your work?

John: The one thing that I will say about this book that I feel good about is this. It's fun to have. I've got some, academician friends and we love to spiral over ideas and this and that. One thing I feel really great about this book is this — there is a lot and you've read up, there's a lot of extraordinary books, thousands of them, about marriages, and mental health, and relationships, and partnerships, and all those things. Most of those books are informative, they talk to me, they talk at me. And one of the things I've really tried to do with this book is to walk with people. And so some of the most exciting feedback I've received so far is, “I felt like you're sitting with me having this conversation,” and that's the goal

If you're tired of getting preached at if you're tired of people just trying to jab more info into your head, hopefully with this book, I've done it differently. This is me with you, I've got two little kids. I'm trying to figure this out, too. As we go and rock — I'm trying to change the oil in this car while I'm driving down the highway. So this is a story of somebody who's been there and walk alongside a lot of people. But he's also figured it out himself. So thank you so, so much for your hospitality. And you can find me on the internet at John Delony, or at and that's where you can go order the book.

Lisa: Okay, wonderful. Well, that's great to know and I also, I love that perspective. And from what I understand your book is very experiential, and there's like activities and journaling prompts and things. And I think that's so valuable because you're giving people opportunities to kind of go deeper into their own experience, as opposed to like, learning yet another thing.

John: Thank you so, so much. I'm grateful for you.

Lisa: All right, so and thank you again so much for your time. This has been a wonderful conversation. And yeah, keep me posted if you have more stuff coming out in the near future that we should talk about. This is great.
John: You are the best and I will join you anytime. You are so kind and hospitable. I'm just grateful for you.

Healing Relationships

Healing Relationships

Healing Relationships

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

Healing Relationships

A healing relationship is one that helps us regain our sense of value, autonomy, safety, and respect — our birthright as human beings. After bad experiences that may have seemed to call these basic truths into question, healing relationships can affirm these truths to us, building our self-esteem, confidence, and sense of security in the process.  

Let’s try a little thought experiment — think back to a time when you made a truly regrettable mistake. When you were filled with regret and would have given anything to hop into a time machine, blast off to the past and undo what you’d done.

You probably felt pretty bad about yourself at the time. Was there someone you turned to, who listened with compassion and understanding? Maybe they helped you remember that, despite your mistake, you were still a human being worthy of love and respect, even at a moment when you didn’t feel like it. 

I hope so. And if you have had an experience like this, you’ve been touched by a healing relationship, an important topic we’ll be exploring on today’s episode of the podcast. 

My guest is Paige M., a marriage and family therapist and coach here at Growing Self. Paige is an expert on healing relationships, and she has some fascinating insight into these nurturing connections and the positive impact they can have on your life. 

Healing relationships are so important to all of us. In fact, they’re the key component of effective therapy. So learning to cultivate healing relationships in your own life is incredibly worthwhile. This conversation will help you recognize a healing relationship when you find one, and embrace the experiences that will allow you to grow into a happier, healthier version of yourself

Join me here, on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Healing Relationships

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

Spread the Love, Happiness & Success

Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Apple Podcasts



Healing Relationships: Episode Show Notes

What Is a “Healing Relationship?”

The safe, therapeutic relationship between counselor and client is the foundation of all effective therapy. But other important relationships in our lives — with partners, friends, family, even coworkers — can also be incredibly beneficial to our mental and emotional wellbeing. 

Maybe you’ve experienced this. You may have been cheated on by an ex, but the next person you dated showed you it was safe to trust again. Or maybe you had a teacher who humiliated you when you gave the wrong answer, but other teachers were kind to you, even when you were wrong. 

These are the kinds of corrective experiences that take place within “healing relationships,” and they are so important for anyone who has experienced relational trauma (which is to say, everyone!). 

When we have new experiences with safe people who treat us with empathy and respect, we offer our brains “counter-evidence” against old narratives about who we are and what we deserve, helping us regain our feelings of safety, security, confidence, and trust in our connections with other people. 

Can You Heal While In a Relationship? 

You may have heard that it’s best to get over any past relationships before moving into a new one. This isn’t bad advice — getting back to your feelings of wholeness and happiness as a single person can be an important part of breakup recovery. But in reality, many relational wounds stick with us, even after we’re feeling “over” the relationship in question. 

If you’ve been betrayed in the past, it’s totally normal to have trust issues in new relationships, even if your current partner has been nothing but trustworthy. If you’ve experienced a traumatic abandonment, you may be anxious about being left again, and that anxiety might show up as controlling behaviors toward new partners.

When you’re in a healing relationship with a safe, trustworthy person, you can begin to notice these feelings, and then attend to the old wounds triggering them in the present with self-compassion. By being mindful of your feelings and where they’re coming from, you can avoid acting out, and instead have conversations with your partner that help you both understand each other better

How to Heal from Relationship Trauma

As young children, we’re completely dependent on our caregivers to meet our physical and emotional needs. If we don’t get the care, love, and support we need at this vulnerable stage of our lives, it has a profound impact on how we see ourselves, and how safe and secure we feel in the world. 

Children who suffer neglect or abuse can carry the residue of relational trauma well into adulthood. They can develop issues like chronic stress, difficulty regulating their emotions, or difficulty making contact with their emotions at all. 

These are remnants of the survival mechanisms that protected your psyche as a little kid, but as an adult, they can keep you from being open and present in relationships. Learning about these survival mechanisms usually isn’t enough to shift them, but gathering new experiences that help you feel autonomous, safe, respected, and loved by others can be. 

Experiencing healing relationships can help you begin to let go of some of those defenses and become more vulnerable, open, and secure. 

Healing Relationships: When It’s Time for Therapy

Healing relationships are a beautiful thing, but we can get into trouble when we start to believe the power of our love is enough to heal another person. It’s a seductive idea that comes from a good place, but it won’t lead to the healthy relationship you want and deserve. 

If your partner has a problem, like an addiction or severe trauma, the healing relationship they really need is with a professional, who can guide them through a structured, evidence-based healing process. If you decide it’s your responsibility to help them heal, that relationship dynamic can easily veer into codependence, which isn’t healthy for either of you. 

When someone you love has lingering relational trauma, you can be a loving pillar of support, but you can’t take charge of their healing. 

Building Healing Relationships

Compassionate, emotionally-safe relationships can teach us it’s safe to trust other people, be our true selves, and be open to deep, meaningful connections. 

When you build healing relationships with others, you’re not only getting companionship. You’re laying down new connections in your brain, and helping yourself become the authentically happy and healthy person you were born to be.

Healing Relationships: Episode Highlights

[01:20] Healing Relationship

  • Paige leveraged “healing relationships” through her own work with trauma survivors.
  • In therapy, predictability and structure are essential to creating a safe space for clients who are going through trauma.
  • Reciprocity of love and support are crucial in healing relationships. 

[12:03] Adverse Childhood Experiences

  • When adults are incapable of addressing their child’s emotions, they would manifest them in an uncontrollable manner.
  • In some cases, the traumatic experiences of children lead them to pushing people away to protect themselves.

[18:03] Healing From a Traumatic Relationship

  • Individual therapy is beneficial for clients who have experienced numerous traumatic events. 
  • A healing relationship is egalitarian; both sides need to be accountable to one another.

[25:14] Attachment Styles vs. Relational Trauma

  • There's an overlap between attachment styles and relational trauma.
  • The types of attachment styles are secure attachment, anxious attachment, and avoidant attachment.
  • For people with relational trauma, their style of attachment can be disorganized.

[35:29] Addressing Trauma in a Relationship

  • Externalize the trauma.
  • Have an open and honest conversation about your traumatic experiences.
  • Reflect and validate the harm that was done.

Music in this episode is by Oliver Riz, with the song “Healing Love.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: Oliver Riz. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to if further questions are prompted.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Conventional wisdom says that we need to love ourselves first and that you should be over any past relationships before starting a new one. But the reality is that healing our emotional wounds isn't something that happens all at once. A lot of times, our wounds occur through our relationships, and they are healed through relationships. 

To help us unpack all of those big ideas, I have invited my colleague, Paige McAllister, to speak with us today. Paige is a Marriage and Family Therapist on the team here at Growing Self. She's also a doctoral candidate in Marriage and Family Therapy. She has a background in so many relevant things. She has expertise in sexuality, in interpersonal violence, in trauma, and she has done so much wonderful healing work both with individuals and couples on the path to healing on every level. 

I am so excited to invite her into the conversation today to share her expertise with you. Thank you soon-to-be Dr. Paige for joining us today.

Paige: Thank you. Thanks for having me. 

[01:20] What is a Healing Relationship?

Lisa: Do you get a little thrill when people call you Dr. Paige? Hard-earned. We were just chatting a little bit before we started this interview that you are in the final stages of the dissertation process, and talking about how amazing it's going to feel to be on the other side of that. Congratulations in advance. That's a big achievement. 

You, in addition to that, have so much experience in helping people, particularly in healing from trauma. Just to kind of catch our listeners up a little bit here — one of the things that we do in our practice here at Growing Self that I love so much is that we have different kinds of community events in our group where we'll talk as a group about different topics. Some of it is personal growth in nature, but some of it is professional growth in nature. 

You hosted a group the other day that I was so privileged to be in attendance of. You were talking about healing relationships and the significance of them in our work. I just left that group wanting to know more. Maybe, we can just start there. I mean, healing relationships — what do you think of when you think about healing relationships?

Paige: Well, I came to this idea through my own work with trauma — survivors of trauma, and thinking about what kind of relationship did we need to have in the room in order for them to heal. 

Lisa: Between you and your client?

Paige: Between me and my client. I was thinking like, “Well, if trauma is violent, and it violates boundaries, and it's unpredictable, and people don't take accountability for the harm that they've done, then in therapy, we need to have some predictability and some structure. I need to acknowledge that I can do harm.” 

Then, I think it just naturally flowed out of that to think about — I talk with my clients about those kinds of relationships that they have with other people in their lives. We're doing a very specific type of healing work as a therapist and a client. But they were doing lots of that healing work on their own outside of session. 

When I think of relationships for healing, I think of egalitarian relationships — mostly just the opposite of trauma, not the absence of harm. But more than that, the presence of support, and trust, and safety, and consistency, and place where people say they're sorry and mean it when they've done something that's caused harm.

Lisa: I love what you just said. I honestly hadn't thought about it in that way that it's not just the absence of trauma. A good relationship is not the absence of things that lead to a bad relationship that you're saying that they're actually very specific, positive qualities that a healing relationship has, and you can create that kind of relationship with a good therapist. 

But that you can also have those kinds of healing qualities in a relationship with a partner or friends, families, loved ones. Can you say a little bit about why it is so important for people who have lived through hard things to have healing relationships with others?

Paige: It's important: a) because we are social creatures, and we all need people around us. We all deserve to have positive fulfilling relationships. I think it's especially important for people who have had damaging or traumatic relationships to have them for their healing, but also because they deserve them because as humans, we deserve that. 

Also, in good healing relationships, they're not just one way; they're reciprocal. It's not just that I'm supported and loved, but I get to support and love others. I think we all need those experiences as well. 

Lisa: It gives us an opportunity to see ourselves showing up in positive ways in relationships. That can be very healing as well.

Paige: The number one thing I work on with survivors of trauma is helping to reestablish autonomy because trauma takes so much away from us. When we're living with traumatic responses, our behaviors, our emotional reactions often feel so out of our control. We're not really choosing how we're responding to the situation, we're just going into survival mode and doing what we feel like we have to do. 

Healing relationships can be a place for people who have been any kind of trauma, but especially trauma that happens within relationships — to be able to show up the way they want to, and to determine how that relationship is going to go, and have some autonomy there which I think supports overall healing when trauma feels like it takes so much away from us that in healing relationships, I do have control, I do get a say — which I think is really critical to healing overall to feel autonomous.

Lisa: You're bringing up so many important points here. I think maybe for the benefit of our listeners, I think when therapists use the word “trauma”, we're often thinking of different things — just a bad experience. Also, there are different kinds of trauma. There are traumas where your physical safety is threatened, or you are hurt, or you're witnessing something horrible happening to other people. 

There is also such a thing as relational trauma which is a very real trauma, but I feel like we don't talk about that kind of trauma as much. Can you take us just into that? I know we've tried to talk about on past podcasts around trust issues, healthy relationships — but I don't know that we've really unpacked relational trauma on the show before. Can you say more about that? No pressure.

Paige: It is. In general, I use a really expanded definition of relational trauma because I think it's most helpful. But relational traumas are things that happen in the context of relationships that threaten our relational safety — just like violence or natural disasters can threaten our physical safety. I find with my clients often, those are the traumas that are harder to identify for them. But they're like, “Well, my parents are my caregivers. They didn't hit me. They fed me, and they provided a roof over my head. I shouldn't be upset about the other things that happened.” 

But then, they told me these stories about emotional neglect — that people didn't take care of their emotions, didn't help them navigate their own emotions, that when they, as children, had really big emotions, parents and caregivers tried to shut that down either because they were uncomfortable, or they didn't know what to do, but they were overwhelmed. 

Or they were told that they were being dramatic or childish — but they were a child. Of course, there was — they're just expressing normal emotions. The way people responded were really critical or negative, but they just ignored them. I think that's harder — I think those are the kinds of traumas that are harder to recognize but fit within like a relationship.

Lisa: And hard to validate. Because just as you're talking, I'm sitting here thinking that we really, I think, don't do enough in our culture to talk about the very real attachment needs that we have, particularly as children. They're very much tied into survival drives. I mean, there are fundamental needs to feel safe, and respected, and understood by the people around you on an emotional level like security. When that is threatened or damaged, it is quite damaging to people. But we don't talk about that reality. I think that people struggle to legitimize their own feelings when that's coming up for them. Is that — ?

Paige: Also because when we're children — when I'm eight, nine, ten, I can't just go off.

Lisa: This isn't a fundamental attachment need right now, mom! Exactly. 

