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Self-Interest is Not Selfish in Relationships

SOURCE:  Alli Hoff Kosik/The Gottman Institute

It’s hard to fault someone for being selfless.

We’re taught to put a high premium on kindness, generosity, and the needs of others. Sharing is one of the first lessons that many of us can remember learning as toddlers.

Making a decision based on our partner’s preference or going out of our way for a significant other — even when we’ve had a difficult day ourselves — is sort of the adult equivalent of letting a classmate borrow the crayon that we really wanted to use, no? At any age, these selfless acts are considered fundamentally good.

But that doesn’t mean that being in a relationship with a supremely selfless person is fundamentally easy.

What happens when a spouse’s unflinchingly self-sacrificing behavior is built, brick by brick, into a wall so airtight that it’s no longer possible to understand the interests and desires that they hold near and dear?

Maybe it’s as simple as your partner constantly deferring to you to choose the movie or restaurant, or perhaps they are always willing to talk through the challenges of your day, while never quite opening up about their own. Maybe you feel they are always telling you just what you want to hear.

These selfless acts may feel good in the moment, but over time, they’ll limit your ability to authentically connect in your relationship. You may never learn whether they really like Mexican food and comedies best, and you may always wonder if their political views could actually be so similar to yours.

Finding yourself in a constant state of agreement may grow frustrating — and you’ll likely find yourself questioning if your partner’s selfless behavior is too good to be true. (For your sake, we hope it’s not… but your concerns are perfectly valid!)

In extreme cases, you may even feel as if you are being stonewalled, which, according to Dr. John Gottman, happens when a listener withdraws from an interaction. Have you ever felt as if your partner’s conversational generosity was simply a tool to shut down the discussion and avoid becoming more fully engaged?

Jackie: Where should we go this weekend?

Jim: I’m happy to go wherever you want to go!

Jackie: That’s great, but I want us to decide together. What would be your perfect getaway?

Jim: I will go anywhere you want. Just say the word!

Even if this conversation is sealed with a kiss and plans for an amazing weekend trip, the fact remains that Jim’s selflessness comes with a side of disengagement — and there’s no way that this goes unnoticed for Jackie.

If you’re struggling to find a healthy balance of authenticity and honesty with your selfless partner, perhaps you need to consider working toward deeper, more intimate conversations with them — drawing out their core opinions, setting a standard for more intentional, open, engaged, and reciprocal communication. Dr. Gottman has three basic rules for intimate conversations:

1. Put your feelings into words
2. Ask open-ended questions
3. Express empathy

In order to draw your partner further into more connected conversations, I suggest focusing on the latter two tips. Practicing these skills in your day-to-day interactions may help your spouse to communicate more genuinely — dare we say selfishly? — with you. Here’s how you can apply these principles more specifically with your self-sacrificing special someone.

Ask open-ended questions

Start paying closer attention to the way you engage your partner in conversation. If they are more selfless than most, you may need to be especially careful to avoid the use of yes or no questions. After all, what selfless spouse wants to say “no” when their favorite person wants to hear “yes?”

Maximize your partner’s ability to assert their opinions and preferences — in their entirety — by keeping your questions to them wide open. You may need to do it more often than feels natural. Ask “What would you like to have for dinner tonight?” instead of “Should we go out for Mexican for dinner tonight?”

The results may not be immediate, but as you establish a more consistent pattern of open-ended questioning — about everything from restaurant choices to the best way to manage your finances — we’re willing to bet that your partner will begin to realize that you expect them to engage with you at a deeper level.

Reestablishing the ground rules for conversations in your relationship may take time, but it will pay off in the long run in the form of a deeper connection with your partner.

Express empathy

Perhaps your partner struggles with authentic self-expression because their innermost opinions have never been validated with any sort of intentionality. Assuming you’ve started asking your spouse more open-ended questions, they may have begun opening up about their true preferences and desires. The trick now is to turn toward them (as Dr. Gottman always says) by engaging more fully in the conversation.

Show your partner that what they’re saying makes sense to you. If your partner is only taking baby steps away from constant selflessness, take baby steps with them. You can even show empathy for something as simple as your typically deferential spouse’s admission that they prefer Italian food to Mexican food (bear with us, we know this sounds a little crazy).

“Oh, I totally understand that,” you can say. “I feel like we always get more for our money when we go out to that Italian place down the street. And they have a great bread basket! What’s the best Italian food you’ve ever had?”

Engaging with your partner in this way shows them that you are paying attention to theirneeds, and that you may be in agreement with them as often as they are in agreement with you! Start small by validating their restaurant preferences, and watch them become more comfortable asserting their input in more consequential situations.

