How to Deal with Difficult Family Members

It's time for a quick pep talk! 

You are in charge of who you let into your life.  Just because someone is a blood relative does not give them the right to be in your life.  They must EARN the right to be in your life, to have access to you.  Do they inspire, support, encourage, and uplift you?  Or, do they just make you feel badly about yourself, physically hurt you, put you down, or yell at you often?  Are they harsh, judgmental, and critical? 

Evaluating if someone is an asset to your life, or a detriment, is hard to do.  There are specific behaviors that are easier to identify as toxic, such as physical or verbal abuse.  Insidious behaviors like always trying to one-up you, put you down, or calling you names can be just as harmful if you hear these messages long enough.  I encourage you to ask yourself if you feel better or worse after spending time with someone.  If you find you feel worse on a consistent basis, I would suggest setting limits with those difficult family members.  Limit your time with them or limit their access to you as a way to begin to stand up for yourself.  Limits could be anything from:  

-not talking on the phone for more than 10 minutes at a time, or only in person with a trusted friend present 

-designating certain topics (such as your partner, education, or job) as off limits for discussions 

-only seeing them in public.   

Let your family member know that these are your limits and if they don't respect them, that you will not continue to have contact with them.  For example, if you've decided your job is an off-limits topic for your aunt to talk to you about, then when she begins to lecture you about it, perhaps you get up and leave the room.  WARNING: Setting limits with anyone will take consistent effort to enforce.  Those close to you who are used to saying whatever hurtful or harmful thing they want will be confused by your new limits.  They will think you are joking or won't really follow through.  They will test you to see if you are serious.  So, just setting limits is not the solution.  You MUST FOLLOW THROUGH WITH WHATEVER YOU DECIDE!  Make sure you can follow through and do what you say if you are going to set limits.  Perhaps start small, with things you know you can be successful. 

It is your responsibility to look out for and advocate for yourself, because, as an adult, no one else will do that for you. Ask yourself: “Has this person earned the right to be in my life?" 

The positive side of this is that you can create a "family" of loving people surrounding you, regardless of if they are biologically related to you or not.  Surround yourself with those who you trust, who care for you, and who want the best for you.  Having cheerleaders around you can be inspiring and encouraging, especially when setting and enforcing limits with difficult people.  

If you feel comfortable sharing, I'd love to hear if you have successfully set boundaries with difficult family members. 

Let's Talk Letters: A Quick Guide To The Letters After Our Names

I realize in the counseling field there are a lot of acronyms, and I thought it might be helpful to write about what all those letters mean.  Although it’s shorthand everyone in this field uses, I think we just assume others understand it too.  The world of therapy can seem so cryptic, because it’s hard to know what goes on in a therapy office unless you’ve actually been there.  I want to try to help explain things in this field, and part of that is educating others about things as simple as the letters after our names.  The credentials become more and more specific as you have more training.  Think about it like a path, and with each turn you are getting to a more specific location.

Let’s talk letters!

General Counseling Field:

In general, therapists diagnose and treat mental disorders, and address problem behaviors. 

MS, MA: Master’s degree in either science (MS) or arts (MA) -  Someone in the counseling field may have either of these designations, depending upon how their school classified their program.  This means that the person completed 4 years of their Bachelor’s degree, and then did another 2-3 years in a Master’s program.  This helps narrow their focus and deepen their training on a specific topic, so they are then a “Master” at that topic.

LPC:  Licensed Professional Counselor – This is the highest level of training someone with a MS or MA can receive after completing a certain amount of hours of supervised work and passing a clinical exam.

Social Work:

In general, social workers focus on helping people cope with their everyday lives.  This includes connecting them to resources, advocacy, and treating and diagnosing mental disorders.

MSW: Master’s degree in social work -  Someone would receive their Bachelor’s in social work, then get their MSW.

LSW: Licensed social worker – After receiving a MSW, someone would pass an exam to achieve this designation.

LCSW: Licensed Clinical Social Worker -  For a Social Worker, this the highest level of training they can achieve after completing a certain amount of hours of supervised work and passing a clinical exam.

Other categories:

MFT: Master’s degree in marriage and family therapy – Someone who has extensive training in family dynamics and relationships.

LMFT: Licensed marriage and family therapist – Received supervision beyond their Master’s degree.

CADC: Certification as a Drug and Alcohol Counselor – This person has been trained regarding drug and alcohol use.  This is not a Master’s degree, but this person has a Bachelor’s degree and then received further training.