Paige: Because I need my parents both to take care of me emotionally and to provide for me, physically. I don't have choice in those relationships. I don't just get to go find new parents if the ones I have aren't doing what I needed to do for whatever reason. I think it's hard for people to validate, but also just like the trapped-ness of, “I can't choose another relationship here.” 

When we talk about childhood trauma, and this also came up in my dissertation work with survivors of intimate partner violence, the narratives that we have are really overt, extreme demonstrations of physical violence, sexual violence, and neglect — extreme neglect like people aren't being fed and basic needs aren't being met. 

That's what we tend to talk about. When we talk about intimate partner violence, the image people have in their minds is really extreme physical or sexual violence. But there's all sorts of emotional violence, verbal violence, and neglect in those areas as well. We just don't talk about them as much. We don't have those narratives. It's also in my experience — people are really uncomfortable if identifying as a survivor of trauma now means a bunch of things for me. I think there's some self-protection there as well. 

[12:03] Adverse Childhood Experiences

Lisa: Well, let's talk a little bit about that part because — and I like the way that we're sort of breaking this down a little bit: like there's relational trauma that happens in childhood. The time in our lives when we're vulnerable, we're really dependent on people in a very real way — and that impacts us. Then, certainly, there can be relational trauma in romantic relationships, or friendships. But can you talk a little bit about the impact of relational trauma when you experience it as a child?

Paige: Fundamentally, it changes our view of ourselves and how we relate to other people. When we're children, we don't know much else. If we look at the researchers doing really great work on childhood trauma, and chronic stress is often what they call it — adverse childhood experiences. They talk about the buffering aspects that can happen with a strong, stable adult to show what that relationship can look like.

Lisa: A healing relationship. 

Paige: A healing relationship. But if we don't have that, or if most of our relationships with our primary caregivers or parents are traumatic, or aren't fully meeting our needs instead of meeting our needs, often the way it changes how we view ourselves and others is… 

I mean, it's not a one-to-one; it's not just like this week. It is somewhat true that in those initial relationships, we learn about what we deserve, we learn about — that's our main example of what human relationships look like. So we can internalize some beliefs about ourselves about what we deserve, about what we're worth. 

In addition to when we talk about other types of trauma, we talk about an increased vigilance for danger in the world, and having trauma responses where we're triggered by something, and we go into “fight, flight or freeze” because our central nervous system is activated. That all holds true with relational trauma as well, depending on the severity of it. But we will develop ways to survive in those relationships. 

If I'm a child, and when I am showing big emotions or any emotions at all, I'm told I'm dramatic and people get mad at me. I might just start shoving those emotions down, and down, and down, “The message I'm getting from everyone is my emotions are too much, so I'll just put those in a box, and put that box in a bigger box.” It's not really how emotions work. They're going to pop out in other places, and sometimes in bigger ways because we're not working through emotions as they come. 

Other people might rebel against that. Maybe, I'm going to do more dramatic things because I'm trying to get attention, I'm trying to get care of — I'm trying to take care of my own emotions but I don't know what to do because I'm a child. We develop ways to survive. Everyone's got their own thing that they do. It looks different for everyone, but we often take those survival strategies into adulthood, even into relationships that are healthy or could be healthy. 

Then, we're still acting on those survival strategies of trying to manage ourselves and relationships by editing our behaviors, or — I don't like the phrase “acting out”, but we're trying to do something. It's not that we're being malicious, but we're trying to protect ourselves, so we might engage in behaviors and relationships that are not helping us accomplish those goals. 

Lisa: I think this is maybe tying back to what you were saying at the beginning of our conversation, like the idea of autonomy. Meaning, that you have sort of control, and independence, and volition. I think what I'm hearing you say is that, understandably, people who have been experienced relational trauma, especially earlier in life, maybe having feelings that are coming out in ways that are sort of uncontrollable in some ways. Their big feelings — they’re manifesting in weird behaviors that they themselves don't fully understand. Or they are being — you use the word “editing”, sort of containing themselves to the degree that it's impacting intimacy, vulnerability in a relationship. It can look like a lot of different things. Just that it carries over, it's like ghosts from the past that don't sometimes have anything to do with the relationship that you're actually in — in the present. 

Paige: Which is really frustrating when you're in kid. 

Lisa: It is.

Paige: Because I think most people with trauma, it's not one or the other — it's kind of all of it. There are moments where they're doing these behaviors to protect themselves — like pushing people away, or coping with intense emotions maybe in ways that they don't want, or aren't as healthy, as well as trying to contain it and edit it. I think that's part of the struggle of traumas. 

Its extremes in multiple ways that sometimes it's our emotions are too big. Other times, it's that we're trying to keep them very small, and neither of them are going to… I mean, both of those are very frustrating, exhausting processes. Also, it can be really difficult to manage within the context of a relationship that somebody wants, and with people that they trust and love.

[18:03] Healing From a Traumatic Relationship

Lisa: I want to talk more about the healing relationship idea because that is really a crucial component of healing for people who have had that life experience. But we have to talk about something else too, which is that… I mean, I can't tell you how many clients I've worked with who have been in love with someone. They're in a relationship with someone who has experienced relational trauma in their past, and who is still dealing with the impacts of it.

They are working so hard to be a kind partner, to have a healing relationship for that other person. At least in my experience, that is not actually enough to change it. Working with clients would be like, “I thought I could help him. I thought that through the power of our love, it could be different.” And they get hurt in the process. So healing relationships is certainly crucial — we'll talk more about that. 

But what is — there’s sort of a bigger problem because it seems like the person who has had that early trauma needs to be aware of it, and actively participating in that healing in different ways in order for a healing relationship to be beneficial. Would you agree with that? Or do you see it? I mean, you have a lot more experience in this than I do. I'm coming at it from a very couples counseling kind of orientation. You're the trauma expert in this conversation. What have you seen with that?

Paige: I strongly believe that — like individual therapy to really process trauma, like structured processing of trauma is really helpful when it's happened. I think that relational trauma or — relational healing is helpful and critical. But when there have been intense traumas, when people are experiencing lots of trauma responses in their everyday life or in the context of their relationship, then individual therapy would be really beneficial, and sometimes critical before we can move forward. 

I also talked to my clients about — this is a therapist’s trick. I don't know if you talked about it on the podcast before — but externalizing the trauma. We take the trauma out of the person, “You are not your trauma.” But in relationships, trauma very much becomes a third entity, like a third person in the conversation we're having, a third actor in the dynamics of our relationship. We both need to be able to look at it and see it for what it is. 

I often find as well that when one partner is trying to heal someone else with their love, they aren't always asking — sometimes they feel like they have to be kind of delicate with that person. They can't ask for accountability; they just got to give, and give, and give love — and that's what's going to fix it. 

But in a healing relationship, it's egalitarian. We're both being accountable to each other. It's not that one person is always accommodating for the other, or trying to make it better, or holding their own feelings back because you've been through so much, so I can't bring it up.

Lisa: Well, it's not a healing relationship for the other person at that point. That it is not a healthy relationship for both people. It's imbalanced. Well, then just for the purposes of this conversation, because that self-awareness of, “Ooh, I do have trauma that is maybe coming out in my relationships. It is my responsibility to do something about this so that I can be a good partner to my partner.” 

What would your guidance be for some just like — how do you know if the things that… Because every single one of us can scroll back through our mind’s eye, think about the time that our mom yelled at us, or whatever it was — how do you develop that gauge of, “This is actually — it impacted me, it's still impacting me. I need to do something about this.” What would your tips be for someone?

Paige: If there are other mental health struggles going on, there's depression and anxiety — anything in that range. If you're already meeting with a therapist, I would just ask your therapist like, “I think this thing might be impacting me.” and have a clinical conversation about it. My clients don't always know how to bring it up. I try to ask good questions, but sometimes we just don't know it's something.

Lisa: But again, if we're not aware that it was a trauma, we're not legitimizing it — how do you even know that it's something to talk about in therapy like, “I had a critical parent”, or whatever?

Paige: Kind of a sign that I look for in my clients to help them talk through is — are there situations where your emotional reaction is out of proportion to what happened? It is either too big, or it's too small. This thing happened, and all of a sudden, I jumped to 100% anxiety. I got so, so overwhelmed. Anything in that range — like my emotional reaction. 

It's a frustrating thing that happened, but I go to rage, or just immediate panic, or it's something that happened. I think that “out of proportion” is key because we're allowed to have feelings. We're going to have things happen in our lives. But if we notice that we're just shut down emotionally, that our, “God! It’s just…”

Lisa: Like, “We had a fight, and I would not talk for three days.” “ Like that kind of thing. There's something there.

Paige: If the way you're responding to things feels confusing to you, if it's mysterious like, “I don't know why I reacted that way. It wasn't how I wanted to react. But you said something, or this thing happened, and I just  — my gut reaction was this, and I had to run away. I had to shut down.”

Lisa: Like losing control of yourself a little bit.

Paige: Those are some of the big things — kind of the classic PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The symptoms are having flashbacks or nightmares, have an increased startle response. That could be happening and that would be a good indication. But for some of those relational traumas, I think it's more like our individual responses to things — just paying attention to them. 

But clients that I've worked with that have experienced relational trauma, they don't feel in control of it. It feels really confusing and exhausting both in terms of in the context of relationships and in other situations in their lives.

[25:14] Attachment Styles vs. Relational Trauma

Lisa: Here's another question. I hope that this is okay to ask. But on the show, we've talked before about attachment styles — secure attachment, avoidant attachment, anxious attachment. 

What is the difference between an attachment style and a relational trauma — particularly that happens earlier in life? Or do you see a lot of overlap in that? Are there differences? I've never even thought about this before our conversation today. I don't know if this is a fair question or not.

Paige: I haven't thought about it a ton, and I'm not like an attachment expert. But all the trauma people reference attachment. Attachment theory is really foundational. I think there's an overlap between attachment styles and relational trauma, and our responses to relational trauma. The way I talk about it with clients is that we're all managing needs for connection and needs for autonomy in relationships. 

Like a secure attachment is, “I can hold both of those. I can be close to you. I can be connected to you. I also can be on my own and have my own goals, and hobbies, and interests”, where avoidant attachment is, “I can't stand being close to people, so I'm going to go on here and have my own little island.” Anxious attachment, “I can't stand being away from you, so I'm going to pull even close.” 

I think often with people with relational trauma, there's more disorganized attachment where, “Sometimes I'm feeling really anxious, and I need you to close.” Other times, “I'm feeling anxious about you being too close, and I'm going to push you away.” That fits within our understanding of attachment styles. 

That's how I explained it to my clients, though, because I think sometimes people can identify with a label. I'm sure you've talked about this with attachment styles — like they really cling to that label like, “This label is me.”

Lisa: It’s not that helpful. Totally. I think it can be helpful in certain ways like to just understand yourself more compassionately, and I heard somebody say… I think it might’ve even been somebody in our group — that there's no such thing as a perfectly, securely attached person. We all sort of fall to one side or the other. We all have, in certain situations, different reactions that could be avoided, could be anxious, sort of depending on what's going on and stuff. I hear you. I'm 100% there.

Paige: I think trauma can help maybe understand, “Why is this kind of more of my go-to?” Or help explain if it is both — if I'm feeling kind of a push-pull like, “I want you close, but not too close.” I think trauma does a lot to explain that. Then, honestly, the work in therapy is looking at the exceptions as well like, “When are you able to balance that? And how are you doing that?” 

Lisa: That's good to remember. So turning our attention back to this idea of a healing relationship. One of my takeaways honestly, from what we've just been talking about, is this idea that even if you're trying to have a healing relationship with somebody who is unwell, who has unresolved trauma, it is not going to be a healthy relationship for you. 

I guess, because part of this, I think that many people, many of our listeners have had adult relationships — maybe in addition to early stuff, but certainly adult relationships that felt toxic, that felt damaging, that felt really traumatic. 

Do you think that there's a correlation between somebody having a traumatic relationship experience as an adult? Is that an indication that maybe the partner that they were with was so traumatizing to them? Probably a good indication that their partner had had some stuff that maybe neither of them were aware of at the time they were in that relationship with each other. Is that fair to say, or am I extrapolating too far? I want answers, Paige.

Paige: I'm a therapist. I'm going to say, “Well, it really depends. Sometimes.” There's just so much that plays into how we treat each other. My own trauma — it’s definitely going to impact how I’m treating others, especially in close relationships. 

I think sometimes people, like you mentioned, are aware where they're like, “Oh, I know my partner has been through all these things. I'm just going to try to heal them, fix them with my love.” I also think just our general narratives about what relationships are in our developmental phase play into that as well. 

Having worked with teens and young adults that are out in their first relationships, trying to decide what relationships are — don't always have good skills, or good models of “this is what a healthy relationship looks like”. But definitely, trauma impacts how we treat each other and how we're able to show up in our relationships.

Lisa: Although healing relationship is not enough, it is really a crucial ingredient. If you have lived through toxic or damaging traumatic relationships in the past, a lot of important growth and healing does happen in the context of relationships. Can you talk a little bit more about what that can look like for people? 

In particular, I’m thinking of somebody who was maybe mistreated in previous relationships — it damaged their self-esteem, it damaged their trust, it was traumatic. How can a new relationship — a healing relationship help start to resolve some of that?

Paige: I think, firstly, it's got to be the right person. I always help my clients think through traumas, especially relational trauma is going to tell me that all humans are unsafe. All the people could be dangerous. When we work through our trauma, and we're working towards autonomy, then I get to decide who I trust, and who I don't, who I let in. 

But healing relationships with others — the scientist in me struggles with this part because there's something about it that's not magical, but it's like that feeling of being in a relationship that's strong and supportive. 

It feels like a hug even when you aren't getting a hug when we can show up as ourselves, we can share parts of ourselves, and we're validated, and we're accepted — all the words that are coming to mind are just the word again, like it's so healing to be in those relationships.