Why You Can’t Change a Toxic Person

SOURCE:  Dr. Henry Cloud

When Katie broke up with her boyfriend, her crying troubled me. It didn’t seem like the normal pain of breaking off a relationship. That kind of grief is sad to be with, but I felt more disturbed at the tone of her sobs. There was a certain feeling of despair more than grief. I asked her about my concern, and she replied, “It just seems so hopeless. I thought he was ‘the one.’ Everything was so good, and I was wrong again. I don’t have any hope anymore.” I could see that the pattern of choosing men poorly had taken its toll on her. She was close to giving up.

I recalled the beginning of their relationship when she had told me how “wonderful” he was. This time she was sure. But, I also remembered being troubled even then. As charming and wonderful as he sounded, there were some scary things that were easily seen, if one were looking. What Katie saw was a person who was attractive, outgoing, witty, financially successful, etc. What I saw was a self-centered person who gave to get and would probably be unable to make a commitment to her in the end. I tried to warn her, but ultimately, she had to find out for herself.

And find out she did, when after pressing him a bit more for some kind of commitment, he began distancing himself more and more, ultimately to another woman. Katie watched “Mr. Perfect” go away, and with him her dreams for all that she had wanted. I had told her in the beginning that she was “flirting with danger” and that this guy was showing nothing worth committing to. But she continued to believe his charm, and gave more and more of herself — emotionally, spiritually and physically. And here she sat, with no one but herself to blame.

I felt sad for Katie, but did not share in her despair. I knew that if she could learn something that we do not hear enough about, evaluating character, then she would finally be able to find the things that she was looking for.

When evaluating people to share your heart with, ask yourself some questions about these issues:

  1. Are you able to be happy with the level of maturity the person now possesses, or are you hoping they will change? Many times people will see what is wrong, but think that the other person will grow out of it or that they can change them. You must be able to accept them for who they are at this very moment.
  2. Are you being honest with yourself about who they really are and what it really feels like to be in a relationship with them? Sometimes, either our wishes for who they are, our needs, or our past patterns can blind us to the reality of a person. Ask your close friends what they see and compare notes. Usually, they can see more clearly than you can.
  3. Do they possess the ability to see when they are wrong, confess it, apologize and then change their behavior? Your Creator does not require perfection, and neither should you. But, He does require us to own it when we are wrong, see how we have hurt Him or others, and then do something to change. You need to require the same thing in your relationships.
  4. Are there weak areas that you can live with over time in close friendship, dating or marriage, or are they areas that might break your ability to cope? We all have problems, but there are some issues that are too much for some people to handle, where they would have no trouble handling other faults. For example, if you were raised with perfectionistic parents and are still trying to recover from those hurts, do you want to be married to a perfectionistic person who repeats the cycle all over again? We cannot find perfect people, but we can find the imperfections that we can best live with.
  5. Are they a growing person who does not blame others, but instead is actively involved in the growth process? One of the saddest things that I see is when one person “hungers and thirsts” for righteousness and growth and is always trying to push the other along. Find someone you have to run to keep up with instead of someone you always have to goad into growing.

Remember, the time to evaluate character is before you get too deeply involved. Once you are involved, it is more difficult to get out. When the attachment deepens, so the reasoning weakens. I see a lot of people who instantly fall into things with people who are not OK, in relationships based more on fantasy than reality, and then find themselves in trouble. Give yourself and your heart to people who prove themselves trustworthy. You are then less likely to end up like Katie, flirting with and ultimately caught up in danger. Good character cannot produce bad fruit, and bad character cannot produce good fruit. Learn to tell the difference, and you won’t be disappointed.

5 Things Strong Families Have in Common

SOURCE:  Sanya Pelini

The perfect family is a myth. Every family experiences stress-provoking changes time and time again. Some families, however, are better able to cope with tough times. Science defines these families as “strong families.”

Several studies have found that strong families share similar characteristics. Here are five characteristics of strong families.

1 | Strong families spend time together

Families that spend time together are more likely to build stronger ties than those that don’t. However, that time doesn’t count if it’s spent sitting passively together in front of a screen. It also doesn’t count if it’s spent arguing. In other words, quality trumps quantity.

Reaching an ideal work-life balance is often a challenge for many parents. However, installing simple family routines can ensure that you get to hang out as a family even when you’re busy parents. Simple everyday activities such as playing games together, taking walks together, sharing meals, sharing household chores, watching a movie together, etc. help strengthen family bonds. There is evidence that having everyday or regular routines provides family members with roots and helps families overcome moments of stress.

