Relationship Boundaries

Here's a good technique to establish good relationship boundaries.

People need people. We are hard-wired for relationship. We suffer when we don’t have friends and family. We need romantic relationships. Most of the time, ourrelationship boundaries relationships are positive, but sometimes not.


Often, my counseling focuses on helping my client deal with a difficult relationship. The individual may be suffering because of a relationship, which is hurtful or neglectful. The pain has reached the point where they need assistance.


Sometimes, we find ourselves in a relationship with a person who says or does hurtful things to us. They may be critical or demeaning. Their negative messages can come from their words, facial expressions or body language. Either way, we get the point. We feel inadequate and conclude that we can’t please them.


The hurtful relationship could come in the form of a cold, distance. They become disengaged. They seem to have no interest in spending time with us. They may flirt with others, or even have affairs. We feel alone, even when there is someone else in the house. We conclude that we must be boring or unlovable.


The intensity of negative treatment can reach the point of abuse. The abuse can be emotional, physical or sexual. An abusive relationship severely wounds the self-esteem and creates fear.


All relationships begin positively. We would never voluntarily enter into an abusive, hurtful relationship. At first, the other person treats us well. We enjoy spending time with them, and they seem to enjoy spending time with us. We have all kinds of positive expectations for our future together.


The negative treatment begins subtly, with a slight criticism or a decrease in attention. We shrug it off as the result of a bad day. We assume we deserved it. We don’t notice the slow increase in negativity or distance.


At some point, we are faced with the hurtful nature of the relationship, but still tend to blame ourselves. We wonder what we did wrong to deserve being treated so badly.


When do we say, “enough?” When do we let the other person know that we don’t deserve to be treated badly? Where should we set our boundaries?


You can determine your boundaries by putting a loved one in your shoes. Identify a person that you like very much or love. It could be a same-gender friend or one of your children. Imagine that they were in a relationship with a person, who treated them in exactly the same way you are being treated. Imagine that they had made the same efforts you have made to resolve the situation, but the partner continued to treat them badly. Imagine that their partner said the same negative statements, neglected them to the same degree, or was equally abusive to them.  


How would you feel if your loved one was being treated this way? What would you want them to do? There’s your boundary. Never allow someone to treat you in a way that you would not want someone you love to be treated. It’s a pretty simple guideline, but it works!

King of the Hill

Kids and adults sometimes try to boost their social status by putting others down. It doesn't have to be that way.

In the days before video games, kids spent more time outside. They had to be creative in finding ways to occupy themselves. They sometimes created their own games. One suchchildren teasing another child game was “King of the Hill.”


In this game, kids would gather at the bottom of a hill. Someone would yell “go,” and everyone would race to the top. The goal was to be the one standing at the top of the hill at the end of the game. There were two ways to win the game. You could win by being the fastest one up the hill. Most often, you won by pulling anyone ahead of you backwards.


As you can imagine, the game could get pretty rough. Some kids would be running up the hill, while others were rolling back down. You knew you were in trouble when you felt someone grabbing the back of your shirt.


Unfortunately, this game is still played today, just in a different way. It’s played every day in school. Kids will put other kids down in an attempt to elevate their social standing. They try to look cool or gain popularity by teasing, gossiping, or tearing down another kid.


Kids want to fit in. They are acutely sensitive to their social standing. When they tease another kid, their desire to gain popularity blinds them to the pain felt by the victim. The target of their barb simply becomes collateral damage, at they strive to get further up the social hill.


Of course, not every child plays the game. The child with a good self-esteem doesn’t have to play. In fact, I believe that those children with the deepest self-esteem wounds play the game most viciously.


Some kids avoid the game because of their strong sense of empathy. They imagine the pain of the victim, and refuse to attack, even if their own social standing is compromised. They look for a different way to deal with the social battle.


It would be nice if the game were restricted to childhood. Unfortunately, adults sometimes play their own version. We play through gossip, which serves to make us feel better, through the denigration of another. We also play by comparison. We tend to feel better when our stuff is bigger, newer or more expensive than others. In some settings, people still play through direct teasing, oddly reminiscent of sixth grade dramatics.


It would be nice if the victims of this game could realize that their attackers play out of their own insecurities or self-esteem wounds. It would be great if players could pause the game long enough to feel empathy for their victims, and look for a healthier way to boost their own self-esteem. We would all be better off if we realized that there is room at the top of the hill for everyone.