Lisa: But it's compassionate, it's emotionally safe. I think I'm also hearing between the lines — like you were talking about that feeling understood, feeling accepted. That makes me wonder if part of that key ingredient of having a healing relationship is that your partner knows and understands your trauma and your trauma response, so that when you do have those moments — maybe when you feel scared or angry, they're able to see that for what it is, as opposed to doing that typical relationship dance. 

I think many times when people don't understand what or why their partner's sort of reacting the way they do, it becomes very easy to be mad at your partner for being mad, or be defensive in response. You're saying that healing relationship is almost the opposite of that. I see that you're getting triggered right now and sort of meeting that with compassion, as opposed to more criticism or rejection. Is that part of it that like understanding?

Paige: Then as the partner, maybe without trauma, or maybe the partner with my own trauma, I can view your trauma as separate from you. You are still a whole human being to me who is making choices and doing things that impact me. But you are a human being that you are not your trauma. I can hold space for your trauma impacting, the choices that you're making, the things you're saying or the way that you're saying them.

I think really critical to healing relationships is that there is a lot of repair. When trauma responses come up when we don't show up the way we want to, there is space to make it right. We can apologize, that we can come together and discuss, “What actually was going on? How can we take care of this together?” 

But if there are big relational triggers in our healing relationship, we're going to do everything we can to avoid those triggers. If it's something yelling comes up for my clients a lot, “I grew up in a chaotic household. I can't handle yelling. I just go into survival mode right away.” Those two partners do work really hard to not have yelling be a part of their relationships — find other ways to work through it.

I think healing relationships also, and that’s something I work with couples that they're navigating this a lot, we need to take lots of breaks. We need to slow down and be able to soothe our trauma response so that we can have productive conversations. In healing relationships, there's lots of space. We can slow it down, we can take a break and come back. 

[35:29] Addressing Trauma in a Relationship

Lisa: But the bit like giving ourselves and each other permission to stay in a good place and be self-aware enough to know like, “I can't keep having this conversation right now.” 

One of the things — I'm thinking about two different situations right now. I’m thinking about a couple — and I'm sure that you have seen this couple. It's a relationship where no betrayal has occurred, and one of the partners has experienced betrayal in a previous relationship, either sexual infidelity, financial infidelity. They were really traumatized by a previous relationship. 

Now, they are in a new relationship and they're having those like anxious flare-ups, and that vigilance. Over time, that does, I think, start to take a toll on a lot of partners because they're like, “I didn't do that to you. I haven't done anything wrong.” I know that this is a big thing. And this is not the kind of thing that can be resolved through a couple of pieces of advice. There is an experiential healing process that people go through. It takes months, sometimes years. 

But generally speaking, what would your advice be for a couple who is grappling with that kind of dynamic, and it is eroding kind of the safety and health of their relationship? How do they identify it? Where will they even start to move back to a healing relationship space?

Paige: My biggest advice is to start to do what you can — have your partner that has experienced that betrayal, that trauma to externalize that trauma. The way I talk about it with my clients is, “What is your trauma telling you? What is trauma saying in these moments where you're having this anxiety?” Potentially your trauma is saying, “My current partner is going to hurt me just like my past partner did. I'm watching this movie play out again. I don't want to be hurt again — I need to protect myself.” 

When we're just caught up in those anxious thoughts, they feel like us, they feel like our own thoughts. Even just saying like, “This is what my trauma is telling me. This is what my anxiety is telling me”, and being able to communicate that to the partner instead of making accusations, or “I need to check your phone. I need…” 

There's other things that we can do when anxiety gets really high and say, “My anxiety is telling me that I am unsafe right now.” Then, we can have a conversation around it rather than always dealing with kind of the patrol fallout.

Lisa: “You're cheating on me.” The accusations and — right.

Paige: If we can have a conversation from a space of, “This is what my trauma is telling me”, and start to have that conversation, I think that's really, really critical. In those moments where, and I think this is helpful with all anxieties, just check our thoughts a little bit, “Is this actually true? Is this just feeling true? And this feeling is coming from this place that I can identify that I know where this is coming from?”

Lisa: I'm so glad we're talking about this right now, Paige, because I think that this reality, this truth often surprises people. I tell my clients all the time like, “Don't get tricked into believing everything you think or everything that you feel”, because I think there's so much pop psychology that, “Everything you think and everything you feel like is true.” Exactly. 

Actually, that's not always helpful. To be able to have that sort of psychological distance — that meta-awareness of how you're thinking, how you're feeling in the moment that is maybe not actually — it's like an artifact of trauma, as opposed to some fundamental truth that you need to take action on right this second. Thank you for bringing that up. I think that that is just so crucial to be known. 

One last thing. We talked about a relationship where one of the partners had — in a previous relationship — experienced relational trauma. Here is a trick question, hopefully not a trick question — pop quiz. 

I know you too have also worked with so many couples where there has been trauma, betrayal in the context of the relationship. It's not that some horrible other person five years ago hurt me — it's that actually you hurt me. There was an affair, there's financial infidelity — something of that nature. Do you feel that the path of healing and recreating an emotionally safe healing relationship is similar in those circumstances? Or does it look a little bit different in your experience?

Paige: I think it looks a little different because we have that person who's caused the harm is still there, and they can take accountability. There’s something I've been thinking a lot about in this context. It comes from Dr. Harriet Lerner's work on apologizing. She recently came out with a book on it, and she talks about how an apology… 

Lisa: Is it like apology languages? Or is it different?

Paige: It's different. I think the book is called Why Why Won't You Apologize? She talks about how an apology validates the experience of the person harmed. I've been thinking about that a lot in terms of relationships where one person has caused harm. We have to validate the experience of the harm that was done — which is really uncomfortable. 

It is very uncomfortable to look inside yourself and to actually own up to that rather than when we were trying to just make it better. We're saying whatever we can think of or do to just make it better like, “Please stop being mad at me”, rather than like, “I recognize that this is what was going into it for me, and this is what I did, and this is caused you harm in this way, this way, and this way.” 

When there's been betrayal in relationships, I use the language of trauma with my clients. We talk about trauma responses and triggers, and we talk about self-soothing and working toward safety so that that couple can soothe together. But until we're there, we're going to build up to that emotional safety and normalizing that, first of all, “Of course, you're not feeling totally safe to do that, and that's okay. We're going to work toward it. Everyone's going to get space here.”

Lisa: What a useful model to be bringing in the idea of trauma to those situations because I think one of the — it's almost a cliche. The person who did the betrayal is like, “That was such a long time ago. Why are you still upset? Nothing is happening. I've like totally reformed.” I think there's this lack of awareness that there is still a very active trauma response that gets triggered by certain things that's very real, and it’s the legacy of that relational trauma.

That does not go away easily. But I think that people imagine that it's — you've heard that phrase, “It's time to get over it.” Just like that, isn’t that how humans work? Bringing that idea of the impact of relational trauma to those situations I think is a very compassionate way of looking at it that helps people wrap their heads around what's happening and why the feelings persist.

Paige: And give us some language to talk about why it's still there, and kind of give us a path, a path forward. If we know this is a relational wound, well then we've got some steps — how are we going to address this wound? I think at least a part of its hardest because in our culture, we're fairly punitive. We think about like when people have done things wrong, they deserve to be punished. 

But that doesn't heal in the relationship. We've got to think of different ways to interact around harm that's been done that we can find healing. Often, that includes some of those other things about a healing relationship that we've got to not just trust, but maybe, in addition to a loss of trust, there was — I'm losing the train a little bit here. 

Lisa: No, it’s okay. Well, and I won't keep you but I'm glad that we're talking about this. I think that my biggest takeaway from this conversation is just the impact of relational trauma, and that it's something we should all really be aware of —both in ourselves and our partners. In addition to — we're working on ourselves in productive ways of really working to create healing relationships with our partners. 

Also, I think having expectations that we deserve to be in healing relationships too because you know none of us come through this life unscathed and unscarred. Every single one of us is carrying wounds of one kind or another. To be real, compassionate, and intentionally cultivating that healing space in between you and the people that you love. So, thank you. 

Thank you so much for joining me today, Paige. This was a wonderful conversation. I appreciate your time and just all the wisdom that you share with our listeners today.
Paige: Thank you.

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

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

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

HOW TO STOP BEING A PEOPLE PLEASER: “Um, sure, I guess so,” Mia says, while her stomach churns and she feels a wave of exhaustion already at the prospect of picking her sister up from the airport at midnight on a Wednesday. She wants to say, “It’s a $30 Uber, and I need to get up for work early.” But she doesn’t. She’s annoyed all the way to the airport, all the way back, and irritable and sleep-deprived at work the next day. Why couldn’t she say no?

It’s because Mia is a people pleaser. Can you relate to this? Have you ever:

1) said “yes” when you really meant “no,” 

2) accepted an invitation you would have preferred to decline,

3)  or apologized because you couldn’t do something that wasn’t your responsibility? 

If so, you may be a people pleaser. This is no cause for alarm — we all do things on occasion just to make others happy, or to avoid potential conflict. Healthy relationships require a balance of give and take. When things are in balance, our relationships feel satisfying and mutual. We don’t need to keep score, but overall, we have the sense that we’re getting as much out of relationships as we’re putting in. 

But when we lean a little bit too far in the direction of people-pleasing, things can start to feel out of balance. Your relationships might be stressful and guilt-ridden if you have a tendency to people please. You might grow resentful toward the people in your life and feel powerless to stop them from encroaching on your time and energy. 

If you’ve noticed you’re doing a little too much pleasing lately, it’s time to take your power back. The “people pleasers” who arrive in counseling or coaching here at Growing Self to work on themselves around people-pleasing tend to be highly empathetic people, who understand and care deeply about other people’s feelings, wants, and needs. They know that it’s time to work on healthy boundaries and learn how to be appropriately assertive with confidence.

And that’s what we’re going to talk about on today’s episode of the podcast. My guest is Kathleen C., a therapist and life coach here at Growing Self who has helped so many people reclaim their priorities, draw their own boundaries, and tilt the balance away from people-pleasing and toward self-care. 

I hope you’ll listen, and put these insights to work in improving the quality of all of your relationships — including your relationship with YOU. You can find this episode on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, I hope you’ll subscribe!

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

People Pleaser? How to Stop.

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

Spread the Love, Happiness & Success

Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Apple Podcasts



How to Stop Being a People Pleaser

People pleasing is something we all do from time to time, and it’s not always a bad thing. But for some, the balance can tip a little too far in the direction of people pleasing, making it difficult to assert yourself, ask for what you need, or draw healthy boundaries with others. 

If you’ve noticed a pattern of people pleasing in your relationships, this conversation will help you take back your power and put your focus back where it belongs: on your own needs and desires. 

What is a People Pleaser

People pleasing is a pattern of putting other people ahead of yourself, at the expense of your own wellness. This could take many different forms. You might have trouble telling other people “no,” and so end up with a schedule so jam-packed with other people’s priorities that you have no time for the things that are important to you. 

Or, you might not feel able to ask for what you need to feel emotionally safe in a relationship, like regular communication from a partner, and so you endure relationships where your true needs aren’t met.   

Signs of People Pleasing

How can you know if people pleasing is an issue for you? Here are some signs that you may be doing a little bit too much people pleasing in your relationships: 

  • Feelings of anger and resentment toward the people in your life, especially when they ask you to do things for them. 
  • Feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, or drained by all of your commitments. 
  • Experiencing feelings of guilt when you need to tell someone “no.” 
  • Feeling inadequate, like you can never do enough. 
  • Feeling like you don’t really have a choice when someone asks you for something.  

The Danger of People Pleasing

To stop being a people pleaser, it helps to understand why you do it in the first place — as well as truly understanding the toll it takes on you and on your relationships.  

When was the last time you said “yes” when you really wanted to say “no,” or put someone else’s priorities ahead of your own? Can you remember what you were thinking and feeling at the time? Maybe you felt worried about some outcome if you asserted yourself, like losing a valued friendship or angering your boss. There may have been a story you were telling yourself, about how the other person would react if you didn’t go along with what they wanted — and what that reaction would mean about you. For example, you might think, “If I was a good partner/friend/employee/person, I would do this for them.” 

By reflecting on what feels difficult about not people pleasing, you can begin to question the beliefs that are making it hard for you to draw your own boundaries and speak up for your own needs. Doing so is not selfish; it’s taking care of yourself

It’s also essential. People who struggle with setting healthy boundaries for themselves will, over time, often start feeling very angry, resentful, and even depressed. Feeling like a doormat can damage your self-esteem, but also damage the very relationships that you’re working so hard to protect. 

Your feelings of anger and resentment will start to be *felt* by others – whether or not you’re saying how you feel out loud. If left unchecked, people pleasing can actually lead to passive aggressive behaviors, and increasing disconnection and distance in your relationships.

People Pleasing and Boundaries

The key to overcoming people pleasing is having a good sense of where your boundaries are. For all of us, this is easier said than done. Healthy boundaries are firm but flexible and can be negotiated depending on the relationship and your needs and the other person’s needs at any given time. 

But understanding where your own boundaries are will help you have clarity about what you actually want, so you can notice when your impulse to people please is creeping in. 

One key to understanding where your boundaries are is tuning into your feelings. If you’re feeling angry, resentful, pushed, or infringed upon, that’s a sign someone may be stepping on a boundary for you, even if your conscious mind is not aware that this is a boundary you need to hold.  

How Values Can Help People Pleasers

Values are crucial. They’re the lighthouse that guides you in the direction of the life you want, and being clear about them can help you overcome a tendency to people please. 

If you value your physical health, you won’t overcommit to too many responsibilities, spreading yourself thin and adding excessive stress to your life. If you value emotional honesty and authenticity, you’ll want to be open with others about how you really feel, and what you want and need. 

Stay in touch with your values and you’ll have more clarity about whether you’re doing something because it’s what you really want, or because it’s what someone else wants. 