RPT: Registered Play Therapist – This person received additional training beyond a Master’s degree to use play therapy with young children as a way to express themselves.

A few other things to note:

Some insurance companies will allow any Master’s level clinician to offer therapy.  Some require a license beyond the Master’s degree.  This is why you have to verify with your insurance to make sure who you are seeing or want to see has the appropriate credentials that your insurance will cover.

This is just a basic introduction on the acronyms within the counseling field, and there are a few other less common acronyms I didn’t cover (especially for children in play therapy and BHRS).  And, there might be some exceptions to what I’ve shared.

Please let me know if you have specific questions and I’d be happy to address that.

Practicing Gratitude

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” —Oprah Winfrey

“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.” —Zig Ziglar

Gratitude is often a word we hear thrown around near Thanksgiving time, but I think it is something we should talk about more often. Gratitude is more than just something related to turkey dinners.  Gratitude is being thankful and grateful for what is present in your life, rather than focused on what is missing.  Practicing gratitude can help change your perspective.  In one of my favorite books, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl writes,

“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes - within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”

Frankl is saying is our decisions, how we behave and what we focus on, then determines who we become.  Wouldn’t you rather become someone who sees possibilities, who believes in and looks for the good in the world, who can uplift another with a smile?  I know I would like to be this kind of person.

To practice gratitude on a more regular basis, why not start to keep a daily gratitude journal?  You can write 3-5 the things you are grateful for that day, or something that you are proud of yourself for accomplishing.  This can help shift your thinking from negative to positive, and help you to notice the good things in your life.  Try to think of things unique to the day, rather than repeating the same basic things like food or shelter.

I’m grateful I was able to have coffee with my friend today.

I’m grateful the kids slept all night in their beds last night.

I’m grateful that my spouse folded and put away the towels yesterday.

I’m grateful I have a job.

I’m proud of myself that I called and made a doctor appointment (even though I hate talking on the phone).

I’m grateful to have one kind neighbor who said good morning to me today.

It might initially be hard to come up with 3-5 things that are positive every day.  So, aim for one or two.  After that becomes easier, than increase to 3-5 things for every day.  To go a step farther, you can elaborate on these daily gratitudes by journaling more about your day, and how you feel.  Especially on days that are harder, journaling more might be a good idea to help you process your day.

For those of you who want more physiological details about how gratitude can shift our perspective, google and read about the Reticular Formation and Reticular Activating System (RAS). Basically, focusing on the positives rather than the negatives tells this part of your brain, responsible for conscious awareness and attention, that positive things are important to notice.

This increased attention applies to anything though, not just positive things.  For example, a few years back I was looking to getting a new car.  I was set on getting a Nissan Maxima, and because I told my RAS that these were important cars, I began to notice them everywhere I went!  It's not that all of a sudden there were more Nissans on the road.  They were always there.  Previously, my brain had just decided they weren't important to notice.  But, once I started researching them, my brain picked up on the fact that they WERE important to me, and I started to see them everywhere! Ah, the power of our brains!  (The neuroscience nerd in me loves this brain stuff!)

How can you express more gratitude in your daily life?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

More Tips on Sleeping Well, part 2

As a follow up to last week's blog post on tips for sleeping well, I wanted to share a recent article on the same topic.  This article discusses 12 ways to improve your "sleep hygiene" (which is just a fancy way of saying anything that helps your sleep).  I'm excited that some of the tips I've shared with you last week are included in this article! I will offer a quick snapshot of the ways to improve your sleep, but also suggest you read the full article for more detail.

Tip #1 to improve your sleep hygiene: Go to sleep at the same time every day

Ideally, your sleep/wake time shouldn't vary by more than one hour.  Yes, I know that you look forward to sleeping til noon on a Saturday, but in the big picture of "sleep", this can do more harm than good.  Try to wake up and go to sleep at about the same time every day.

Tip #2: Reserve your bed for sleep (and sex)

Don't watch tv in bed, or do work in bed, because then your brain will associate your bed with more stimulating things than sleep.

Tip #3: Unplug

This is one of my biggest suggestions (see my #5 tip)!  Turn off electronics to allow your body the opportunity to naturally produce melatonin, which will cause you to feel sleepy.

Tip #4: Be active during the day

Living an active lifestyle, or exercising can help you to sleep better.

