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Licensed Psychologist

How and When to Say No

Originally published at PsychCentral.com Many of us hesitate to say no to others. With mindful tips like these, saying no is an emotionally intelligent skill anyone can master — really! It’s just two letters, and yet saying no can feel really hard — even complicated. For many of us, saying no doesn’t just feel awkward. It feels wrong. So, whenever anyone asks you to do almost anything, you might blurt out, “Yes! Sure! Of course! Happy to!” But in reality, you may feel the opposite. Maybe you’d rather be doing about a thousand other things. Or maybe you’re OK with saying yes, but it’s not the best thing for your daily bandwidth or mental health. Here’s the good news: Saying no is a skill you can sharpen. The more you say no, the more natural it’ll feel. Here are several ways to build the skill of saying no in different situations — even if it feels like you’re doing it from the ground up.

Why saying no feels hard

For starters, it’s important to realize that if saying no is challenging for you, you’re not alone. As social psychologist Dr. Vanessa K. Bohns writes in a 2016 research review examining people’s influence over others, “Many people agree to things — even things they would prefer not to do — simply to avoid the considerable discomfort of saying ‘no.’” For example, a series of small studies, published in 2014, found that when asked, many people would acquiesce and commit unethical acts, such as telling a white lie or vandalizing a book — even when they felt these acts were perceived as wrong. As social creatures who want to be part of the herd, we also want to preserve our relationships. So, we might blurt out yes because we don’t want to be seen as difficult, says Dr. Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Coa, an online mental fitness club. Or, we don’t want to disappoint a good friend or hurt someone’s feelings, notes Dr. Nicole Washington, a board-certified psychiatrist and the chief medical officer of Elocin Psychiatric Services. Another reason yes pours out of us? Our past. According to Anhalt, while growing up, you might’ve not learned to advocate for yourself. “It’s also possible that you say yes because you deeply want to help. But you forget that your ability to accommodate others isn’t an endless well,” Anhalt says. In other cases — like a work situation — we might worry that saying no says something about our ability to accomplish a certain task, adds Washington. Put another way, we think declining makes us look incompetent.

Why saying no is a good — no, great — thing

When you struggle with saying no in personal or professional situations, it helps to remember the self-preservation in passing things up. “Saying no is one of the best forms of self-care we can engage in,” Washington says. She notes that saying no supports us in: Ultimately, saying no gives us greater navigation over our lives, says Anhalt. This grants us the opportunity to build a fulfilling, meaningful life on our own terms. After all, we can only have power over ourselves — so, let’s exercise that power. Read the full article at PsychCentral.com

How to Identify and Deal with Gaslighting

Originally published at PsychCentral.com Gaslighting can cause intense self-doubt, no matter who's doing it. How can you respond to this behavior? Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that can cause you to doubt your memory, opinions, and even your sanity. It's a tactic some people use to gain power and control over others. Romantic relationships aren't the only situations where gaslighting can occur. It can also happen:
  • in a parent-child relationship
  • in the workplace
  • between family members
On a larger scale, political and authoritative figures have been known to gaslight entire societies. Research suggests that gaslighting behaviors can be rooted in gender and social inequalities. It tends to be common in intimate relationships where there's a power imbalance. It often happens gradually, as well. So you might not realize you're dealing with gaslighting until you begin to wonder why you're experiencing so much confusion, anxiety, and low self-esteem. If you've been experiencing gaslighting for a while, you might start to feel depressed, helpless, and indecisive as a result of the manipulation. One thing to remember in this cloud of confusion is that gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse — if you've experienced gaslighting, it's not your fault. And you're not the only one. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Trusted Source suggest that more than 43 million women and 38 million men in the United States have experienced some type of psychological abuse or aggression by an intimate partner. But how can you tell if someone is gaslighting you, and is there a way to confront it?