Stress and Aging

We can't eliminate the losses that come with aging, but we can take steps to lessen the stress.

Stress is defined as an organism’s response to environmental demands or pressures. Negative stress occurs when we perceive our environment as straining or exceeding ourstress and aging adaptive capacities and threatening our well-being. We experience stress when we feel a loss of (a) control over our physical well-being, (b) influence over our circumstances or (c) our social support networks.

As we age, we inevitably experience all these losses. People vary in how early or late the losses occur, but unless we die young, we will all be there. Let’s look at these areas of loss and how they impact stress.

  1. Loss of control of our physical well-being: The loss of physical functioning actually begins in middle age. We may find that we need bifocals. We don’t have the stamina we once had, and we experience new aches and pains. As the aging process progresses, our physical losses increase. We exchange agility and stamina for fatigue and pain. In advanced age, even our day-to-day functioning becomes problematic, such that we need others to take care of our needs. All of this adds to our stress in predictable ways. We lose trust in our bodies. We lose control.


  1. Loss of control over our circumstances: With advanced age, it seems that others begin to make choices for us. We are told that it is no longer safe for us to drive. At some point, we find that we are unable to take care of ourselves and stay in our homes. Even with retirement savings, most of us have to deal with limited income. Many older adults find themselves worrying more about things they would have ignored in their younger years. Uncertainty always leads to increased stress.


  1. Loss of social support networks: Our social support networks consist of our spouse, family members, friends and acquaintances. One disadvantage of living longer than most is that you live longer than most. You experience the deaths of many people you have known and loved. You miss them. Also, as we age, we have fewer opportunities to make new friends. We are more likely to feel alone and lonely. Isolation creates stress.

Unfortunately, we haven’t found a way to eliminate the changes that come with aging. But we can take steps to lessen the stress. First, we can be thankful for the gift of a long life. We could eliminate the stresses of old age by dying young, but I don’t think many would choose that option. Gratitude lessens stress.

When we realize that old age is a gift, we more easily accept the characteristics of an aging body. We find ways to work around our limitations. This attitude also helps us adapt to the realities of our circumstances. We work to maintain independence where we can, but demonstrate a more serene acceptance where we can’t. Finally, we need to do everything we can to maintain our relationships. Call any remaining old friends or acquaintances, stay involved in group activities as long as you can. Look for opportunities to keep your mind active.

And for those of you in the younger years, call or visit an older adult. Let them know you love them. Think of someone who may feel that they are alone, and let the know that they’re not. You just might reduce their stress.

Self-Esteem and Aging

Some losses are inevitable with age. Self-esteem doesn't have to be one of them.

Life is like a conveyor belt. We get on at birth, and ride it until we die. The belt takes us through many rooms, often filled with wonderful adventures, and sometimes with Aging with a positive self-esteemheartache. As we move forward, we have many opportunities for purpose, relationship and meaning. Hopefully, we use those opportunities to enrich life for others and for ourselves.


But one thing is certain for every person. Regardless of who you are, the belt keeps moving.  Try as we may, we cannot stop the belt, or even slow it down. Before we know it, we find ourselves further down the path than we ever imagined, and wonder how we got here. We gradually move from youth to old age. The only way to avoid growing old is to die young.


As we grow older, we encounter many changes which can negatively impact self-esteem or self-worth. We’ll examine two potential factors.


  1. Changes in physical appearance: Wouldn’t it be nice to have the money spent each year by people trying to look younger? From anti-aging creams to hair dye to Botox and face lifts, we try to buy back time. If our self-esteem is too closely tied to a youthful appearance, we’re in trouble. Wrinkles form, skin sags and hair turns gray. To maintain self-esteem, we have to accept that such changes are inevitable. More importantly, these outward signs are the badge of honor of successfully living a long time.


  1. Changes in physical functioning: Try as we may, we just can’t do the things we used to do. With aging, we have to adjust to changes in vision, hearing, physical strength and stamina. We have more aches and pains, and less energy. If our self-esteem or self-worth is too closely tied to our physical functioning, we’re also in trouble. Who you are is not defined by what you can do. Think of an older adult you have loved. Was their worth defined by what they could do physically? Did their poor vision impact how you saw them? Did their decreased energy make you grow tired of them? No. You loved them for who they were, not for what they could do. You valued them because they had added value to your life.


