MINDFUL SELF COMPASSION: As you may know, in addition to my work here as a therapist, couples counselor and life coach, I love addressing listener questions on the Love Happiness and Success Podcast (not to mention the wonderful questions that you guys leave for me on our blog). A while ago, one brave listener reached out with a heartfelt email, sharing a bit about her life, and asking how to handle some really difficult things, like:“How do I forgive myself when I've hurt someone?”“How do I break my old patterns so that I don't do harmful things again?”“How do I stay emotionally available when I fear being hurt?”These are important questions that many people wrestle with, and I decided to tackle them on the show. We'll be discussing:
How Do I Stay Emotionally Available in Relationships?
When you're feeling fragile and emotionally reactive, it's hard to have healthy relationships. Instead, we usually fall into either losing ourselves and being dependent on another for our feelings of self-worth. (Which too often leads to emotional enmeshment and codependency). Or, we swing into self-protection, lashing out, shutting down, or breaking off relationships. The key to finding a middle path — connection, and confidence — is through loving yourself and strengthening yourself. Resource: Here's the link to the Self-Love article I mentioned. Also, an article about cultivating healthy vulnerability in relationships.At the heart of all the ideas, skills and strategies here for forgiving yourself, and using your mistakes as a launch pad for growth is the concept of mindful self-compassion. I hope you keep that idea with you, on your journey of growth and healing.Your fellow traveler,Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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Mindful Self Compassion: How to Forgive Yourself
by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | Love, Happiness & Success
Unhealthy Relationships: All couples go through a rocky period in their relationship. They may grow distant from each other and encounter problems that seem to be impossible to overcome. It is agonizing to decide whether or not to save a relationship because we never know the possibilities. How will we know when our relationship is worth saving?
In this episode, marriage and family therapist Brittany S., will touch on healthy versus unhealthy relationships. We talk about what a normal distressed relationship looks like and how to deal with it. You will also discover the different markers of an unhealthy relationship. Knowing the difference between the two will help make the big decision whether to save your relationship or knowing when it’s time to let go.
Tune in to the podcast to learn more about the role of attunement, responsiveness, and vulnerability in cultivating an ideal, healthy, and loving relationship!
In This Episode: Unhealthy Relationships
Find out what a distressed healthy relationship is versus an unhealthy one.
Understand the pursue-withdraw cycle in distressed relationships.
Recognize the general markers of an unhealthy relationship.
Know where to start and what steps to undertake in couples counseling.
Identify when growth is and is not possible in a relationship.
Understand the importance of having aligned expectations for the future.
Know the importance of attunement as the fundamental heart of every relationship.
“Is My Relationship Healthy?”
Brittany shares with us today that a “good” relationship ultimately depends on what you think of yourself and your experience within the relationship itself. She suggests asking three main questions when identifying the health of your relationship:
What is the overall quality of the relationship?
Do I feel good about myself in the relationship?
Do I feel like the relationship benefits and serves me well?
How We See Ourselves
How we see ourselves is affected by the people who surround us. Usually, when you begin feeling like you need to change yourself, you are not enough, or you need to be better for your partner to treat you well, is a sign that the relationship may be unhealthy.
When we start to believe we are unworthy of love, connection, and belonging, the foundation of the relationship begins to fall away (if there even was one to start with).
Because of this pessimistic view, we begin to feel more angry, aggressive, and hostile towards ourselves. Brittany shares that most of her clients that are struggling with this dynamic will internalize feeling unworthy, “I have done something that makes me inherently unlovable or unworthy of having this healthy relationship or healing.”
Fixing the Negative Subconscious Belief
The issue here is that people who find themselves in an unhealthy relationship begin to believe they are the sole problem. To address this, we need to be aware of what stories we are telling ourselves. Fixing the negative subconscious belief requires challenging these stories. To do this, challenge these stories by:
Identifying if there is evidence that there is some truth to the story; and
Cracking the narrative and expressing it
When working with couples, Brittany shares that partners often blame each other for their unhappiness or unwillingness to show up for their partner how their partner may need. Partner responses can tell so much about the health of the relationship.
If our partner is willing to comfort us and offer help, it provides some reassurance that we are in a healthy situation. But if the partner lacks comfort and responsiveness, it is a sign to take a deeper look into the relationship.
What does this mean? It means that by challenging the stories that we tell ourselves (I’m unworthy of love…) and getting to the root of why we feel these ways, we can better understand whether or not it is something we can work on and grow through, or if it’s a sign that this relationship really isn’t good for us after all.
Is a Distressed Relationship Normal?
According to Brittany, “When people are in distressed relationships, it impacts each other. Both people are impacted in such a way that they both stop being the best version of themselves.” A distressing situation creates reactions in each person that can be hurtful and support the negative pursue-withdraw cycle.
The pursue-withdraw cycle is characterized by:
One partner who is demanding, critical, and demands reassurance, comfort, or engagement from the other; and
The other partner feeling overwhelmed by these demands and, in turn, withdrawing
The more one partner shuts down, the more the other demands and becomes more aggressive, thus feeding the cycle. The cycle is normal in distressed relationships but requires a path of healing.
Brittany relays that this cycle propagates because “there's usually a need for comfort or safety or connection or a vulnerable attachment—a need that isn't being met, and we're just scared to ask for it in that way.”
The General Markers of an Unhealthy Relationship
It is important to assess early on in counseling if the relationship is in a distressing situation or more problematic. Some questions to ask yourself if you find you are in an unhealthy relationship are:
Is there essential responsiveness?
Can somebody take accountability and responsibility for their actions in the relationship?
Can they identify their part in the distress?
Is there a desire to control or to have power over our partner?
Are there elements of shaming and severe criticism present in the relationship?
Is there manipulation happening?
Is one partner trying to isolate the other?
Is one partner threatening the other?
Is verbal abuse happening?
According to Brittany, it's common to blame each other. However, partners should step back and realize their part in the problem. If one partner is insistent on blaming the other and claiming no-fault, then it becomes unhealthy.
Brittany recommends seeking individual therapy from a trained professional in domestic violence cases, a professional who has the background to help you keep safe. She also advises seeking domestic violence support.
Starting the Process of Healing
When starting the process of healing, Brittany refers to this time between her couples as a dance. Brittany begins by asking her clients to map out their dance and identify their part in the relationship. It is critical to be aware of:
What is happening to your body
What emotions you are feeling; and
Is there any judgment happening
Partners should become intimate with their dance and tell each other about it. The more open and willing to connect with your partner at this time, the higher likelihood of healing taking place.
It is essential to identify emotions, bodily sensations, and the stories we tell ourselves. By learning how to communicate better with your partner, you can begin to break the pursue-withdraw cycle. If you find that your partnership needs help better communicating, Brittany suggests seeking the help of a relationship specialist.
Brittany says that when there is growth possible in the relationship, a healthy couple will be able to engage in their dance, self-reflective, and talk about their emotions.
Is Growth Possible?
Healing is a process; being aware of each other's roles and emotions takes time. It may be more challenging for some people to express themselves due to their previous experiences.
However, having a hard time at first does not mean that the relationship is horrible or will not survive. Brittany emphasizes that her role as a couple's counselor is to help people grow and go through the transformational process. It's normal to have a hard time because the process takes vulnerability.
However, if you cannot establish vulnerability and safety, consider individual counseling to heal from childhood trauma or past relationships.
“Couples can do this work together because I really do believe that we heal best in trusted relationships with others,” Brittany says. If the wounds run too deep that you cannot show up in your relationship, that is a sign to work on yourself.
Keys to a Healthy Relationship: Can This Relationship Be Saved?
If you have been working on fixing your relationship and have been in counseling for months, but nothing has changed, then you can use that valuable information to decide whether the relationship can be saved.
Responsiveness is an essential factor in the survivorship of a relationship. We have to express what we need and see how someone responds to that.
Healing requires vulnerability and baseline safety. If your partner disagrees, you may consider the possibility that they are not suited for you.
“It's okay to mess up and make mistakes, but there has to be a motivation to work on things, grow, and stay in it together,” says Brittany.
Pushing for the Future
It's part of our culture to encounter difficulties in being present and focusing on what's happening now. We often look forward, believing that the future will be better.
However, it’s important to look at your situation and relationship in the present. We must focus on:
What the relationship feels like now
What is and what isn't serving us
What needs work; and
Our willingness to put in that work towards the future we are desiring
Make sure that you and your partner have the same desires and expectations for the future. Evaluate and reflect if a compromise on healthy relationship expectations is needed.
Attunement: The Heart of a Relationship
Attunement is the process of being present with our partner. Attunement is the goal; it is the entire heart of every relationship. It involves engaging in emotional responsiveness and vulnerability.
If you feel disconnected, think about how you can find your way back to each other and if both of you are willing to take part in that process. It's critical to have that responsiveness, reciprocity, and respect in a relationship.
“You won't have attunement in a distressed relationship, but you can intentionally create it if both people are engaged in that process.”, says Brittany.
Brittany has shared invaluable advice on dealing with a distressed relationship and differentiating it from an unhealthy one. What did you connect and relate with the most? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment down below.
Did you like this interview? Subscribe to us now to discover how to live a life full of love, success, and happiness!
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The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
That is The Black Pine with a song The Morning After She Left. When I listened to that song, I think about someone who has belatedly realized that maybe they made some mistakes in a relationship that it is now too late to repair. And that kind of regret is what can happen when people, over time, realize that the relationship that they've been in, or the series of relationships that they've been in, have not always been the healthiest or best for them. I think sometimes their partners feel that regret more than they do.
What we see our clients here at Growing Self describe is this feeling often of newfound liberation, when they decide to stop engaging in relationships that are not good for them, and begin, instead, prioritizing their own health and happiness and well-being. And it's such a joy to be part of.
It's an important topic, and one that I wanted to talk about on today's show because we see a ton of people here at Growing Self. A lot of relational work, we do couples counseling, relationship coaching, but we also help a lot of individual clients who are trying to get clear about their relationships and about themselves. Sometimes they're coming for help fixing a relationship, maybe with a partner who doesn't want to come to couples counseling. So they feel like they have to do it on their own. But sometimes it's from people who aren't quite sure if they're in a relationship, that they should spend a lot of time and energy on fixing. Somebody who's been in a relationship, that for five years, they're not married. It's kind of a mixed bag relationship. There are things that they're not really happy with, and the relationship is stalled. It's not moving forward, and they're coming to us for help around. “How hard should I try to make it work with this person?” And when do I just say, “You know what? I need to let this go, and move on, and find a better situation for myself?” That is a tough situation to be in, but one that I think is worth exploring and so that's what we're doing today on this episode of the podcast is talking about what a healthy relationship is, what a healthy foundation looks like. What is a sign that there's growth and opportunity possible, and what is a sign that there might not be growth and opportunity possible?
To help me with those, I have invited my dear colleague. My colleague, Brittany Stewart, is a marriage and family therapist on our team here at Growing Self. She has a lot of experience working with people around this issue, both individuals and couples. Thank you, Brittany, so much for being here with me today.
Brittany Stewart: Oh, of course. Thank you so much for having me, Lisa. I'm really looking forward to having this conversation with you.
Dr. Lisa: Oh. Well, me too. It's one—I mean, I see you in our consultation groups and in our meetings. This is a topic that is clearly just such a passion for you. And that I see and I've always admired about you because it's not just enough for you to help people, like improve their relationships. You're always sort of listening to “How healthy is this relationship?” “Is this relationship good for both people in the relationship?” because those things really matter a lot. Sometimes, even if we can teach people how to communicate and do the skills, if there's not a healthy relationship structure underneath, we need to have that on our radar.
To jump into this topic, I mean, can you just talk a little bit about what are some of the things that you first notice or listen for? If you're working with—and we could take it one at a time but like a couple or an individual that might make you think, “Is this really a good situation fundamentally?” And we're not talking about capital A abuse. That is a different animal. But just like that sort of what's going on here?
Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
Brittany: Yeah, that's a great question. I think the first thing that I'm always looking at is, “What is someone's experience of themselves and their partner in a relationship?” Like, what is the overall quality? Do they feel good about themselves in the relationship? Do they feel like the relationship benefits them, and serves them, and functions while in their life? Do they give their partner the benefit of the doubt? Right?
When I start to hear that partners believe that their partner is ill-intentioned, or malicious, or doesn't have their best interests at heart, I can really hear that there's just been a lot of erosion in the relationship. That really affects how we see ourselves too. If we're not trusting our partner to be—to have our best intentions at heart, or to really hold us in their hearts in a positive and meaningful way, then that completely impacts how we see ourselves and how we function in the world.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, how we see ourselves—let's talk a little bit more about that. I heard you say that when someone believes that their partner is almost out to get them, or is hostile towards them, or is doing things maliciously, how does that begin to change the way someone feels about themselves?
Brittany: I think that can change a few different things about how we might see ourselves. Right? One might be that we start to believe that we're less worthy of experiencing love, and connection, and belonging. Even though, my hope is always that people know that's just inherent, and that doesn't change even with the status of our relationships or the quality of them. But it does impact that belief around ourselves.
I think the other way it shows up is we might start to experience more anger, or we might start to be more hostile ourselves, or defensive, or aggressive. I think that it kind of forces us to take a look at how we're showing up in the world, and then feel really difficult, and murky to show up with those kinds of behaviors and emotions, and not know what to do with them.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. Oh, my goodness. The shame of regret that comes when somebody in an unhealthy relationship begins to—themselves show signs of that, like anger, or hostility, or shows up in weird ways. And then they think, “Oh my God, what am I doing? I'm not being a good partner. I'm not being a good mom,” or whatever it is that they internalize that.
But then I've also heard you say, at the same time, they can be internalizing these messages from their partner that—I mean, I think what we both hear a lot is, “If you were better and if I loved you more, then I wouldn't treat you this way.” But it plays into that self-doubt, that “I'm not good enough,” that “The reason my partner is saying these things to me or not giving me the love that I need is because I'm not quite good enough. And if I were better, they would be behaving differently. They would be better to me, if I worked on myself.” Is that the trick that people get sucked into?
Brittany: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think I see that a lot, especially, I mean, I would say I see it with people of all genders. Right? That they have this belief over time, whether it's through failed relationships, or chronic on again-off again, or just a long term relationship that has a lot of wounds in it that have never been healed. They really internalize this thought of like, “I have done something that makes me inherently unlovable or unworthy of having this healthy relationship or, have this healing.” And it's really difficult to sit in that. And my hope, again, is always that people know that's not true.
Dr. Lisa: Well, I'm glad that we're talking about this, though, because I think that what we're just putting our finger on right here is the—almost like subconscious core belief of people who come—will come in for help with their relationships is like, “Can this be fixed? Should I work on that?” Sometimes I think the place where we need to go to is what they're telling themselves about the relationship. If for example, they believe that their partner could be much different with a different person who was better than them, and if they just worked on themselves and became the person that their partner wants, then they could be loved. To talk about how, what if that isn't actually what is happening? What if this is how the person you're partnered with would show up, whether or not they were with a different person or a better version of you? That can be a big step sometimes, because I think that people really believe that they're the problem.