Read the full article

Working From Home with Your Partner: How to Thrive vs. Survive

We've all heard the saying that familiarity breeds contempt; it's sure not something we'd like to apply to our marriage and relationships. However, my guess is you've never been in a pandemic with your partner before.  Staying at home, living together, working together, day and night, with most likely tons of fear and uncertainty as the sky has been falling. What do we do when we feel irritated and triggered by our partner as we traverse these unknown times? As my couples will tell you, one of the things I'm big on is getting couples to a place of zero tolerance for expressing irritation with each other.  Read the full article at imagorelationshipswork.com »

Growing a Healthy and Loving Relationship

Re-posted from an article by Jeannie Ingram, LPC-MHSP Valentine's Day just passed and love is in the air. Not for everyone, unfortunately. As a therapist, I'm often needed when love is no longer in the air. A heart has been broken, and love has turned cruel. Or the pain of loneliness has become unbearable. Only occasionally do people seek therapy when love is blooming like the daffodils. But take heart. Like the words in so many songs, love is indeed the answer; it always has been, and always will be. It's the question that needs examining, that question being, "who do you love"?

Love Yourself First

People often give their love to another before they've ever truly explored what it means to love themselves, and this can be a setup for problems in the relationship. Why? Because until you truly deem yourself worthy of love, you may sabotage the love of another, finding it difficult to trust. It's like building a mansion on quicksand. It may be beautiful at first, but after a short time, it will likely disappear. To experience a sustained, loving relationship with another, you must have a sustained, loving relationship with yourself to receive love with an open and undefended heart. I am not talking about narcissism, which is an ego-inflated sense of self-importance. I'm referring to a healthy and loving understanding of self and truly knowing that your value is at least that of others. All of us have equal value. Believe it or not, many people struggle with this. For some, it's due to leftover childhood shame or negative messages that program us into thinking something is wrong with us or that we're not worthy of love. Again, if we didn't get it as children, it's hard to trust when it tries to come into our adult life.

Love is a Verb

Love is about action. Love is about caring behaviors. Many people believe love is a feeling, and it certainly can be. Still, that feeling is ultimately the result of how we demonstrate our love in both giving and receiving. To expect the feeling of love without actively nurturing it through everyday actions is like expecting fruit from a non-existent tree. If we want to grow the fruit of love, we must first take the action steps of planting and nurturing the tree. Then we can expect the fruit or the feeling of love to blossom.

Tips to Grow the Love Tree

  • Find ways to express your love, and don't be confused by advertising messages. 
  • Spending money to show your love is unnecessary. 
  • Showing love through your language, thoughtful, caring behaviors, and realistic expectations. 
  • Replacing demands with requests and appreciations allow the flow of love.
  • Refrain from language that criticizes, condemns, disparages, and shames. It will create misery, not love. Instead, reframe into expressions of desire, encouragement, and gratitude.
  • Try seeing mistakes as opportunities for redemption and forgiveness rather than punishment.
  • Try seeing yourself as a human being who, like everyone else, is searching and worthy. 
  • Practice random acts of kindness toward yourself, as well as toward strangers.
This is the way we should all be treated, and no one, not even you — should be an exception. Because, like being in love, it sets you up for inner peace, success, and joy in life. Who doesn't want that?  When you have love and peace toward yourself, you're much more likely to attract and maintain genuine love with another person. So this Valentine's Day, may I suggest that you give yourself the gift of loveBegin by looking in the mirror and seeing the person who most deserves it. And love that person with your whole heart and your actions. Love is, after all, the answer.

Dealing with Difficult Feelings to Help Yourself & Your Relationships

Re-posted from an article by Deborah Fox, M.S.W. How to manage difficult emotions may seem counterintuitive to many people. We humans don't like to be uncomfortable or in emotional pain. How many times have you been told or tell yourself the following:
  • "buck up."
  • "don't wallow."
  • "move on." 
  • "don't feel sorry for yourself."
  • "think of how many others have it worse than you."
Plenty, I'm sure. The conventional wisdom of our culture is full of "think positive thoughts." The problem is that this wisdom doesn't chart the path we need to follow to that end. The answer to managing difficult feelings, we have to feel them before moving on and regaining our optimism and good cheer. This isn't easy. What may become common parlance, "oh, it's a total 2020," meaning a downer, things couldn't get much worse, is indicative of what many of you are experiencing. We are still in the middle of an uncontrolled pandemic, climate change, and political conflict. How can you not feel sad, or worry, or despair some days? Maybe your distress isn't about current times. Perhaps you struggle with a host of other uncomfortable feelings such as feeling unimportant, insecure, or anxious on an ongoing basis. For many people, the stress of what's going on in the world now exacerbates those feelings.