How to Stop People Pleasing

For recovering people pleasers, there is plenty of reason to hope: You can get better at assertive communication, self-care, and staying in touch with your own boundaries and values. Many people benefit from working on themselves in therapy or life coaching, and this is especially helpful if you’re struggling to get clarity around your needs, rights, and feelings — and hope to confidently communicate those to others. 

People pleasing can be a hard habit to break, but once you do, you’ll be able to enjoy positive, mutually-fulfilling relationships, without all the stress, guilt, and resentment. You’ll feel happier, your relationships will improve, and you’ll feel the love and respect you’ve always wanted and deserved.

People Pleaser Podcast Highlights

[02:27] The Signs of Being a People Pleaser

  • When you're people pleasing, you get into a space where you want to defend yourself, and you feel angry and resentful
  • Over time, you feel really exhausted, inadequate, overwhelmed, drained, and burnt out.
  • You feel that you can never do enough
  • People pleasers also talk about feelings of guilt and irritability.

[06:32] What Is a People Pleaser?

  • A person with a pattern of putting other people before themselves to the detriment of their personal well-being.
  • It is a pattern of doing things in conflict with your own value system, abandoning or betraying yourself, your mental health and physical health, and boundaries.
  • There is a loss of power and safety that makes an individual feel the need to prioritize others over themselves.
  • There are relationships where people are bullied into this behavior. It can also happen because of past experiences.

[11:26] Acknowledging a People Pleasing Personality

  • Recall a time when you felt pushed against a wall, guilty or resentful doing something that you didn't feel comfortable doing.
  • Be honest with yourself and reflect on the motivation behind your actions.
  • It’s not about self-judgment but holding a space for you to be clear about your feelings.
  • We sometimes fall into autopilot or find justifications for our actions.

[16:17] Finding Balance: Is Being a People Pleaser Bad?

  • People pleasing behavior can range from simply taking the path of least resistance, to being afraid of major consequences.
  • Finding balance and checking within yourself to know the pros and cons of your actions is an art.

[20:23] People Pleaser Anxiety and Anger

  • People pleasing can metastasize into insecurity and anxiety because there has been a pattern of feeling like you need to earn taking up space.
  • It can also show up as physical symptoms: headaches, digestive issues, muscle tension, fatigue.
  • These are the body's way of expressing that it has been holding a lot of stress, anxiety, fear, anger, or guilt.
  • Feelings give us information about ourselves, but not necessarily facts about the situation.
  • Connecting with yourself, including feelings like anger and resentment. It’s only human to feel angry when you’ve stretched yourself too thin.

[28:37] Guilty Feelings in People Pleasing

  • Guilt comes from a well-intentioned place of empathy.
  • It comes from that place of caring, but it gets distorted when we aren't able to hold that empathy and also hold space for our own needs at the same time.
  • People pleasing can also feel like love in the moment. However, there is always time and space to be compassionate and empathetic.

[33:10] Recovering People Pleaser: How to Get Over People Pleasing

  • Reflect on your motivations. Think about what you’ll feel and the consequences in the long and short-term.
  • Use your values as anchors. These values can also change over time and depending on your needs.
  • Take time to decide and think about what you need.
  • It's helpful to have scripts and assertiveness techniques that give us something to lean on and guide us as we're starting out.
  • Assertiveness opens up the lines of communication, and it is respectful. If someone chooses to escalate things in response instead of respecting your boundaries, it gives you good information about that relationship.

Music in this episode is by Austin Archer, with the song “People Pleaser.”

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: Austin Archer. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to if further questions are prompted.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: I'm so glad you've joined us today because this is a very special episode. Today, we're going to be talking about people pleasing, which I know is something that we all struggle with from time to time. I'm guessing that if you're like basically everybody else in the universe, that every once in a while, you might agree to do things that you don't really want to do just to make somebody else happy. Or if you've ever accepted blame for something that you knew wasn't really your fault, just to keep the peace and put things behind you.

Things like that — many of us engage in those behaviors once in a while, and there's not anything terribly wrong with doing that sometimes. This can be kind of a social lubricant, right? People are good at relationships, pick their battles. And sometimes it's a good idea to avoid conflict or keep things pleasant and positive. But the problem arises when the balance tips too far in the direction of your people pleasing a lot of the time, when it starts to turn into a pattern for you and the way you engage with others. 

Because when that starts to happen, it stops being harmless. If you have a hard time telling people “No”, or disagreeing with other people, or sometimes even putting yourself first, it can start to feel like all of your time or energy is being swallowed up by other people's priorities. And that's not good for you. It can start to feel angry, or resentful, or might even spend so much of your time and energy taking care of other people that you're not doing a good job of taking care of yourself.

So if this is feeling a little bit familiar for you, I'm glad you're here listening to this episode, because today I am joined by my colleague, Kathleen, who is a therapist and a life coach here on our team at Growing Self. She is such an expert in helping people build happy, healthy relationships, improve their communication, build their self esteem, and especially strengthen their boundaries.

I know that she has so much insight into this people pleasing pattern to share with you today. So Kathleen, thank you so much for being here with me. This is such an important topic and it's hard. 

Kathleen: Yes, I love this topic. Thank you for having me. I'm here, excited to be here today.

The Signs of Being a People Pleaser

Lisa: Well, okay, first of all, can we just normalize this a little bit? I know that people pleasing is not something that is like, great for any of us to do, but I totally do this. I do this and I think that sometimes isn't there a time and a place for a little bit of people pleasing? Just a little bit?

Kathleen: Right, I really loved the way that you talked about that. Yeah, it's true. I mean, first of all, you mentioned so many examples, some of which I hadn't thought about in a while, like accepting blame. But yeah, it's necessary for lasting healthy relationships, too, to put your needs aside for someone else's sometimes. And I think that's part of what makes it hard to stop people pleasing, is telling the difference between healthy give and take and compromise and unhealthy people pleasing patterns. Yeah. So it's a good point.

Lisa: Let’s just start right there. I know that you do so much amazing work with people around this. And I guess, maybe just to begin, what are some of the things that you notice or that you listen for when you're working with clients and you start thinking to yourself, “I think I'm seeing an unhealthy people pleasing pattern,” like it's going too far. What are some of the things that you see people doing or saying or the impact maybe that it's having on them?

Kathleen: I think listeners can probably relate to this, too. A lot of times people will come to me, clients will come to me in this space, already feeling angry and resentful. So there's a lot of — they’ll come in initially complaining a lot about other people in their lives. I think that's one of the first signs I get to see from my point of view when I'm meeting with someone and feeling exhausted and overwhelmed and stretched to thin and really defending themselves a lot because it— I mean, I do people pleasing too, at times.

Lisa: Which is why we're such great friends with each other, Kathleen. Why our relationship works so well, we're both doing that.

Kathleen: When you're people pleasing you get into a space into a spot where you want to defend yourself, and you feel angry and resentful. You're kind of checking in with other people. “Hey, isn't this right, aren't I right? Didn't they do this wrong? Didn't I do enough?” Like those are sort of like the very early signs when I'm just getting to know someone like a client for example, right? So some of your listeners might relate to that.

But I think overtime, just feeling really exhausted, inadequate, overwhelmed, drained, burnt out, is one of it, the impact, like you can never do enough, never make everybody happy enough.

Lisa: I hear that. But it's interesting, what you were saying is that sort of the ringer, one of the key things that you listen for, as a therapist, and you're thinking “they may be people pleasing,” is actually that people are feeling angry and resentful, and like aggrieved and like, “okay, who's right, who's wrong here?” Which is sort of interesting to me, because I think I probably don't actually have that experience as much. But like that, there's an angry component to it.

Kathleen: And maybe that's because they're coming to see me and to vent. Because those are feelings and thoughts that they may not feel okay and safe to share. Guilt is the other side of that coin that they share a little bit more, I think, with other people in your life, but perhaps, when I get to meet with them, and if you're a people pleaser, you might search inside yourself and realize “I'm pissed off”, or know that you are already, but not necessarily talk about that as much. It's definitely a real piece of people pleasing. Irritability.

What Is a People Pleaser?

Lisa: We started talking about this, I realized that we probably skipped over a relatively important first step of this conversation, which is defining our terms. I mean, like, for somebody who may not be familiar with us, as deeply, professionally or personally, as you and I are, Kathleen, what is people pleasing? How would you define it?

Kathleen: Let's see, I think I would define it probably, as you know, a pattern of putting other people before yourself to the detriment of your well-being. So if there's a pattern of it conflicting with your own value system, or abandoning or betraying yourself, your own well-being, your mental health, your physical health, your boundaries, that you need to feel emotionally safe in a relationship. If we have patterns where we're violating those sort of foundational basic needs, in order to keep other people happy, or maintain relationships with other people. That was really long.  

Lisa: No, that was so good. It made perfect sense. You're saying that it's really like harming yourself to keep other people “happy” or to maintain a relationship. It's like you're hurting yourself because you feel like you have to, in some way.

Kathleen: Yeah, absolutely. There's that element where you feel like you don't have a choice, where you don't have power, where you're not accepted or safe or loved. And this isn't just personal relationships, this could transfer to family, work, where you don't feel safe, where you feel like you don't really have a choice to be a part of what's considered in the situation. Yeah, a lot of power loss there and safety loss. That's a big part of it.

Lisa: Yeah. Well, and you know what, your definition of this, too, is so helpful because I think it's really painting a very clear contrast. What we kind of talked about in the beginning of the show, which is those little social niceties, like, “Oh, no, no, it was completely my fault.” Or, “Oh, no, it's fine.” Like that you're not like under duress when you do those kinds of things. What you're talking about is this pattern where it's like you really feel like you don't have a choice, something bad will happen if you don't take the blame or make things better for somebody else. That's really different, isn't it?

Kathleen: Yeah. I think it's interesting, because you're making me think about, sometimes we are under duress. And other times, we think we're doing it to ourselves because of what we believe we need to do. So there are relationships where we really are bullied into people pleasing. And then there are others, especially if we've experienced that in the past, There are other situations where we feel we don't have a choice, we feel under duress. 

But we could safely assert ourselves and that's why being aware of how you're feeling and why you're choosing what you're choosing and owning that choice is such an important part of moving past people pleasing, which I'm sure we'll get to today, but that choice piece is important, is a big part of it. 

Lisa: Oh my gosh, this is so interesting. So you're saying like, sometimes this happens, because you're actually in a situation where maybe there are even like power control things happening, or it's really like a toxic relationship. Maybe you feel like you have to be overly pleasing or accommodating to your own detriment, not because of the current relationship you're in or the person that you're interacting with, but because of real, old historical core beliefs, or maybe previous relationships that have tricked you into believing you feel like you have to even if you don't really,

Kathleen: Absolutely, yeah. I hope that's good news that sometimes we might think “If I say no, I'm going to lose this relationship, they're gonna blow up at me, they're gonna hate my guts.” And that isn't necessarily the case. We could really feel like it might be. Sometimes it is and then we need to work on working those relationships out of your life, if possible. Hopefully, that's a whole other topic. But hopefully, that's good news that it doesn't — it isn't. Our feelings aren't always facts, as they say. 

Acknowledging Your People Pleasing Personality

Lisa: So we're gonna go with this. So you have somebody that you're working with, and they're describing feeling angry because they have been interacting with people from feeling like they have to, where do you even start? Like, if somebody is listening to this conversation right now thinking, “Yeah, that's me.” What would you encourage them to begin thinking about,

Kathleen: I would say right now, even if you're listening, and you have something in mind that you've experienced, maybe recently, or where you can think of an example, because it does feel familiar to you, maybe you can think of an example of a time recently, when you felt really pushed against a wall, and either guilty or resentful, ultimately doing something that you really didn't feel comfortable doing. 

What I would do with a client and what you could do, even now, as you listen is think back to that moment, and reflect on what you were feeling in your body, how you were experiencing those emotions and what you were telling yourself about it. “I have to do this because…” why? 

What did it mean for you? What were you afraid was going to happen if you stood your ground? If you could be honest with yourself for a moment and just search within and notice what your motivation was for doing that. 

And this isn't about self-judgment. This is about actually the opposite of that, taking a little time with yourself, holding space for you, and listening to yourself in a way that we don't get to when we're people pleasing. And really listening with some curiosity. “Okay, what was I afraid of? What was my main motivation for saying yes, when I really wanted to say no?” That's where I usually start in the process. 

Because then we can start exploring what's so hard about not people pleasing, other ways to get those fears addressed. And some of the thoughts and beliefs that keep that cycle going, and where they come from. That's where we start. Over time, we work through that part of the process. 

Lisa: What's coming up for me as I'm listening to this is just how hard it can be even to figure out what your own boundaries are, or should be like what you're not comfortable with or don't want to do. Like, I know that when I kind of get into people pleasing mode, I honestly just start like doing a bunch of things for people. I don't even think about it being a problem for me. And I think sometimes with like, naturally, not saying that I'm particularly competent and what I have observed and others is that people who are really competent, organized, it's easy for them to do things. 

They do it because it is easy, they can do it more quickly. They can just take something else off of somebody else's plate. As they're doing it, and I think I do this sometimes, it's not even realizing that I'm doing things that I shouldn't be like for other people. Like there needs to be clarity around what you want to do and what you don't want to do. And that sounds so weird, but it's like it's easy to just do all kinds of stuff without really being clear about “Should I be doing this? Do I want to be doing this?” It's easy just to go on autopilot and do all kinds of things. 

Kathleen: Especially when we get caught in getting all those tasks checked off the to-do-list, being in productivity mode, we just slip sort of unconsciously into “Yeah, I'll take that on. Yeah, I'll get that done. What's the next thing I'm going to get done.” That can happen. But as I was thinking about our meeting today, I was thinking about gosh, for me, when I've noticed my brain is sneaky and tricky. 

Sometimes, I will just immediately find a justification for why I can do this, or this is a good—I want to actually know what I do want to do this, that will convince myself because that can be when you've been in people pleasing habits that can be easier, it can be easier to convince yourself that you want to do something you really don't want to do, than to say no. And when you have really deeply-rooted beliefs around the risks that might be there if you don't people please. 