First of all, let's just say for everybody within the sound of our voice, this is a process. There is not anything that Brittany or I am going to say. There is no piece of advice or wisdom that is going to help you jump over that mountain. But Brittany, when you're working with a client who is stuck in that place, where they've gotten tricked into believing bad things about themselves, where do you even begin? If somebody's listening to this right now who probably needs to do some of that work, where would they start?
Brittany: Yeah. Well, I think that's a complicated question because I would approach it differently, right, if I'm just working with one person or been working with a couple. But I think the first step for any change is always just being really aware of what stories were even telling ourselves. And I love Brené Brown’s work. In her Netflix series, or in her Netflix special, when she says “The story I'm telling myself is…” Right. And so I always encourage clients to identify, “What is that story that we're telling ourselves?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: And just to name it, and so if I'm sitting with an individual, can they just get really clear on what is that story they're telling themselves? Or if I'm working with a couple, can they just share with each other in a really disarming way? Like, “This is the story in my head.” Right? It may not be true, but it feels very real. And can they just get it out there and name it so that we can work with it? Then of course, it's really identifying like, “Can we challenge that?” “Is there really evidence that this… that the story you're telling yourself is true?” “Is it based in any sort of fact or reality, or is it just some emotion that's coming up, and we're trying to make sense of it, and the story is the best way that we're doing that?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. I get it. Just kind of cracking into that narrative and bringing it out into the open, and then just sort of looking at it together. Yeah.
Brittany: Yeah, and then I think, if I'm working with a couple, what can be really powerful about this, right, is we often don't share the story that's in our head in a disarming way. Usually, we're sharing it in a blaming way with our partner. We can tell so much about the health of a relationship and the ability of our partner to really be in it with us when we share that story just based on their response. Right?
So if we share this awful story or this painful story we're telling ourselves, and our partner is able to move toward us and comfort us, and say, “Oh, my gosh. That's the story in your head? Let me help you with that. Right. That's not how I see it. That's not what I'm feeling.” That can be really powerful. Right? To help offer that reassurance. Or if there is that lack of comfort and responsiveness. And maybe that story gets reinforced, then that's a—I would say—that's a sign. Right? Or something else to look at deeper. Maybe that story is based in some truth about the relationship. Yeah.
Dr. Lisa: No, that's a great way of looking at this. So on that note too, so you—like all of the marriage counselors on the team here at Growing Self—practice evidence-based forms of couples counseling, and one of the things that the approaches that you've really focused on is one called emotionally-focused couples therapy that takes a closer look at the attachment needs of two people in a relationship. What we know from research into emotionally-focused therapy is that when people are in distressed relationships, it impacts—and because relationships are a system—I mean, people impact each other. Right? But what we see is that both people are impacted in such a way that they both stop—how do I say this?—being the best version of themselves. I mean, being in a distressed relationship creates reactions in each person that can be hurtful, and can sort of support that negative cycle.
I think it's important to talk about that because we expect that in a distressed relationship. Just because that's happening doesn't necessarily mean that it is a fundamentally unhealthy relationship. It's just that we need to do that work of healing. So let's just even start there. I mean, when you're working with a couple who has not been in a great place for a year or three—I mean, for a lot of couples, it takes a while to show up in our office. But what would you expect to see that would be normal?
Brittany: Oh, yeah. So usually, right? EFT, or emotionally-focused couples therapy talks about—we get into this dance with our partner, and every one of us has a dance in our relationship. It's totally normal, and it's part of being in an attachment relationship. So what I might see that is really normal, I would say the most common thing I see is what we call like the pursuer-distancer or the pursuer-withdrawer. This looks like when partners are in distress, and one partner might like protest, as Sue Johnson calls it.And they might start to demand, or criticize, or try to get any sort of engagement from their partner. Right? They're just seeking some sort of reassurance or comfort, but it comes out in a way that might be kind of critical or…
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Angry.
Brittany: …and distressing to their partner. When that happens, their partner then gets overwhelmed, and kind of withdraws, or shuts down. It kind of reinforces the cycle over and over again. The more one person shuts down, the bigger one person gets. The more the other partner shuts down, and so on, and so forth. I would say that's the most common thing I see and it's really, really normal or common. I guess, I would say, it's really, really common.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: There's a lot we can do with that, because really what we know underneath, right? When there's basic safety there, right? This isn't an abusive relationship. Again, this is a healthy relationship overall, is that we normalize that distress, and we try to identify what's really happening underneath that. Right? There's usually some core attachment need for comfort, or safety, or connection, or anything like that. Just really vulnerable attachment need that isn't being met, and we're just scared to ask for it in that way.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. I'm so glad that you said all that. I think it's important to put that out there because I think that's part of what can get confusing for people who are like, “Is this a bad relationship? Is this an unhealthy relationship?” Because if you're in a distressed relationship with someone who is engaging with you in a way that makes you sort of feel like withdrawing, and avoiding conversations. The perception from that position is that you're living with somebody who's critical, and judgmental, and never quite happy with you, and always complaining about something, and who wants you to be something that you're not. I mean, that is the inner experience. Right? On the other side of it, the person is experiencing their partner's being withdrawn or avoided. “They never talk to me. They shut me out. They ignore me.” It doesn't matter. They just don't like…
Brittany: They don't care.
Dr. Lisa: They’re emotionally checked out. They don't care. Right. When somebody comes into our office and is like, “This is what's happening at home. They don't care, they're checked out, they'd make me feel like watching ESPN is more important than our marriage.” That's how it feels. We also need to talk about the fact that this is normal in a distressed relationship, and that this—because this is happening doesn't mean that you're in a bad relationship necessarily. But it does require a path of healing, where you can start in a safe place talking about the things that are important. Kind of get reconnected. And I also just want to say, again, that is not a like, “Do these two easy things, and it'll be all better.” This is a process that requires…
Dr. Lisa: …probably months of, “How do we find this?” So there's setting everybody's expectations. Okay, so there's that. That is normal and expected distressed relationship. How would you say that is different from somebody who is in a relationship, that may feel in some ways similarly, but is actually not a healthy relationship? Do you think that there are sort of like markers that we can look at, or think about that would indicate what is this? Or does it really require that assessment process? Do you have to start doing the work to try to fix it, and then see what happens? How do you begin to sort that out?
Brittany: Yeah. I mean, sometimes, I think that we assess very early on so it can kind of become apparent very quickly. If there is just this common distress happening, and we can work with that. Or if it's actually that there's something unhealthy, or problematic, or unsafe happening in the relationship. I think general markers. right? Like the thing I'm always looking for is, “Is there like basic responsiveness?” “Can somebody take accountability and responsibility for their actions in the relationship?” “Can they identify their part and the distress?” And if not, right? I think, again, it's common to experience where we get caught in blaming each other. But usually, we're able to eventually step back and say, “Oh, I can see that I do have a part in this.” If we're just really inherent, or really set on blaming our partner and absolving ourselves of any part of the distress, I think that that's problematic.
Then looking for things like, is there a desire to control or to have power over our partner? Is there—are there elements of shaming, and just really deep criticism present in the relationship? Is there manipulation happening? Is there—is one partner trying to isolate their partner? Are they threatening their partner? Is there verbal abuse happening? Those are some markers that I think are indicative of there being a bigger problem in a relationship, beyond just common distress.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I get that. Just to say out loud, what you're also talking about are markers that we would associate with domestic violence, or intimate partner violence like the power, and control, the isolation, manipulation. Just to say very, very clearly, it is never appropriate for an ethical couples counselor to attempt any kind of couples counseling in the presence of actual domestic violence or intimate partner violence. It is just a no-go situation. We would not do that because it's not safe ever. That's not what we're talking about here.
In those situations Brittany, if somebody was listening to this and being like, “Oh, no. It's actually violent.” Just for the record, what should they do?
Brittany: Oh, absolutely. I would always recommend they both go seek individual therapy, right? Is there something that can be done to help both partners, or at least a safety plan, or do something that really will establish safety for both partners, especially the victims.
Dr. Lisa: There's a wonderful national resource, it's called thehotline.org. Day and night, you can call or chat with one of their representatives, who can help you either on the spot if it's an emergency or also provide you access to all kinds of resources through community mental health agencies, like safe houses, that kind of thing. So if you're really in trouble, go thehotline.org. Brittany's recommendation is to get involved in individual therapy, ideally with someone who has that background to help you get safe. So that is not what we're talking about.
But Brittany, so what we're talking about is sort of the—if there's a spectrum of basic safety in a relationship, and it's starting to get to this link, I don't know, sort of area. As a couples counselor, if you've determined that it's okay to continue working with a couple, it's not that bad that you are going to pull the plug… what are some of the things that you would want to be talking about with that couple? The things that you're seeing the patterns? Again, it's not a process. It's not information all necessarily. It's a process. But where would you hope to take that process and what would you expect to come from it?
Brittany: Yeah. I always start by helping couples what we call like mapping their dance. Right? So they're each identifying what moves are they both making in the dance? Are they doing different dances with each other? How are they showing up? And will actually map it out and say, “This is what I'm doing.” And part of the things that they're becoming more aware of—are some of the things they're becoming more aware of—are what's happening in their body. Right? Because we know that emotion shows up in our bodies first.
So usually, even if it's subconscious, or even if we're not really aware of it, there's probably some somatic sensation happening in our body that were triggered by, that's telling us that distress is happening, or there's a loss of connection happening. It kind of sets the stance in motion. So I'm asking each partner to identify, “What's happening in your body?” “Can you just check in and notice what's happening?” “What emotions are coming up for you?” Can they name, right? Are they experiencing anger? Are they having… experiencing sadness? Is there judgment happening? What are they thinking right now? What emotions are coming up?
Then I ask them to name a story they're telling themselves, and this includes the story about themselves, about their partners, about their relationship. Right? So these might be the like, “I'm not worthy. They don't love me. Our relationship is broken.” Whatever story they're telling themselves, and they name it, and then identify what do they do with that. Right?
Because usually those three things: the emotions, and the sensations in our body, and the stories we're telling ourselves become too much. And so then we kind of.. we react. How we all handle that distress is going to be different. That's when we might protest, and become critical, or it might become too much, and we might completely shut down and say, “I'm going to go ahead and move into self preservation and shut down.” So it's really important that the couples just become really intimate with what is their dance? Can they map it? Can they tell each other about it? Can they do this together—most importantly, versus… it's me versus you. It's—this is our dance, and we're going to talk about it, and figure it out together. And so the first step is really just naming it, getting really familiar with this.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. So that's what you—what sounds like the place where you would always star. And I think what I'm hearing is that with a couple where there was growth possible, they would be able to engage in that, and be self-reflective, and talk about, “Yeah. This is how I feel. And when you do this, I do that.” And kind of that awareness. How would you contrast that with a couple, maybe that you started working with where you started to think, “Yeah, I don't know if how much growth is possible here.” How would it be different?
Brittany: Yeah. I mean, I always try to give it a little bit of time, right? Because this attachment work can be really deep. And sometimes it's harder for people, depending on experiences they've already had in their life. If they never have experienced a secure attachment, it might take them a little bit of time. We might have to map it over and over and over again, and give them kind of homework to “go and just see what you notice.” If they can't really identify, so that's one thing that might come up.
Dr. Lisa: Thank you for saying that. Yeah. Because that's really important. Because just if that—if it's not easy to do at first, doesn't mean that it's a horrible relationship that needs to end. It means that there is a therapeutic component involved. And that's why we're here is to help people grow, and go through that transformational process.
Dr. Lisa: And so at the beginning, it's normal that it's not easy to do that. Okay. Thank you. Yeah.
Brittany: Oh, yeah. Yeah, this is—it takes vulnerability. This process is really vulnerable. And we have to ease into that. But if beyond that, right? If we're not ever able to kind of establish that safety to feel vulnerable, and to do this work, then there might come a point, right? Where I might suggest that someone does some individual work around some emotional intelligence, or if they maybe have some attachment stuff to heal from their childhoods, or past relationships, or whatever it might be that's coming up for them.
I do—I hope as always, that couples can do this work together because I really do believe that we heal best, and trust that relationships with others. And sometimes we need some individual work just to support us, and identifying what's happening for us, before we share it with our partner, or therapists in the couple setting.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, to work on yourself. If the wounds run so deep, that you're really not able to show up in a healthy way in your relationship, that's a sign that you need to work on yourself a little bit. I would imagine that for someone who will be very unlikely to be able to have a healthy relationship, they would reject that idea, and they would not want to do individual work. So that would be a sign. I would think that it's probably not going to work out, at least in a healthy way for you.
Brittany: Yeah, right. Absolutely. I think that at that point, it's up to everyone to decide, “Is this something that I'm willing to kind of wade out, and hope that my partner changed their mind?” Or yeah, changes their mind? Or, “Do I really have to kind of accept that they're not in a place to do this growth work right now?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Completely.
Brittany: “Maybe that's not going to serve either of us or this relationship?”
Is My Relationship Healthy?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, this is really clarifying because I think a lot of people that are stuck in this conundrum, are in a place where they're trying to figure out, “Is this relationship healthy?” “Can this relationship be saved?” “How much do I want to invest in this relationship?” before having had the opportunity to do the kind of work that you're talking about Brittany?” So they're attempting to make these major life decisions without having the information that they need because after four months of working with Brittany, and there's no movement, and Brittany is recommending that your partner go to individual therapy, and they're refusing— that is good information upon which you could make a life decision. But before you've done that, it's like you don't even know what's possible or not and that is what feels so paralyzing.
Brittany: Yeah, yeah. I think, something that I see with—even people in the dating-coaching world, right? Who are seeking relationships, and also individuals, and people in relationships, is they're just hoping that they can read the mind of whoever they're dating, or their partner, and just know what's going to be possible, or if it's going to be a functional, healthy relationship. Really, I think that responsiveness is just so important. We have to be able to express what we're needing, what we're wanting, what our core needs are, and see how someone responds to that. Which really does require that vulnerability and baseline safety to do that. But how does somebody respond to us, right? When we say that we really want this type of relationship, we want a secure attachment, we want to be able to express emotions, how does somebody respond to that? And if it's—they're pushing back on it, or that's not what they believe in a relationship, then maybe that partner is not suited for us. Or are they interested in doing that, and they want to do that work, and are we willing to allow space for that growth to happen?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. Well—and that's, that's a wonderful way, and certainly for people who are maybe single and in that dating coaching realm, because we often work with a lot of individual clients who are interested in creating healthy relationships. I think what I have certainly experienced are, oftentimes, people who have become aware that their last several relationships haven't really been great for them. So they come to us for help with, “Okay, what do I need to do differently this time to connect from the get go with somebody who will be a better fit for me? How am I showing up in relationships?” So that's an important area of growth work.
What I'm hearing you say is that one of the keys to that is, as you're developing a new relationship with someone, just to be really observant. “How is this person responding to me over and over and over again?” And from that, begin to figure out, “Okay, can they respond to me?” But it's so hard, though, because at the same time, if your core narrative is, “But if I were more lovable, they would be nicer to me,” or whatever it was. And if they're saying, “Well, if you were just not X, Y, Z, then I wouldn't be so snappy with you.” It can be so hard as an individual to figure this out and sort it out. It’s complicated.