Managing Positive and Negative Feelings.

Our emotional system is not designed to feel positive feelings only and remove negative ones. That would be nice, but it just isn't so. To find our joy in simple pleasures and with those we're most connected to, we also have to feel our way through the tough ones. The key is to build your tolerance for feeling these difficult feelings and turn towards each other for connection and support. We are social creatures, and we need each other to go through the middle of turmoil to come out the other side.  Tuning into these difficult feelings will inevitably make you feel more vulnerable simply because you will not push the discomfort away. This is a challenge because feeling more vulnerable is uncomfortable, too. However, it's in that state of vulnerability that you can truly connect with another human being. You'll feel less alone, and you can walk through these uncertain times together, rather than just coping in separate silos.  There are moments--- milliseconds that you can grab before they slip away. These are the moments when you can identify that you're feeling down, worried, or despairing. When you're trying to "move on" or distract yourself, you'll find yourself feeling more and more blah or irritable---the perfect hiding places for vulnerable feelings. If you succeed in identifying that you're feeling sad or anxious at the moment, sit there with it. "Sitting with it" means naming it, feeling it, and not allowing yourself to prematurely make it go away by distracting yourself or starting an argument with a loved one. You will feel uncomfortable and vulnerable--- take a deep breath and stay there in that feeling. This sitting with the uncomfortable feeling allows you to know what affects you that you lose touch with when you shut down on the feelings.

Uncomfortable Feelings Have a Lifespan. 

It might be five minutes or five hours, and it may come and go. It's sitting with the feelings that allow you to build your tolerance for feeling vulnerable. You build it slowly, bit by bit. The more tolerance you have, then you can allow its life span to run its course. If you distract yourself by grabbing your phone or turning on the TV, it'll just go underground and lie in wait to ruin your mood for days on end.  Sitting with the feeling allows you to express, usually in a way your partner, or a close friend, can hear and empathize. Their ears open when they listen to you speak from that place of vulnerability. Feeling this connection is what can most alleviate the intensity of the discomfort. It won't make the pandemic uncertainties or anything else go away, but it can allow you to feel less alone. Feeling less alone goes a long way to walking through any crisis feeling stronger. Shutting down or arguing happens so easily because it's a momentary relief from the discomfort. The energy of arguing or the numbness of withdrawing doesn't feel great either, but it can be preferable to feeling vulnerable.  If you're already angry or withdrawn, ask yourself, "what else am I feeling, or what was I feeling earlier?" Maybe not immediately, but this question will allow you to pinpoint what feelings are hiding just below the surface. You know you're irritated, but you might be able to identify that you were anxious before you got annoyed. Then you can choose to sit with the anxiety.

Difficult Feelings are a Normal Part of Life. 

This is always true, but these uncertain times are causing tremendous turmoil and challenging our usual coping ways. What's critical is not to allow these feelings to overwhelm us. We're outside of our comfort zone, and we need to grow that zone to go forward and be able to grapple with what comes our way. We can't do it alone. Turning towards one another will serve us well and allow us to come out the other side to experience joyful moments amidst uncertainty.

Healthy Love vs Unhealthy Love

Originally posted at ImagoRelationshipsWork.com Falling in love and staying in love both require giving a part of yourself away, but healthy love is not demanding or uncompromising.
  • Healthy love allows you to be your best self and socialize with colleagues, friends, and family.
  • Healthy love is not controlling or dependent.
  • Healthy love is ever-changing and growing in subtle ways.
  • Positive love encourages and is kind and thoughtful of the other. It is honest and supportive.
  • If you are in love with someone who requires you to alter your personality, goals or wants you all to themself, this is not healthy.
  • If you are staying in a relationship purely because you are afraid of being alone, this is not real love.
  • When either of the partners in a relationship is always controlling or untruthful, this is unhealthy.