Tip #5: Watch what you eat (and drink) at night

5 Tips on Sleeping Well

Do you have trouble falling asleep?  Does your mind seem to race even after you climb into bed?  Do you have worries on your mind that prevent you from easily falling asleep?  Do you toss and turn, finding you can't shut your mind off?  Or, do you sleep ok, but wake up and find you are still tired?

You are not alone!  Trouble sleeping (difficulty falling asleep and/or sustaining sleep) is something that I've noticed many people struggle with.  Or, maybe you are able to fall asleep easily now, but you've had times in the recent past when you couldn't fall asleep no matter how tired you were.  The Sleep Foundation (https://sleepfoundation.org/media-center/press-release/lack-sleep-affecting-americans-finds-the-national-sleep-foundation) reports that 45% of Americans said they had difficulty sleeping in the past week, with women struggling with insomnia more than men.  Good quality restorative sleep is so important for us to function at our best!  It is necessary for memory consolidation, helps reduce our risk of certain diseases like heart attacks and diabetes, and improves our decision making.

'Sleep hygiene' is the fancy term for any practice that helps you to sleep well consistently.  I suggest the following tips, which can be especially helpful for the ones who suffer with anxiety and racing thoughts at bedtime:

1-Use a sound machine.  Any sound, whether it’s white noise or rain softly falling, can help block out other extraneous sounds.  The soothing, repetitive nature of any sound machine track can help you relax.  There are even apps (Relax Melodies, or Sound Machine) available that have tracks of the rain forest, a babbling brook, or birds chirping that you can use for free.

2-Keep your bedroom cool and dark.  Use blackout curtains if you need it.  Conversely, when it is morning time, open up the curtains immediately, as the sunlight can help jumpstart your day and give you energy.

3-Limit naps to 15-30 minutes at most.  Skip naps if at all possible, because you most likely won't be ready for bed at your typical bed time. 

4-Have a consistent sleep/wake time.  Even if it’s the weekend, or your day off, it’s best to wake up within 1 hour of your normal wake time to not throw off your bed time that night.  And, go to bed at approximately the same time every night.

5-(THIS ONE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT!) Create a relaxing bedtime routine that includes no electronics.  Just as children crave routine, especially at bedtime, we do too!  A routine (like bath, pjs, read a book, and bedtime for kids) helps our brains to understand what is coming next.  Your brain will learn to expect that soon you'll want to fall asleep.  So, starting at least one hour prior to bedtime, turn off all electronics (yes, this includes your iPad, computer, tv and cell phone).  Some of these electronics have a “nighttime” lighting setting, but any light that they emit can prohibit your brain from naturally producing the melatonin that signals your body that you are tired.  Take a warm bath or shower.  As your body temperate decreases from the bath or shower, you will naturally become drowsy.  Take some time to journal your thoughts, or work on a crossword puzzle.  Read.  Crochet.  Do Sudoku.  If you turn off your phone, you’ll find you have time to do some of the things you previously did in the non-digital age, while promoting good sleep habits.

Give some of these a try and let me know what works for you!

Let's Start This Journey Together!

I decided I wanted to start to blog, as a way to offer some insights, thoughts, tips to more than just my clients.  I often see patterns in my sessions, certain topics that come up from multiple clients, and thought it might be helpful to share with you!  I also want to provide information on improving your mental health or maintaining good mental health, addressing topics that maybe are not completely understood or talked about often.  I want to help fight the secrecy and shame that is often portrayed in seeking therapy services.  Unless you have been in therapy, you might not know what really happens behind closed doors.  And, I’ve found, we tend to be scared of what we don’t know!  

Additionally, I challenge my clients to grow and change in areas in which they desire, and writing this blog is my challenge for myself!  I figured it wasn’t fair to talk about growth, and doing things you are afraid of, if I didn’t take my own advice!  My writing style is very formal, due to years of schooling and graduate training.  I was trained to write scientific research papers, and never really developed a conversational style of writing.  My area of growth is to be more relatable (and, less stuffy) with my writing.  I am going to use this blog to grow!  I ask for your grace and understanding as I go along, and as I learn.

I also ask for feedback from you.  What do you want to read or learn about?  In what ways could I make things easier for you to understand?  So, please, make comments, ask questions....I want to help make mental health easier to talk about.

I look forward to learning with you!  Stay tuned....my next few blog posts will be covering good sleep habits, dealing with difficult family members, and anxiety.