September 2017

Tips on Obtaining Order in a Dysfunctional Relationship

Dysfunctional relationships can happen to anyone. You can have a dysfunctional relationship with a parent who may be struggling with an addiction, a sibling who has some mental health impairment, or an abusive partner with whom you are still emotionally invested. You feel as though boundaries are crossed in these relationships with impunity, more than you can tolerate. Conflicts don’t get resolved with these folks; sometimes, getting your point across seems impossible. In the end, no one wins with your attempts to resolve things, leaving you – once again – feeling hurt, betrayed, ignored, and frustrated.

Although it is best to get yourself away from chronically dysfunctional relationships, realistically, is not always possible. Sometimes we must face the difficulty of untangling yourself away from someone you are responsible for, emotionally attached to, or financially dependent on. Unfortunately, abandoning a harmful relationship is simply not an option for some; this leaves many feeling hopelessly stuck.

In situations where you cannot distance yourself from the dysfunctional relationship, Robert Taibbi offers some helpful suggestions. A licensed Clinical Social Worker for over 40 years, author of 300 articles and ten books including Fixing Families: Tools for Walking the Intergenerational Tightrope, Taibbi shares tips on managing your life while remaining embedded in a dysfunctional relationship:

  • Don’t feed the dragon: When emotions are high, do not continue engaging or explaining your perspective. Wait until the environment is calmer. Do not get lost in the need for the other person to understand you (when you are in an argument) because your point will be lost or rejected and you will only become more frustrated.
  • Don’t enable: When your dysfunctional relationship is with a person who struggles with addiction, Taibbi explains that “by your enabling you ultimately keep them from seeing the consequences of their behaviors and the power of their affliction”. This means that you should not take part in covering up for someone who is addicted when their addiction gets in the way of their responsibilities. No matter how painful it may be, do not protect someone that you care about from the consequences of their behaviors.
  • Don’t engage in magical thinking: Magical thinking is when you create a correlation between two unrelated things that happened at the same time to explain an event. As appealing as it may be for you to make sense of things in your dysfunctional relationship, it is not good to do this. It’s understandable for you to justify or rationalize what is happening to you; we are programmed to make connections. Even though magical thinking tends to lower our anxiety for a moment, these irrational conclusions do not benefit you; you are creating false explanation for coincidences instead of focusing on what actually occurred and why.
  • Don’t emphasize emotions, but behaviors: Of course you should have compassion for what someone may be struggling with or going through. That does not mean, however, that you should excuse people’s behavior. Empathize with the difficultly someone is feeling; nevertheless, do not make excuses for someone’s behaviors, especially if it is abusive behavior towards you.
  • Don’t be a victim: Do let a person brainwash you into believing hurtful things they say to obtain something from you. Do not let guilt from imagined responsibility set in too deep to the point that you won’t seek help if things get too dangerous. Remember that you are important and when a relationship gets to a point that you are no longer willing to tolerate – do not be scared to leave and seek help. Sometimes, survival mode is exactly what a person needs.

Being in a dysfunctional relationship is not easy. Leaving a dysfunctional relationship is not always an option for people. Conversely, losing yourself to someone who is trying to tear you down should not be a choice. Stay in control, do what you need to do, but stay focused on your own wellbeing.

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To Test or Not To Test…

By Dr. Dathan Paterno

Many times, people are asked about whether they or their child should be tested; sometimes it is referred to as “undergoing psychological evaluation” or some other similar phrase. Other times, a therapist will suggest that their client be tested (aka, evaluated). Quite often, this elicits a strong anxiety response, partly because many people don’t understand what psychological testing is for—and, conversely, what it is not for.