It's easier to just avoid those risks, suffer through it, push through, I'll just get this done, and by next week, by tomorrow, by next month, I'll have a little time for myself, or whatever it is, “I can get through this. You convince yourself and it can happen.” Sometimes, if you're not practicing that self awareness, automatically. You don't even realize you're doing it.

Finding Balance: Is Being a People Pleaser Bad?

Lisa: Where it comes up for me, and I think I wonder how true this is? Well, I've actually heard clients talking about this as parents, and really like, I think, to the detriment of our children, but  fold the laundry, there's laundry in the hamper, that needs to be put away, whatever, it would take me 30 seconds, just gonna put the crap away in the door, or like, pick the sock up off the bathroom floor and put it in the hamper because my kid didn't do it, that kind of thing. 

Because otherwise, it turns into this little mini, like, not conflict with a capital C, but a thing really “Come back in here, put your clothes in the hamper”, where it would just take me like, literally five seconds to do the thing. And it's almost like I don't even want to go through the trouble of it. But it's not— it can happen on autopilot. And I know it's to the detriment of my kid if I'm putting his stuff in the hamper. But it's like just doing those tiny little things for people as opposed to having it be a thing. And there are little ways, like what I was describing, but also what you were saying, which is that fear of big consequences. If you're like, “Actually, I'm not going to do this.” And that fear that it's going to turn into a fight. Is that right?

Kathleen: You're right, it can range anywhere from “this is just a little bit easier and more convenient for me right now even though it may not be best for me or the other person.” This is just the path of least resistance—

Lisa: The path of least resistance. Yeah, that was… I'm sorry, you were about to say it could go all the way to—

Kathleen: All the way to being afraid of major consequences if you're assertive instead of people pleasing. I think it's an art. I wish I had a handbook of rules where you had an index, and you could just search alphabetically file for…

Lisa: Page 43—

Kathleen: And follow the handbook. But I do think it's an art and that it does take energy to kind of be sensing and checking in with yourself and weighing, doing a sort of check and balance and weighing the pros and cons intuitively what you need, right? Then one day, you may have the energy to say, “You know what, it's best for my kiddo to learn to pick up the socks”. And on another day, you might need to spend that energy somewhere else and just pick up a sock.

There isn't a right answer when it comes to knowing your boundaries, even though we want them to be clear, they also need to be flexible. And it's very personal to you. That's another thing that's tough. Tough, but also gives us some wiggle room. 

Lisa: Well, that's good to know, though, that it doesn't have to be like super black and white. And these are the boundaries with a capital B and it turns into a list of rules that you ultimately get to decide and be flexible. But I think I'm hearing that that's one of really the biggest first pieces for somebody working on this is to get real clear around their own understanding of what they should be doing and what they should not be doing. Or would you say that in a different way where that kind of clarity comes from and I'm sure it's probably different for everybody?

Kathleen: Yeah, I mean, maybe I would say it's so helpful to have a good connected relationship to yourself so that you can be in touch with yourself throughout the day. And then you know what you need most, moment to moment. So you kind of manage that on a microcosmic level, day-to-day moment-to-moment.

And then big picture-wise, you kind of look at the overall pattern, which you mentioned pattern earlier. And I think that's a really important word with this kind of stuff with boundaries, with people pleasing. If you step back overall, am I taking care of my top priorities? Overall, pattern-wise, am I honoring my top values? We're not going to be perfect at all of it, ever. So it's kind of, what am I needing most right now? And then overall, how are things balancing out? 

People Pleaser Anxiety and Anger

Lisa: Like being connected to your feelings of that, like canary in the coal mine, like what we were talking about at the very beginning is that when people aren't staying connected to their values, and kind of being really intentional, they start to feel it emotionally, over time. First, it's anger and then it's just like this— what I think I heard you say is it sort of metastasizes into self-esteem, self-worth stuff? Is that true kind of progression if people keep ignoring their values and not setting limits with others as they should? Or would you say it differently?

Kathleen: No, I think that's exactly how I would say it. And yes, over time it can metastasize into “I just feel so insecure,” and just, “I feel so much anxiety when I go into work that day” because there has been a pattern of feeling like you need to earn or prove taking up space. So yeah, that's a great way of putting it. Then for those of us who don't necessarily—it's harder to be in touch with our feelings, or put words to them, it can sometimes show up in physical tension and exhaustion and digestive issues and things like that. Not to get too far off into the mind-body connection today.

Lisa: No, it's really important. So what were you thinking of just then?

Kathleen: Let's say that canary, for example, if your canary doesn't always speak the language of emotion for you, if your feelings are hard to identify, for you, it might show up, especially for people pleasers, we might stuff those things, sweep those feelings under the rug, and have got really used to ignoring them. So for you, sometimes it might show up as physical issues, digestive issues, fatigue, muscle tension, headaches.

All of those can be the body's way of expressing at it, that it has been holding a lot of stress, anxiety, or fear, anger, guilt. If we've sort of separated ourselves from feeling those emotions for so long, that we don't really become aware of them, or we don't know how to express what they are, put our finger on what they are, sometimes noticing how you feel in your body is just another way of practicing mindfulness and self-awareness. It's a different canary.

Lisa: That emotions can show up as— I think the technical term for it is somatic that like, the physical manifestations of feelings, that are not listened to, as in the form of emotions. Like maybe you won't listen to that feeling of anxiety in the pit of your stomach, and then your body's like, I'm going to give you a headache, and then maybe you'll listen to me.

Kathleen: Yeah, those emotions, they exist in your body. So they're there. Even if you're not acknowledging them. 

Lisa: So really getting tuned, if you want to make some changes around those people pleasing patterns is that getting tuned into your feelings is a huge piece of this.

Kathleen: Yeah, listening more to yourself. And look, we can start there, we don't even have to go straight into being assertive and saying no, and setting boundaries. If we can just start with hearing yourself more then already, we're making more conscious, aware choices about things. Even if where you need to start is “I'm going to choose to people please right now.” It feels safer and a little bit easier or less uncomfortable than this other option. That's okay. 

It takes time to break habits and to change our beliefs or heal old wounds that may be contributing to the people pleasing. So we start with just holding the space for yourself that you haven't felt like you've had permission to hold. That can be an internal process and experience before we start expressing that stuff externally. We can begin with steps that don't feel quite as scary. Just like anything else that new that you might be learning, you begin with the intro point.

Lisa: At the shallow end of the pool, right? What I'm just thinking about as you're saying this is, again, it sounds easy when we say be in contact with your emotions. And in my experience, many times, and not always I have known plenty of men who will fall into people pleasing kinds of patterns. But a lot of times it is more women who tend to fall into these patterns. And I think that one of the core emotions that you're saying we need to be connected to is an emotion of like anger, or resentment, or like, “Actually, I don't want to do that.”

And I think that those are dark emotions that are really powerful and important, but a lot of times I think women have been socialized out of. I think, for a lot of times, many women are uncomfortable making contact with their own anger, like it feels like something that we shouldn't feel. Do you work with clients around that like sort of legitimizing their own anger? Or do you see it manifest differently in your work with clients?

Kathleen: Oh, no, that's a really good— the answer's yes. I do work with clients around that and that's a really good point. Men, too, also yes, will feel a lot of guilt and not allow themselves to feel anger, not as commonly. You're right, but I definitely see that. Just for anybody out there who isn't aware that men feel guilty too right.

Lisa: Do yeah, especially nice men.

Kathleen: But yeah, looking at it differently than maybe you have before where it's like, “If I stretched myself farther than I can reasonably realistically sustain, it is a natural response to feel anger”. And I show up as resentment, irritability, all the various levels and forms of basically anger. Because anger is, like all the feelings, important. We have it for a reason. It's there just to start to get this information. And so really validating that if we've been through some experiences, and we've taken on some beliefs that now lead to certain habits that are hard to break, it is going to be sort of an inevitable conclusion that you're going to feel angry. So it kind of neutralizes that it takes away the stigma. It's human.

Lisa: Yeah, because I think for a lot of women, it's, “If I feel angry that I must be a bad person.” And there for you to be saying, no there's a reason why you feel angry, and it's most legitimate, it's healthy, for you to feel angry.

Kathleen: And sometimes dig under that, and we're really angry with ourselves, too. But it's there to give us information about what we need and what's going on that's not okay, and to move us to take better care of ourselves. So yeah, feeling angry doesn't mean you're a bad person or an aggressive person, or that you have anger issues. We all feel angry, it's one of the basic human emotions, but guilt too doesn't necessarily mean that you're a bad person or that you've done something wrong. Feelings give us information about ourselves, but not necessarily facts about the situation.

Guilty Feelings in People Pleasing

Lisa: Say more about guilt, because I'm hearing that normal reaction is that when you're really legitimately doing more for other people than you should be at the expense of yourself — yes, gonna feel angry. But also, I think that guilt is such a big component. Can you say more about your observations and the role that guilty feeling plays when it comes to people pleasing?

Kathleen: Oh, gosh, it's so powerful. I think we usually probably even start there before we feel angry. We're motivated to people please, first by guilt. I mean, that's what people have shared with me and it's what I've experienced. So I'm making a universal assessment there.

Lisa: I feel guilty too when I— yeah, that's part of what motivates me to go into that space.

Kathleen: Yeah, and it's so strong, it's so powerful. And it comes from such a good well intentioned place of empathy. I feel badly that you're struggling or that I could make this easier for you, or I could help you out or I could make you happy if I just sacrifice in this or that way. So it comes from that place of caring, but I think it gets distorted when we aren't able to hold that empathy and also hold space for our own needs at the same time. 

When we personalize, if I don't do this for this person, if I don't take care of them, make them happy, help them feel good, manage their emotions, take care of their responsibilities, whatever that might be, then I am not a good person or I don't really care about them. I'm not being a good employee, friend, spouse, partner. That's really wrong of me. That's really bad of me. That’s so selfish of me.

Lisa: Yeah, it's really such a little thing for me to do. Why not? It's so easy. 

Kathleen: Right. I mean, I believe that good people do those little things that sometimes I think we can. Sometimes we need to, again, it's an art, it depends on where you're at, in that moment, the pros and cons, your sense of choice and control your motivation. But it's quite a big jump and a black and white jump to go to if I was a good person, or if I were a good partner, friend, daughter, brother, husband, whatever, then I would say, yes, I think that's where the guilt comes from, is that assumption. Is that what you experienced?

Lisa: Let me think about that for a second. When I find myself doing things that I probably shouldn't be doing, what I think happens in my mind, I think it is that empathetic place. I think I connect with my either perceptions, or maybe even my own personal narrative about their suffering, they're having a hard time, this would make it easier for them, it would help them feel better. And so I think that it's that sort of motivation a lot of times is to ease, not pain, but to try to see the other person's perspective. But I think where I run into trouble is when the other person's perspective becomes more important, or more real than my own perspective and my own news.

I think the guilt feeling comes when I don't act on that, then I'm like, “I should have helped. I should have done something. I should have—,” but I think when I'm actually doing the people pleasing, it sort of feels like love in the moment and maybe sometimes it is like what you were saying there's that art that maybe there is a time and space to be compassionate and empathetic and loving. But then like, how do you know when you're sort of crossing that line? 

Kathleen: Exactly. Yeah, it's like you come from such a positive place, empathy, really being able to put yourself in their shoes and that can go into this beautiful direction of love and support.

Lisa: Yeah, but then it's like, but then I'll rearrange a meeting to accommodate somebody else's schedule, because somebody else's schedule is more important than my schedule or, like, then it starts after a while. 

Recovering People Pleaser: How to Get Over People Pleasing

Kathleen: There is a lot of— that's why I think it is important to check in and, okay, “What is my motivation here?” Here's a tool that I sometimes use, right? Okay, “How am I feeling right now? What am I telling myself about this?” If I do this thing, okay, picture yourself going through the steps, perhaps it is changing, moving around your schedule or something else. Doing whatever it is you need to do. Imagine that and see how it feels in it. Now, imagine yourself after the fact, how are you going to feel? What are the consequences going to be? Maybe even short term and long term. How am I going to feel immediately after, and then after some time has passed, because you'll get different information from this for different situations. 

It's going to feel a little uncomfortable to change my schedule around, but I will feel really good about the fact that this is going to have a major positive impact for them. Or perhaps this is about something bigger or more for you or you're actually overlooking bigger consequences for yourself in the heat of that emotional moment when you're caught up in the empathy. Kind of playing the tape all the way forward. Yeah, give you some information and figuring out where the balance is for you. Yeah.

Lisa: Well, and that's such a great strategy. And I'm sure that why I hope other people listening to this right now might experiment with that because like, as you were saying that I was thinking about what a nice exercise that is in pushing you into contact with the other values that are kind of in play. Going back to the example of the kid and the laundry. The big value is this needs to be a fully functioning adult man who is capable of putting away his laundry after a certain period of time. 

Or like if I'm pushing around to work meetings, and staying at work later, to the detriment of my family, like cutting into that personal time and like thinking about those big values and what they're connected to. So those are mine, of course. What are some of the other values that you have found your clients kind of connecting with, as you use that exercise with them? Where they're like, “Huh, wait a minute.”

Kathleen: Yeah, I mean, what might come up first, it's easier to access often, is just the value of relationships and connections of harmony that often drives people pleasing. But then as we dig into it a little deeper and go through this exercise, just peace of mind. Authenticity can come up. Physical health is a value, a big important value for a lot of people. Big one. But that's a good question.

Lisa: Those are great values, and just to like to find anchors in those values that can kind of help be a lighthouse, and how should I handle this moment? So that's a great intervention. 

Kathleen: And that's something you can explore and and sometimes I'll work with clients around is different exercises to help identify different values and what yours are. And again, that's not something we can check off of a to-do list. We’ll never be— we're not supposed to be perfect at all of our values all the time. It's about patterns and balance. If I step back, what is this about for me? What choice do I need to make in this moment?