Brittany: Complicated. Yeah. It really is. Which is why I think responsiveness also includes like, “This is hard for me. I don't know what to do with this. But I want to be in this with you.”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Right.
Brittany: “I want us to figure it out together.” It's okay not to have the answers. It's okay to mess up and make mistakes and not get it right. We're all not going to get it right sometimes in our relationships. But where's that motivation to work on things, and to grow, and to stay in it together?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. And yeah, so you're saying that in a healthy relationship, you should be hearing some version of that from a partner who has the capacity to be responsive to you?
Dr. Lisa: Could grow with you?
Being Present in Relationships
Dr. Lisa: Okay. So now one last aspect of this I want to run past you. I think another trap that people can fall into, particularly women, although I see this happen with men too. When they've been in a relationship, and maybe for the last couple of years, it's a long distance relationship. Or maybe they've been dating, but they're not living together and one person is, “I really—I want to live with you. I don't want to be long distance anymore. I want to get married.” In their mind, there is the sometimes subconscious core belief that goes, “Because if we weren't long distance, this experience would be different. Or when we get married, this experience will be different than it is right now.”
That is what they're sort of holding—so they're really pushing for this future thing. But that—what they may be missing is like warning signs of an unhealthy relationship that they have interpreted, as well, “When we get married, this won't happen anymore.” Have you noticed that? And could you speak to that?
Brittany: Yeah. I mean, I think I noticed that in both unhealthy relationships and also just relationships that might be healthy but are having some distress.
Dr. Lisa: Okay.
Brittany: I think it's just part of our culture that it's really hard for us to be present and focus on what's happening now. Right? And so we, of course, we create this idea in our head that the future will be better, and there's like that hope which is positive, and the future might be better. The only thing that changes with time is what we do with it. So it's really important that we focus on what does the relationship feel like now? What's serving us? What isn't serving us? What needs work, and are we willing to put in that work so that we can have that ideal future we're thinking of?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: Or we're thinking, it won’t be present in the future, or this dynamic will be different in the future. What are we both going to do now…
Dr. Lisa: Right.
Brittany: …to help that be a reality? Or is there something actually happening now that is really unhealthy, and i just need to be really aware of it, and name it?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: And maybe walk away from something that isn't serving me anymore.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. To differentiate, “Will it actually be better once we're married or whatever?” Or “Is this the way this—is this actually the relationship?” And Brittany, what you're saying again is there needs to be effort on both sides to—okay, “How do you imagine it would be once we are married or whatever, and how close to that can we get before this?” Because that's kind of the sign that it would actually be different once you are married, or once you were living in the same town, or whatever, in terms of the emotional responsiveness and the empathy. Is that it?
Brittany: Absolutely. Do you both have the same expectations? Right?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: What I am—and this is part of like naming that story again—is what I'm naming, “Is that true for you as well?” Right? Or “Do we have the same expectations, the same hope for our future?” “Are we both hoping that this dynamic is different in the future?” Or “Is this maybe uncomfortable, or painful, or difficult for me, and to you it feels fine?”
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Brittany: If so, that's a conversation that we need to talk about and see. Are there some—is there a compromise that needs to happen? Is there something that actually does need to be addressed and healed? Or is this something that's going to cause a really big rupture, and maybe the relationship is not going to work long-term?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. What a great point because if this feels intolerable to me and it's perfectly fine for you—how close—how can we close that gap at all? If the answer is no, or there's not willingness on one side to have it be different, that's important information that is worth listening to.
Brittany: Yeah. Absolutely.
Dr. Lisa: Wow. What a great conversation about such an important topic. I know we need to wrap things up here in a second. But do you have anything else to add on that question around healthy relationships versus unhealthy relationships, and how to tell the difference?
Brittany: Yeah. I think, really, what it comes down to—I tell every couple of this that I work with, “My hope is that you can walk away with what we call attunement, and know how to practice attunement.” Attunement is really just like a process of being present with our partners. It's where we engage in that emotional response—responsiveness, where we can turn to our partner, we feel like we can be vulnerable. Even if something is difficult, or painful, or uncomfortable, we really trust that our partner is going to be in it with us.
So I encourage partners, “If you're feeling disconnected, or you're feeling like you're not in attunement, that's okay. But how can you find your way back to each other and do you both take part in that process?” I think it's just so, so critical to have that responsiveness and reciprocity in relationships.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. I love that, especially with the idea that you were talking about earlier, That in a distressed relationship you won't have that attunement because of that pursue-withdraw cycle. Yet it is something that can be intentionally created if both people are engaged in that process. so that that's the goal, though, is that attunement. That's really the fundamental heart of every relationship is that emotional connection, emotional intimacy, feeling of emotional safety. That’s the goal, and that's what is present in healthy relationships and what feels you know fundamentally not possible, even with work in relationships that aren't healthy. Is that a good way to summarize it?
Brittany: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Dr. Lisa: Well, Brittany, thank you again so much for your time and meeting with me today. This was wonderful. Thank you.
Brittany: Oh, of course. Thanks so much for having me, Lisa.
Dr. Lisa: You can learn more about Brittany and her work as a marriage counselor, a couples therapist, an online relationship coach at growingself.com. While you're there, you can also take our free, “How Healthy Is Your Relationship?” online quiz. You can take it yourself, you can share it with your partner, and then you can compare results. It's an easy kind of lowkey way to get a snapshot of your relationship with its opportunities for growth, as well as its strength. So you can check all that out and more at growingself.com and I will be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast.
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.
In long-term relationships, keeping the romance alive isn’t always an easy task. Everyday life can get in the way of doing small romantic gestures for our partner that we enjoyed at the beginning of the relationship.
This relationship dynamic can hinder romance and connection. The good news though? It doesn’t have to be this way. Long-term relationship dynamics open opportunities to rediscover each other, rekindle your connection, and keep your romance alive.
As an online marriage counselor and relationship coach, I want to share with you some of the same tips I share with my couples clients who too are struggle keeping the romance alive. This way you can get started on rekindling romance in your relationship today!
9 Ways to Practice Keeping the Romance Alive in Long-term Relationships
Communicate Your Needs and Listen to Your Partner
It’s true that communication is one of the most important factors to any relationship when it comes to keeping the romance alive, it’s also one of the most difficult things for couples to do effectively. This is especially true if your relationship is going through something completely new – new challenges, new hurdles, new arguments, new annoyances!
Communicating effectively takes practice and it is important that during times when we worry about so much, we also pay attention to our needs and communicate these with our partner.
Acknowledge your frustrations, tell them what would help you feel more at ease, more loved, more connected. When your partner shares their needs, make sure you put your phone down and pay attention. This will help your partner feel heard, understood, and will also help you get on the same page with them and come up with solutions together.
It’s not uncommon or unexpected to get comfortable in your relationship. Some personal habits you might have upheld in the early dating stages of your relationship may not feel as important now – and that’s okay! However, for my couples that are struggling to rekindle their romance flame, I recommend that they try dressing up once or twice a week, even if you’re just having dinner at home.
Do your hair, put on makeup, perfume, cologne, or whatever it is that makes you feel nice. Do this for yourself (as when you look great you feel better) and do this for your partner so they can see you as your most confident and attractive self as well.
[If you are struggling with self-worth and low self-esteem, you're not alone. With everything this world throws at us, it's not a surprise that we struggle so often to realize how truly valuable and wonderful we are. If these factors are hindering you from keeping the romance alive, I encourage you to read this reminder: You Are Worthy of Love and Respect and know that you deserve love and respect! For more on building self-esteem and confidence, check out: How to Increase Self Confidence (Part 1)]
Compliment Each Other Regularly
Genuine compliments can make us feel so special. Make sure you practice gratitude and appreciation of each other every day. Focusing on qualities that you love and appreciate in one another primes your brain to notice the positives and not only the negative or frustrating things in each other.
If you can, create an “appreciation jar,” where you each write a compliment or appreciation about your partner every day.
[Have you heard of micro-dates? These are fantastic ways to connect with your partner regularly throughout your day, read more about micro-dates here: The Micro-Date Revolution]
Turn Off The Screens (Activity Ideas Below)
Make sure you have screen-free time. This includes TV, computers, tablets and phones. Try an activity (ideas below) during this, and focus on each other.
It may feel a little awkward at first, but the more time you spend away from the screen and together in interactive and engaging activities, the easier and more enjoyable it will become. You’ll get to where you both look forward to those screen-free activities together.
Plan out some daily routines, chores, activities and who is doing what. Having a plan, even when you feel you don’t need one because you are just at home, can be very helpful in avoiding building frustrations.
Your routine can include planning out the necessary chores, creating a menu for the week, and identifying the activities you’d like to do and when you will do them.
It’s important to have a plan when you want to accomplish something, and your relationship is no different. If you set yourself (and your relationship) up for success, you’re both more likely to follow through with your commitments.
Build A Team Environment
WE ARE IN THIS TOGETHER. Doing some of the activities outlined below, such as starting and completing a challenge together, can be an easy and stress-free way to create a sense of team spirit.
Building a team environment in your relationship will help you feel more connected and ready to tackle the challenges that you are facing (whether they be internal or external to your relationship).
Create Space for “Me Time”
This may sound like a contradiction to my point before, but it is a lot easier to participate in the ‘team,’ when we feel like we can be our own selves as well.
Try and take some time apart each day. If you’re not able to leave the home, spend some time in different rooms of your house. This may even be just taking a long bath with some relaxing music while your partner is in the living room reading a book.
By creating space for “me time” you’re actually encouraging a healthy self-care routine with yourself and for your partner.
Continue Making An Effort (And Seek Help When Needed)
Complacency is the enemy of romance. Once we stop making an effort for each other, it is inevitable that romance and the spark you once had will fade. Effort doesn’t have to be difficult. As long as you try to do right by your partner, and implement some of the strategies outlined here, your partner will definitely appreciate all that you are trying to do.
If you find that you’re struggling to make an effort, reach out for support. Whether that’s discussing it with your partner, asking for friendly advice from a friend or family member, or reaching out to a therapist or coach – there’s help out there for you when you need it (and we all do from time to time).
Physical affection and sexuality can be difficult in times of stress. Try to ensure that it doesn’t take the backseat completely. In long-term relationships, we can get busy with “life” and forget to connect with our partner on a more intimate level, which is a major factor in keeping the romance alive.
“In most long-term relationships, sooner or later there will be a time when the sexual dynamic is not as ambient as it once was. Even in a happy and otherwise fulfilling relationship, sexuality can take a hit due to several reasons, including stress, major life events, hormonal changes, physiological concerns, etc..
However, when things in the bedroom become a little more dull, repetitive or almost absent, there are quite a few ways to ‘spice things up.’”
Try something new together – Novelty is a great way to build romance and connection. Any of the ideas below would work, but coming up with something together can be a fun activity as well.
Play games – Board games, card games, or brain teasers try out a few and see what the two of you enjoy the most. You can even make a game night out of it and invite some friends over.
Double Dates – There are fun new ways to have double dates these days. Whether you’re meeting up in person or over virtual video – you can meet up for outdoor activities, dinner, or even host a virtual cooking or game night!
Exercise together – You can set this as a challenge and encourage each other to follow through with completing the challenge. For example, complete 100 squats every day. Break it up to 50 in the morning and 50 in the evening or break it up even more to 25 at one time. You can also exchange it to sit ups or push ups, or any activity that doesn’t require much space or equipment.
This is an especially good activity for those looking to build intimacy in your relationship. Taking care of yourself physically can lead to a healthier sex life!
Have a picnic – Outdoor and indoor picnics are both great ways to connect with your partner. Lay down a blanket at your favorite outdoor area or venue, or in the living room, put on some music, and bring out some picnic foods you can find at home. This could be cheese and crackers, cold meats, olives, dips, fruits, drinks, chocolates, or anything you can source and have some fun with.
Not wanting to put the work into building a picnic? Search for a charcuterie business near you that will provide the picnic (and maybe even set up and clean up!) so that you can spend the time focusing on each other and not on what side dish you’d like to bring!
Try a food sensory activity – You could do this during the picnic, or at a different time. Place small and easily manageable pieces of different food items in your partner's mouth while they are blindfolded, and they have to guess what the food item is. This could even be a good activity for building intimacy together!
Cook something together – If neither of you are good cooks, here is the opportunity to learn how to create some nice meals. If one of you is usually responsible for cooking, the other should give it a go with your assistance. Find some recipes together that you’d like to try and complete the whole process together, from prep to eating your lovely meal.
Walk down memory lane – Look at old pictures of the two of you. Remember those times, the fun memories, and what you liked about each other back then. Maybe even spend a moment on appreciating how far you’ve come since then, and all that you have accomplished together.
Eye gazing activity – Sounds simplistic and silly, but this is a powerful activity that stimulates the bonding hormones in your brains and helps with feeling connected. It can feel like the world’s problems melt away and it is just you two that matter.
While sitting, face each other, make sure you are touching in some way (holding hands) and try looking into each other’s eyes for 5 minutes, without speaking or looking away. Once the giggling subsides, you’ll start really appreciating the connection this activity is creating.
Meditate together – There are a number of free meditation apps and channels on YouTube that will guide you through how and what to do. It is such a nice way to relax and connect at the same time.
Try spending a small amount of time together at first and building up as you feel comfortable. Even just 10 minutes together can spark a renewed spirit among your relationship.
Bedtime routine – Go to bed each day with the intention of letting the day’s stressors and irritations behind. Say a few kind words to each other and go to bed with a kiss and a cuddle when you have the chance.
If you find that your relationship is struggling and it seems difficult to rekindle the romance, online marriage counselling can be helpful in identifying where things started shifting and how to get back into a happier place.
Love After Loss: Whether through death, divorce or an unexpected relationship rupture, unexpectedly losing someone dear to you is painful. I know well, from many years of serving my clients as a therapist in Denver that circumstances like this bring immense amounts of grief — and rightfully so. However, it is not the endpoint. Instead, you must realize that grief and loss are small chapters in your journey. Remember that you are capable of overcoming your grief and rebuilding your life.
In this interview, Eileen Robertson Hamra shares her journey of healing and finding love after a loss. She talks about making your way out of grief and rebuilding your life despite the many struggles and setbacks.
Tune in to the episode to know how you can rebuild your life, overcome grief, and find love after loss!
In This Episode: Love After Loss, You Will . . .
Learn how to rebuild your life after a loss.
Understand the importance of being gentle to yourself and allowing yourself to feel your emotions.
Learn why you need to lean into your grief and not avoid it altogether.
Realize why you should let yourself be open to new opportunities and people coming into your life.
Discover the ways on how to navigate through your children's grief.
Recognize the things that are hindering you from moving forward in your life.
Discover the things that will help you deal with grief and loss.
We all have different ways of processing our emotions and working through stages of grief. In today's episode, Love After Loss, Eileen shares that what helped her the most to heal and move forward was to embrace grief completely.
Some people manage to heal by pushing themselves to work and move, but Eileen walked a different path and took the time to be comfortable with her emotions. She sought refuge in grief. Refuge in grief refers to sitting with and allowing yourself to experience the different stages of grief. Through this time, Eileen was able to discover more about what she needed in those moments and to meet herself where she was at.