To maintain a healthy self-esteem as we age, we have to remember that our worth is defined by who we are, not by what our bodies can do or how they look. Old age means you survived more years. You are more experienced. Because of those years of experience, you have a richer perspective. Wrinkles can bring wisdom. You know things now that you didn’t know in youth. Try to find ways to use that experience, perspective and wisdom to add value to someone’s life. That just may be your purpose on this end of the conveyor belt.

How Much Do You Want It?

There is a big difference between wishing for something, and deciding to make it happen.

I like to collect psychologist jokes. They help me to not take myself too seriously. Here ismotivation to reach your goals. my favorite psychologist joke. Question: “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.”


I like the joke because it is so true. I learned a long time ago that I can’t help someone change unless they really want to change. Even with the right motivation, it is hard, but without it, it is impossible.


A new year brings thoughts of change, starting over, and resolutions. We may want to stop some bad habit, or start some new one. We may want to change our job, our house or our relationships. We may want it, but is that enough?


There is a huge difference between wishing or wanting something, and deciding to make it happen. Many people wish for a better job, more education, better health habits or improved relationships, but a smaller number are determined enough or motivated enough to put in the hard work to make it happen.


After all these years, I can still hear my high school football coach asserting that the game would be won by the team that wanted it the most. He was usually right. High school athletic talent is usually fairly evenly distributed, so performance differences can usually be attributed to the player’s motivation and willingness to work.


The research is now fairly well-known that showed that mastery of any task or skill takes about 10,000 hours of practice. That’s a lot of hours. That’s also a lot of dedication, determination and motivation.


I recently heard the following from a business consultant. “If you want to make something happen, you figure out the necessary cost, and then you pay it.” You do what needs to be done. You don’t have to do it all at one time. You will often take baby steps, and sometimes you may not be able to see progress, but with absolute determination and persistence, you will get there.


A student once asked Socrates how to get to Mount Olympus. The question was more spiritual than geographic, since the ancient Greeks believed that Mount Olympus was the home of the gods. Socrates’ response was simple, “Make sure every step you take is in that direction.”


Every step we take either takes us toward or away from our goals. The steps can be small, but if taken in the right direction, they will get us to our goals.


So, in this new year, remember the importance of proper motivation and dedication in the pursuit of your goals. If the goal is good, right and worthwhile, it is worth the effort to make it happen. Change can happen, if you really want it.

Fine Tuning Those Resolutions

Here are six steps you can take to help you reach your goals.

As we approach a new year, we tend to think about new beginnings. For many, Januarygoal setting 1st suggests a time for starting some new habit, starting a new project, or simply starting over. The idea of setting new year’s resolutions has become cliché.

Yet, most of us have things we would like to improve about our lives. We think about changes that could make us happier or more comfortable. Unfortunately, our wishes or dreams don’t seem to be enough to change our reality.

So, what can we do to turn those dreams into reality? How can we most effectively improve our lives? The answer is deceptively simple. We get more done, create positive change, and realize more of our dreams when we start with written, specific, and measurable goals.

In “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School,” Mark McCormack relates a study in 1979, where graduating students were asked whether they had set clear, written goals for their future, and made plans to accomplish them. Only 3% of the students had written goals and plans, 13% said they had goals, but not in writing, and 84% had no goals at all. Ten years later, the 13%, who said they had unwritten goals, were making twice as much as the 84% who had no goals, while the 3% with written goals were making ten times as much. Other studies have shown that people who set specific, written goals accomplish much more than those who don’t.

But, it’s not quite so simple. Here are a few guidelines if you want to tap into the power of goal-setting to improve your life.

  1. Your goals need to be specific. A goal of “I want to lose weight” is too vague. A specific goal like, “I want to lose 25 lbs.” is much better. The subconscious mind seems to connect to a specific number or amount, in a way that charges our motivation and determination.
  2. You need a deadline. You will be much more motivated by a goal of “I will clean out the closet by 5:00 Saturday,” than you will the goal “I will clean out the closet.” Try to make it a reasonable deadline, but set one.
  3. Make the goal measurable. This may be accomplished by making the goal specific, but it may not. There needs to be no question whether you met the goal. Anyone should be able to tell whether you succeeded.
  4. Determine a strategy to meet the goal. Make a plan. How do you plan to accomplish the goal? What are the intermediate steps you will have to take?
  5. Post the goal where you will see it. To be successful, you will need to be reminded of the goal. I’m sure that this is the reason someone invented refrigerator magnets.
  6. Tell a supportive, encouraging friend. Having an accountability partner can really help. They may be aggravating, but nonetheless helpful.