What you can do to become a strong family:

  • Little pieces of time matter too. Take advantage of the moments spent in the car or in traffic to talk to your kids about your day and ask them about theirs.
  • Create your own family rituals.
  • Schedule “hang out time” in your to-do list.

2 | Strong families foster optimism

Positive psychology research has proven that strong families have positive emotions. They have a more optimistic outlook and believe that they are equipped to adapt to change. Strong families are able to “withstand and rebound from disruptive life challenges” and are also more ready to accept the things that cannot be changed.

What you can do to become a strong family:

  • Focus on solutions rather than on problems.
  • The book “Beliefs: The Heart of Healing in Families and Illness” states that “family belief systems powerfully influence how we view a crisis, our suffering and our options.” Considering challenges as opportunities to strengthen family bonds can make it easier to overcome life’s challenges
  • Explore all possible options when a problem arises.

3 | Strong families work on their emotion regulation skills

There is evidence that strong families consider stress and change normal and set up processes to help children adapt to changes and distressing situations. Strong families do not attempt to shield their children, but give them the skills to adapt to everyday situations as well as to traumatic life events. When families learn to regulate their emotions, there are more likely to respond effectively to traumatic experiences.

What you can do to become a strong family:

  • Develop your family’s emotion regulation skills. Emotion regulation means knowing how and when to express emotions in a respectful manner.
  • Provide your child with tools to manage his/her own strong emotions.
  • Teach your kids that while it is normal to experience strong emotions such as anger and anxiety, each individual is responsible for how he or she reacts to those emotions.
  • Teach your kids to respond appropriately to emotions by modeling these reactions yourself.

4 | Strong families promote open communication channels

Multiple studies have highlighted the importance of promoting open communication channels. A common characteristic of strong families is that they adopt an authoritative parenting style. Authoritative parenting requires parents to hold high expectations, but to also be flexible and attentive to their children’s needs. Children raised in such family settings are less likely to turn to drugs and also have better academic, social, and psychological outcomes.

What you can do to become a strong family:

  • Set realistic expectations for your kids. Expect neither too little nor too much.
  • Clearly communicate your expectations to your children.
  • Foster mutual respect.
  • Be flexible. Remember that you too were once a child.
  • Listen, then react.

5 | Strong families show their appreciation for each other

We are all the best versions of ourselves when we feel appreciated. In strong families, the members know that they are appreciated. They know that their family would not be the same without them. Showing our kids we appreciate them is also likely to reinforce positive behavior and it may even help them develop a positive sense of self.

What you can do to become a strong family:

  • Focus on your child’s positive behavior.
  • Give praise where praise is due.
  • Celebrate your family’s accomplishments.
  • Establish gratitude routines to celebrate family members.
  • Show your children you think they’re awesome.

5 Steps for Handling Life’s Frustrations

SOURCE:  Rick Warren

Many of our biggest mistakes in life can be traced to handling disappointment in unwise ways. In times when we’re emotionally low, it’s easy to slip back into the habits that wreaked havoc on our lives in the past. Sometimes, we just need better coping mechanisms!

Here are five simple steps for dealing with frustrations in your life, based on the Bible.

1.  Ask yourself, “Did I cause it?”

The Bible says, “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7 NIV). Many things in life frustrate us because we brought them on ourselves. We don’t have anybody else to blame.

It’s frustrating to run out of gas on a trip. But if you didn’t stop to get gas before you left, or decided to push your luck, who’s to blame?

2.  Ask yourself, “What can I learn from it?”

Use the irritation as an opportunity to grow in character and become more like Christ.

How does God produce the fruit of the Spirit in your life? He places you in the opposite situation. If God wants to teach you love, he will put you around unlovely people. If God wants to teach you peace, he will put you in a situation of total chaos so you can have inner peace.

Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him . . . ” (NIV). There are many bad things in the world, but all things work together and even the negative God can turn into a positive if we will let him.

3.  Thank God in the situation.

First Thessalonians 5:18 says, “In everything give thanks” (NKJV). You don’t have to be thankful for a bad situation. But you can be thankful in a bad situation. That frustration, that irritation, that inconvenience, that interruption, may be a blessing or an opportunity in disguise.

The apostle Paul wanted to go to Rome to preach, but God took him to Rome to be in prison and write the letters that formed the New Testament. Paul was frustrated, but God saw it as an opportunity to make him sit still long enough to write the Bible.

4.  Turn the frustration into a funny, humorous event.

The Bible says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine”  (Proverbs 17:22 NIV). A sense of humor is God’s antidote for anger and frustration.

5.  Ask God to fill you with his love.

Why? Because 1 Corinthians 13:5 says, [Love] is not easily angered” (NIV).  Love is self-giving, not self-serving. We get irritated because we think everyone and everything has to revolve around us. Love concentrates on the other person.

