Thursday, 29 September 2011

Therapy Thursday: Making Your Relationship Work (Part 1)

Half of all marriages these days end in divorce. In our increasingly individualistic society, when we all seem to be over-stretched, over-worked, over-stressed, and overwhelmed, it is harder than ever to make our relationships work. All of us could use a little help in this department. Like most things, the secret to making your partnership a source of support and comfort, rather than additional conflict and frustration, involves constant mindful practice: paying attention to the everyday details.

In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman offers a lot of practical, no-nonsense advice to couples, based on substantial research and experience. The following notes are my summary and interpretation of the first three chapters. More to follow.

Get to know each other!
Couples in successful relationships tend to be intimately familiar with each others world. They know one another extremely well. This makes sense: if you don't know someone, how can you truly love them? Love is not an abstraction, nor can it flourish in a vacuum. Gottman terms this getting to know each other 'enhancing your love maps'.

Before someone else can truly know you, you have to get to know yourself. Then you can show yourself to your partner. Many people seem to unconsciously believe that being part of a couple gives them the right to shirk their responsibility for personal growth. The opposite is true. The more we grow individually, the more we have to share, and the closer we can become through the sharing. Referring back to the Johari Windows (my second blog), there is an ongoing shared process of moving material from our unknown, hidden and blind areas out into the open. John Steinbeck wrote, “We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say – and to feel – ‘Yes, that's the way it is, or at least that's the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’” Who better than our life partner to share meaning with us in this way?

Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration
This is a no-brainer! But how many of us actually, deliberately do it? Simply reminding yourself – every day! – of your partner's positive qualities will help put their flaws into perspective, and prevent a happy relationship from deteriorating. Fondness and admiration are antidotes for that insidious poisoner of relationships, contempt. Even the most jaded of couples fell in love at some point. Positive memories of that happy time can be resurrected and fed simply by thinking and talking about them.

By watching hours and hours of boring video tapes of happy couples, Gottman realized that, contrary to our Hollywood-driven expectations, real-life romance is kept alive not by sweeping gestures, but by trivial little exchanges. People periodically make “bids” for each others attention, affection, humour, or support, often in ways that are so casual and apparently superficial that it's tempting to discount their importance. I might be sitting with my wife and say, “I see the Canucks lost again.” This is a bid. She could react in many ways. She could ignore me completely; tell me how little she cares; snap at me for making boring conversation while she's trying to read; berate me for following such a frustrating team; launch into an in-depth discussion of Luongo's flaws and merits; or make a short remark such as “Yeah, those Bums!”, which shows me she's listening and implicitly agrees, and at the same time suggests that she cares enough about me to make an effort even though she's really not interested in hockey. In countless ways, every time someone makes a bid, their partner can turn toward them, or turn away.

The Emotional Bank Account
The secret to a successful marriage is to turn toward each other in little ways every day. Couples who consistently do so remain emotionally engaged; those who don't eventually lose their way. Whatever our relationship, every time we turn toward each other rather than away, we're putting money into what Gottman calls our joint emotional bank account. By consistently making these small deposits, we build up savings that can serve as a cushion when times get rough, when we're faced with some kind of major life stress or conflict.

The Stress-Reducing Conversation
According to Gottman, the most important conversation a couple can have is of the boring “How was your day, dear?” variety. By having this talk, we help each other to manage the stress in our respective lives that is not caused by the marriage. Who better than our life partner to support, comfort and nourish us in this way?
     Here are some guidelines for making this key conversation effective:
- Spend 20-30 minutes per day on this conversation, talking about whatever is on your mind outside your relationship.
- Think about the timing of the chat, and wait until you both want to talk.
- Take turns.
- Don't give unsolicited advice.
- Show genuine interest.
- Communicate your understanding.
- Take your spouse's side. Be supportive. Don't side with the opposition (even if you secretly suspect they might be right).
- Express a “we against others” attitude (even if the “others” are your family of origin).
- Express affection.
- Validate emotions.
- If you don't know what reaction they want from you - a hug, advice, validation, support, a brain-storming session, or just listening - ask them!

