Question 1: Who should I talk to about this problem?

Question 1Who should I talk to about this problem?

This is one of the first questions I encourage people to ask of themselves when things go seriously wrong.

Why is this such a big deal?  When facing a significant problem one of the worst mistakes you can make is to try to handle it alone.  You will need support from others to tether you safely to the ground, as well as to find perspective and understanding about how to approach the problem.

Who should you look for?  There is more than one category of person, and talking to several different people may be important.

Look for someone who will offer comfort.  When we’re in pain (and we are when things go wrong) we need comfort and reassurance.  Comfort is important.  In fact, it’s interesting to see how much of our lives are devoted to seeking comfort.  We eat comfort food, stay in Comfort Inn’s, wear comfortable clothes, and use thermostats to keep our houses comfortable.  When things go wrong we need the presence and support of others to feel reassured that our life still has a future that is good and hopeful. We also need to be calm enough to be able to think.  Emotional comfort helps us to do that.

Look for someone who is skilled in handling your specific type of problem, or at least problems in general.  This is critical!  Even Googling your problem on the internet can bring up a surprising amount of information about most problems.  Of course, talking face to face with someone is still important.  It can take some time to locate a good “advisor” or guide, but do so.

Alcoholics Anonymous is great at helping members find their way out of unmanageability, fear, and confusion.  Members often serve as a sounding board for one another and offer feedback from their own experience.  I had a client several years ago who, when he would have a problem, would talk to three other members of AA who had faced a similar problem before deciding what to do.  He listened for what worked for them, for lessons learned, and for suggestions for perspective and action.  The combination of their care and their wisdom often worked for him.

Also, don’t be afraid of getting professional help when it is needed, whether it is for mental health or for the plumbing in your home.  And speak up honestly to the professional.  I tell clients who have illnesses that frighten them to tell their doctor that they are scared.  They report that a simple, honest statement about fear often brings our a humanity in their doctor that they have not seen…both by way of offering more information and listening well to their questions.

In cases where the results of a particular problem are far-reaching over time, look for others who at some level share the same problem.  You will take great comfort in their fellowship and find that the social aspects of sharing can enrich your life greatly.  You will also get concrete help in dealing with your challenge by their experiences and learning, and at times enjoy a shared sense of humor that makes difficult things more palatable.

In addition to the above there are other character traits that you will want to look for in others.  Here are a few suggestions:

Look for someone who can keep confidences.  This is one of the most important positive qualities to look for when feeling vulnerable.  You can assume that someone who gossips about others may well gossip about you.  You might not want to seek out a person like this when a matter is sensitive to you.  Be plain-spoken about your desire to retain control over who knows about about the matter at hand.  Your information is yours…it is not others to give away.  And in problematic times you will want to have control over who knows about your difficulties to preserve your sense of safety.

Avoid people who tend to panic.  I’ve made the mistake of talking to people who actually increased my anxiety about a problem rather than reduce it.  Ouch.  This may keep some of those who care a lot about you from being very helpful.  You do not want to have to calm down your listener!  Rather, look for a listener/advisor who will stay calm and let you tell your story.

Avoid people who are judgmental or try to “fix” you.  People who judge quickly tend not to be good at listening; rather, they move quickly to solutions that you could come up with yourself, or they criticize you for being upset.  I won’t go into this more at the present time, but by and large judgmental people can be hard to deal with in times of distress.

All of the positive traits listed above won’t necessarily be found in one person, and some of the negative traits may be found in those who are helpful to you.  There may be no “perfect” person to talk to.  However, it is important to start somewhere. You can also ask others about whom to seek out for a conversation.  There’s always a place to start.

Thanks for reading! The rest of the questions will follow soon.


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Question 2: How do I need to adjust my plans and expectations because of this problem?

Question 2

When obstacles happen the question arises: Should I alter my plans or keep things the same? Or, as they say in poker, “Do I hold ’em, or fold ’em?” This is an important question, and attitude has a lot to do with getting the right answer. Let’s take a quick look.

When do I hold ‘em—stay true to my course and maintain my directions and plans?