Jesus faced constant frustrations in his life, but he always made time for people. We get so preoccupied with our own things; we forget that people are the priority in life.

“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you” (Isaiah 26:3 NIV).

Be the Change You Wish to See in Your Relationship

SOURCE:  Terry Gaspard/Gottman Institute

Ben and Alicia are both waiting for the other person to change. I see it all the time in my private practice.

“I’ve been miserable for years,” complains Ben. “I’ve asked Alicia to give me space, but things don’t appear to be changing. It feels like I can’t breathe.”

“Ben has his friends over every weekend,” Alicia reflects. “He doesn’t consider my needs and I feel so alone.”

If you want your partner to change, start by accepting them for who they are. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman says, “People can change only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted the way they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated they are unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves.”

Instead of criticizing your partner, remind yourself of all of the things you appreciate about them, and share those things with them. Be genuinely interested in learning about why they see or do something differently than you, and be open to respecting and even celebrating what makes each of you unique.

Of course, there are some things that should never be tolerated in a relationship, like abuse, addiction, or infidelity. These behaviors should be addressed in a loving and direct way with the help of a professional. Even in those cases, it is possible to accept the person even if you do not accept their behavior.

Vulnerability and intimacy go hand in hand

What Ben and Alicia don’t realize is that they aren’t really arguing about the amount of time they spend together. The underlying issue in their marriage is that neither partner is able to express their needs in a non-blameful way.

They had never discussed what alone time and time together meant to each of them. By talking about this in my office, Ben finally understood Alicia’s fear of being alone. His understanding led him to carve out time to spend together on the weekends.

Couples seeking a deeper emotional connection need to understand that vulnerability and intimacy go hand in hand. In other words, intimacy can only occur when partners are vulnerable enough to share their deepest hopes, fears, and dreams without judgement.

Change starts with you

Do you spend more time questioning your partner’s words or actions than examining your own? Blaming your partner can feel good in the moment, but it’s dangerous because it can lead to anger and resentment.

Conflict is not a bad thing in relationships. After watching thousands of couples in his lab for over 40 years, Dr. Gottman discovered a simple truth: all couples argue. The difference between the couples that stay together and the ones who divorce is the way they repair after conflict. The Masters of relationships take responsibility for their role in the issue and change their own behavior.

Dr. Gottman explains, “The couples that don’t repair those hurts end up with festering wounds that grow bigger day by day, the month, and the year until they finally break the couple apart. Repair is absolutely crucial in any kind of relationship, particularly intimate relationships.”

Here are four things you can do instead of trying to change your partner that can change your relationship for the better.

1. Be a better partner
Many people stay in bad relationships with the desire to change their partner. In Marriage Rules, Dr. Harriet Lerner writes, “If you don’t change your part in a stuck pattern, no change will occur. Change comes from the bottom up: that is from the person who is in the most pain, or who has the least power, or who has lost or compromised too much in the relationship.”

2. Focus on the issues at hand
When you focus on changing your partner, you miss the opportunity to work together to come up with a solution. You’re no longer on the same team. Instead, focus on the issues at hand to meet both of your needs.

Anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and frustration, so speak in I statements and focus on expressing your feelings in a vulnerable way that invites your partner to understand your pain, rather than pushes them away.

3. Take responsibility
We are responsible for how our words and actions make our partner feel. Apologize to your partner by taking responsibility for the problem, even just a small piece, and this will validate their feelings, promote forgiveness, and allow you both to move on.

4. Complain without blame
In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. Gottman explains that criticizing your partner is one of The Four Horsemen that predicts divorce. It is different from offering a critique or voicing a complaint. A criticism attacks the core of a person’s character while a complaint focuses on a specific behavior.

Successful couples remember to give each other the benefit of the doubt and consider that they are both doing the best they can. In The Science of Trust, Dr. Gottman advices couples to talk about their feelings in terms of a positive need, instead of what they do not need. By being good friends, you can build a healthy bond that will help you repair and navigate challenging moments together.

There is a saying to be the change you wish to see in the world. Gandhi advises us, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” I believe this to be true in relationships as well.

Instead of trying to change your partner, be the change you wish to see in your relationship.

7 Ways To Protect Your Children From Sexual Abuse

SOURCE:  Joshua Straub

A few months ago, I spoke at an event on the principles of emotional safety, where a representative from the National Organization of Victim’s Assistance (NOVA) happened to be in attendance. Since then, we’ve been working together on a few projects and becoming good friends.