Remember, you get very little out of just reading about practices like these: you have to actually do them. Do them until they become a habit.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Therapy Thursday: Emotional Freedom Technique

Today I'd like to share a remarkably quick and simple method to relieve a wide range of emotional, psychological and physical symptoms, particularly stress and anxiety. Though Wikipedia is dismissive of Emotional Freedom Technique, largely because its efficacy has been hard to prove systematically, many therapists who I respect enormously use and recommend this approach, and thousands of testimonials from grateful clients speak to its wide-ranging usefulness.

EFT works on the premise that “the cause of all negative emotions is a disruption in the body's energy system.” Working on principles similar to acupuncture and acupressure, the technique involves repeatedly tapping on certain energy meridian points. This allows you to go straight to the energetic, physiological source of many emotional and psychological issues without having to identify the root causes. Though EFT could never replace the kind of healing and personal growth that can be accomplished by working with a good counsellor, it is almost unparalleled in its ability to bring rapid relief of symptoms, and is a tool that can be easily learned, used and owned by anyone. Anxiety frequently spirals out of control because people experience the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety a few times, then become increasingly anxious about the possibility that those symptoms will recur. The more helpless they feel in dealing with those unpleasant physical sensations when they arise, the more this vicious circle is perpetuated. The circle is broken when they find a tool to relieve those sensations, and in this respect EFT can be incredibly empowering.

For quick and easy instructions and a diagram of the energy points, go to, and click on 'Get Started Free' in the top left corner. You have to give an email address, but I have received no junk mail as a result.

If you suffer from anxiety, I urge you to give this a try. You have nothing to lose.

If you know someone who might benefit from this information, please pass it on.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Therapy Thursday: The Glorious SIBAM Model

Last week's piece about holistic practice was a handy prelude to this, my favourite counselling model. Most counselling orientations could be grouped into three categories, depending on what they target: Thoughts, Emotions, or Behaviours. This model expands our repertoire to five:

S – Somatic (Body Sensations)
I – Images
B – Behaviour (Actions)
A – Affect (Emotions)
M – Meaning making (Mind, thoughts, cognition)

These are the lenses through which we gather, interpret, process, react to, and store information about our world.

They are all incredibly useful.

The trouble is, many of us rely way too heavily on one or maybe two, and pretty much ignore the others. This is an unbalanced and inefficient way to live. And when problems come along, the default modality will only get us so far. So we meet mind-oriented people, for example, who believe that if they just think long and hard enough, they will figure out solutions to all their problems. They can go round and round in circles forever, spinning their wheels, getting nowhere. In fact, the root of all their problems might just be that they bury, ignore and mistrust their emotions; or that they endlessly procrastinate and never do anything; or that they are completely out of touch with what's going on in their body; or that they seem to have no imagination; or all the above. To be whole, we need to learn to use all five.

Going Deeper

Using the SIBAM model with clients, I ask them to explore all the modalities, especially the ones they rarely use. Much valuable information can be found there. I encourage them to flow from one area to the other. The five feed one another, inter-relating in an organic and glorious manner, allowing any area of enquiry to deepen and expand. For example, a person might be talking about something that is very painful to them, and will linger on the emotions until they become overwhelmed and saturated. This can be re-traumatizing and not very helpful. So before they go too far, I might ask them to pay careful attention to what is going on in their body. The key is to slow things right down and really focus. Often, they will describe some kind of unpleasant sensation in their stomach. Through various questions, I'll help them to become much more acutely aware of the exact nature of this sensation, and as awareness grows, the sensation will tend to move and change. Two principles are operating in this kind of work: Shift Happens; and the Psyche has a natural tendency to mend itself. If we slowly track the body sensation, something might shift in a way that allows a small piece of trauma, stored in the body perhaps for years, to be released. Or there might be a shift to another modality. The client may be spontaneously struck by an image, whose meaning is potent and healing though not necessarily reducible to words. Or they might be moved to do something. They might then go from either of those places to the mind, attempting to make sense of their experience. And on it goes. The information that emerges keeps getting richer and richer. The psyche mends itself bit by bit. Shift happens.

I encourage clients to take control and ownership of this process. They can choose where they want to go next. And so can you. 