This is also something I want to make sure that I mentioned is that this is not static. Your values even can change, that's okay, we go through different phases in our life. We also go through just different periods, where you may be able to give more or less depending on what you're going through and what you needed that time. That's why listening to yourself and being more mindful and connected to yourself is so important to stay in tune with that. It's not “Okay, this is what I've decided. And now this is what I have to stick to, or else I am failing at something.” It's okay to change your mind and to be in different places at different times. You're human. 

Lisa: That's a great reminder. And I know that this is a big topic. I mean, there are so many different elements of this here. There's like historical relationships. And then there's the  mindfulness component and values. I also know that when you do work with clients on these issues, this is months of work, sometimes years. So this isn't, you flip a switch and change things. It's not that simple and as you say it kind of changes over time, too. 

I'm curious — for our listeners who maybe they've done a lot of that clarification work, and they are more in touch with themselves and are more clear about their own boundaries — I would imagine that there's another kind of growth curve for people when they do begin practicing things like saying no or holding their boundaries or having limits or being more assertive. In our final few minutes, can you share any tips or ideas that could help somebody who's practicing that part of the work? Because that's hard.

Kathleen: Yeah, definitely. I think when we're starting out with that, it's helpful to have some scripts, some assertiveness techniques, or scripts that kind of gives us that — I don't want to say a crutch — but it gives us something to lean on and to guide us as we're starting out. Because it is an art form, it gives us a map as we start to figure out our own way of expressing assertiveness. So there are techniques and strategies that we can learn, but I think what a lot of them have in common is coming from a place of “I,” focusing on your own experience and not talking about the other person in an accusatory critical blaming way, right? 

This can neutralize it a little bit because, often, we will think that if I'm assertive, that means that I'm blaming them or I am trying to take control of the situation. There are all sorts of assumptions around it. When, really, we're just expressing some facts. Just kind of stating some facts. It's important to remember that perspective. “Right now I'm feeling really tired and I'm not able to give the focus and energy I would like to to this meeting. So I'm going to need to postpone it to next week.” I'm just stating the facts from a place of my own experience, my own needs, my own feelings. I think all of the assertiveness strategies sort of have that in common. It helps people to not get as defensive too, I think. Is that what you mean, just for, as one example?

Lisa: Yeah, totally just just how to set those boundaries, because I do think that that's hard for people. And I love the way you just said, just state the facts and sort of a neutral way and just to be clear about that. And also, I think I'm hearing in there and knowing ahead of time what you're going to do and what you're not going to do, so you're sort of informing people, as opposed to asking.

Kathleen: That being said, it's okay — and this is a part of being assertive, and moving away from people pleasing — to say, “I need some time. I need to think about this. I'm not ready to answer yet. I don't know. I need to think about it.” As you know, I see that a lot.

Lisa: I love that.

Kathleen: That's okay, too, because especially when we're practicing this, and we're just becoming more self aware. We may not know. I hear clients say to me a lot, “I'm just not good at thinking on my feet. I don't want to bring it up, because then they might say something or ask a question. And I'm not good at doing this on the fly, so I just don't do it at all.” It's okay to say, “That's a really good question. Can I get back to you on that?” Or the “I don't know how I feel about that right now. I need to think about it. I'll get back to you on that.”

Lisa: That's good. Well, and that's really interesting because if you think that a lot of the anxiety of people pleasing is that kind of fear of conflict. And I think a lot of times anxiety comes from not exactly knowing and feeling like you need to know what you're going to do or what's going to happen next. That can create a lot of anxiety for people is just sort of being prepared and giving yourself permission to say, “I don't know,” “I don't need to know,” “I'm going to think about that,” as sort of a way of helping them feel more competent to handle those situations if they do come up.

And then to that piece what if somebody does get mad at you? What would your advice be to them? For a listener who's like, “I don't know. If I say no, they're gonna get mad at me.” And like, actually, they might get mad at you. What would your advice be?

Kathleen: Yeah, okay, so there's two parts. One is, first of all, assertiveness, actual assertiveness opens up the lines of communication, it does not close it off. If we're using the tools and skills, like for example, taking a break and asking for time, it can manage and prevent escalated conflict. So that's part of the purpose of it. However, if you do all of that, and someone still gets upset, and that can range from “Jeez, I'm really disappointed. This isn't what I wanted to hear,” all the way to name calling and yelling at you. Because some people experience that. That's why sometimes we've become people pleasers if we've experienced that. 

Those things could happen. I think they give us good information. On the one end of the spectrum, we have now opened the lines of communication, which is what we wanted, we are now mutually holding space for each other. You are now learning how to hold space for yourself and create space for yourself in your relationships. And so we need to still do that for other people when they do have natural emotional reactions. “I'm disappointed. This isn't going to work out for me.” Okay, we need to know that. So kind of taking away some of the fear and the stigma around that. 

Relationships are — should be — always sort of connected and negotiating and open. On the other hand, if you use all of those tools, and you're respectful, because assertiveness is respectful, and someone escalates things in response. Then we really have some good information about that relationship. That can be a transitional period where you start to have awareness of things that you didn't look at before. And that's a process to sort of process that and decide which ones we want to keep. What are our options around that? Which is sort of a whole other topic, which we maybe will get more time to talk about if we meet again. 

Lisa: I love that.

Kathleen: But if the purpose is for everyone to have space, and for everyone to know what they're in for, then getting a negative reaction — “negative reaction” — is still getting that information. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have sort of screwed up on assertiveness, if that makes sense, or that you've done anything wrong. 

Lisa: I love that advice, Kathleen, that you just got new information about this person in this relationship and that if you're not willing to twist yourself into a pretzel and do things that aren't good for you in order to maintain this, or they're going to freak out, you need to know that you're. Thanks for talking about that.

Kathleen: Sometimes we can dodge some real bullets if we knew that sooner than later

Lisa:  Yeah. Oh, man, this definitely feels like a to-be-continued conversation to me. There's so much good stuff. I know we're out of time. But thank you so much for visiting with me today, Kathleen, this is wonderful.

Kathleen: Thank you. This was wonderful for me as well. Thanks for letting me be here to chat about it. Loved it.

Lisa: Thank you, so good. Well, we'll have to do this again sometime very soon. And I'll talk to you soon. 

Kathleen: All right.

Dating During Coronavirus

Dating During Coronavirus

Dating During Coronavirus

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

Dating During Coronavirus

None of us are quite the same people we were in March 2020. If you’re like most of my counseling and dating coaching clients, the pandemic has changed the ways you work and live, and put you into contact with new truths about who you really are. 

For anyone on the quest to find love during COVID, all of this newfound self-awareness is bound to bubble up in your dating life. Maybe you’ve gained clarity about what you’re looking for in a partner, or where the edges of your sexuality actually lie, or what it would mean to show up as your true, authentic self with everyone you meet. 

If so, I’m so excited to share this episode of the podcast with you. My guest is Damona Hoffman, a celebrity matchmaker, relationship expert, and the official dating coach for OkCupid. Damona has not only been reflecting on how the pandemic has changed the dating landscape, she’s been researching it extensively using online dating data. Her findings offer some eye-opening insight for anyone looking for love. 

Join us for fascinating tidbits about 2021 dating trends, alongside timeless advice for making a meaningful connection. You can listen right on this page, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And while you’re there, I hope you’ll subscribe! 

Wishing you peace and true love in the new year, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby 

Dating During Coronavirus

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

Spread the Love, Happiness & Success

Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Apple Podcasts



Dating During Coronavirus: Episode Highlights

Since the onset of the pandemic, data shows that people are doing more pre-screening before a first date. Singles seem to be thinking long and hard before meeting up with a stranger who could give them a deadly illness, feeling them out not only for COVID conscientiousness, but for compatibility. 

After all, a bad date never feels worth it, but a bad date that puts you at risk feels especially not-worth-it. 

Dating in 2021

Many people have given their love lives an overhaul during the pandemic, ending relationships, entering new ones, and opening themselves up to new dynamics. Throuples are on the rise, data shows, as are mentions of bedroom preferences in dating profiles. 

Thanks to ample time for self-reflection, many people seem to have new clarity about their relationship goals, what they want in a partner, and what they want in their sex lives

Dating As Your Authentic Self

Being your true self, and being vulnerable enough to share your truth with other people, has always been the backbone of successful dating. 

But many people make the mistake of putting forward an idealized version of themselves on dates. This is an understandable impulse, but it’s self-defeating for anyone looking for true love. Wearing a mask is the antithesis of emotional intimacy, which is the real key to building a loving relationship. 

The Myths of Modern Dating

Too often, we focus on finding our ideal partner, rather than on creating meaningful relationships with the actual people in our dating lives. 

In reality, we are lovable because we are loving. You can’t wait for love to find you, you have to create it with the real people you meet. 

Empathetic Dating

One downside of the rise of online dating is an uptick in appalling behavior. Ghosting, breadcrumbing, and stringing people along while you search for a “better” match have become all-too-easy thanks to dating apps. 

When we rise above these deplorable trends and date with empathy and compassion, we’re “living in the light,” and safeguarding our integrity. It’s a remarkably effective way to build self-love and self-respect — two very attractive assets in a mate. 

Interracial Dating 

Online dating data also offers a wealth of insight about interracial dating. Unfortunately, the racial biases that shows up throughout our society are visible here. 

Even equating racial dating preferences with racial bias is wildly inflammatory, many people feel. But the takeaway isn’t so much that we should or shouldn’t dismantle our tendencies to date one race or another, but that we should examine these preferences and get curious about where they’re coming from, rather than accepting them as a given. 

Dating During Coronavirus

For anyone dating during coronavirus, some good news: There are millions of single people who’ve used the trauma of the pandemic as a springboard for growth, exploration, and heart-opening self-reflection. 

Millions of them are dusting off their profiles and getting back out there now, ready to build a meaningful connection with someone like you. 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: My guest today on the podcast is Damona Hoffman. She is a celebrity matchmaker, relationship expert, the official dating coach for OkCupid and the host of the dates and mates podcast. Her dating advice has been featured on the drew Barrymore show, NPR, A&E, the WashingtonPost, the LA Times. And now she's here talking to you. Hello Damona. 

Damona Hoffman: Hello? Hello. Thanks for having me back. Yeah, I'm so excited to continue our conversation. My listeners probably know this, but I had the great privilege of speaking with Damona about a year ago about dating and relationships. And things have changed over the last year. Damona is back with fresh information about dating trends for right this very second. And I'm so excited to talk with you about this and share your insights with our listeners. 

So I know there's much to discuss. Where should we start?

Damona: So much has changed, but so much has stayed the same. Remember when we thought, I feel like last year we were really enthusiastic about the pandemic ending and new ways of dating and relationships in our lives. And we're going to get back to travel and all those things. And we've seen some of those things, but they look a little bit different than we expected. So I'm excited to be here with you today and unpack what has actually happened in 2021. And then what we can expect in 2022. 

I've been dating coaching for over 15 years. And it's interesting seeing how my predictions, even from back then have come to pass and how we've evolved so much in dating. Like I started writing dating profiles, that long ago. Yeah. So dating online was around back then, and it's crazy to me now, how much people have integrated dating apps and online dating into their life and how it's really changed the dating culture.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Even more. So you think over the last couple of years than it had been previously? 

Dating During Covid

Damona: For sure. And over the last year, especially as lockdowns and safety and health and wellness became more of a focus. And as people were still really isolated, we've seen a major trend towards people adopting dating apps, but also new ways of communicating.

Like I've always said to people, you've got to screen your dates, and before the pandemic, we were in this hyper-speed. Burnout. It was just nonstop, nonstop conversation, nonstop dating. And the process that I saw was people would go on the dating apps swipe, go right to the date. And then they're sitting there on this date going, wait a minute. I don't even want to be here with this person. What has gone wrong? 

And now we're forced. We're forced to screen, because we have to make sure before we go out with someone that they are a safe person for us to know. And then, as people were isolated or even a lot of people moved in the pandemic, and that's one of the things that I think is really actually special about this time, as horrible as it has been, it's really made us go inside and ask ourselves, are we living the life that we really want to live?

Maybe it's not in this job. Maybe it's not in the city. Maybe it's not with this person. And we're seeing a rise in divorced singles going back on dating apps. And now we have an opportunity to build the life that we really want to build. 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I agree that this has been a life experience that has made everybody reflect on their values and, who am I? Why am I here? What do I want? And that positive relationships are such an important piece of that. I know that, here at Growing Self, there's a big influx. Couples, established couples, wanting to work on their relationships for a variety of reasons. And your area of expertise is really on people who are looking to establish healthy relationships.

And I know that there's been a bunch of new data coming out lately. That is really interesting what you've shared about dating trends. And I'm so curious to know more about what you've learned from your research over the last year. 

Damona: I've learned that people are finally doing the work, not your listeners. I'm sure they have always been doing the work. 

Dr. Lisa: They are here to grow, Damona. They are. 

Damona: But we're seeing everyone else's finally catching up to them. I know my Dates and Mates listeners are also always saying, here I am, I'm doing all this learning. I'm trying to, I'm trying to better myself. And yet I go out there in the dating pool and people are not at the same rate of growth that I am. But we are seeing a change in that. And we're seeing a big shift of people to dating based on values and dating based on these deeper qualities and characteristics that really line up more with long-term compatibility. 

And we're even seeing people redefine, how do they even, how are they defining their sexuality? What kind of relationship do they want? We've seen a 250% increase at OkCupid in users identifying as bisexual as compared to last year. 

Dr. Lisa: Wow. That is huge. That is a huge increase. What do you make of that? 

Damona: I think that people are figuring themselves out, they're listening to this podcast and they're allowed now to explore different parts of themselves that maybe were suppressed or maybe they just didn't even realize were attractions that they had or relationship goals.