The mission of NOVA is to champion dignity and compassion for those harmed by crime or crisis. They work quite frequently on behalf of abuse victims.

One evening, my friend and I were carpooling back to our hotel from an event and I asked him a personal question.

As a dad,” I began, “how can I best protect my kids from sexual abuse?

Here are seven answers he gave me.

1.   Have surprises but don’t keep secrets. We don’t keep secrets in our house. We only have surprises. Think about it, secrets are never told. Surprises are always revealed. If I take our kids to get their mommy a birthday present, we’re not keeping it a secret from her; we’re getting her a surprise that will be revealed on her birthday.

Most child predators tell children that the acts are to be kept a secret between the two of them. If secrets are not allowed in your family, it’s unlikely for your child to buy in to someone asking them to keep something secret.

2.   Over 90% of perpetrators are people we love and trust. Aunts. Uncles. Stepmoms. Stepdads. Grandparents. Moms. Dads. Coaches. Teachers. Pastors. Family friends. Be vigilant of who your children are spending time with—or who wants to spend time with them.

3.   Trust your child’s instincts. If your child is skittish towards a relative or friend, don’t push or force him to like and trust that person. Too often we assume that since we trust that individual, our child should too. Allow trust to happen naturally over time and under your supervision. There could be a legitimate reason for your child’s apprehension of an individual. Don’t force it.

4.   Use the appropriate names for private parts. It’s not a “willy,” a “pee-pee,” or a “dingy.” Teach your son he has a penis. The same is true for our daughters. Calling a vagina by its proper name is important because sexual predators often use “cutesy” names to lure children. They need to learn the appropriate terms. If your children know the names of their private parts, they can more accurately, and with no confusion, tell you if it hurts or if someone touched that area inappropriately.

5.   Teach them the appropriate situations for private parts to be seen. Just as they need to be told the appropriate ways to speak to others, use a fork, or share toys, our kids need to learn the appropriate situations for private parts to be seen and touched by others. For the most part, this shouldn’t go beyond bath time at home with mom or dad or an examination at the doctor’s office.

6.   If your children ask questions, answer them. Don’t ignore or deflect questions they have about their penis or vagina. Our children are curious about everything, including their body parts. Ignoring their questions or concerns will only increase their curiosity and, at worst, lead to feelings of shame about their body, as if it’s something they shouldn’t discuss. Age-appropriately, answer their questions. Knowledge is power.

7.   They don’t have to hug and kiss everybody. There’s always the overzealous aunt or grandma in the family who wants to pinch cheeks and plaster lipstick all over our children. Many times we comply and force our poor kids to do this. If your child doesn’t want to give hugs and kisses to family members, neighbors, or friends, respect that boundaries and don’t force them. Lord knows, you probably don’t want to hug and kiss them either.

We Don’t Need “Mother” and “Father” Anymore?

SOURCE:  Amy K. Hall/Stand to Reason

The Huffington Post celebrates the idea that non-traditional families are breaking down our understanding of gender differences: “We aren’t mother or father anymore; we’re just parents.”

Gay and lesbian couples and single moms and dads by chance or choice embody changing ideas about sex and sex roles, they are also transforming the gender based definitions of parenting. They are challenging us all to reevaluate the terms of marriage. Along with single parents raising children, they are also transforming the nature of parenting — and showing how Americans have transcended the gender-based definitions of parenting. We aren’t mother or father anymore; we’re just parents….

Yes, the terms “mother” and “father” do still usually convey a biological distinction between who inseminates and who gives birth, but the rise of donor insemination and surrogate pregnancies open debate even on that.

Whether we acknowledge it willingly or not, the differing social roles the mother-father nouns once designated are rapidly converging. Certainly, there are still things that fathers undertake more than mothers, such as teaching a child to ride a bike. Some things often seem to fall more to mothers, such as arranging childcare. But each parent can, and does, tend to everything.

The differences between the sexes are more than just biological. And they certainly go beyond preferences for particular tasks. All you have to do is reflect on your own experience to see that this is so.

Did your father tend to enforce standards? Did your mother encourage emotional intimacy?

Did your father push you to mature? Did your mother tend to nurture?

The list could go on and on because the differences between the sexes are as deep as who they are, what they value, and how they relate to people. These differences show themselves not merely in the tasks each sex chooses, but in how each approaches any particular task. Of course either parent can do any task, but what they teach their children in and through the completing of each task will be different.

Men and women are complementary. The lessons learned from both parents are valuable and unique to the strengths of each sex, and children are in desperate need of both. The obscuring of this is not something to celebrate. But it’s exactly what must be done in order to promote same-sex marriage, so you can expect to see more of it.

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