The Witness

The SIBAM model is usually depicted as a pentagon, a five-pointed star. At the very centre of the star is the Witness. Whatever modality we may be working in, it is always possible to take a step backwards and observe what is going on. For example, most of us tend to ruminate, getting caught in a thought-loop, working ourselves up, usually to anger, frustration, self-sabotage, or deep sorrow. Next time this happens to you, I invite you to detach from the process, and watch it happening. This creates tremendous freedom, because instead of being carried away by the tide of thoughts, you can choose to make it stop, pull it in a different direction, laugh at yourself, use the thoughts constructively, or shift to a different modality altogether, perhaps by focusing on your body sensations instead. The sting of the runaway thoughts is removed, because it is impossible to be in both places at the same time: the part of you that is observing is not the part that is thinking. When you're experiencing emotional pain, try to step back and witness your own emotional processes. Immediately, you have the power not to get caught up in those emotions. This is even true of physical pain. In Vipassana meditation, practitioners sit for many hours in the same position. On top of boredom, creeping doubt and wandering thoughts, they have to deal with excruciating pain, but are taught to witness that pain instead of identifying with it. Acknowledging that there is a sensation, the Witness can choose not to subscribe to our tendency to label sensations good and bad, and can observe the sensation dispassionately, without judgement.

Cultivating the Witness is the way to freedom, the key to mindfulness, and a gateway to the spiritual life. This is where the spiritual and existential collide, as we are asked and enabled to take control of and accept responsibility for every aspect of our experience.

I hope you have found this short explanation helpful. If so, please pass it on.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Therapy Thursday: Heal-Whole-Holistic

The words heal, health and healthy all derive from the Proto-Germanic root word "khailaz," which meant literally "to make whole," and which also eventually gave us our English word "whole."

To be truly healed, we need to make ourselves whole, so a holistic approach to life (and counselling) is the only one that makes sense. This gives us lots to work with: mind, body, emotions, behaviours; our social life, imagination, sexuality, spirituality, and so on. Since all are inter-connected, any change we make to one will necessarily impact the others, creating a cascading (or domino) effect. Small changes can lead to big results. So if one aspect of your life seems too big to change, don't feel overwhelmed or hopeless: start by changing something else! You might create a shift, initiate an upward spiral, and eventually give yourself the energy needed to make that big change....if it still seems so important.

A holistic approach also encourages us to seek balance. A useful exercise, inspired by the Native American Medicine Wheel, is to divide a circle into five parts – labelled Physical, Mental, Emotional, Social and Spiritual – and list under each heading all the ways in which we nurture and satisfy this area of our life. If one or more of those domains seems lacking, well it's time to think about how to redress the balance.

The intention of the Therapy Thursday series is to share with others simple tools that I believe can improve people's lives. Please forward the link(s) to anybody you believe might find this information helpful. Thanks.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Therapy Thursday: The Johari Window

Named after its inventors, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham, the Johari Window is an incredibly simple but surprisingly useful tool for gaining a new perspective on your life and relationships. The model represents a person as a four-paned window, as shown in this makeshift diagram:

                                    Known to Self             Not Known to Self
                            .                                  .                                    .
           Known to   .                                   .                                    .
             Others     .                                   .                                    .                 
                            .            OPEN              .             BLIND             .
                            .                                  .                                    .
                            .                                  .                                    .
                            .                                  .                                    .
                            .                                  .                                    .
             Not          .                                  .                                    .
          Known to     .           HIDDEN           .          UNKNOWN         .
           Others       .                                   .                                    .
                            .                                  .                                    .

Each pane or quadrant contains different information about the person, arranged according to whether or not the person him or herself is actually aware of that information, and whether or not other people in his or her life know about it.

Quadrant 1: Open
Information that we know about ourselves and that others also know. The field upon which we interact.

Quadrant 2: Blind
Information that others know about us, but that we do not know about ourselves. Such fragments of missed information are significantly known as “blind spots.”

Quadrant 3: Hidden
Information that we know about ourselves, but that others do not know, perhaps because we are hiding it from them.

Quadrant 4: Unknown
Information about us that is true, but that is unknown to ourselves and to others.

Going Deeper
Although the window panes in the above diagram are of equal size and shape, in real life they obviously occupy different proportions of the window, and change size and shape constantly. Though this model is frequently co-opted by businesses seeking to build more efficient team dynamics, I like to use it with individuals and couples. As an individual, thinking about the model might help you gain a better understanding of how you operate in the world, and what you might need to do to become more fully conscious, authentic and pro-social. As a couple, talking about your respective windows, and how they interact, can help you identify dysfunctional tendencies and work toward more open, harmonious communication.