And, we've even seen an increase in people. Saying they want non-monogamous relationships or they're looking for a throuple. It's not for me. I'm married, I'm happily married. We're coming up on 15 years. It's not my relationship goal, but I think it's wonderful if people have that option and can be transparent. 

I've seen a big trend towards people wanting authenticity on dating apps, we want a real name. We want the real age. We want verification. We want to know that people are there for the same reasons, and it's okay that there's a variety of reasons for people to be on a dating app or, just out in the dating scene. 

Dr. Lisa: Wow. Isn't that interesting, like in that, the zeitgeist of our times in many ways is one of constraints and limitations, but there is this psychological and emotional freedom that is exploding in the relationship landscape, and that people are feeling more free in other parts of their lives. That's kind of cool.

COVID Dating

Damona: It's really cool. And I think it's also driven by the pandemic. Forcing us into our homes and where we're looking at ourselves on a Zoom screen all day long, and also where you didn't have to dress the part for a lot of jobs that you used to have to go into the office for. And now it's just you in your home, your apartment, being yourself at work, at home. 

And I've even seen, like I write for the Washington Post date lab, and I interviewed a non-binary individual who we matched on a date. And they were saying to me that really, they were forced to come to terms with their own identity throughout the pandemic, because they didn't have to wear put suit and tie on to go into the office, and they could express, they can wear what they want and express their gender the way that felt most authentic to them. And when they were having to express what was appropriate for their office, they couldn't even get to that place of really understanding, who were they authentically?

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Yeah I understand it. So many of us, even like subconsciously, are dressing to meet these expectations from others. And so when left entirely to your own devices of, what do I actually feel like wearing today that is only for me?  That really pushes people into contact with themselves. And it sounds like that happened with the person you were working with. That’s awesome. 

Damona: And I love encouraging people to do this in dating as well, because there's so much emphasis on what you, who you have to be to be dateable to be lovable, to feel sexy and confident. And I think we're also seeing an unraveling of that and people realizing, I've been saying this on dates and mates for years, but when you are your most authentic self, that is when you attract your authentic love. Who wants to contort themselves into knots to fit into this ideal, who wants to be a fake version of themselves and attract someone in that version, and then feel this constant pressure to live up to that ideal that isn't really attainable or sustainable for the long-term? 

So you're probably seeing this also, as you're working with couples who are unpacking that and realizing that. Some of these questions that were not asked in the beginning need to finally be unpacked. And then as we are figuring ourselves out, that makes us have to reconfigure our relationship to the person we're in partnership with.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Trying to be somebody you're not is the antithesis of true emotional intimacy. Like, how can you be known and loved for who you are if you're pretending that you're different when you're first meeting people and, I think, have the courage to be authentic from the get go. And that is going to, I think, nicely limit the people who are attracted to you, which is a good thing, because if somebody really wants to be with this idealized version of you, that is not going to be a good person for you. And I feel like it's so deeply ingrained in our society that sometimes we're not even aware of it.

Dating in 2021

Damona: When we turn on this attraction magnet and step into this other version of ourselves, I think sometimes we're not even aware of it. So that's been another lesson of 2021 as we go deeper into ourselves. 

And, I don't know how colorful we can get on this podcast, but even sexually, we've seen that people learned what they like more in the pandemic. There's been more self-exploration. I'll let you read between the lines what I mean. And it's, we're seeing it, it's coming out in dating that people are saying that they are kinky, that there has been an increase in BDSM mentions in female users’ profiles. 

And I just love this idea of women taking ownership of their sexuality as well. And saying, I'm not going to be ashamed. Let's stop with the sex shaming and like the, all of these ideals that have been passed down to us from generation to generation. And get our needs met. Be our authentic selves. 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, definitely. What a nice reframe, when left to your own devices, it’s just the raising of awareness again, of, what do I actually like and how do I advocate for myself going forward?

Damona: That's huge and it's important to do, and it's really hard to do, but this is just such a time of exploration. That's really what we're seeing in OKCupid. People are now waking up to this realization that you control your own destiny. If you want to try something different, you want to date a different gender, you want to try something different in the bedroom, you better speak up and you better try it. Now is the time. Now is the time, now is the time. And I'm seeing this also among my Dates and Mates  listeners that are in couples. They're now being brave and asking for what they want in the bedroom and asking for even the emotional intimacy from their partners.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. That's where it gets real. So there's tons of interesting research coming out of your OkCupid project. And I wonder if it is okay to ask you about the new book that you're working on. Can we talk about that or is that, are you not ready to? 

Damona: It's probably not going to be out until 2024. So it's not long. 

Dr. Lisa: I hear you loudly. We have ambitious goals. Don't we? 

Damona: Yes. Look, it's not my date, my publisher's date, but we'll see. It's called the “Modern Love Myth.” Fix it. It's basically, heal your broken beliefs, fix your broken heart. So it's a chance for us to look at all of those things that are on the list, things that we thought we needed in a partner even a year or two years ago, remember way back then? I know it feels like a lifetime ago, but it's really about this moment that we've been talking about and a chance for us to unpack those things. 

And the last time we talked, we were discussing interracial dating. I'm the product of an interracial, interfaith marriage. I also have a very diverse family background. My stepmother is Mexican American. My sister-in-law is Indian American. Her parents had an arranged marriage in India and moved to the United States. My family tree is literally the United Nations. And I really feel like my life has been enriched by that. And as  I seek out more experiences where I can be culturally educated and have my worldview expanded, I think this is also a unique time in history, where we have access to new people, new communities, through dating apps. Through social media, all of these tools, these technology tools that weren't even available when I met my husband 18 years ago, now allow us to expand our dating circle to ask the question, is this the most convenient match for me, or my ideal match? Is this someone with whom I share values and goals for the future? Is this someone that I can communicate with? Is this someone I can build trust with? 

Because we look back just a few generations ago, and most marriages were either out of convenience or out of financial necessity. So if those two things are not a factor for you. Speaking to your listeners right now, if those are not a factor for you, how would you date or relate to your partner differently?

Dr. Lisa: Yes. That if, again, you can really do anything you want and you have access to the entire world. And I love what you're saying. Like you grew up, I think appreciating not just diversity in terms of backgrounds, but like a diversity of thought. That is so enriching, like different perspectives and different ideas.

But also you're saying that there are so many commonalities that transcend background, values, life goals. And one of the things that I really wanted to talk with you more about after our last conversation are issues related to interracial relationships, interracial dating. Because we didn't have a ton of time to go there, and I'm really wanting to talk more about your research into this.

Interracial Dating

I know that you wrote, and it is just an amazing piece for the Washington Post a while back, where you are looking at research in and around dating. And I actually, if it's okay, pulled up a couple pieces of this, one of the the points that you raised was that people, white people essentially, we're not indicating that racial bias or racial preference was very important to them, but that when you saw the outcomes in terms of who was being reached out to on some of these platforms, there was a real difference.

And the gist of the article was around how racial preference and racial bias does emerge in dating, particularly online dating, and how that impacts people. And I'm just, I'm wondering if you, if we could talk a little bit more about that today, because I think for so many of our listeners, we have a very diverse audience, a diverse practice, and a lot of couples in interracial relationships, these relationhips have so many strengths and beautiful aspects, but there are some differences that I think need to be acknowledged. And I think these differences begin to emerge even when dating. 

Damona: Oh, there's so much to unpack, so much to unpack. Yeah. So that is a long standing trend that people will, say, if I believe black lives matter. And we're seeing also on OkCupid, there's been a huge shift towards values and people like we have a Black Lives Matter badge that you can get from answering one of our managing questions. So you can telegraph out your values and people are choosing to do that.

So there's a difference though, between, I support Black Lives Matter. I believe myself to be open-minded, fair. And I believe in equity and the actions I've taken are in alignment with that. And I find that sometimes people are not even aware of the ways our subtle bias shows up in our daily life and in our daily choices.

So, what you're referring to is actually based on some older OkCupid data that showed people would say they would not date someone who exhibited racial bias. And yet, when they looked at the data, they saw that people would predominantly match with people of their same race. And it's shifted, that data is about 10 years old, but it’s still really impactful.

I see it deeply impacting, particularly the black women who listened to Dates and Mates and who are in my client base because they really feel unseen a lot of the time. And they feel that they're overlooked because of the way that people search, where they will strategically eliminate certain races.

And so that's what the Washington Post article was saying. If you eliminate a particular race or will only date someone of your same race, does that mean you are exhibiting racial bias, or is that just a dating preference? And it's really interesting to me how so many people, I got a lot of positive feedback, a lot of the comments that you'll see on the page and that article saw five times the normal readership for that column. And we had to shut down comments at the Washington Post on it for 48 hours, because it was getting so inflamed, but people were so incensed to just be asked the question, if I make this choice, is this an example of racial bias? And I think that kind of knee-jerk reaction does absolutely nothing for us generating an equitable society. 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. It doesn't. The question is, okay, if we want to frame this as a dating preference, where does that come from? And I think that's this blank space, particularly for a lot of white people, is this sort of absence of felt ethnicity, but that really is this inherited racial hierarchy about what do I like and what do I want. 

And that kind of mental organization that is largely outside the consciousness of a lot of white people. And it shows up through behaviors. It's at the core of so many of our behaviors and it's impossible to move past it if we're unwilling to examine it.

Damona: What I was doing with the article was asking people to ask the questions of themselves. Like I talked about this “five whys” technique that I use with my clients to really get to the core of their true dating and relationship beliefs and why they have them. And the problem is that the more you start unpacking that, the more uncomfortable choices that you're going to be faced with, the more uncomfortable realities you'll have to examine. And I know that's tough for people, but I feel like it's important to ask the questions because, if we don't ask them, especially now, we don't ask why, how are we actually going to grow? 

And so it's not that I was saying with the article, which I think some people misunderstood, like everyone should be dating all ethnicities. That wasn't quite what I was saying. I would love to have my clients just date, race open, but we have to be willing to do the work. So I was just suggesting, let's see where that comes from. 

You don't have any non-white friends in your friend circle. If you really were to examine it, let's look at your friend group. Look at your 10 closest friends. How many people of color are in that group? Oh, I don't have many or maybe I only have one. So if we go back a step, why? Because I didn't meet anyone at my church, at my school, in my neighborhood. And then we unpack and we say, why is that? 

Because even in the neighborhood that I live in Los Angeles, I'm a member of the trustees board of the historical society of my neighborhood. And there's some information that's in our history. That's a part of our history that people don't really want to look at. Nat king Cole lived in my neighborhood. He had a cross burned on his lawn. Not that long ago, not that long ago.

And so we can't look at the history and be like, let's just look at the pretty houses, let's look at the cultural institutions, without examining how that happened there. If you look at the actual guidelines of your neighborhood, your residential area, a lot of them were built in with the premise. You cannot sell this house to a black person. It's still in many of the rules, even though now we ignore it. It's still there. 

So we’ve got to look at where that came from, why we haven't integrated neighborhoods still to this day. There's a lot of segregation because red lining prevented people of color from owning homes that would help build generational wealth for their families. And it's uncomfortable, it's really uncomfortable. It's very ugly. 

I can see it from both sides as someone who has a white parent and a Black parent. So I'm not up on a pedestal, saying I figured it all out and I'm above all of this. I am in it with all of us, trying to unpack that and come to terms with it so that we can actually move forward and take ownership of our choices and not continue to make the same kind of decisions just because that's how it's always been done.

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. And going back to that theme of self-awareness and making contact with yourself, what you're saying is that being confronted with some of these ideas and asking those “why” questions. can really, I think, especially for a lot of white people, push us into contact with uncomfortable anxiety things that we would rather not have be true, and leaning into those feelings really is the path of growth because it results in this a level I think of self-awareness and freedom in some ways, like going back to your book, why do we believe the things that we believe in?

Sometimes those biases, those ideas are just so deeply buried outside of our consciousness, that it isn't until we observe or have it reflected back to us by others, what we're actually doing that we get some insight into. Why is that? And particularly in relationships.

Relationships as Growth Opportunities

Damona: Absolutely. I think we learn in relationship. We learn in relation to others. And so we're at a unique time in our growth as a human species that we have a chance to even ask these questions. And there's so many other questions that I would love to also unpack and that I will be unpacking in “The Modern Love Myth.”

But we have so many myths. We have this myth of a soulmate that we're looking for. This ideal person, there's one person, this needle in a haystack, and yet over 70% of people believe that they're looking for a soulmate. And I see that keeps a lot of people from being able to do the kind of work that you do of taking the person that's sitting right in front of them and figuring out how to grow with them, if you think that there's some other soulmate, that it's supposed to be easy, it's supposed to just click and fall into place. 

And if it doesn't happen like that, then that person must not be your soulmate. And there's somebody else out there in the wide world that you can find that will fulfill all of your needs without you having to do any of the heavy lifting or the uncomfortable conversations like we've been talking about.

That's not fair to yourself. That's not fair to your partner or your future partner. We have to completely flip our mindset I believe around that. There's a lot of possible partners you could match with, and there's no perfect person, and there's no perfect partner for you. You make them the perfect partner because you're both willing to show up and integrate your lives.

Dr. Lisa: So glad you're talking about that. That's been coming up in a lot of conversations lately that I've had with clients. And it's, I think, there's a sort of double-edged sword because, I think people have become more aware of what they want and feel empowered to create it. And that can also lead to this in some ways perfectionistic ideal of what they're looking for in a relationship that is very, as you say, other-focused, and I've so often found that really, the point of change that opens up so many doors for people to have great relationships is really related to these questions around, am I loving? Can I cherish and appreciate another human for who and what they are, without having to have them be more like me? 

And that is such a point of growth for most people. I think it's that true love idea around, how can I appreciate you and celebrate our complimentary strengths and differences, as opposed to wanting this sort of mythical person who is exactly like me in some ways.

The Myths of Modern Dating

Damona: Yeah. That's been an interesting shift actually as dating apps have expanded their reach. And now there is the belief that I can find the perfect partner. Some people are a little too dialed into that. And one concept I've been talking about all year on Dates and Mates that I will also be exploring more in the book is empathetic dating.