In a healthy relationship, communication and honesty are vital players.

There is lots of trust and little room for jealousy. Jealousy is a tricky emotion. It can fool people into thinking - "He must love me because he is jealous." Unless your partner has given you a reason to feel jealous, for example, he/she is a chronic liar, has been caught cheating, you should be able to manage your jealous feelings. It's normal to feel a twinge of jealousy on occasion. If you are experiencing jealousy 24/7, you need to look into the reasons. Often jealousy is a sign of insecurity or lack of knowing and accepting yourself. Healthy love includes loving yourself, as well.

If you are obsessed with the person you love and have no interest in spending time with anyone else, that is not healthy.

Most of us want to spend a good portion of our time with the person we love, yet there needs to be a balance. Each of us needs to cultivate friendships that are healthy, genuine, and interesting. Obsessive love is all-consuming and is based on negative emotions such as fear, jealousy, anxiety. In healthy relationships, you can disagree without fear of the person leaving or retaliating. It is not normal or healthy to feel you have to be agreeable all of the time, or else. Loving another is about the give and take. Lopsided love is unbalanced.

When two healthy people are in love, their relationship does not wholly define them.

You want to be developing yourself, both interior and exterior. If all of your self worth is wrapped up in your relationship, this is not healthy. Partners each bring something to share at the table. If you have neglected yourself, it is time to rediscover who you are as an individual. Develop your likes and passions, give yourself credit, take risks, and make changes that are important to you. “A healthy relationship will never make you give up your friends, your dreams, or your dignity…” Dinkar Kalotra.

Be honest with yourself when it comes to your love relationship.

  • Is it healthy, or does it need modifying?
  • Is there mutual respect?
Remember, too, that no relationship is perfect. It is often about loving through imperfections and knowing the difference between healthy and unhealthy love.

What Do Women Want

Originally written by Deborah Fox, MSW What do women want?" is an age-old question that rolls off the tongue of many men with alarming regularity. The nods of other men confirm the mystery. Women will be happy to tell you if you ask. And men have. What keeps the mystery going is that the answers are so different from how men think and operate that they're too often tossed out simply because the answers don't seem to make sense. Knowing what makes women tick is discoverable, but you need to suspend your beliefs about what you think she wants and be prepared to be impacted.

A woman wants to be understood for who she is, how she thinks, what's important to her, how she feels, and why she feels what she feels.

Tip #1 - Listening

Understanding can't happen without listening, really listening means being fully attentive. It means putting aside your frame of reference. It means checking your assumptions at the door. It means not interrupting. It means saying, "Help me understand why you felt dismissed?" If you ask, "Do you think you could've done...?," she'll feel abandoned. She'll let you know if she wants your help to problem-solve. Shaking your head, glancing at your phone, looking away lets her know that you're not listening to what she has to say. She gets the message you're judging her, disagreeing with her, and just waiting until she's done talking so you can tell her so. You may think you're not helpful by just listening because this isn't what men want or do. Women tend to find their way to a solution by sharing their stories. And she will ask for help if she trusts you to help her brainstorm and not take over by telling her what she should do. When my six-year-old daughter recounted the playground drama of the day at dinner one night, my husband asked her if she wanted to call her friend Susie to say something about what had transpired that day. My daughter and I looked at him as if he'd suddenly grown three horns. She and I understood that what she wanted was simply to share the story and be heard. The woman in your life needs you to tune into her emotions, not merely the facts of a situation. Men tend to be very uncomfortable when their partner is distressed. They feel their job is to make their partner feel better, so they rush into righting the wrong. This skips over what women need most, which is for their feelings to be acknowledged and understood. Period. It's highly unlikely that you woke up that morning and said to yourself, "Hmm . . .how can I hurt Stacy today?" Of course not. But you did, unintentionally, by not listening.