Having Your Grief Support
When Eileen lost her husband, everything suddenly stopped for her. The tremendous feeling of loss immobilized her. She shares that her experience through grief would not had been same had she not had her support system.
Everyone's support system may look a little different, however, Eileen encourages listeners to take the time to reflect, breathe, move, seek help, and find a supportive community.
Reflecting and giving yourself the time to breathe. By taking things slow, you allow yourself to assess everything that happened. You can reflect on and evaluate your situation fully.
Being physically active. By moving your body and being physically active you encourage your body to find calm both physically and mentally.
Seeing a therapist. The support of a therapist can help you navigate your way through grief and loss by allowing you the space to fully grieve, open up, or just have a supportive presence with you in those moments.
Having a supportive community. Allowing for your community to support and lift you up when you don't have the energy to do it for yourself, can greatly help and encourage your healing process.
Handling Grief in Children
Eileen's children helped her to get through it all. She says, “It's kind of ironic, but I would say they probably were the ones that saved me, in a way.” Because they were so young back then, Eileen had to show up for and support her children in every way. Her children pushed her to start building her life again.
Dealing with your grief is one thing, but managing your children's grief is a whole different matter. It's okay to not have the answers in every moment – just as adults handle grief in different ways, so do children. The most important thing is to not have the “right” thing to do, but love them through their grief and give them the space to experience what they're experiencing. To love and to listen, that's your only job.
Eileen suggests to support your children through grief you can try these things:
Find a supportive therapist who is experienced working with adolescents through grief and loss.
Create a “feelings book” to help your child understand their feelings and work through those experiences as a family.
Practice patience and understanding with your children.
And, above all else, listen. Listen to what they feeling, sharing, experiencing in those moments so they know they aren't alone.
Teaching your children that they are unconditionally loved and working through their emotions along side them is not easy, but grief isn't easy; it is what it is.
Waves of Grief
Eileen's children were so young when they lost their father, and she realizes they have experience new layers of grief as they age.
Eileen shares, that her children want to know more about their dad as an adult, and understandably so. Although they have support coming from their friends and family, it's still not their dad. So, as they age, they become more aware of not having their father beside them.
These waves of grief are expected and if you're feeling them years later, you're not alone. It's okay when new layers of grief unfold and you find yourself working through things that you thought you had healed from. It's important to remember that grief is not linear – it can show up in different ways at different times, and that's okay.
Rebuilding Your Life
Grief is not the endpoint of life. It's a part of a long journey of getting your life together again.
Here are a few things we can get from Eileen's journey in Love After Loss:
You may feel afraid and might not trust yourself. When faced with unexpected events, like losing a loved one or going through a divorce, people tend to be afraid. These experiences terrorize them, and sometimes they don't want to try again. This notion grows on the fear of getting hurt or experiencing these negative feelings all over again.
However, to rebuild your life, you have to have trust in yourself. You have to allow yourself to be open to new opportunities. You have to open yourself to meeting new people.
You may be stuck in regrets and can't forgive yourself. Unexpectedly losing someone makes you feel regretful for not doing so much more. Having regrets is a part of grief, but allowing regrets to consume you will not help you in any way.
It's also important to understand that you need to forgive yourself and ask for forgiveness along the way. You can only move forward when you begin forgiving yourself and asking others for forgiveness.
You may experience feeling guilty of being disloyal. People who experienced loss feel they cannot be happy and find someone else because they should be grieving. However, you have to realize that happiness and grief can exist at the same time.
“Because being happy does not mean that you are not sad,” Eileen says.
Finding Love after Loss
Knowing that you're ready to love again is a process. Here is Eileen's advice for love after loss:
Accept that what your marriage once was – is no longer. You will continue to feel connected to your partner after loss, it's expected that you'll still feel a bond – especially if you have children together. But it's okay to accept that your earthly marriage has already ended – what once was, is no longer.
It's okay to not to want to be alone. Part of being human is the need to connect, to love and feel loved, and it's okay to continue wanting this after loss. It's okay to not want to be alone. You deserve to not be alone.
It's okay to provide your children another supportive figure. It can be difficult for a parent to bring another partner into the picture after loss. There may be resistance and insecurities in the family dynamic, but it's okay to want to provide your children a loving and supportive mother or father figure.
Now, Eileen is happily married and lives a beautiful life together with her husband and four children.
2 Pieces of Advice on How to Rebuild Your Life
Going through grief is a long journey but what helped Eileen go through it, and start her healing, was having a proper mentality. She shares with us two powerful mindsets you can adopt to overcome your grief.
There is a gift somewhere in your grief. You have to believe that through your experiences, you can grow and develop.
The answers you are looking for are right there. It takes time to find the answers to your questions. You can see them by seeking support from your friends, family, and therapists.
In the end, what Eileen wants everyone to get is that we have the power to make a change in our lives. We can rebuild our lives and find love again.
“Tragedy and forks in the road that you do not want or care to have, they're going to happen, but what we do with that is up to us,” she says.
Eileen Robertson Hamra has shared her journey of rebuilding her life and finding love again after experiencing a significant loss in her life. What are the moments that you relate to the most? Don't hesitate to share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below.
Did you like this interview? Subscribe to us now to discover how to live a life full of love, success, and happiness!
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Love After Loss
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
Our musical intro is a band called Haze with a song Out of Flux, which I thought was the perfect mood setter for our topic today. As I'm sure you all know, we have all been through so much this past year, and are hopefully now on the cusp of rebuilding. But that's why I wanted to speak today to my guest, Eileen Robertson Hamra, who has a powerful message reminding us that within every loss are the seeds of renewal and rebirth and that it's a process sometimes to find them. So she's here today to share her story and also her wise advice for how to heal through grief, how to rebuild your life after setbacks, and most importantly, how to find love after a loss. Eileen, welcome.
Eileen Robertson Hamra: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Dr. Lisa: Thank you. Well, I am familiar with your story. But of course my listeners aren't. We can't really understand you without understanding that story. So I know you've written about this extensively in your bookA Time to Fly but I'm wondering if you would be willing to start by just sharing your story with my listeners.
Eileen: Yes. So the story I share about in the book and that we're here to talk about is—unfortunately on December 22, 2011, my husband was flying to join myself, and we had three young kids at the time who were four, seven, and, eight. We had gone back east—we’re living in California, we went back east to visit family for the holidays. Unfortunately, his plane engine failed and he crashed and he didn't survive. So that was nine years ago this past December. That's where the story begins of my transformation and finding love again. I go through my grief, what it was like for me to support my kids, and healing, and then opening up myself to loving again. A big part of that story is also opening up myself to expanding our family. I did not actually even think that was possible and was able to have another child—actually at the age of 46, which is a straight up out of the miracle books. Miracle, but it really was about opening myself up to the possibility or it never would have happened. So that is the very long, nine year story right? [In] short. But yeah, Sure.
Dr. Lisa: Wow, well what a journey that must have been on so many levels. Maybe, I think something that's very much on many people's minds right now as we're talkin—hopefully, I hate to jinx us here Eileen, but hopefully what will wind up being the waning days of the COVID pandemic. People have lost things large and small. I mean there have been weddings that were cancelled. You know, plans for life events, careers that were scuttled. You know, so many people may have had businesses like a restaurant, other businesses that they put their heart and soul into for years and years and had to shutter this past year. So many people like myself sadly, have lost loved ones due to this horrible situation. There are many different kinds of grief. I think the most agonizing kind can sometimes be losing a person. But I don't also want to diminish the other kinds of grief that have been sustained.
I'm wondering, just given the ubiquity of that experience lately. If we could start by your insight into the grieving process. Because I mean, I know it said that there's no one right way to grieve, right? We all have to figure out our own paths through it. People that have been through grief have figured some things out often, at least for themselves, and I'm wondering what the early grief days were like for you? Looking back, what were the things that you did or connected to, or thought about that helped you through it? Can you speak to that?
Eileen: Sure. Absolutely, yes. I completely agree this whole time, I think it's kind of ironic that my book was actually launched during this time. Because it is a story of grief, although it's one particular type of grief. But I talk about other types of grief that I've experienced in the book as well.
Dr Lisa: Just on the side when we were chatting really briefly before we started talking, you mentioned that the whole launch of your book had to be cancelled. You have this whole book tour planned and that must have been a loss as well.
Eileen: Yes, yeah. Even my daughter, my one daughter, was a big dancer. She's now a senior in high school. Her dance studio Hubbard Street, which is huge in Chicago—I’m in Chicago. Their youth program did not make it through the group. I mean it's huge for the city but also it was huge for her. It’s what she had dedicated and she was like, “Mom I’m a junior I don’t want to go join another dance studio,” which I get. But it was now this gaping hole of time, and relationships, and all of those things that the activity was providing her that was gone.
Absolutely a lot of people have experienced all kinds of losses, large and small. I think you need to ask about the early days. I think one of the most important things to do and grieve is to actually be with it, which maybe sounds weird, but I'm a go-go girl. You know, don’t stop long, let’s move, move, move. That can work. I'm not saying it’s the right way. But you often have to slow way down. I think, you know, the grief I experienced with losing my husband I was like, “There was no way I could move anyway.” I mean, my body was reeling. Everything that I dreamed of, everything that I thought I could count on was, in a moment, no longer possible.
So I did absolutely slow down. I took time to heal. I think that means a lot of things to a lot of people. But for me, it meant reflecting. It meant assessing. It meant physically healing, giving myself time to rest and to breathe. I did a lot of yoga in those early months. A lot of yoga. I saw a therapist, and I reached out and received a lot of help. Thank God I had tons of community come in and buoy me with meals and with childcare help, you name it. So I think that, often when we're faced with pain, we’re like, “Well what's going to work? How can I get out of this? What's my plan now?” Giving yourself some time and grace to go ahead and heal is…. to begin.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Which means, and I think and what I'm hearing in your story, is sort of that paradoxical embracing it. I think you said something so insightful, which is, “You can't get out of this; you can't make it go away.” It really has to be being very gentle with yourself as you are allowing yourself to exist in this pain, and as you say, heal. That there’s no cure, sadly, it's an experience.
Eileen: I think also that grace and compassion also for others in the scenario. So like, I didn't know that I had all that foresight when I was going through it, or all that awareness. Because my life was turned upside down, but pretty much everybody else around me as well. In some regards it was easy to give grace to my kids or to close family. But you know, even in writing a book, I can look back and I have even more grace for myself. Did I handle it all? Well, no. Did I make mistakes along the way? Absolutely. But noticing that—yeah that was a really tough time of growth really. And I was growing and I had growing pains.
Dr. Lisa: Well on that note, you also described struggling with something that I think a lot of parents deal with and worry about in your circumstances. I mean, I can't imagine the agony that you are in, and also having to figure out how to hold the space and be responsive to your children's experience of loss, which must have been equally huge. I think we parents also deal with that in ways large and small. You know, smaller ways—going through a divorce, or a job loss, or economic insecurity. It really takes a toll on adults. I'm curious if you can speak a little bit about how you were able to have your feelings, take care of yourself, but really be there for your kids in the way that they needed you to be at that time.
Eileen: Yeah, thank you for asking that question. It's kind of ironic, but I would say they probably were the ones that saved me in a way, because they did need me. They were very young. They were four, seven, and eight. And their worlds had been completely turned upside down. So the fact that I had to get out of bed to help them was very good for me. Although I did receive a ton of help, having them to be my kids was actually good.
Waves of Grief
But I think one of the things that's interesting around grieving with children is that they think—thank God actually, I refer to this as “they fell like dominoes” in the book. But it seems like they keep falling like dominoes. Initially, the little one, Max, was the one who, the grief didn't look like grief. Because he was four, like, a traditional, like an adult perception of grief. He was really angry. I would tell him he couldn't have ice cream and he was like, “I'm going to go kill myself.” He couldn't make it at circle time. He was giggling and when he would get “Okay Max, you need to go find your calm,” that would make him flip chairs and throw tables. He was four. Although it wasn't like, “Oh, I lost my Dad, I'm so sad or angry,” he clearly had all these emotions. Right? Me learning that—I had no idea I was not a psychiatrist or psychologist. So I had to grow with him and learn ways to be with him and be able to provide space for him to grow.
Then Melanie was the next one to kind of grieve hard. She was hitting those middle school years. I had met Mike, which kind of threw grief in her face even more. Then Brooke was later. Then they've all flipped again. It's been nine years, and as they grow, as they mature, and as they have more capacity to understand, they actually have to re-grieve. Easiest example is you know, Brooke and Melanie are now looking at colleges, right? And they were seven and eight when he passed, they're now 16 and 17. They're now wanting to know their dad as an adult. They're like, “What would he like? What was it like when he chose college? What advice would he give me?” It's again like a hole. Although they're completely supported. They have family, they have friends, they have resources, but it's not their dad.
Dr. Lisa: It's like a sort of fresh round of grief at different developmental stages that they recognize the loss of not having the dad there to talk about college stuff and what that experience is like for him. It feels different. It's like they’ve become aware of this new sort of layer of dadless existence that they have to work through, and it must be a lot. But how wonderful for you though. I'm hearing in your story that you were able to have the insight to recognize, even when your little boy Max was flipping over tables, and to understand that for what it was. Because I think so much of the time, even a divorce is the catalyst for grief. Adults can be very quick to label that as bad behavior and issue punishment, as opposed to compassion. That can be really detrimental. How are you able to keep your eye on “This is what's actually happening” as opposed to, go to that punitive parent mindset.
Eileen: Yeah. A lot of coaching. I went into all therapists too. But there was actually one moment in time where I actually had to go and pick up Max from school. I was called—he was four. Literally the teachers were like “You need to come, you need to pick him up, because he flipped over tables, and he is so upset, and he said he was going to go home and get his dad's gun” which the only gun Brian had one gun was a hunting rifle that he went elk hunting with one time, “We're going to go home and get that and I'm going to come back and shoot everybody.” And I was like, “Okay.”
Dr. Lisa: “I'll be right there.”
Eileen: Funny thing was, “I'll be right there. What do you want me to do with him? I don't know.” I had been working with therapists for him. One of the practices or exercises we had to work on was our ‘feelings book’. We would identify feelings. Then we would talk about—you know, “If you're feeling silly in line at school, what are some of the things you could do? Or if you're feeling angry during the time when you're playing with your friend, what are the things you could do?” We draw pictures.
So anyway I'm going on my way to school, I'm picking him up. I'm like, okay, we're going to work on this book, because I don't really know what else to do. Then, this sounds kind of silly, but it just dawned on me. I don't know what to do in this moment, but all I can do is love him. I am just going to love him, and listen to him. There were moments where I was like, “You will never have any more Wii.” Wii was popular at that time. “You’re never going to play Wii if you talk to me like that one more time!” It was just to watch him squirm. I realized in that moment where I literally sat with him for an hour and a half on the couch as we worked through our feelings book, and he was like, “I'm going to kill you!” He was just so angry. I saw, it finally dawned on me. I was like, “Oh my God, this is him pushing me.” “How far do I have to push her? Will she leave me too?” I was crying, I was telling him I loved him. He's like, “I don't want you to love me.” But it was huge. It was huge for me to be able to have him teach me that unconditional love. That was not easy for him or for me. This is what grief looks like. I felt so much love. I don't want people to think our lives were miserable all of the time. Because they weren't, but there were some really, really rough times.