Here’s a good time to do that:  when it looks like perseverance is the best strategy; i.e., when not being swayed from my original objectives or strategies by the difficulties I am encountering seems like the smart thing to do. “Sticking to one’s guns” can be an important quality in accomplishing any important goal. Without “stick-to-it-ness” we may end up being a quitter when we shouldn’t quit.

It’s been said that it took Thomas Edison over 1,000 trials to find out the proper combination of materials to make a successful light bulb. When questioned by a reporter about the high number of “failures” in the development of the light bulb, Edison is said to have commented that there were no failures at all, it was just a 1,000 step process.

Elbow grease…it can take a lot of it to get the job done.

Here’s a bad time to hold onto your plans: when you do so because you want to pretend that nothing is going wrong and that there really is no problem, or when you are afraid of addressing the possibility of change.

It’s been said that the company that develops the next “big idea” won’t be the company to develop the next one after that. Why? Because when a company has a big success it tends to cling to that success and lose their edge. One only needs to remember how popular Blackberry phones were for several years, and then observe their rapid fall from popularity as other phones came along and took away their market.

When to fold ’em—making changes in my plans because of an obstacle.

Here’s a good time: When it looks like my original goals may no longer be obtainable and that alternate goals or strategies need to be adopted.

Alcoholics Anonymous has a famous prayer that offers wisdom here. You’ve probably already heard it. It’s called the Serenity Prayer and goes like this:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference. (Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971)

Changes made with purpose, courage, and wisdom often save the day. Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke was a German Field Marshal and is regarded as one of the great strategists of the latter 19th century. He is famous for the saying, “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” (or “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”)  To survive one must change.

In another military example, Norman Dixon in his book On the Psychology of Military Incompetence writes of how many disastrous military decisions in the past have been made because of an unwillingness to change plans when intelligence reports suggested the need to do so. Change is inevitable, and though some situations do require perseverance, others require change.

Here are two bad times to change your plans: When you’re simply afraid of the obstacle and give up out of fear, or when you’re overwhelmed with exhaustion and have lost your vision.

All of us quit sometimes when we should keep going. We abandon perfectly good plans after become overwhelmed with fear. When this happens it’s time to go back to question one: Who should I talk to about this problem? The same thing is true when the problem is exhaustion or a loss of vision for the task. Take a break, pace yourself, talk things over with a friend, and get a renewed perspective.

I don’t doubt for one moment the sincerity of Academy Awards recipients when they thank those who supported them in their careers. None of us are our best without the support of others. We all need cheerleaders and wise counselors in our lives. Don’t let discouragement be the reason you give up on a goal. Talk over the situation with wise, experienced others and then make a decision about whether to continue your plans or change them.

But, in any case don’t fail to recognize that obstacles can sometimes result in a greater good than otherwise would have been the case—which brings us to our third question.


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Question 3: What lessons and gifts does this problem have to offer me?

Question 2

Of the four questions to ask yourself when things go wrong, this question is the happiest one. It bends our mind to the fact that all is not lost when things don’t go the way we want.

Years ago as a new therapist I was talking about a personal problem with a friend of mine. He gave me advice I have never forgotten: “If you work with this, it will give you gifts before it is all over.” He was right. I don’t even remember the problem, but I remember the lesson. If I work with my problems they will teach me lessons and give me gifts.

As I write this post many sayings come to mind that we all commonly hear. In fact, most of them are so common that they sound a bit trite, such as, “Every cloud has a silver lining” or “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

At least two things are true about this type of saying. First, they usually resulted from circumstances in someone’s life that were profound. For example, if you look up the saying about lemons and lemonade in Wikipedia you will learn it was originally penned by Elbert Hubbard in 1915 while writing the obituary of a man named Marshall Wilder. Wilder was a dwarf who, despite his limitations, became a well-known actor in the latter part of the 19th century. He refused P.T. Barnum’s offer to join his circus in order to do “legitimate” acting and counted King Edward VII as one of his fans. The King eventually attended some twenty of Wilders’ performances. Hubbard wrote about Wilder that, “He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade-stand.” (Wikipedia)

Second, if you are in the middle of a difficult situation and are able to have a positive focus, these sayings won’t seem trite. For those able to see their truth, they offer hope and energy to continue when life is difficult.