I am really trying to impress on my listeners how important it is to be empathetic in your dating search. And not always center yourself in the narrative of this love story. 

Dr. Lisa: Are you saying the “what's in it for me?” Damona, is that what we're talking about right now? 

Damona: It's the “what's in it for me.” And it's also just this idea that people are sort of characters in your life story and it is about me, of course. And so every action that they take is somehow a reaction to something that you've done, or in some way is there to fuel you to make your next choice or move in the relationship. And this is a really difficult concept, I think, to put into practice, especially, as we are on dating apps and people are looking at option after option. And I've said this for so long that you've got to become a real person. If you're, if you just stay in the app and you never meet up in real life, that's not your boyfriend. That's your pen pal. And it's not a real authentic exchange. I believe in real time, synchronous communication.

And I believe that we really learn about ourselves, relating to these people that we meet as possible options, but so many times as we are looking at this, the Cheesecake Factory menu, you understand you're looking at the Cheesecake Factory menu. And you start to think, do I want fries with that? Do I want a salad? I'm ordering up my perfect partner. Rather than, I'm in the kitchen at the Cheesecake Factory building it too. And I can appreciate the potatoes themselves in their raw form. Even if I don't choose to have the fries. I know I'm going way deep on this cheesecake analogy.

Dr. Lisa: Like truffle oil, we could go, I'm also a fry fanatic. So you're speaking my language 

Damona: A hundred percent. But, I think it’s really the key to unlocking this next level of what we're going to experience with dating apps being such an unbelievable tool to be able to make connections. 

I talked earlier about divorced daters entering the dating scene and we're seeing a huge increase. A 300% increase among user profiles saying that they're recently divorced since 2017. So this is a trend, it's not going away. It doesn’t mean more people are divorcing, but it means that people have a place to go. 

As all my Dates and Mates heard, before, if you were divorced, and you wanted to date again, and you were in your fifties or sixties and your life was set, your job was set, your friend circle was set, your church was set, all of those places where people used to meet, then you were just like waiting for someone in the PTA to get divorced, chasing her out, chasing around all the same single dads, right? 

So the idea that now, especially women can re-enter the dating scene and feel sexy and feel seen and have options. I think it's a great thing, but it's a new tool for a lot of people and we just have to learn how to use it effectively and how to use it in a way that's really compassionate to the people that we meet.

Empathic Dating

Dr. Lisa: And if that's okay, I would love to talk more about that. And I know we don't have a ton of time left, but you used the phrase empathic dating a couple of moments ago. And you have OkCupid, you have the Cheesecake Factory menu, there's everything in the world. And how do you take the ideas of empathetic dating and begin to apply them? 

And I know that we'll get the whole story when your new book comes out in 2024. But in the meantime, what would you advise people who are like, yes, compassion, empathy, but how?

Damona: Well, the first thing I would ask my clients is, look at all of the things that irritate you about dating today. First of all, don't put any of them in your profile. I don't want to read that. Like, I can tell someone's whole relationship history by reading their profile and hearing them say, “Don't even message me if you are not faithful and loyal. Don't even message me if you are a smoker. If you have kids from another relationship, if you're X, Y, and Z.” 

So we're going to erase that and let them start with a clean slate. The next thing that you do is, look at the behaviors that are frustrating for you and see how you can do the inverse of that. So many times people will say to me, I hate being ghosted. It is the worst, I've been chatting with this person online and then all of a sudden they just left. And I'll ask them, if they can look back through their messages for me and let me know if they've ghosted anybody else or failed to respond, like they say, oh I matched with this person and they didn't send me the first message.

How many times have you not done that? And I asked them to really take ownership of the way that they move forward on the dating app, not with the expectation that the other people are all going to magically do the same, but with personal responsibility. And I find that really makes you date from a fuller place, but it also makes you feel a little bit more in control, because obviously you can't control other people's behaviors, but you can control what you put into the mix. And I'll have my clients, if they decide they don't want to see someone, and it's totally up to you. Anyone that you haven't met on a date, you don't. I also have to remind people of this. Don't go if you're not feeling enthusiastic about it. You owe that person your best self and your best time. So if you're not feeling it, don't go, but tell them where you're at.

I have my clients do this thank and release strategy. You thank them for whatever they've given you. Even if it's grief, if they've given you grief, it's information that you can use in how you're going to relate to someone the next time. 

So you thank them for their time. You thank them for connecting. You wish them lots of luck. And then you move on. You unmatch, you go on about, and you don't hold on to those feelings because that starts to hurt us as well. When we keep carrying that frustration, that overwhelm, that disappointment from date to date, you thank and release them without any expectation of what they're going to say back or how they're going to handle it, but you send them love and thank them and release them.

Then you can close that loop and feel more whole yourself. 

Dating With Compassion

Dr. Lisa: Yeah, no, that's a wonderful strategy. It really is like getting clear about what positive qualities you seek in a partner, even in the beginning stages of dating, and really becoming committed to your own integrity around being that person.

And just that, I am going to live in the light in all of my interactions, and giving other people a chance. I think it's very easy for all of us to excuse all of the weird and questionable things that we do personally, because we have reasons. Bad mood, they did this, I was just reacting to that.

We make sense to ourselves, but it's very easy to judge other people and attribute things to their character that we ourselves may do. 

Damona: A hundred percent. And I've been reading a lot of Brene Brown lately. And, she talks about how it changes your perspective if you believe that people are doing the best they can. And I think this is also a core belief of empathetic dating. I really believe it's funny. 

My dad challenged me on this. He was like, you really think people are doing the best they can? I'm like I really honestly do, with the information they have with the upbringing they've experienced, with the pressures they have at work and finances and all that. I think that people are doing the best they can. With COVID, let's give ourselves and everyone else a break. We're doing the best we can. It's not always in everyone's best interest or whatever. But if you can just adopt that philosophy of, everyone you meet is doing the best they can with the tools and resources and education and empathetic capacity that they have.

And you just, like you said, you live in the light, you send them love and light and you hold your boundaries as well. That is the most empathetic thing you can do for yourself, and for others. 

Dr. Lisa: Totally. Yes, you have to have those healthy boundaries for sure. But I love what you're saying Damona because it's like, how do you practice being loving throughout the whole process? Even if you're talking with people who aren't going to be your ideal partner. I think it was Louise Hay who said we are lovable because we are loving, and to allow yourself to practice really being loving towards others as like great practice to be a great partner in relationship to somebody else who deserves that. 

I think that's the thing that gets flipped for a lot of people. As you were saying before, people become the star of their own movie and stop asking themselves, how do I be a really great loving partner? Cause that's it. That's a different experience completely. 

Damona: And we also have to have that same empathy for ourselves, even though we're not centering ourselves in the narrative, we have to also come to dating as whole, as we can make ourselves. We're not looking for someone to fit. Our missing puzzle piece. We have to come to it whole. 

So I also have my clients do a gratitude practice. I had my clients last January do a 30-day gratitude journal. And every day, just say one thing that you have gratitude for. Even if that thing is, I had a hot shower today. Because some people didn't.

Just having gratitude for what you have, because when you date from a place of fullness, you're looking for someone whose energy matches that, and you can both hold together and amplify and uplift one another, rather than if you come in, thinking of all this stuff you don't have and the relationship that you don't have, you’re starting out from a period, from a place of want and need.

I've just seen too many times, that doesn't form the relationship that you're really desiring. 

Dr. Lisa: Yeah. What words of wisdom, this is so much good stuff. And I love it. I so appreciate you giving us an overview of the dating trends. Thanks to OkCupid, but also I just love where you're going in your work, because that's what I hear throughout our conversation today.

There's been such a window of opportunity for growth that has opened up in people's lives because of this kind of quiet time of the pandemic, and it’s beginning to emerge in relationships. And I can't wait to learn more about your book. It sounds like you're really thinking a lot about how to help people understand those old beliefs and really bring those into the conscious awareness and do that growth work you were talking about so they can have really authentically healthy relationships.

Damona: Absolutely. It's a magic moment that we're in right now, where we have a lot of the tools, we have the knowledge. And we have this space to be able to work on ourselves. And, whenever we emerge from this pandemic, emerge from it as more whole.

Dr. Lisa: I love it. So share with our listeners before we end, where they can learn more about you, your work with OkCupid, if they want to keep tabs on your book, when it comes out. And I would love to talk with you more about your book when it does, but where should they find you in the meantime? 

Damona: Thank you. I am every week doing the Dates and Mates podcast at, or wherever you're listening to this podcast right now. And for OKC. I think a lot of people don't realize it's free. It's a free app. So if you're on that fence, the whole thing is free. There are premium features that you can become a member to unlock, but if you're on the fence, just try it out, just download it and dip your toe in the water. And then if you need more support and help from me, come back to dates and and I will get you started.

And of course, I'm on Instagram. Twitter or Facebook at Damona Hoffman. So that's where you can get the updates on the book. 

Dr. Lisa: The forthcoming book. Okay. Going to be watching your Instagram. And, as soon as it comes out I'm going to pounce. 

Damona: Thank you so much for having me. I love our conversations too, and I love all the work that you’re doing. Dr. Lisa: Such a great conversation. Thank you so much for coming back. And I can't wait until our next one.

Withdrawn Partner? Stop Pushing Them Further Away…

Withdrawn Partner? Stop Pushing Them Further Away…

Withdrawn Partner? Stop Pushing Them Further Away…

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.

Are you trying to have a relationship with a partner who avoids, defends or worse… refuses to talk at all?

Few things are as frustrating, or as hurtful as trying to engage a disengaged partner. It's hard NOT to get upset and angry when you're feeling rejected, unloved, or uncared for. The problem is that many people who clam up as a defensive strategy when things get tense don't understand how destructive their behaviors can be to your relationship.

But there is help, and there is hope. Because these types of communication problems are so common, I thought it might be helpful to you if I put together a “Communication Problems” podcast-mini series.

“Communication Issues” is the single most common presenting issue that brings couples to marriage counseling. The first thing to know about communication problems: Absolutely ALL couples struggle to communicate with each other from time to time. Just because it's happening in your relationship does not spell doom. Truthfully, by making a few positive changes in the way you interact with each other, you can avoid many communication problems — and start enjoying each other again.

In episode 1, “Communication Problems and How To Fix Them” we discussed the most important and empowering things you can remain mindful of if you want to improve the communication in your relationship: Systems theory, and your own empowerment to affect positive change.

In episode 2, “Dealing With an Angry Partner” we addressed the oh-so-common “pursue / withdraw” dynamic that so many couples can fall in to. This idea is at the core of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy — one of the most well researched and scientifically supported approaches to couples counseling. (And what we practice here at Growing Self!)

Specifically in episode 2, we looked at this communication pattern from the perspective of the “withdrawer” (i.e. the person in the relationship who might be perceiving their “pursuing partner” as angry or even hostile). In that episode I gave you some tips to help get back into the ring with your partner, some insight into why they may be so angry, and things that you can do to help soothe their anger and bring the peace back into your home.

In the third and final episode of our “Communication Problems” series, “Dealing With a Withdrawn Partner” we'll be looking at this from the perspective of the partner who pursues — the one who is attempting to engage with a partner who seems emotionally distant, avoidant, and unresponsive.

If you've been feeling frustrated or angry because your partner refuses to talk to you, this one is for you. In this episode I'm talking about what may be leading your partner to seem emotionally withdrawn, as well as things that you can do to help your partner come closer to you emotionally, and start opening up again.

We're discussing:

I sincerely hope that this series helps you understand what may be happening at the root of your communication problems, as well as some real-world tips for things that can help you improve your relationship.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby


P.S. One fantastic, low-key strategy to start a dialogue with your partner is by taking our “How Healthy is Your Relationship” quiz together. You can send your results to each other, which opens the door to talk about how you're both feeling — with out an anxiety-provoking conversation for your conflict-avoidant partner. Just be ready to learn some things you didn't know! Here's the link to get the relationship quiz. xoxo, LMB

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

Communication Problems and How To Fix Them, Part 3: When Your Partner Refuses to Talk

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

Music Credits: Nick Drake, “The Time of No Reply”

Enjoy the Podcast?

Please rate and review the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.



Google Play

Real Help For Your Relationship

Lots of couples go through challenging times, but the ones who turn "rough-patches" into "growth moments" can come out the other side stronger and happier than ever before.


Working with an expert couples counselor can help you create understanding, empathy and open communication that felt impossible before.


Start your journey of growth together by scheduling a free consultation.

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

Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast

Long Distance Relationship Questions

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

Spread the Love Happiness & Success

Please Rate, Review & Share the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.




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.

Let's  Talk

Real Help For Your Relationship

Lots of couples go through challenging times, but the ones who turn "rough-patches" into "growth moments" can come out the other side stronger and happier than ever before.


Working with an expert couples counselor can help you create understanding, empathy and open communication that felt impossible before.


Start your journey of growth together by scheduling a free consultation.

Long Distance Relationship Questions: Podcast Transcript

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, 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, 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, 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 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 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.


More Love, Happiness & Success Advice

Why Relationships Fail

Ever wonder why relationships fail? On this podcast, we’re exploring the anatomy of a failed relationship, so you can keep yours healthy and strong.

read more

Embracing Your Cultural Identity

Feeling connected to your cultural identity can be an important part of life satisfaction for many people, and it can be a large part of one’s identity as a whole. Online therapist, Josephine M., shares more here…

read more
How to Let Go of Anger

How to Let Go of Anger

There is a time and place for healthy anger, and getting stuck in anger can keep you anchored to a painful past. Learn how to release anger and reclaim yourself, on this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

read more

How to be Successful Online Dating

The online dating world can be a jungle. Online therapist and dating coach Jessica Small, M.A., LMFT shares her top tips for online dating. From creating your profile, avoiding red flags and disappointment, to setting yourself up for success!

read more