Give it a try. You have nothing to lose. See if goal-setting can work for you in changing your life for the better. And there’s no better time than the beginning of a new year!

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Unrealistic expectations of holiday gatherings can deepen self-esteem wounds.

One of my favorite Christmas cards was given to me by a client. On the front of the card, there is a photo of a beautiful snow-covered farm scene. The farm house is beautifully decorated for Christmas. The caption at the top says, “I’ll be home for Christmas.” When you open the card, the words read, “And in therapy for the next year.”


The card is funny, but expresses an unfortunate truth. I talk to so many people who grew up in dysfunctional families. They recall a parent’s substance abuse, an abandoning or critical parent, or constant drama and infighting through childhood. Like all children, they carried this overriding hope that the parents would change and they would at last feel the love they had longed for. Like all children, those family experiences created self-esteem wounds, where they believed that they were at fault. They mistakenly believed that they were defective, unlovable or inadequate.


Many of those children carry this hope of family change into adulthood. As adults, they still long for that negative, critical parent to finally be proud of them. They hope to see expressions of love, or attention from that distant or abandoning parent. Their hope is fueled by the mistaken belief that their worth is measured by the parent’s behaviors toward them. They believe that loving or accepting behaviors from the parent will mean that the defective child has finally grown into a competent and lovable adult.


Now, here’s where the Christmas card comes in. These people carry the hope that this time or this visit, things will be different. They hope that this Christmas, they will see the change. They may not be conscious of this hope. They may consciously realize that the negative parent won’t change until they decide to change. But, subconsciously they carry hope.


The person who returns home for a visit, carrying this unrealistic hope, is primed for disappointment. When the family member once again behaves critically, is rejecting, or gets drunk, that hope is shattered. The result can be anger, depression, or a deepening of an old self-esteem wound.


Of course, the truth is that the parent’s critical or rejecting behaviors reflect a problem with the parent, not an inadequacy in the child. And, the parent won’t change until he or she realizes the problem and has a desire to change.


The holidays can be a very special time of year. Enjoy the good parts. Establish your own traditions, but remember that people basically act like themselves. Try to be realistic about your expectations when you make that Christmas visit. It might save you some of the cost of therapy.


The Violin Nobody Wanted

Your true value isn't determined by the way you have been treated.

I have had several requests to share the following story from my book, “Parables for a Wounded Heart.” The story addresses the true source of our value. I hope you enjoy it!


Once there was a family that bought an old house. The prior owners had moved out of the house some time earlier, so this new family never met them. On the day they moved in, they had some items that they wanted to store in the attic. When they climbed up the attic stairs, they found that the previous owners had left some junk piled in one self-worthcorner. The new owners didn’t have time to go through the stuff and throw it away, so they just stacked their things around the leftover pile. They didn’t think of it again.

After several years, the family decided to do some spring cleaning. They planned to have a yard sale to get rid of some of the things they had stored in the attic. When they went up to get their items, they saw the pile of things left by the previous owners. They decided they might as well try to sell those things too. Perhaps they could make a little extra money.

As they sorted out the pile, they found several items they could sell including an old violin in a case. The violin looked in pretty good shape, but the case was very dusty and all scratched up. They decided to put a $20.00 price tag on it and see what they could get.

On the day of the yard sale they put all the items on tables, and people began to stop and browse. They sold many of their items and were about to call it a day. There were a few stragglers milling around the tables checking for any last-minute buys. A car pulled over and a tall, thin older man got out. He too browsed the tables for a while.

He came to the table with the violin in the opened case. It seems no one had needed a fiddle this morning, not even for $20.00. He leaned over and studied the dusty violin for a couple of minutes before he spoke to the owner behind the table. He inquired, “Do you mind if I take it out of the case?”

“No”, the owner replied, “Help yourself.”

He picked the violin up very slowly and carefully, as if it were going to fall apart in his hands.

“May I tune it?” the old man asked.

“If you can,” the owner answered.

The old man slowly tuned the violin until he seemed to be satisfied with each string. The owner waited patiently since most of the crowd had dispersed; and this seemed like the most promising chance of getting rid of the instrument.

“May I play it?” the old man asked.

“Sure, see how it sounds,” was the owner’s reply, now feeling that a sale was in the making.