I evaluate children, adolescents, and adults for a number of reasons. Here are a few common examples:

  1. To understand someone’s strengths and weaknesses—what he/she is good at and not so good at—and comprehend how these might be getting in the way of some area of functioning, like relationships, work, or academics. Usually this involves guiding the treatment modalities that might be most helpful for an individual.
  2. To determine whether someone meets the criteria for a disorder so that that person can receive appropriate, individualized accommodations at work or at school. A good example is discovering whether someone struggles with a learning disorder or ADHD.
  3. On rare occasion, someone will ask me to determine whether they fit the criteria for a certain mental disorder, such as Bipolar Disorder, Attachment Disorder, or something else. Sometimes, this can be helpful in normalizing or validating a person’s experience and suffering.

As the reader can see, psychological testing answers questions. It is a bit like an x-ray: “Does the patient have a broken bone and where?” This helps the attending physician guide treatment. If there is no question to be answered, then psychological testing makes no sense.

Psychological testing can be quite complex. It involves gathering data from as many sources as possible, building hypotheses, then critically examining which hypotheses make the most sense and which are not supported by data.

Many psychologists focus their work on finding the “right” diagnosis. I do not. Because I am highly skeptical of the diagnostic manual (the DSM-5) and the validity of many of the current diagnostic categories, finding the right label for people is meaningless, except when that label helps someone secure services and help that otherwise would not be available to them.

Here are some other things that psychological testing is not:

  • Hunting for a diagnosis. I don’t care what label someone fits. The exercise of categorizing people is out of control in our culture and it is hurtful more often than helpful. People aren’t labels; they are humans who suffer. I want to understand a person’s suffering to help them, period.
  • Getting someone a “crutch” so they can get out of work (or school work). That is not the purpose of learning disability or ADHD evaluations.
  • Minimizing someone’s suffering by labeling it. People aren’t “depression” or “Bipolar”; to determine which category into which a person’s suffering falls can sometimes be helpful, but it must be balanced with the possibility of stigma and self-defeating behaviors and hopelessness, all of which are quite possible with a mental health diagnosis. This is why I avoid labels except when necessary and when the client can benefit from it and desires it.

If you are considering psychological testing and/or your therapist suggests it, feel free to ask your therapist questions about the purpose of testing and the confidentiality of the process/results. Alternatively, you may e-mail me with questions and concerns about whether you or your child would benefit from psychological testing.

Were you the one that was left behind?

The end to any relationship can be challenging; the depth and complexity of the challenges depend on the quality of the relationship, as well as the end. Ideally, an ending to a relationship is mutual, where both partners realize it is time to move on. Both parties take the knowledge they obtained about themselves in the terminated relationship and make improvements for the next relationship.

The challenges are compounded when you are the one left, while you do not feel the relationship should end. The confusion of a why the relationship ended is overwhelming for some – leaving them feeling abandoned and hopeless to find love again. This is especially for those who define themselves based on the relationships they have; for this personality type, a bad ending to a relationship shatters their self-worth or self-esteem. It only gets worse if one is the left in multiple romantic relationships.

Dr. Randi Gunther, a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor for over 40 years and the author of Rediscovering love, explains the top ten reasons why it is difficult for the partner that was left behind to move on.