This is a great lesson to teach our kids. When visiting San Francisco recently I went with a friend and his young son to visit the Exploratorium, a science museum especially designed to interest children. My friend’s son and I both like science, and he had particularly wanted to go to the museum with me on my free day–my last day in San Francisco. I had promised him this trip for months. Unfortunately, when we arrived to the museum it was a Monday, and it was closed. One look at my young friend’s face convinced me that I wanted to do something to improve the situation right away. The museum store was open for business (of course!) so I told him, “Since we have to postpone our visit, I think you should have something fun to do until we come back when the museum is open. It will be something that you would not have gotten if the museum was open. How cool is that?” His eyes brightened, and he went home with a new erector set which we used to build a space ship. He also experienced for himself that unhappy events can lead to happy ones.

Of course, many of life’s circumstances are more severe than a closed museum. In their wonderful and wise book The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham propose that we obtain our spiritual growth more from our imperfections in life than our natural strengths. It’s true. I’ve had more than one alcoholic sit in my office and tell me in all seriousness that the work of recovery from alcoholism resulted in a life much deeper and richer than would have otherwise been the case.

So, when things get dismal, work with your problems. Don’t hunker down and pretend that they don’t exist. Instead, develop an expectation of good to come out of bad. You will be richer for it.


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Question 4: What is the next right step for me to take?

4 QuestionsThere’s a time to think, a time to talk, and a time to act.  And after doing what is described in the posts above, it’s time to act.  But, how does one get started?

Lest the size of a problem you are facing overwhelm you into paralysis, zero in on the next right step you need to take and start there.  You may have a long list of objectives, but it can be too much to look at all of them at once.  So, pick an important one and take a real step in the right direction.  After accomplishing that step things may look different from your new vantage point. In any case, you will probably be able to focus on the next right step after that one!

I’m not much of a hiker, but I once took a week-long hiking trip in Switzerland.  It was a series of day hikes in the Alps around beautiful Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn.  Even though I had trained to be in shape for the hikes, I was one of the slower hikers in our group.  While on a steep portion of a trail one of our guides noticed my huffing and puffing and gave me some kindly advice.  He said, “When the trail is steep take shorter steps and don’t look up the trail.”  He was right–things were easier when I did that.

brooklyn-bridgeThe Brooklyn Bridge (shown above) was initially designed by German immigrant John Augustus Roebling with construction beginning in 1870. After an accident during the initial surveys for the bridge (which later led to his death), he placed his 32-year-old son Washington Roebling in charge of the project.  After the son was also injured in an accident related to the bridge and could not leave his home, prospects for the project looked dim.  However, he managed to supervise the ongoing design and construction from his apartment.  His wife studied higher math and engineering to assist him in the last 11 years of the project, performing many of the duties of chief engineer.  The bridge opened in 1883 with his wife leading the way for those first to cross it, including President Chester Arthur.  The history is thrilling to read.  (Check it out in Wikipediaand also read the article on Washington Roebling.)

How was this feat accomplished?  One step at a time.  Many of the challenges were not discovered until the building of the bridge was underway.  It was the first bridge of its type in the United States, and at that time was 50% longer than any other bridge in the world.

When challenges come your way, do the leg work…get support, wise counsel, and be open minded about possible changes to your plans…then act.  You’ll be on your way to something good!


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Happy people and unhappy people

Happy, unhappy

Happy, unhappy (Photo credit: xjki)

My work often involves working with the internal “younger” parts of an individual that have been hurt by past events.  As a result, I have to make sure that I put my thoughts in the simplest way possible so they can be understood by the part of the person I am dealing with.  (No, this is not crazy…if you’re done any inner child work you will understand!)

In explaining why a parent or peer would do or say mean things to another person, I recently found myself saying to the young part of a person, “Happy people say happy things to other people, and unhappy people say unhappy things to them.”  As I attempted to explain why they were unfairly criticized or bullied, this explanation jumped out at me as very, very true.

It’s true of bullies…they are unhappy people who feel powerless, so they want to show their power to others by being superior to them in some way.  In recent times that can even mean taking away their lives as they shoot up their classmates at school.  Often mental illness contributes to an extreme situation such as killings in schools, but mental illness is part of what makes a person unhappy enough and distorted enough in thought and emotion to do such a thing.