The old man slowly placed the violin under his chin and began to play. The straggling shoppers stopped and stared as the notes drifted across the yard in the spring sunshine. The old man crafted the most beautiful music for several minutes before he stopped. He lowered the violin from his chin and placed it very gently back in its case. The owner moved in to make the sale. “You make that thing sing, mister” he said with a grin. “You can have it for only $20.00.”

The older man’s face was somber. “I can’t give you $20.00 for that violin,” he replied.

“Well, how about $15.00?” said the owner, now thinking a sale was slipping away.

“Sir, you don’t understand.” noted the old man, still serious. “I can’t take that violin from you for $20.00. It wouldn’t be right.” Looking directly into the owner’s eyes, he lowered his voice and smiled slightly, “I don’t know how you came upon that violin, but you don’t know what you have there. You see, that violin is a Stradivarius. You can tell from the markings in the sound hole. It was made by Antonio Stradivari in Cremona. His instruments are the best in the world. You see, his mark is there in the sound hole. This violin is worth at least $1,000,000 and probably much more. It’s a very, very special instrument and very precious. You just didn’t realize what you had.”


This story was inspired by the poem, “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” by Myra “Brooks” Welch (1921).


The Impact of a Narcissist on Self-Esteem

A child with a narcissistic parent often suffers extreme self-esteem wounds.

The term narcissist is often used as a negative label to describe a person who seems conceited or arrogant. Most people are familiar with the term. But, the actual diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is more serious andnarcissistic parent can wound self-esteem can create severe damage.

Personality disorders are a distinct category of mental illness. Most diagnoses, such as depression or anxiety disorders, have a specific beginning and ending point, and impact only certain areas of functioning. Personality disorders affect the persons entire personality. The symptoms are long-term, and usually resistant to treatment. They impact the way the person perceives himself and the way he relates to others.

In general, those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder see themselves as being better than most people, lack empathy, and have a strong need for admiration from others. The diagnosis requires five of the following symptoms:

  1. Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  2. Expecting to be recognized as superior
  3. Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  4. Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power or beauty
  5. Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by superior people
  6. Requiring constant admiration
  7. Having a sense of entitlement
  8. Expecting special favors and compliance with your expectations
  9. Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  10. Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  11. Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  12. Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

I don’t see many patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder because they don’t think they have any problems. I do see many patients who have had to live with such a person. The damage is particularly severe for children are a narcissistic parent.

Narcissistic parents subject their children to frequent and severe criticism or neglect. They often seem intent on letting the child know that they not good enough, that their feelings are unimportant, and that their primary role is to take care of the parent’s needs.

The impact seems to be most severe for daughters of narcissistic mothers. The mother may perceive a competition with the daughter, and work to remind the girl that she is not pretty enough, not likable and unimportant. Sometimes, when there is a daughter and a son, the boy is treated like a prince, while the daughter is subjected to denigration.

As you can imagine, the self-esteem wounds are severe. The children often believe that they are inadequate, unattractive, and defective. They assume that others are disapproving of them or attacking them. Even with therapy, these beliefs are resistant to change. People will often hold onto the negative self-beliefs, even when they recognize that the parent was narcissistic.

If you have a parent or spouse that fits the above criteria, and if you suffer from depression, anxiety and self-criticism, seek counseling. Don’t let the wounds from a narcissistic parent or spouse continue to impact your life.

The Responsibility of Being an American

Abraham_LincolnI like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives.  I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.  ~Abraham Lincoln

Each person plays many roles. We have many aspects to our identity; parent, spouse, child, family member, friend, co-worker, and more. Today, we celebrate one additional part of our identity; that of being an American.

Today, July 4th, we recognize and celebrate our nation and our independence. In doing so, we remind ourselves of this part of our identity. We enjoy the gift of being a part of this great nation. This is part of who we are.

Regardless of our political disagreements and despite our current difficulties, it is still a great nation. We are free to express those disagreements. We are free to choose our path and work to follow it. This is part of who we are.

You don’t have to travel to many other countries to realize how much we take for granted each day. We have so much. We often have too much. Having been so blessed, we have a responsibility to seek ways to give to others. This is part of who we are.

We have the opportunity to grow as individuals, and in doing so, follow any path we choose. As my father used to say, “You can do anything you want to do, if you set your mind to it.” As a young boy, I’d roll my eyes and dismiss the statement, but it must have sunk in, because I came to believe it. Fortunately, in this country we call home, it is true. This is part of who we are.

Enjoy celebrating our country this July 4th, and then every other day, live up to the inheritance. As Lincoln said, live so that your place will be proud of you.