  1. Innate Insecurity – Anxiety rises after a relationship ends because it represents a loss. Change is not easy for everyone, especially if someone you trusted to be present is no longer in the picture.
  2. Topping out – If you perceive your partner as perfect and your relationship is idyllic, when it ends abruptly, it can be devastating. Many find it so impossible to find someone as ideal that moving on becomes seemingly impossible.
  3. Childhood Abandonment Trauma People who grow up with an insecure attachment to caretakers tend to mirror this in future romantic relationships. Trust comes hard for these folks from the beginning, and when they do trust someone and end up getting left, it is a sequel of the painful trauma they experienced as a child.
  4. Fear of Being Alone – People with this fear often get attached quickly and strongly to their partners, putting a lot of strain on the relationship – ultimately the behaviors that come from that fear is what drives the relationship apart and causes their worst fear to come to fruition.
  5. Relying Only on One’s Partner for Self-Worth – This is very dangerous territory for anyone. If you let one person have complete control on how you see yourself and your relationship does not end well, you value and self-esteem will plummet.
  6. Fear of Failure – Here, the one that gets left behind takes all the blame on themselves and believes that if they had only done more and put in more effort, their relationship would have been successful.
  7. Romantic Fantasizers – Living in a fantasy world is not helpful when real problems arise in a relationship. As Dr. Gunther stated, “When the normal disruptions of life intervene, romantic fantasizers see them as only temporary obstacles and don’t take them seriously. When a romantic fantasizer wants to hold onto bliss at any price, the other partner often feels unseen and unknown, and eventually will seek a more realistic encounter.”
  8. Undying Love – When a relationship ends and one person remains committed to loving the one who left, it makes it impossible to find a new relationship because the love they lost was perfect in their eyes; therefore, no one will ever be good enough.
  9. Unmatched Hole Fillers – There are many facets to a relationship. When one sees a part of a relationship so perfect and satisfying—even though all others are lacking—one is willing to sacrifice anything just to have the one part that brought so much fulfillment.
  10. The Truly Agonized Stalkers – Some simply cannot let go. They do not have an idea of where else to be or go and no matter how much pain and rejection they receive from the partner that has already left, they continue to pursue them and love them unconditionally.

To move forward to the work starts with you! Whatever the underlying reason is that you cannot move past a failed relationship, a trusted counselor can meet you where you are and shepherd you towards a healthy future.

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Five-Step Essential Relaxation Strategy

Knowing the best ways to relax encourages taking the time to allow for your body to relax. This serves many physical and mental health benefits. It is far too easy to get caught up in the business and fast pace of life; sometimes, days can go by while you have yet to take a second to stop and assess you emotional well-being. Our bodies are not built to survive under stress for long periods of time without a break; our bodies need time to heal and regenerate from the strain that has already been put on it from daily frustrations and tension. You cannot ignore your emotions, especially if they are at a point where you have lost control of them.

Relaxing is a challenge, especially if you are a tech savvy person. It’s hard to put our phones down or turn the television off – basically we have included those activities in the category of “restful and relaxing”. Unfortunately, most people do not relax, take the time to calm down; similarly, most don’t plan or prepare to calm down during times likely to be strenuous or stressful. Sadly, most people are unaware that they are wearing out their bodies – they have never been taught to pay attention to the symptoms.

Dr. Will Meek, a counseling psychologist in Vancouver, Washington, and the author of Note to Self, lists five steps that will bring you relaxation and get your body and mind back to balanced state. Meek states that once understanding physiology and the effects of stress, you are likely to pay close attention to triggers and what or who could potentially trigger you. When you see yourself feeling intense negative emotions such as stress, follow these five steps:

Step 1: Orienting – look around the room. Name things in your head as you are looking around. This helps you take step away from your ties with whatever emotion you were first feeling. Allow for that emotion not to control you while you think clearly.

Step 2: Grounding – Pay attention to your senses: what do you smell, are you touching anything right now, or what the environment feels like overall? Be aware of your present moment and settlings.

Step 3: Slowing – Be careful and give yourself time with this part because it may bring you back to your original frustration. Dr. Meek explains that you have to “sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the floor, and close your eyes. Once you are settled and notice your breathing, inhale through your nose for a count of 4, hold it for a count of 7, exhale through your mouth for a count of 8, and repeat.”

Step 4: Coaching – Be your own cheerleader. Tell yourself it will be OK and you will be just time.

Step 5: Emerging – During this step you bring yourself back into the world. Except this time you are not behaving based on an intense emotion; you will be acting from knowledge and smarts.

Please keep in mind: self-care goes hand-in-hand with relaxation and should be on everyone’s “to-do” list every week. Of course, we always have other important things to do, but when it will be time to focus on yourself and your own personal health and well-being?

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