Dr. Lisa: Powerful stuff in those rough times. That's amazing. So another thing that may be helpful to talk about; I think that sometimes, particularly when faced with a loss like yours, I can only imagine that there must have been times when there is no concept of ‘next’. You know, it's like incomprehensible to think about a next chapter of your life. I know that you were able to rebuild and create a new life. But what would your advice or insight be to someone listening to this right now who is in this space where they have just had the wind knocked out of them, and there is no concept yet of a ‘next’? It's hard to maintain hope that there could be one. What would your advice to them be?
Eileen: So two things are coming to my mind. One, having the mindset, and it's not the truth but the mindset that this is not happening to you but for you. Like somewhere in here is a gift. Somewhere in here in this experience, is for your growth, or your development, and for what's next. Again that's just a mindset, but it's really powerful mindset, and it worked for me.
Dr. Lisa: It’s also one that suggests a spirituality. Was that a piece of that for you?
Eileen: Absolutely. I share about some of these synchronistic things that happened when he died, but it was very clear to me, and I think to a lot of people that do lose people, they feel them around. I mean, it's like it's not even like “I feel around.” I never heard voices or did I see images, but almost—it was really clear that there's more to this experience than meets the eye. So that mindset of this is happening for you and—also, this is a bit spiritual as well, but the answers are also right there. They really are—to me, I may not be able to see them yet. But what's next? Who's coming into my life? What I'm intended to do or what's getting created is right there for me. Sometimes it takes some time to get support, find coaches, meditate, take deep breaths, but also just open your eyes and look around.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, like that. The faith that it will show up and then being able to observe it showing up. This is actually reminding me—okay I'm such a dork and I'm going to date myself terribly. But one of my favorite movies of all time is that Castaway movie by Tom Hanks. Did you ever see that one? The thing that just meant the most to me, and that I thought of so many times since, is just how—I think it was a porta potty door, just blew up on the beach. Do you know what I mean? Things just wash up on your shore and you don't know what it's going to be, you don't know when it's going to happen. But if you're sort of in that space of receptiveness, sooner or later things show up. What I'm hearing you say is that you cultivated a mindset to notice what those things were and feel. I don't know if “cared for them” is the right way of saying it. But almost like led by them a little bit. Whatever showed up is sort of what you would move towards. Is that…?
Eileen: Trusting yourself, and your—I mean, I think one of the things in grief and when you experience something that you didn't expect or you didn't want, you get afraid, right? You go into a fear of, “Oh my God what if that happens again? What if I fall in love and that happens again? What if I thought I could trust that and that didn't work out?” Like to be able to rebuild that trust for yourself, and your instinct, and your own intuition. I don't know. Actually, I really don't know how or why. But I did have a lot of trust, probably because I felt I did feel very taken care of spiritually, and there were signs all around me of how well I was being taken care of. But yeah, when opportunities or people came back into my life, I just knew. I wasn't worried or nervous. Not that it wasn't scary. But I did step forward because I did have a weird sense of knowing.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, it sounds like you were really connected with your intuition and your inner wisdom. That created resilience in you and gave you confidence. That's wonderful. Well, I have another question for you. This may not have been true for you at all, so we can skip right over if not, but in my experience as a therapist and as a coach, I found that people can get stuck in grief and find it hard to continue healing and moving forward. If two things are present, and they're having trouble working through them, one of the big ones can be regret. So this is the sense that things were undone, or unset, or mistakes were made, or unfinished business sometimes can be accompanied by a lot of guilt. Well I'm curious, and I don't want to get too personal, but I'm curious to know if that was true at all in your process? If so, how you were able to release that regret experience, that “if only we'd done this then it would have a different outcome?” Was that true for you or did it just feel like fate?
Eileen: In a way for me honestly, it did probably feel more of the latter—like fate. I talk about regret actually in the book. Like “if you’ve just been,” right? It's really kind of a stuck emotion.
Dr. Lisa: Exactly.
Eileen: It's not particularly useful for moving on.
Dr. Lisa: I know.
Eileen: Not to say “okay, do I feel that way with…” I think I learned my regret lessons younger. You know what I mean? Not to say there were not things that I could have said about my relationship with Brian. Or even in the circumstances that I could regret. But I literally chose not to regret, because it is what it is. Regretting it actually doesn't change it, if regretting it worked…
Dr. Lisa: Oh yeah.
Eileen: If I could regret not telling him to get on a commercial flight, and that would have changed it then great, regret it and make it different. But it doesn't work. It really is keeping you stuck. And I think the biggest thing in regret, for me, is forgiving myself. Again, have I done things that are regretful? Sure. Have I said, even since Brian's passing, really awful things? Like I've told my kids “What would your dad think about this?” “Oh my gosh, what? You do that to your children?” Yes, I've done that to my children. Is that regretful? Absolutely. Do I forgive myself? Yes. Because in the moment, when I'm not acting rationally, that's what came out. Can I apologize to my children and does it have an impact on them? Yes. So I would say, look for forgiveness, on both sides too. Because I think sometimes, it's the other person that if that person only did X, Y, or Z. But until we can forgive, it's going to be very—but wherever you need to forgive, it's going to be really hard to move forward.
Dr Lisa: You are so right. That's just that stuckness that goes along with that regret experience. But you said so many insightful things. You said, just this awareness that this is not a useful way of thinking or feeling. You said something that was so powerful. You said, “I made a choice to not regret,” and that you made, it sounds like a conscious choice, to forgive so that you could move on. I know that those strategies may sound difficult to do if you're in the thick of regret. But you also said that you know the benefit of a good therapist. But it sounds like you had a lot of strategies so that you didn't get stuck in that space. That that wasn’t a…
Eileen: Yeah. I don’t know who says it, but there’s like somebody famous that says it's when you're holding on to that anger, you're the one who's actually suffering. It's like you're holding on to this piece of coal. There's some cool metaphor, I don't remember. I just probably shouldn't have brought it up, anyway there's like some cool metaphor. We think that our anger and our whatever, either towards someone else or whatever, it's like it's only hurting you. When you really look, it's like you can't love anyone until you love yourself fully. So it's about letting go of that for you really, and for others because it then flows out. So yeah, highly recommend letting go.
Dr Lisa: That’s great advice. Then the other reason, in my experience, that people can get stuck in grief, and again I don't know if this was true for you, but I have talked to a number of people who feel guilty when they start to feel happier again. Or if they go for a period of time without thinking about their loved one or without crying. Or if they start to expand into other parts of their life or feel excited about a future that doesn't have the person in them. They can get this guilt feeling, that it's disloyal to their loved one somehow, or they're being not loving. Did that happen for you at all?
Eileen: Oh for sure. There's multiple layers to that as well. Even the kids have experienced that, especially if you're trying to welcome someone else into your life. What I would just say, and this was not a capacity that I had before, and I still work on this, but it really is allowing yourself to hold both, right? Because being happy does not mean that you are not sad. It's interesting. Creating a new life does not mean that you have to forego grieving that loss.
I think that's one of the most special things I would say about my now-husband, Mike. It’s that—I knew he was the right one because he could hold this. I love him and I do love him very much. It doesn't mean that I don't love Brian and loved him. That takes a lot for Mike to handle. But it also takes something to be able to create that space, to be able to love two people, or love two things, or hold both emotions. It's tough. I absolutely—I think there's also, especially in loss, I do talk a little bit about this in my book, but there's—it's almost embarrassing to admit, but you're like, “I feel very taken care of. I was special. I was a young widow with three little kids. I had a lot of attention being given to me.” “Oh, poor Eileen” and “She's so strong” and a lot of like positive attention in the worst kind of way. Not that you ever want that. But I was very loved, and people cared about me. And then I'm like, “Oh well, what if I'm happy and independent and self-sustaining again? Is that all going to be taken away from me? Am I going to fall out of this special club?” It's kind of crazy to even talk about that, or maybe not crazy at all. But that's a reality to reconcile. Again, it's a choice, right? Just even acknowledging that those are some of the things that come up as you recreate your life is really freeing. You're like, “Yeah, wow. Well that's interesting that I have that thought.” Am I going to let that stop me from having a love again? No.
Dr Lisa. But it's almost like I'm almost doing stages of an identity that you were inhabiting for a while. Like for a while you were the grieving young widow and then had to almost rewrite that narrative. And now you have a new identity, as a second marriage and a new mom again, letting go, yeah.
Eileen: Old mom.
Rebuilding Your Life
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I am in that same club Eileen, I had a baby at 43. I'm right there with you. So okay, so now going a little bit deeper into that. So let's talk a little bit about this love after loss idea. So certainly this can come about from death. There are people that go through divorces and have to rebuild or even like a traumatic breakup, and figuring out how to shift and really that “who am I” self-concept narrative, “Who am I attached to?” But my question for you, I mean there are a couple of schools of thought about this, and one of them, which makes a lot of sense, from my perspective as a shrink, is that you really need to say goodbye to the old stuff before you can say hello to the new stuff. I say this because oftentimes I work with people around break-up recovery, or rebuilding after a divorce. What I often see are people almost looking for love after loss too soon in some ways. They think they're more ready than they are. They're hoping that like to reconnect with the new relationship will help them feel better, and to kind of like jump over some of the grieving stuff, which is a strategy and it can work. But I'm wondering what you did with that. Did you begin to expand and rebuild and seek out love again while you were going through the grieving process? Or did you find yourself waiting until the “right time?” How did you know? So that's like seven questions all wrapped up into one. You’re welcome.
Eileen: Yeah so from what I remember, okay yeah. So definitely, I would say some people may think that 18 months is quick, but that's how long it took me to be open to meeting someone else. But okay, a couple things: one, in the very beginning after the loss, if you bet some money, I would have bet money I was never going to get married again. Yeah I was like, “No, I'm good this must have been my path.” I felt interestingly, like I was going to, and I do think I actually have a relationship with Brian, and so much for me was figuring out “What does that look like now?” It was really clear that the physical intimacy was obviously not possible. But I did feel like we still had a relationship, we still had three kids together.
What was my relationship with Brian now going to look like? I think that's applicable, whether you're getting a divorce, especially in a divorce, you have to resolve that so that you're at peace with that and how that is and let go. For me it was, let go of the physical intimacy, the earthly marriage, like we were no longer—it was weird, and this is something true of widowhood. You really aren't married. I mean, you can keep your missus. But you no longer are married. You go to the checkboxes now, check widow. Because there's legal things about being married, it was really something I was thrown into. I had to figure out how am I going to accept that.
For me also, you know I love Brian, and he was a great guy. I got lucky, I really feel like I was one of the lucky people who found like a really great guy, and we were really in love. I honestly did not think I could get lucky twice. I was like, “That's not fair.” I have amazing girlfriends who can't find one good guy right now. I don't know. “It's not fair, why should I find two?” Then I was like, “But that's not useful either.” Like, I'm not going to—it's like not having a baby because your girlfriend has trouble having a baby. Like, it doesn't make a lot of sense. The emotions are there. “But that's what I want. I don't want to be alone for the rest of my life.” I also did hear it from my kids. You know, they did also want me to be happy. But they also were young enough to really want a father figure. And so, opening myself up to “Okay, he's out there. It's possible.” Then I started wondering where he was.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Eileen: It was definitely a journey.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, I hear that. But boy, you're doing such a good job, to my ear anyway. Just a whole, along the way of being very aware of what you were thinking and what you were telling yourself what was okay and what was not okay, and really deliberately allowing a positive reality to take shape. That's a real strength.
Eileen: Yeah. Well, what's interesting, you know, I was like, we're only given one life. I actually read one of your blogs, you're like, we don't know how long we've got here, right? Which is indicative of the name of the book Time to Fly this is it. One of the things that was common about Brian and I, but just also common about Mike and I was like, we want a great life. Yes, tragedy, forks in the road you do not want or care to have, they're going to happen. What you do with that is up to us. I didn't know what it was going to look like, I didn't. I mean, if you had asked me 10 years ago, if I would be living in Chicago, remarried to a man I had never even heard of or dreamed of, and had a three-year-old at the age of 50, I would have been like, “You are on crack. No way.” That's my reality, you know. We're moving to Missouri too. So like, that's another whole chapter in our lives that, you know, TBD.
Dr. Lisa: I think I'm hearing a theme here that there was just a lot of openness to what was showing up and sort of an openness to what wanted to happen and being able to kind of go with it, as opposed to get all kind of hemmed in and rule-bound around what's okay and what's not okay. It's almost like you didn't have to know exactly what the future held in order to be able to move into it bit by bit. Does that…?
Eileen: Yes. Absolutely that it's- I love the way you just said that. I think part of that is I think sometimes when people have gone through really rough times and/or experienced tragedy and make it through. I did, just a little background my sister had passed when I was 23. It was sudden as well.
So when Brian passed when I was 41, it wasn't my first sudden loss. I’m going to say not that it made it easy, but I did know that things would eventually get better. I think people who—like you said, build resilience, whatever that looks like—losing a job, losing a relationship, getting hurt, and you know all these things, dreams. If you figure out a way to get through that and know you have the ability to get through it. I guess it's that trust. I don't know what this is going to look like.
Getting through it does not mean it's not painful. I think that's the thing. I think one of the things that often, including myself, we want to resist the pain. We want to be, like, “pain go.” Sometimes the only way out is through the pain. Actually, probably not always, the only way out is through the pain. But that is so counterintuitive, and not what we want and wish that was not…
Dr. Lisa: But it's good. I mean, like you, people need to hear this more, that this is actually what it feels like to be a human and nothing is wrong. You have to lean into it in order to get through it. I think that sometimes in our culture, we lose that idea. People feel like something is wrong, or they put a lot of energy into avoiding the feelings when in fact, that is the exit door.
Eileen: Yeah, I love, it's funny now that I've been through more of it lately. I actually sometimes just have that little mantra, like “lean in, just lean into it, lean into the discomfort.” You know, I've been whatever, you know, life is life. I have relationships that I might be struggling with. I'll be like exercising and I'll be ruminating, and I'll be trying to blah, blah. I'm just going to never talk to that person again or not. And I'm like, “No, lean in. Why am I so upset? Why am I so upset in this relationship? Why am I struggling? What do I need to bring to this scenario?” As always, more compassion for me or the other, more forgiveness for me or the other, more patience for me. It always comes back to that. But it doesn't feel like that in a moment. But just leaning in, holding on and waiting, you know, and I say waiting for the breakthrough. But searching, where is this breakthrough that will have me get through this? That is where all the joy is. It is and it's hard to know that, but those that have been through it do know it, you know?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well what wonderful, just empowering and also just a hopeful perspective. Because I know there are a lot of people again, listening to this who really have just gotten like, you know, that feeling—like I fell out of the jungle gym when I was like eight years old, probably from like six feet high, flat on my back. Just just like that, when you get the breath knocked out of you when you're a kid, and just like that minute when you literally cannot breathe. I mean, I think that there are a lot of people that are in that emotional space right now. The doors are starting to reopen as people get vaccinated, and what do I want my life to be like? Well, how do I rebuild from a death, or a divorce, or a job loss, or career pivot, a failed business. There's so many things you offered, so much wonderful advice and takeaways for people that I think are really powerful: to be gentle with yourself during grieving and just understand that you need nurturing, and to allow that. Also, to be careful about the way you're thinking and to not really indulge in ways of thinking that are not good for you. But I also heard a lot about faith and hope and being open to what happens next, even if you don't know exactly what it is or when or why. Just to put one foot in front of the other. That gets better. Is that right?