Open Space
Generally speaking, the larger the Open space, the better. The more open we can be with self and others, the easier it is to speak and live our truth. Living consciously, honestly and mindfully, we're more likely to feel good about ourselves, to follow authentic paths toward self fulfillment, and to avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts. The goal, then, is to make the Open space bigger by annexing territory occupied by the other panes (which obviously become smaller as a result).

Blind Space
By definition, it is really hard for us to see our own blind spots, so the best way to gain ground from the Blind quadrant is by giving others the opportunity and permission to tell us about them. This is not easy, because blind spots are usually weaknesses, so we don't want to see them, and we're likely to get defensive when they're pointed out to us, and shoot the messenger. Yet, if they can do so gently and respectfully, there is hardly a greater gift another person can offer to us than the revelation of one of our blind spots. Information is power. If nobody wants to get too close to me because I have terrible breath, then it does me no good whatsoever if you participate in the big secret (all the while trying hard to stay upwind from me). But if you take a chance and tell me, then – once I get over the shock and the hurt – I can do something about it. I can brush my teeth more, floss, gargle with mouthwash, see a dental hygienist; and then people will be willing to come close to me again. There are many things to say about giving and receiving feedback, but that will have to wait for another day. The main thing is, if you really want feedback, ask, be grateful, try not to get defensive, and don't take one person's opinion too seriously: ask around, see what other people think. As for pointing out other people's blind spots, always ask if they're ready for some feedback first, and be gentle with them.

Hidden Space
Space can be taken from the Hidden quadrant through self-disclosure, revealing parts of ourselves to others. Appropriate disclosure builds trust, friendship and intimacy, inviting others into our world. John Steinbeck wrote, “We are lonesome animals. We spend all our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say – and to feel – ‘Yes, that's the way it is, or at least that's the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’” Self-disclosure offers this necessary sense of belonging with other members of the herd. We all seem to need some secrets, but secrecy can be toxic. Many old and dying people still carry ancient secrets like a heavy weight on their souls, filling life with bitterness and death with terror.

Having said that, there are many unspoken social and cultural norms around self-disclosure. For our own protection, such a process also requires caution and good timing. We all need to be careful not to disclose too much, or too soon, or to the wrong person, or information that really is better kept to ourselves. In any new or recovering relationship, it is always best to start with smaller, less important pieces of personal information. The other person will normally offer something back, and on it goes, like a dance, each new shared piece of information leading to greater trust, and an ever-expanding willingness to share our private and vulnerable worlds. Love and friendship thrive on this stuff.

Unknown Space
How do we find out things about ourselves that are Unknown to ourselves and everyone else? To me, this is the most exciting piece. Two main methods spring to mind. First, we must remain open, curious, and brave, always willing to try new things and accept new possibilities. Who knows what we may be capable of, what we might be? Unknown pieces of ourselves might return to the fold if we can but keep the gate open. I might be a great banjo-player, tango-dancer, bucking bronco rider, or chess-master. I won't know until I try. Openness is an attitude we can adopt through conscious practice.

Secondly, much of what is unknown about ourselves represents what Jung called the Shadow: aspects of our psyche that – for one reason or another – we have suppressed, rejected and buried. The Shadow never goes away, it festers underground, and comes back to poison or undermine our lives in numerous ways. What's more, it takes a lot of energy shutting out pieces of ourselves, energy that could be put to better use elsewhere. The goal is not to defeat the Shadow, but to recognize and embrace it. Usually the Shadow is not objectively negative at all, it just looks that way when it's shrouded in darkness. In the light of day it can be neutral or even positive, a part of ourselves that has a valid role to play, that can be put to constructive use. So how do you find the shadow? Looking is a good start. We get clues when we have reactions to other people that are unnecessarily strong. It could be, we're getting triggered by something in their behaviour which reminds us of a part of ourselves that we've buried. If I hate people who are too self-confident and cocky, maybe I have a Shadow who's just like that. Perhaps my parents taught me early on that such qualities are unattractive and unlovable, so to please them I became meek and self-effacing. But that rejected self-confident side of my true personality could serve me very well in certain situations, if I could re-integrate him into my Open space. And, who knows, my friends and family might like this new, more complete me better (or at least accept me as I really am).

I hope all of this is food for thought.

Next week... probably my favourite: the Somatic Experiencing SIBAM model. Hope to see you there.