Tip #2 - Trustworthiness

A woman wants you to be trustworthy. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Do what you say you're going to do. She needs to feel secure with you. Be a safe person for her to be vulnerable. Don't judge or placate. She wants you to have her back. Stand up for her if there's a potential for her to be embarrassed. Be protective. A woman steps out into the world with an eye out for danger and lives with a heightened degree of vulnerability that is her "normal."

Tip #3 - Sexuality

Women do want to be desired sexually by their chosen partner. This can be a complicated one for men. You might be understandably confused about how to find a balance between being considerate and being passionate. It can be confusing when you hear women want a sensitive man and capable of talking about his feelings. It's not such a leap for you to assume this means she wants a gentle lover---and this might be true. Women can seem to be a walking contradiction because this same woman may want to be ravished or desired passionately by her partner. The answer to this mystery is good communication. Talking about sex is uncomfortable for many people, but the alternative is literally and figuratively groping in the dark. In Dr. Emily Nagoski's book, Come As You Are, she writes that stress, mood, fatigue, trust, and body image are central to the sexuality of a majority of women, not just peripheral factors. For these women, understanding that openness to sex is context-dependent and that everyday life affects that context is vital. The source of sexual desire is often relational for women. They don't tend to be frequently struck with desire walking down the street on a given day. However, a shared activity, a conversation, flirtatious banter, an affectionate note are door openers for her to feel desire. You might have to enlarge your definition of what it means to be a good lover. Men tend to make assumptions about what is satisfying to a woman, which she often finds oppressive. Again, ask her.

Tip #4 - Being Your Priority

She needs to feel she's a priority to you. Let her know she matters to you. When you have some good news, please share it with her first. When you have a problem, go to her first. Ask her what makes her feel loved. You may think that doing household chores shows your love, but perhaps what makes her feel loved is spending quality time with you or hearing what you appreciate about her. If she's distressed, assume it's something for the two of you to resolve together. Put your relationship at the top of your "to-do" list, not something you attend to after...everything else. We learn what we observe in our families as children and adopt tons of mythology from our peers and the media. With the growth in understanding of yourself and your partner, your relationship can become secure and satisfying.

What should you expect from Couples Therapy?

Tip #1 - Better Communication.

You should learn new skills to help you communicate more effectively and navigate the relationship road's inevitable bumps. In Imago, we use the "Intentional Dialogue" as our primary tool. This method has been used and refined for over 25 years, and has been the standard by which many other approaches have followed. You will learn to listen deeply to your partner and manage your reactivity in ways that allow both of you to feel safe, heard, and understood. This is an essential skill that leads to relationship success.

Tip #2 - Truly Understand the Core Issues

You should gain an understanding of your "core issues."  In my experience, every relationship has just 2 or 3 core issues that come up over and over again. These issues can turn what is essentially a great relationship into a nightmare! When these issues get triggered, we can become so hurt and angry that we forget all of what is good in the relationship. Some common issues include:
  • Feeling criticized
  • Feeling under-appreciated
  • Feeling disconnected to our partner
  • Feeling smothered by our partner
  • Feeling controlled by our partner
  • Losing our sense of independence or sense of "Self" and so on.
Couples therapy will help you identify what the core issues are that are operating in your relationship. It will also help you understand why those issues are there and how you can not only end the pain but also get your needs met in ways that you may have never experienced before in your life!

Tip #3 - Relationship Growth.

You should learn how to grow in your relationship. We believe that relationship is both our greatest source of satisfaction and our greatest source of challenge. Intimate relationships often force us out of our comfort zone. They require us to see the world through our partner's eyes and to "stretch" into parts of ourselves that may be undeveloped. For example, if your partner is the more "emotional" one in the relationship, they may be calling you to stretch into awareness of your own feelings and emotions. If your partner is the more logical/rational one in the relationship, you may be called on to learn to contain your emotional reactions and to develop your rational side further. When we stretch to meet our partner's needs, we "grow ourselves up." But first, we have to…

Tip #4 - Learn to be a more generous, loving, and giving partner.