Eileen: Yeah, that was a great summary. That’s wonderful. Yeah and I think it's the hardest to see when you're in the mud. So if you're in the mud and you're in it…
Dr. Lisa: That's okay.
Eileen: …that's okay, yeah. Yeah, you will get out. Have patience, and compassion, and I hope it goes faster for you. I don't want people to stay there but that is the place of growth and access. So anyway, thank you. But that was wonderful, the way you summarized.
Dr. Lisa: Well if people wanted to check out your book or learn more about you. Where would they get a copy of a Time to Fly?
Eileen: Yeah, so you can purchase Time to Fly anywhere books are sold. It was my publisher’s City Point Press distributed through Simon and Schuster. So it's everywhere. You can find it on my website, www.eileenrobertsonhamra.com. I am all over all the different social media, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Love to connect. Please, if this story inspired you or you just want to reach out, please feel free.
Dr. Lisa: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for your time today Eileen this was a great conversation.
Eileen: Yeah, thank you for having me.
Dr. Lisa: What a great conversation. I hope you do check out Eileen’s book if you feel that would be helpful to you. If you are dealing with grief right now, first of all, know I have so much empathy for you. I am a fellow traveler.
I would encourage you to check out some of the other resources we have available for you at www.growingself.com. Namely, there's another podcast episodethat was released a few months ago. Gosh, more than a few months ago now. I think it was May of 2020 honestly, but wonderful interview with my colleagues Anastacia Sams and Lisa Jordan, both of whom are highly experienced grief counselors. They both shared a lot of really great tips and kind of mental and emotional strategies to move through the grieving process and hopefully have a way as any of us can. So I hope you check those out as well.
Thank you again for spending time with me today and I'll be back in touch next week with another episode.
Oftentimes we think that “communication” refers solely to the words being spoken in a conversation. We are taught from an early age how to communicate our needs, thoughts, and feelings verbally to others around us. In our society, there is a high level of importance placed on language that is used in conversation to convey your message in the most understandable way possible to the listener.
While the focus on verbal communication skills is highly important, it means we could be ignoring what we are communicating to others non-verbally. This article aims to shed light on the ways that non-verbal communication can impact conversation with those around you, as well as suggestions on how to reduce non-verbal communication that could be negatively impacting conversations.
Before we can move into how to reflect on your communication, and ways to reduce negative non-verbal communication, we need to first explore what falls under the umbrella of “non-verbal communication.” Simply stated, non-verbal communication is what takes place outside of the actual words that are being used in conversation.
Non-verbal communication has been studied and said to make up around 90% of communication, leaving the remaining percentage to be associated with the words we are choosing to use in conversation. There are many different types of non-verbal communication that exist and have the ability to impact conversations we engage in.
Paralanguage: This refers to areas related to vocal qualities such as tone, volume, pitch, etc.
Facial Expressions: Facial reactions can convey feelings about a conversation through smiling, frowning, squinting, raising your eyebrows, etc.
Proxemics (Personal Space or Physical Closeness): We can also non-verbally communicate by how much space we allow between each other in conversation. The norms or expectations for physical space can vary with cultures and settings.
Kinesics (Body Movements): This type of non-verbal communication covers bodily actions that are used in conversation such as head movements (nodding), hand gestures, rolling your neck, etc.
Touch: In some conversations, we may choose to hug or use light touches to convey meaning or understanding to others.
Eye Contact: With the use of eye contact, we can show others our level of interest in a conversation. When we are continuing to break eye contact or look off in different areas, it could convey to the speaker that we are not fully invested in the conversation.
Posture: This area focuses on how sitting versus standing or closed versus open body posture can impact a conversation. This type of communication has the power to communicate emotions and overall attitude about a conversation.
Physiology: While this area is more challenging to control, this refers to noticeable changes with parts of our body such as blushing, sweating, or beginning to tear up.
Opportunities For Reflection
With non-verbal communication making up such a large part of conversation, there is seemingly no way to entirely eliminate non-verbal forms altogether. However, there are opportunities to reflect on how our non-verbal communication could be negatively impacting a conversation or conflict.
Think about a time where your partner, friend, or loved one came to you and the conversation turned into a disagreement or conflict. I encourage you to reflect on ways that you used non-verbal communication to communicate your feelings of frustration, anxiety, hurt, or disappointment. In those moments, do you feel the conversation could have been impacted using non-verbal communication instead of conveying our feelings to the other person?
If there are people in your life who you trust to help you with this reflection, I encourage you to open up a dialogue about non-verbal communication that they have previously noticed you using. There is opportunity for this discussion to shed light on areas of non-verbal communication that you might not even realize that you use in conversation and/or conflict.
How To Reduce Negative Non-verbal Communication
Many clients I work with report having, as we call them, “default settings” with non-verbal communication. This may be rolling eyes, increased volume, head shaking while the other is speaking, and so on. I often see these “default settings” being used as a protective mechanism in communication. Frequently, when we are using negative forms of non-verbal communication, we are feeling hurt, disappointment, frustrated, or overwhelmed by the conversation or other person.
Instead of naming our feelings, it can feel safer to communicate those things through non-verbal communication and hope that the other person picks up on our feelings. However, this can lead to a negative cycle where both parties are only utilizing non-verbal communication to communicate their feelings and can sometimes increase the level of conflict or disagreement that was already taking place.
Instead of falling back to our “default settings,” I encourage you to think about how the dynamic might change by being able to open up to the other person in the conversation about how we are feeling in that moment. I have seen drastic shifts in conversations when “I feel…” statements are used instead of letting non-verbal communication do the talking for us.
By replacing an eye roll with “I am feeling really disappointed right now” can be a powerful turn in a conversation where both participants can then talk about their emotions.
This takes practice to be able to feel comfortable with and requires challenging yourself to step out of your comfort zone of relying on your “default settings.” With time, people feel more comfortable naming their emotions in conversation rather than putting the other person in the position to make assumptions based on non-verbal communication.
I encourage my clients to think about setting the other person up for success in conversation to give us the response we are hopeful for. If we are aiming to receive a gentle and understanding response, we have to be mindful to use an approach that gives this response the opportunity to be present in the conversation.
With all things, practice makes perfect. If you have been stuck in “default settings” mode for a while, then it will take time for this new way of communicating to feel like your go-to.
There will be times of success with challenging yourself, and then there may be setbacks along the way. My hope is that the setbacks do not cause you to be hard on yourself but encourage you to think about how you want to be successful next time the opportunity presents itself.
Relationships, by definition, include two people. But sadly, there are times when people forget to take care of themselves because they prioritize others so much. They may slowly feel exhausted and lost, and this affects the energy in their relationships. However, you can prevent this from happening by learning how boundaries in relationships can be beneficial.
In this interview with Denver Therapist and boundary expert, Kathleen Stutts we discuss the significance of building healthy boundaries in your relationships. Kathleen gives us her thoughts on how to maintain lasting relationships with others while respecting yourself. She also talks about the different signs of having poor boundaries in relationships.
Listen to the full episode to know how to set healthy boundaries in your relationships!
In This Episode: Boundaries in Relationships. . .
Learn the importance of having healthy boundaries in your relationships.
Learn the common misconceptions and fears about building boundaries.
Understand why it's difficult for you to develop your boundaries.
Know how you can help the people you care about while taking care of yourself.
Know the different signs that you're in an unhealthy relationship.
See examples of healthy boundaries in relationships.
Discover how to handle people who disrespect your boundaries.
What Are Boundaries?
For Kathleen, setting up boundaries is a “healthy and clear understanding of what you need to do to take care of yourself, what you're in control of and what you're not in control of.”
There are a lot of misconceptions about boundaries. Usually, people associate them with conflict or relationship barriers. However, it's the complete opposite, as boundaries nurture and protect relationships.
Many people are afraid of setting up boundaries in their relationships. Here are two reasons why:
We are afraid of arguments and conflicts. We keep being passive in our relationships and fail to build boundaries because we would rather keep the relationship's apparent harmony. Even when it's important to have those difficult conversations.
These fears push people not to build boundaries in their relationships. However, they are just products of misconceptions of these limits.
Why You Need Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationships
We need to develop healthy boundaries in our relationships to honor and respect ourselves.
To be a good and decent person means having boundaries in your relationships. When there are no boundaries in your relationship, you're just stretching yourself thin. You'll end up burned out and exhausted.
When we become assertive and build boundaries, we reach a compromise with people. For Kathleen, letting your foot down means “we're taking care of ourselves while respecting other people.”
Being a people pleaser and taking other's responsibility as your own will only leave you exhausted. You'll always feel anxious maintaining that sense of harmony within your relationship, even at the cost of your stability.
Kathleen reminds us that it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves. We must take care of the things we can directly control and let go of the things that we cannot.
Examples of Setting Boundaries in Relationships
It is difficult to see someone you care about getting hurt or having a hard time. However, it does not mean that you should shoulder their responsibilities or that you owe them. Remember that a healthy and loving relationship and setting your boundaries aren't mutually exclusive.
Kathleen tells us that “It feels bad to see someone hurting if you're a good, kind person and you have empathy, but acting on that is not always the right or nice thing to do.”
In moments like this, you can do the following:
You can Show Them Support. Instead of owning what someone else is going through, you can instead let them know they're not alone. You can be supportive while establishing your boundaries in that moment.
Offer Help. Offering help if you feel they need it, is always on the table. However, only commit to assistance you can provide. Keep in mind that you also have boundaries to keep.
By being transparent with your limitations, you can help and support the people you care about while also taking care of yourself. Just as Kathleen says, “The beautiful thing about boundaries is that it is not really requesting something of somebody, it is letting them know what to expect from you.”
Signs of Unhealthy Boundaries
Boundaries must be present in your relationship, and it goes both ways. You must know the limits of your boundaries, and the person in your relationship must realize their boundaries as well.
Here are the common signs that you have unhealthy relationship boundaries:
You're taking other's responsibility as your own.
When people you care about have a hard time, you step in and do everything for them. This action is a sign that you have unhealthy boundaries in your relationship because you're taking the opportunity from them to learn and grow.
Kathleen adds that “When we try to rescue people from them, we're taking away, we're violating some of their rights—their right to feel bad.”
You need boundaries to establish what is and isn't good or okay for you. You can't brush off instances like these when your boundaries are disrespected or overlooked, they'll only get more frequent and hurt more in the end.
You might not speak up because you're afraid of conflict and/or making people uncomfortable.
When people have wronged you or have stepped on your boundaries, you should let them know right away. Keeping silent about what you feel will only make things worse. You and your relationship will suffer.
Remember that setting up boundaries does not mean conflict. You must steer away from this common misconception.
What to Do When Someone Crosses a Line
However, there would be times when people would disregard your boundaries. You must be wary of these instances, especially if they happen more than once. If it happens almost always, then you might be in a toxic relationship.
Here are the things you can do when such situations happen:
Let them know that they're disrespecting your boundaries.
Show them there are consequences to crossing your boundaries.
Reach a compromise.
If following through with limitations or the situation is too much, consider working with a coach or a therapist.
Building Healthy Boundaries: Where to Start?
Kathleen has helped many of her clients build healthy relationship boundaries. Learning how to create boundaries is a process. You cannot impose them in your relationships, especially if you were unaware of their importance.
Luckily, Kathleen shared some of the things you have to consider in learning how to build healthy boundaries. Here are some of them:
Understand why you're feeling this way. Have some time to reflect and ask yourself why you're feeling anxious, exhausted, or inadequate.
Here are some of the questions that may guide you in your introspection:
Why do I feel this way?
Why do I struggle with standing up for myself?
Why am I feeling bitter, resentful, or angry?
What makes me exhausted and burned out?
Develop a sense of self-compassion. For Kathleen, this means stepping back and looking at the whole picture while being compassionate with yourself.
By seeing the bigger picture, you learn why building boundaries in your relationship is complicated. It may be because this is how the people in your life taught you to treat your limits.
Learn how to self-validate. Once you know why you have difficulty building boundaries, you must remind yourself that what you're feeling is okay and valid.
By learning these things, you get to shift your perspectives, seeing relationships and boundaries in a new light. Hopefully, you can start standing up for yourself and make healthy boundaries slowly.
In the end, for Kathleen, building boundaries means being authentic. “That means that we're opening up the opportunity to have intimacy and closeness with that person.”, Kathleen says.
Sometimes we avoid building boundaries for many reasons, but you're developing deeper and meaningful relationships by having limits.
Visit the Growing Self website to have more love, happiness, and success in your life.
Kathleen Stutts has shared with us the importance of building healthy boundaries in your relationships. What are the things you picked up in this interview? How did this interview change your perspective on building boundaries? Don't hesitate to share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below.
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Boundaries in Relationships
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
[Relearn Me by edapollo ft. Akacia plays]
That was the song Relearn Me by edapollo. I'm not quite sure how to pronounce it. But the song is gorgeous. And it's the perfect, I thought, introduction to our topic today because today we are going to be talking about how to create and maintain healthy boundaries in relationships. And I know that this is a topic of great importance because we hear about it all the time from our therapy and coaching clients. Here at Growing Self, a lot of people are working on this. And we've also had so many listener questions come through on Instagram, Facebook, on the blog at growingself.com around how to establish healthy boundaries in a way that allows you to have positive, high-quality relationships and maintain really good connections with others.
That is where we're going on today's episode of the podcast. And I am so pleased to include in our conversation today, my dear, dear friend and colleague at Growing Self, Kathleen Stutz. Kathleen and I have worked together for many years. And Kathleen is a true expert on the subject of healthy boundaries. She is a licensed professional counselor here. And she also does team training for us from time to time. And we have people from all over our group come and sit at Kathleen's feet to learn how it's done. And today, she is sharing her wisdom with you. So Kathleen, thank you so much for being here.
Kathleen Stutz: Hi, thank you for having me. I'm happy to be here.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: I can't wait to talk with you about this topic of how to create healthy boundaries. I know that you frequently do this work with your clients. Again, you train others around this. But I can also attest to somebody who has had a personal relationship with you for many years, that you live it.
Kathleen Stutz: Thank you. Thanks very much. I take that as a very, very good compliment. That means a lot to me.
Dr.Lisa: It's good. You really—you're like a role model for me. I'm like, “I wish I could be more like Kathleen.” Because you have so much clarity around what you can do, what you can't do. And when you say no to me, like I feel happy anyway. There's something about the way you say it.
Kathleen: Definitely one of my passion topics, a topic I'm passionate about. And I love to talk about it. So I'm happy to be here.