In fact, I believe unhappiness is present in people who abuse in any way.  Why were bad things said and done to you as a child?  The people who did them were unhappy, and they spread unhappiness to you.

It was never about you.  Never.

Knock over a glass of milk, and milk comes out.  Knock over a glass of anger, and anger comes out.  Knock over a glass of love and understanding, and love and understanding comes out.

Of course, we can be difficult to love because of our own attitudes and actions, and we have to acknowledge our contributions to to the way that other people treat us.  But if the behavior is chronic, or without provocation, it is primarily because the other person is unhappy.  We may not need, or get, a more complete explanation than that in our lifetime.  That truth is the most fundamental dynamic, and more detailed explanations can only expound on it.

Finding our happiness is one of our basic tasks in life.  It may require professional help is trauma or disability is present, but we must do it nevertheless.

Good luck on your journey!


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Blaming your spouse for your self esteem

self-esteemYou are responsible for your self esteem.

It’s true.  Ultimately, we are all responsible to take the actions necessary to help us feel good about ourselves.  As children our parents were supposed to give us the feedback that helps us appreciate our strengths and have a healthy, realistic humility about our weaknesses.  When that happens we feel that we belong, have important things to offer others, and need others also.

When that goes awry, as it easily does, then we have to take up the task of building self esteem later and work on it for ourselves.  However, it easy to blame others when we don’t feel good about ourselves–and especially our spouses.

Who we spend time with certainly does affect our self esteem, so it’s inevitable that our spouses have a big effect on our self esteem.  They can make it easier or more difficult to have a good self esteem.  However, the ultimate responsibility to develop and maintain a healthy self esteem is our own.

I deal with this a lot when I treat husbands who have sex addiction, which is understandably destructive to the self esteem of their spouse.  However, five years later after the husband has put much effort into recovery and become much more effective in demonstrating love, honesty, and commitment some spouses will essentially hide behind their husband’s past behavior instead of addressing feelings about themselves they often had before they ever married.

There are too many aspects to building a good self esteem to cover here, but I do want to put forth the basic idea that we can and must take responsibility to develop a loving and healthy relationship with ourselves.  Trauma in childhood–and later in life–intrinsically hurts self esteem, as do the events that affect our physical appearance or ability to perform physically or mentally.  To combat this, having a rich circle of colleagues and friends is important, as is getting professional help when needed.

There are genuine obstacles to overcome in our work of feeling good about ourselves, but they must be addressed actively.  Your self esteem is a treasure that you possess.  Build it firmly and guard it carefully.


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Big feelings and little feelings–know which one your partner is having

Recentlybigfeelings in a therapy session I hit on an idea that seemed really helpful.  It is simple, as most helpful ideas are.  Here it is:  When your partner is upset, ask yourself, “Is this a big feeling or a little feeling that my partner is having?”

People are typically together because they love each other.  However, irritations and fears arise, and comments can be made that are real, but not central to the core of the relationship.

Example:  You walk in the door late from running errands and your spouse or partner yells at you: “You are always late.  You are so thoughtless!”

At this point, ask yourself, “Is this a big feeling or a little one?”  It may be big in the sense that your partner really means it in that moment.  But it does NOT mean that the bigger feeling–“I love you”–has gone away.

We have lots of feelings at once.  We love someone.  We are irritated at them.  We are worried about being late to an event, or that our efforts at making a good dinner will be thwarted by it getting cold.

Remembering that your partner loves you, and ultimately thinks you are a good person, is important when they are thoroughly irritated at you.  It will help you to be calm and respond in a way that improves your situation rather than hurts it.

Remembering your partner’s “big” feelings is a skill that can help you a lot.


P.S.  Of course, the opposite can be true…it is possible to underestimate the importance of a feeling when you shouldn’t.  Underneath, “You’re always late!” can be the feeling, “I want you to respect my efforts here at the house more.”  All feelings are important and should be attended to.  It’s just that when attending to the negative ones, remembering the bigger, more positive ones can help.

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