Marriage or couples counseling is not just about solving problems or resolving conflict. It will also help you enhance the positives deepening your connection, and your ability to give and receive love more fully. We can all learn to be more loving, generous, patient, accepting, and so on. I hope these four tips help you and your partner get more connected and grow your relationship.  Every couple is different, and effective therapy will address your particular needs as a couple. It is more flexible now than ever with online therapy for couples as well. I am hopeful these general principles that I have found to apply for most couples and most couples therapy are helpful.

The Power of Girlfriends

In an evening class at Stanford University the last lecture was on the mind-body connection - the relationship between stress and disease. The speaker (head of psychiatry at Stanford) said, among other things, that one of the best things that a man could do for his health is to be married to a woman; whereas for a woman, one of the best things she could do for her health was to nurture her relationships with her girlfriends. At first, everyone laughed, but he was serious. Women connect with each other differently and provide support systems that help each other to deal with stress and difficult life experiences. Physically this quality "girlfriend time" helps us to create more serotonin - a neurotransmitter that helps combat depression and can create a general feeling of well being. Women share feelings whereas men often form relationships around activities. We share from our souls with our sisters, friends, and evidently that is VERY GOOD for our health. He said that spending time with a friend is just as important to our general health as jogging or working out at a gym. There's a tendency to think that when we are "exercising" we are doing something good for our bodies; but when we are hanging out with friends, we are wasting our time and should be more productively engaged. Not true. In fact, he said that failure to create and maintain quality personal relationships with other humans is as dangerous to our physical health as smoking! So every time you hang out to schmooze with a gal pal, just pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself for doing something good for your health! We are indeed very, very blessed! So let's toast to our friendship with our girlfriends (inc. grandmas, sisters, mothers, nieces, cousins, aunties...). Evidently it's very good for our health. Forward this to your girlfriends to stay in touch, just like I just did! Thanks to all the women in my life who have helped me stay healthy, and feeling very loved.

Boundaries

"Good fences make good neighbors." This famous quote by Robert Frost simple refers to the need for healthy boundaries in all relationships.  Boundaries are a separation indicating where you end and where someone else begins.  They reflect how you want to be treated in your relationships and they need to be vocalized. Is it OK to open your partner's mail?  Or go to his/her wallet?  Or read his/her e mail?  Your answer to these questions may be based upon the way that these situations were handled in the family that you grew up in.  For some of us such behaviors were commonplace, while for others of you they are taboo.  In fact, all of them are boundary violations. If you were used to not having your boundaries respected as a child, you may be more likely to ignore or put up with them with them as an adult. Setting boundaries is really an expression of valuing yourself and your needs.  Boundaries are an essential part of any healthy relationship.  When they exist, safe trusting relationships can be created.  In their absence there can be hurt and feeling of violation. It is important that they be stated clearly.  For example. One partner may say, "I need to get to sleep early so that I can get up early tomorrow morning."Or, "If you want to be with me, this is how I want to be treated or spoken to."Some people may view making this kind of statement as selfish.  They may worry that they will be rejected or abandoned if they do so. They may assume that their partner automatically knows their wants and needs.  Or they may expect others to feel the same way that they do. In fact, none of these are true. Healthy boundaries involve speaking up when we feel ignored and advocating for ourselves.  For example, "I feel disrespected when my privacy is ignored." Or, "I am not ok with you speaking to me in a condescending manner or being verbally abusive." Setting of boundaries is a constantly evolving process.  They must be stated and maintained.  When they are stated but blurred or ignored, a partner may feel less important,used or manipulated. Clear communication allows them to be understood.  When that is not the case, you may erroneously assume that the other person is not trying. Boundary statements need not be delivered harshly so that they are perceived as criticism. They can be stated simply. For example, "I need time twice a week to practice my music."  Or, "I want to have some quality time with you every evening."  Or, "I need to spend time with my children twice month. Or, "I want to have some of my own money." Some boundaries may be deal breakers.  For example, cheating is a boundary violation.  As people find a way to respect each other’s needs, they are setting themselves up for a more successful relationship or friendship.
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