Dr. Lisa: That's wonderful. Well, what do you say we just, we take it from the top? Because I think sometimes just the term boundaries gets thrown around all over the place to mean all kinds of things. So from your perspective, what do boundaries mean? What is a boundary in the sense of, you know, what we do? Because sometimes, like an aside, sometimes I think people use the word boundaries. It's like telling people—telling other people what to do can be a boundary, or like, yeah. Like don't say this to me, it could be like a boundary. But what do you think of as being like a boundary? A reasonable boundary? Right.
Kathleen: Right. You're so right. I can't tell you how often I hear professionally, but personally, too, people have so many different, either negative associations with boundaries about you know that’s a barrier. It means that something is wrong. It means conflict, or just complete, you know, they come by it, honestly. But just misunderstandings about what boundaries are. So, to me, a boundary is, it's this healthy and clear understanding of what you need to do to take care of yourself, what you're in control of, and what you're not in control of.
It’s just this healthy, clear understanding of the things that I can empower myself around versus the things I need to practice radical acceptance around or letting go of. So having that understanding between you and any person in your life, in any situation. I know that sounds very abstract, right? But that's because we can use boundaries and we can assert boundaries in so many different ways, in different situations. And they do change and flux in different relationships as needed. Right? So we can get into the details of it more. But from a starting point, that's sort of the general way that I think about boundaries.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Thank you for clarifying that. Yeah okay. So then, let's start with this other question. Why do you think so many people, particularly women, but many men too, really struggle to have that clarity that you describe? Then also communicate that effectively to others that just the whole thing feels incredibly—to people? Why? Why is that so hard?
Kathleen: I think it's because, and I'm going to say we because I think this is a human experience, you know? I think it's because we're afraid of losing people, honestly. And whenever I talk with people about what is so scary about boundaries, that's always where they go. Now ultimately, “I'm afraid people won't like me.” “I'm afraid it's going to cause an argument” or “I'll lose that relationship.”
Because we are wired to attach and we need people as the social creatures that we are, I think the fear of putting those relationships at risk is what underlies the fear of setting boundaries and being assertive. Because there are misconceptions around what boundaries are, what assertiveness is, and what it can do for us. People think that it is a threat to those relationships rather than something that protects them, which I think is a misunderstanding—an unfortunate misunderstanding. But ultimately, that fear of losing people I think, is really what makes it scary.
Dr. Lisa: That is so insightful. There's almost a subconscious thing. It's if I say no, or if I ask for what I need, it's going to damage my relationship with you. You're saying that is a misunderstanding. This actually brings me to another question. So one of the things that I loved so much, I love so many things about your team training that you did with us on this topic. But you had this saying in your presentation, which is that “Good, decent people set boundaries.”You have this as like a concept. And I wanted to ask you, why do you think it's so important to teach people, to teach our clients that good people set boundaries?
Kathleen: Wow. Because one of the misunderstandings that's so prevalent around assertiveness and boundary setting is that it is aggressive, or mean, or even overly confident, or bully-ish and that you don't set boundaries, if you're nice. Or you can't be nice to people and be liked by people, and be assertive. I think what's happening there is that there's a confusion between assertiveness and aggressiveness. You know, you mentioned earlier people using the idea of boundaries is telling people, “You can't do that to me”, or “You can't say that to me.” That's not that's not really assertiveness. That's a little bit of bullying, actually. And so, I think, all of the confusion between assertiveness and aggressiveness leads to the idea that you can't be nice and set boundaries, which just simply isn't true. And as a matter of fact, to be nice, I think you really even need to set boundaries. Right?
If I'm not setting boundaries, I'm going to grow and I think we're all good. I'm sure many people have experienced this personally. We grow tired, we get burnt out, we grow resentful. This can be in our personal lives, in our professional lives. We're not very nice, and we don't show up as our best selves. We don't have anything left to give the people that that we do care about. Right? So I think that the misunderstanding, or the confusion between assertiveness and aggression is the underlying cause there. But that in fact, to be nice, we actually need to set boundaries.
Setting Boundaries in Relationships
Dr. Lisa: Oh, I love the way you say that. Like you're not doing anybody any favors by not setting boundaries. That really when you don't set boundaries, it's impossible to show up as I mean—I hate to use this phrase but this is what's coming to mind—but as like your best self in relationships because you're going to be exhausted, and resentful, and depleted, if you're not able to know what your limits are and communicate those. So that's part of having positive healthy relationships is actually being good at boundaries. Those two things go together.
Kathleen: Yes. As a matter of fact, right? What can happen is if we are—if we tend to be people pleasers, and have anxiety in our relationships around that. Say around how our relationships are going, being liked by people, making sure there's no conflict, that there's always harmony, that we’re in a good space. If you find yourself feeling worried or anxious about that, and not saying “no,” or setting boundaries, because of that, what that actually tends to lead toward are the very, very fears and problems in those relationships that we're so scared of happening. Right? It kind of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Dr. Lisa: Oh. Yeah, I can see that. Well, and another theme that I'm hearing as we're talking is this concept of assertiveness. We could probably talk about assertiveness versus aggressiveness. But first, you've used that word a lot. What do you mean by assertive?
Kathleen: We are assertive when we treat ourselves with respect, when we respect our basic human rights and means, while also respecting the rights and needs of others. When we do that, we're being assertive. We're also opening up the opportunity to have clear and open communication, and compromise, and negotiation with the other person on how we can achieve that win-win where we can both be treated with respect and both take care of ourselves in that situation. But in a nutshell, assertiveness is when we're taking care of ourselves while respecting other people.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Kathleen: Aggression, on the other hand, is when we are taking care of ourselves while not respecting the basic rights, or needs, or boundary of the other people in this situation.
Dr. Lisa: That makes so much sense. I've never thought about it that way. That the core aggression is taking care of you without thinking about the person on the other end of it.
Kathleen: Yes. On the other end of that spectrum, when we're being passive, when we're taking care of others and putting their needs first to the detriment or neglect of our own. Right? So we kind of end up with this sort of continuum here. With passive on one end, aggressive on the far other end. Assertiveness is that sweet spot—that balance right in the middle, where we can say, “I'm okay and you're okay”, and hold space for each other's feelings and needs, knowing that we're each responsible for ourselves.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Oh, and I'm glad that you just use that word—that responsibility—because I'm hearing that to be assertive, it requires a high degree of like, self-awareness, respect for self, respect for others. There's like this responsibility component. Whereas, I kind of got this sense when you were talking about the passive perspective that it's people like, and well-intentioned, like really legitimately doing what they feel is best and trying to prioritize relationships. Maybe you're trying to be the “nice person”, but they're in some ways, like, by over giving or not having almost like having more respect for other people than themselves. There's like this abdication of responsibility a little bit. Have you found that? Yeah.
Kathleen: Yeah, absolutely.. It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves. Just that in itself is a new way of looking at things, I think sometimes. But absolutely. It's kind of like, if you're at work for example, and you try to do everything, you know? You try to do everything all at once, and you try to do everyone's job because you want to be really great at what you do, you end up not doing some of the basic things you really need to to get to, or a lot of things fall through the cracks. Right? Because we can't do it all. In fact, and this analogy, taking care of other people's basic needs and rights is not really your responsibility. Because it's not really in your control and it's not realistic. So trying to do it means that while you might have the best of intentions, you end up neglecting this core sort of foundational responsibility over here, which is you. That is in your control. Right? With the best of intentions. With that really important piece that sort of the foundation of the rest of your life gets neglected.
Personal Boundaries Examples
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. Well tell us more about the emotional experience of having that kind of, to use your word passive orientation—because I think that people who sort of leaned toward the aggressive end of the continuum are probably not the ones listening to this podcast. Except to that, I mean I have seen this as a therapist and as a coach, that sometimes people who have a really passive orientation can get to a certain point where they become aggressive.They kind of swing back and forth a little bit.
For the benefit of somebody listening to this podcast, and trying to figure out where they are on that continuum. I mean, what have you heard your clients say that maybe come to you for help with boundaries? With who, or without maybe even realizing it, doing a lot of the things that keep them stuck on that passive end of the spectrum? I mean, like, what does that feel like? But also, what do you see them doing that is unintentionally creating that situation that… before they have the benefit of working with you, Kathleen, to get to get much better at this. But like, where is the starting point?
Kathleen: Let me say that I can answer this question from a personal space. Right? Because the reason I'm so passionate about boundaries is because I don't always—I don't—I'd love to say that, “Yeah, this is what it's like.” Every, all the wonderful compliments you gave me at the beginning of our talk. But I'm always working on boundaries. I don't always set the best boundaries. And I've been a people pleaser, and can be a people pleaser. Right? So I… this is important to me. And I like to help people with it because I'd like to think I have some empathy around what it's like. Right? So whether it's from a personal place, or what clients have shared what, what family members have shared, friends, right?
I think that being in that passive place where we're not taking care of ourselves feels really exhausting, and it feels really anxious. Anxiety comes to mind a lot because we're scrambling around trying to manage things that we don't have control over, trying to prevent the outcomes that we're so afraid of happening. So anxiety comes up a lot, and exhaustion and inadequacy. If I had to pick three big feeling words, those would be the three. Right? Because never enough, never good enough. Again, because we're trying to do the impossible, quite frankly. Right? So I think that's how people feel.
To give you a short answer, there are a lot of emotions in that: guilt, shame, resentment, and anger as well. Because what we're doing, what it looks like, is now saying yes when you really need to say no. Stretching yourself too thin and taking on too much. I think a lot of those things that we might think of off the top of our heads when we think about people pleasing. Also, it looks like reading every little nonverbal cue, and your significant other when you think they might be in a bad mood and thinking, “Oh, no, that's not okay. I need to fix that.” Or keeping a long to-do list and beating yourself up at the end of the day because you didn’t manage to get enough things done. Aso help your neighbor, and your best friend, and run your parents’ errands for them. You’d do everything on your list to be that, be that exceptionally functioning person helps everybody right.
Dr. Lisa: And showers.
Kathleen: And showers. Yeah, yeah. It also looks like I'm not speaking up too. Right? Not being so scared of having direct communication because you're so afraid of conflict, or making, or someone else feeling uncomfortable or unhappy, possibly with you that we don't speak up. We stay silent. We stuff our feelings and sweep things under the rug. Those are just a few examples that I think a lot of people can relate to.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. No, definitely. I can certainly relate to the part abou—I think the guilt is always what gets me. That, like, I could do it? If I rearranged some of my personal priorities, I could do this for you, and therefore I should. Yeah.
Kathleen: Oh, that's a great example.
Dr. Lisa: That's my Achilles heel, for sure. Okay, so—oh, you're about to say something?
Kathleen: Oh, just just that's such a great example. Just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should. I think that even that idea that “I could,” even if it means, right, that I'm not taking care of myself, or I'm going to have these negative consequences as a result, but I could. I could do it so therefore, I should. I think, right, is one of those not necessarily accurate beliefs that a lot of us hold. Isn't it also connected to the idea that if somebody else needs us, needs help, is unhappy with us, or even just experiencing any kind of negative or uncomfortable emotion? That sort of trumps up most other things. Isn't that something that I think is sort of in the background, as a belief, or a feeling even? When we want to people please, when we feel guilty?
Boundary Violations in A Relationship
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. I'm hearing in what you just said. It occurred to me a couple of minutes ago, when you're talking about the anxiety component of that passive orientation. There's some kind of relationship here with codependence and having trouble setting boundaries. I think I'm hearing this. Is that true?
Kathleen: Oh, sure. Yeah. I mean, codependency is another one of those terms that is misunderstood. Sometimes. That makes sense because it is a broad term that can refer to a lot of different things. Totally non-scientific, by the way. Codependence is nowhere in the DSM. It's a self help term, I guess. But I find it helpful to simplify it and think of codependency as a lack of healthy, clear boundaries in your relationships. So definitely, right?
Dr. Lisa: Yeah.
Kathleen: I think, for me, I literally define codependency as a boundary issue.
Healthy Relationship Boundaries
Dr. Lisa: Well, it really is. It's that, you know, “Where do I stop and you start?” That “What is my responsibility and what is your responsibility?” “Can I function independently, even if…” like going back to your point just a minute ago, “even if you're upset, and not feeling good?” or, “Is that maybe not actually my problem to solve?” Yeah.
Kathleen: Right, absolutely. There are all these beliefs that we sort of take for granted that are at the root of codependency, of not having clear boundaries. That your feelings are mine to solve, that having uncomfortable feelings is just catastrophic. We've got to do something about it. That if I can do something, I should do something. None of those are actually necessarily always true. This is the part I'm just thinking out loud here. This is the part in our conversation where I have this feeling that people are wondering, “Yeah. But that sounds pretty cold”, or, “How do you be there and support somebody that you care about? Aren't their feelings your responsibility if you care about them? Or shouldn't you care about their feelings?” Those kinds of questions.
I think it's just a good time to say that you can care about someone—what they're feeling, what they're going through. If they're struggling, you can even show up for them and support them without taking ownership, or responsibility for their feelings or situation, while having clear healthy boundaries. That those things are not exclusive.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. What an important message. That you can care very much about how somebody is feeling, and even help them in healthy ways, but without taking on their problems as your own. That's huge.
Kathleen: Yeah. Look, I understand it's easier to talk about that than it is to do, as so many things are.
Dr. Lisa: Right.
Kathleen: Having healthy boundaries and being assertive while still caring for people and supporting them requires a lot of self-awareness, and mindfulness, and a lot of emotional regulation. To be able to feel your feelings and feel empathy, or concern, or worry, or for this person that's in your life from whomever they might be. Hold those feelings, carry them with you without them taking over, and sort of becoming the driver in the driver's seat. Feeling those feelings, but still showing up in your behavior in your words with assertiveness and healthy boundaries.
How to Set Boundaries in a Relationship
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, as you brought up, Kathleen, very much easier to talk about this than it is to actually put it into practice. I mean, I know that the path of growth in this area is far beyond the scope of what can be learned through a podcast. Right? I mean, I know that you have worked as a therapist and as a coach, for, I mean, years sometimes with people who are really working to develop these skills. So I just want to say that to people listening, because sometimes I feel like I am all for self-help and kind of advice and sharing ideas.
I think sometimes people feel like if they heard it, or like, “Oh, this is what Kathleen said. So I should be able to do this.” Like it was easy. I don't want anybody to feel badly if they can't just magically do these things that Kathleen is sharing. Okay, this is a growth process.
Kathleen, if you were to start with a client as either like a life coach, or a therapist who is really working specifically on boundaries, what would you imagine the arc of the work would look like with that person? Like what kinds of things would you guys be working on or talking about first? Then how would that evolve over time? Not that you have to talk through every moment of the growth process, everybody's different. But like, what are some of the starting places that you've experienced with clients?
Kathleen: Gosh. I think that one of the starting places is probably because if we struggle with assertiveness, we tend to beat ourselves up, quite a bit. Right? Compassion—self-compassion is in short supply. So one of the starting points is really understanding, “Why do I feel this way?”, “Why do I struggle with standing up for myself?”, “Why am I feeling resentful, jealous, bitter, angry, burnt out, guilty?”, “Why am I feeling that, and where did I learn these kinds of… just this way of showing up in my relationships?” Because it's important, self-compassion is stepping back and looking at the whole context, considering the full picture. To see yourself as with compassion. Like, “I learned this stuff, this was passed on to me. I learned to think about relationships this way I learned, this is how I need to be for people to treat me well or to get my needs met. These are the sort of unspoken rules that were taught to me about being a nice person, or finding love.” Right? And so that's usually where we start.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, there's this whole exploration process of unpacking. Like, “how do I feel?” “Why do I feel this way?” “Where did these beliefs come from?” So there's just, like a whole, like self-discovery is the word that's coming to mind, in a very compassionate way. That “how do I make sense?”
Kathleen: Yeah, and self-validation too. Like these feelings make sense. It's okay—not only is it okay and valid—and I'm still a good person and a nice person. But it makes sense too. That I'm angry or resentful. Those are the big feelings that come up a lot when we aren't setting boundaries that we then have feelings about. Even so, it becomes this negative snowball. So a lot of validation.
Also, a lot of—this is one of the other sort of starting areas because they kind of do overlap. Surprising—surprises, I guess I'll just call it surprises. People are often surprised to learn new perspectives on this. Like the idea that we can be nice and assertive, or that we need to be assertive in order to be nice. Just even that process of shifting your paradigm, your perspective, and looking at boundaries, and assertiveness, and relationships in new and different ways. It can become sort of this eye opening experience. And I think—I don't think—I have seen what a relief it can be.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, these new ideas can be so liberating. I'm thinking of a moment in my own life, where I felt like I'd been struck by lightning. It was this idea. I think, probably from my work and becoming a therapist, potentially. But I think also supported by like, the whole Montessori, and we Montessori families are very much around this idea. But the idea of like, that somebody else's emotional experience, like a painful emotional experience, can actually be an incredibly positive thing. Because if they feel badly, then they become motivated to do their growth work, or healing, or learn, or change something. That if I am trying to like rescue, and fix, and make it better, and overstep, and whatever, that I'm actually depriving them of the opportunity to have that motivation and to have that kind of self-directed growth. Like if I take away their natural consequences.
That idea totally changed my life. And I think, made it a lot easier for me to set boundaries, personally. Just going back to what you're saying. And I hadn't thought about that, until you just mentioned those surprises. And I'm sure that they're very different for different people. But that was a huge one. For me this idea that pain is positive. Yeah. That changed a lot of things for me. So you're saying in your work with clients, you help them kind of work through those old beliefs and find new ones that are liberating in similar ways? Maybe?
Kathleen: Absolutely. And that is such a good one. Right?
Dr. Lisa: For me, yes. Yeah.
Kathleen: Yeah, I think I've definitely had that in my own way. I had that moment too, where I came to that emotional understanding. Not just intellectual understanding of… those really difficult feelings are good. They can be good. They're definitely necessary. That when we try to rescue people from them, we’re taking away, we're violating some of their rights. Their right to feel bad. Go through that growth process. A good—what is this—a metaphor that I found at some point and love and use sometimes is that of the butterfly in the cocoon. I don't know if you've heard this one but…
Dr. Lisa: I don't think so. Tell me.
Kathleen: Your cats have heard the story. They would like to tell us their thoughts on this, that is setting boundaries with them.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, how do you set boundaries with cats?
Kathleen: To be continued, right. But do you know, when a butterfly—when a caterpillar has changed into a butterfly and is ready to break free of its cocoon, it will struggle to sort of shed that cocoon, and break free, and fly away. If we were to stumble across that and say, “Oh, wow. That butterfly is struggling, it needs help. I'm going to rescue it. I'm going to help it because it feels good for me, and I'm going to do that.” We steal away from the butterfly, the opportunity to strengthen its wings through that natural process, that flow process, that challenging process. It won't be ready to fly and it will possibly not make it. Right? It's at risk, it’s vulnerable because it hasn't gone through those literal growing pains. Right?
Dr. Lisa: You're saying that that's like actually how the butterflies muscles develop is through that exercise of liberating itself from the chrysalis. I did not know that. But what a perfect metaphor. That if you're like, “Oh, I'll save you.” Then the butterfly then like, “Thanks!” And crashes to the ground. Right?
Kathleen: Like yeah, right. It feels good to help. It feels good for us to help people. It feels bad to see someone's if you're a good kind person and you have empathy. But acting on that is not always the right or nice thing to do for others or possibly for yourself too. Yeah, so that’s a good example.
Examples of Healthy Boundaries
Dr. Lisa: This is such an important idea. I also—just knowing my listeners that are very practical folks—we are, and if we don't talk about this, Kathleen, we're going to get questions asking us. Can you please give us some examples of healthy boundaries in action? What does this look like? We should talk about this now to just go ahead and get out of the way.
Kathleen: All right. Well, let's start with this example that earlier that we're talking about just now, which is maybe seeing someone that we care about struggle. How do we care and support with healthy boundaries? That looks like—I'm just full of metaphors today but let's imagine that they're swimming, and I'm gonna get practical and real here in just a second. So let's imagine that they're swimming in choppy waters and struggling. If we jump in there with them, right? We might both go down.
In that case, how would you support them? You might throw them a lifesaver, or perhaps they're, I don't know, swimming in a triathlon. You might stand on the sidelines and cheer them on, see if they need anything that you can give them. With that, having healthy boundaries might sound like, “I'm so sorry that you're going through this. I can see this is really difficult for you. I hate to see you in pain.” You know, empathy. “Is there anything I can do for you?”, “What can I do for you?” At that point, you may or may not be able to give that thing to them that they're asking for. That depends, and we—the assertiveness continues on from there—we can talk about that. How to say no assertively, and so forth. But supporting someone looks like, supporting them from the sidelines.
Respecting Boundaries in a Relationship
Dr. Lisa: Yes, and offering to help in the way that you can. But I'm also hearing like the next thing here. So that would be like one example of setting a boundary. But I think like what I hear a lot from my clients, and I'm sure you do too, ss this question around, “Well, I've set a boundary with someone and now they're doing the thing anyway.” So like, going back to your example, you say, “Yeah, let me know how I can help you, friend.”
The friend doesn't maybe say this, but they do start calling you at 11 o'clock at night, sobbing hysterically, and wanting to tell you all about everything, and texting you like nine times a day, and being annoyed with you when you don't respond right back. Or asking you to do things that are actually starting to interfere with your life and ability. You're like, so I'm imagining Kathleen would say being appropriately assertive would be like, “You know? 11 is pretty late for me. I'm usually in bed at that time. I'm happy to talk with you when I'm free. Can I call you on the way home from work? Sometimes in the afternoon, I'm in the car anyway.” You have this nice conversation. And the next day, your phone rings at 11:30 at night. I thought, “What would Kathleen do?” Because that's the thing that I hear a lot about my clients is like, “Well, I told my mother-in-law to not talk to me that way anymore”, or “I told so-and-so to not do this.” I think people sometimes feel that setting that boundary is like requesting something of someone else. Then when that somebody doesn't do that something else then they're like, “what do I do?”
Kathleen: That they’re still stuck and feeling helpless.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. So like, what's your take on that aspect of it? So like, “Please don't call me at 11.”
Kathleen: Well. First of all, that was a great example—the way that you verbalize that was beautiful. Right? But they keep calling anyway. You got to, when that happens… the beautiful thing about boundaries is that it is not really requesting something of somebody. It is letting them know what to expect from you. This is what I'm going to do and this is what I'm not going to do.
Dr. Lisa: There it is.
Kathleen: Right? So if they're not respecting the initial boundary, and they continue to call you at 11:30. “I asked you not to call me that late because I'm usually in bed by then. I know that you're going through a really difficult time, I'm not able to talk at that time. Here are the—here's when I can support you, or I will call you during this time. If you keep calling me at 11:30, I’m gonna have to…” and then you can fill in the blank with a boundary that you feel you can follow through.
I think that's really important with setting boundaries is that whatever you choose, it's something that you know, you can stick to. Whatever that is, wherever you are with that is okay. So maybe it's, “I'm gonna have to turn my phone off at night.” Or it may be something a little bit, let's say, more drastic. “I'm not going to be able to talk with you if you don't respect this boundary.” It depends on the person and the situation. If you have somebody who's really actually getting angry with you, and criticizing you because you didn't text back right away, or you're still not picking up the phone at 11:30, even when you asked them to call at that time. That's a pretty difficult situation.
I just want to validate that if you're experiencing something like that, that's a pretty toxic relationship. Those are harder to be assertive in. It's giving you information. When someone doesn't respect your boundaries, it's giving you information about if that relationship is healthy for you. So I just want to context that.
Keeping Boundaries in a Relationship
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. No. That's good to say that. That's actually a sign of an unhealthy relationship is like when you say, “Please don't do this” or, “Please respect me in this area.” Somebody continues not just to do it, but gets upset with you for setting boundaries. Like, you should actually be paying attention to that is what I'm hearing, you say.
Kathleen: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. That's a red flag. To answer your question directly, we set boundaries. When they're not respected, we need to up the ante and set a boundary that's, if you want to call it a little further out, if you will. Let them know, not to be patronizing, but just as you would be disciplining a child, “If you don't do this, here's the next consequence.” So, “If you don't stop calling me in the middle of the night, I'm gonna have to shut off my phone.” “If you don't stop talking to me that way, I'm gonna have to take a break from our relationship for a while.” Let them know what it is going to be. If you're having trouble upping the ante, so to speak, or finding a boundary that you feel you can follow through with, or struggling with a difficult person like this, that's something to work with a coach or counselor. Because it's pretty difficult at that level.
Dr. Lisa: It really is. I think also—many people experience these kinds of dynamics with their families. So it's sort of people that you're… it's hard to like, and it can be done. I mean, some people limit relationships with certain family members, and it's a positive thing. But it can be a sticky situation for many. So,but that's good advice.
How to Set Healthy Boundaries in Relationships
Oh my gosh. We could talk about so many different aspects of this, Kathleen, but I want to reiterate what I'm hearing you say, which is setting boundaries is not about controlling anybody else. It is about deciding what you're going to do, and what you're okay with, and how you're going to communicate that. You being responsible for your actions. That we can't actually control others.
Kathleen: Exactly. Right. Healthy boundaries, non-codependent boundaries are assertive boundaries, rather than passive or aggressive ones. Or about taking care of yourself and making sure everybody knows what that's gonna look like. It's not about bargaining with people, or getting certain reactions out of them, or even asking things of them. Even when we compromise, again, that is, “Well, here's where I can meet you. Where can you meet me? Is there a place that overlaps?”
Setting Boundaries in Romantic Relationships
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. So much good stuff. Well, and I want to be respectful of your time. Do you have time to tackle a little listener question with me for a couple of minutes?
Kathleen: Sure Okay.
Dr. Lisa: So with all of these things in mind, we had someone get in touch. I'm not sure if it was through Instagram, it may have been. It may have been through the blog at growingself.com.
But this person writes, “My hope is to be able to have a healthy relationship where I'm not sabotaging things or letting my anxiety ruin it. But a big piece of this is me getting better, and my ability to maintain healthy boundaries, and also be comfortable asking people to meet my needs, while at the same time being able to meet theirs.
What are a couple of things that I could do to get better around the boundary aspect of this?” Just as I read this question out loud to you, my immediate reaction is that this is not an answerable kind of question. This is, like, enter into this growth process that will probably take a while. Is that your reaction to this question? Or am I—maybe there is an easy answer. I don’t know.
Kathleen: Based on what this person is saying. I'm hearing that sabotaging relationships and anxiety. So I think I'm hearing—they're saying that their anxiety around asking for what they need, setting boundaries, etcetera, there might be other stuff there, creates the sabotage. So this is a complicated, multi-layered.
That being said, though, maybe this is because I've been reading Brené Brown. Maybe it's because it’s a quote that I saw earlier today. I wish I could pull it up real quick. But what's coming to my mind is that when we set boundaries assertively, which is so nice, and kind, and compassionate, and all of that good stuff. We are being authentic. Right? That means that we're opening up the opportunity to have intimacy and closeness with that person. That can be scary, and it can feel risky. Sometimes, when we avoid that, we end up sabotaging those relationships anyway. But sometimes we need to sort of dip our toe in that vulnerability pool and see how the person reacts. I'm not talking about “Let's move my boundaries based on how they react”, but rather, “Let's see, is this person safe?”
If they do respond with love, and compassion, respect, empathy, validation, and respect my boundaries, then maybe next time, I can lean into my anxiety a little bit more and express a little bit of me that makes me little bit more scared, and see what happens. Like learning to feel less anxious. If your partner's a healthy partner for you and a safe partner, we can ease into the practice of setting boundaries and expressing our needs in relationships.
Dr. Lisa: That is amazing. Yeah. You're saying to do reality testing. “What happens when I do ask for something?” Then there's almost like this exposure therapy component. Like, every time I ask—and it's positive—I'm kind of on, like, a healing those old ideas about who I need to be, and what boundaries mean, because it is actually okay. It's like that healing in the context of the healthy relationship.
Kathleen: Exactly. Reality testing. Exactly. Especially if you've been with this person for a while already. You know them well, what… are they someone who can hold space for your needs and respect your boundaries? Still—what's the word I'm looking for—still have a strong sense of self and a hearty self-esteem in order to just stand by your side. That, if the evidence is there for that, then it's appropriate to slowly lean into that anxiety. Well, but yeah, that's the process.
Dr. Lisa: Definitely. And if they can't, or they fall apart, or they get mad at you, or try to punish you, I will refer you back to the recent episode of the podcast in which I discussed narcissism. And there's also one about when to call it quits in a relationship. Just saying it. It might not be the case.
Kathleen: But that's a really good point. Right? All of those things are not okay.
Dr. Lisa: Not okay.
Kathleen: Right? We can—we feel like we don't say that enough, right? Hearing things, like well, defensiveness. Even just defensiveness, right? We all feel defensive sometimes. I think that's a natural human emotion. But again, can your partner feel defensive and still be self-aware enough, and regulate to show up with love and respect? “Oh, wow. I'm feeling defensive and I want to be here for you. So let me take a moment and come back.” Or “I notice I’m feeling defensive, and your feelings are valid, and really important to me.” Or something like that, right? But acting defensive with minimization, invalidation, blame shifting, that's not okay.
Dr. Lisa: Not okay. Yeah.
Kathleen: You don't have to live with it.
Dr. Lisa: What a powerful message and what a nice note for us to land on. It’s beautifully, just affirming, and empowering conversation about boundaries, and what they are, and the path to growth around them. But that also that's a big takeaway for me. That if you encounter these kinds of reactions in someone when you're trying to set healthy and appropriate boundaries, it's not you. It's that. Then to not get tricked into believing otherwise. That's an important message for a lot of people to hear, I think, especially for women.
Kathleen: Yeah, yeah. That’s a great point. It’s not a reflection of you or the appropriateness of your boundary.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, we could talk for a much longer. So this is such an interesting conversation. And maybe we can revisit this topic and have a part two at some point. But I've really enjoyed your time today. It has been wonderful.
Kathleen: Well, thank you. I really appreciate being able to be here and talk about this. And it has been, I think, fun. This is my idea of a good time anyway.
Dr. Lisa: We're letting our nerd flags fly, Kathleen. I love it. I had a good time too. Thank you.
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