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February 2012

17 entries from January 2012

When what you want is what you fear the most: Narrative thinking about our own plot

I was having a conversation lately with someone who was stuck in a really bad story. She is dating the same guy over and over again. And while his name has changed, his character has been the same.

It's messing with her head.It's keeping her up at night. It's making her feel hollow inside. Then I asked her one of the most powerful questions we can ask of anyone.

What do you want?

She told me. What was interesting to her was that every time she gets close to what she wants, it freaks her out. She literally panics and runs away. I asked her about that and she said she was perplexed. I suggested to her that the very thing she wanted was the scariest thing. So I asked a follow up question (Hey, I'm a counselor! We ask questions).

What drives your decisions? What you want or avoiding what you don't want?

Often the thing we want the most will force us to risk the thing we don't want the most. You have to risk rejection to find true acceptance. The entrepreneur risks failure to find success. Think about anything you have done that has been meaningful in your life. Somewhere in that journey you risked failure. Think about all the things that you wanted to do but didn't because you were afraid you would risk failure. Now accept the fact that you also risked success and because of the fear of failure you failed to give the fire of success a chance to burn bright.

Now ask yourself, What am I not doing right now because I'm afraid of failing? What am I afraid of risking? Is this really worth risking success? There are some things I wont' risk for success. But our list should be pretty short.

It's the plot that matters most

A constant theme in mental health that I have written about is that what happens to you is less important than how you make sense of what happens to you. This is a very important concept. So important, I want to write it again.

What happens to you is not as important as how you make sense of what happens to you. 

This is true about our entire life.  One way to understand this is through the idea of narrative. Think about a movie or a favorite book. It has a plot. Most of the times, we want the plot to make sense to us. The same is true of our lives. We want the narrative to make sense to us. We use our narratives to make sense of things that do happen to us. 

We need life to make sense. That is why we will always have labels, no matter how often people want to push back against them. We need them. We need the plot of life to make sense to us. 

Many times the people that we help in the mental health field have lost the plot of the narrative. They have lost the pieces that help it make sense. 

It’s not just true of our life, but also the things that happen in the world around us. We need to be able to understand the motives of that athlete, or this movie star. We need bad guys and good guys. The idea that most of the people we see as bad guys or good guys are probably more like us is disturbingly uncomfortable.  It brings fear into our mind.

And fear brings anger. Almost every time.

When we feel that our narrative is being questioned, we will become angry and defensive. What makes this interesting to me is that we often don’t realize this is what is happening. Sometimes, people argue and disagree over known and incontrovertible facts but that is rare.  Most of the time, our arguments are at a plot line level. 

I had two separate conversations this past weekend where this was true. One was with a bunch of people where I felt the plot that made the most sense was one of an organization over-reaching for control. Most of the others thought it was an organization operating as it was designed. As I realized that our disagreement stemmed from that, I began to change the way I approached the conversation. We didn’t come to much common ground but we did figure out where we disagreed and by and large we agreed to disagree. It was a fun conversation that involved passion, and high emotions. It also involved laughter because very few people were threatened by their narrative being questioned. 

I had another conversation that didn’t go so well. Isn’t that the way it almost always is, we have one good conversation followed by one bad one? He thought the plot was a bad guy getting what he deserved. A guy who was arrogant, and conniving and...just a bad guy. The man was assigning motives and understanding that he couldn’t have known for certain, because he doesn’t know that person he was talking about. But for his narrative to make sense, these things have to be true.  My narrative of the same situation is something different.  It is one of a hero being attacked by people with less than pure motives. But still I’m assigning motives to people I don’t know as well. Not surprisingly, we didn’t find much common ground. In fact, it is safe to say that the man is angry with me. 

Our plot lines simply did not match up. We could have as many conversations about whatever, but until we could figure out where our plot lines diverged, we simply were not going to agree. We couldn't find common ground because we believed we were both living different stories.

In the same way, you will find this principle to be true when you find people who you would not normally be friends with or be involved with much at all but you find a common goal to work toward. This creates a plot that supersedes the disagreeing plots. Maybe a democrat works alongside a republican to help feed a family that was burnt out of their house last week. The plot line of their political parties is overrode by the plotline of helping someone in a bad situation out. They have found common ground.

Of course, this brings up a host of serious questions. For everyone all of us. 

  1. What happens when we lose the plot to our own life?
  2. What happens when the plot we are operating out of is wrong? 
  3. What happens when the plot we claim to believe is not the plot that we are living out of?  (this is called not living an integrated life)
  4. What happens when the plot we are forced to live in seems hopeless?
  5. What happens when the plot we believe is questioned?
  6. What does it mean for our plot when we get angry? What does it mean for us?
  7. What happens when the plot seems upside down (good is losing and evil is winning?)
  8. What happens when someone we love is living in a bad plot? (Someone we love making bad choices, destroying their life, etc. 
  9. What happens when our spouse (of children) wish to live a plot that is different than ours? 

These types of questions do not have quick or easy answers. I believe that they do have answers though. I believe that those answers can be found. The problem is that these questions are not exhaustive. I imagine someone out there is already thinking about a question that I don't have up there.  I'm going to take the time over the next few days to answer most of the above questions and then I want to change the perspective a little to look at the broader issues that may give us a tool to answer future questions. 


Bene Brown: Story Teller; Statistics that tell stories

As part of my PhD program I feel I am constantly lost in statistics of some sort. I am constantly looking words I don’t actually understand. For the most part, I hate it.

But I love statistics. I love that statistics tell us stories. I love stories. I first shared this video over a year ago. I shared it here. As I wrote then, one of my favorite quotes is

When you ask people about love, they tell you about breakup.

So often we define something by what it isn't or by the negative of it. Enjoy this video

Getting to the emotional payoff of your goals

I have posted before about the importance of goals. We will all end up some where. The question is where will we end up? How do we decide where we want to go. The vast majority of people never will. They will simply wake up and start the day not really considering where the day will take them. But what about the people that have measured the outcome and have set goals and charted their course.

And they have failed.


and again.

I was talking to a friend the other day who was facing this very question. He was trying to determine what he wanted out of his life. This is not the same as deciding what you want to do with your life. He said to me, "I think I want to do this ______ but I don't always know how to follow through with it."

I asked him why he had set the goal. I responded to his next question with another question of why. See his goals were measurable, he knew how he would define success. He knew why he wanted to accomplish the goal in broad terms.

The problem was that there were other things that he wanted that worked against his goals. You might know these as first order and second order change or desires. Then I asked him the question that I think matters most. I asked, what exactly is the payoff for you regarding this goal? Why will your life be better if you achieve this goal? I think this is the key component that most people miss when they set goals. What will make the sacrifice of change worth it?

The truth is that most of us don't ever really experience real change in our life. I would suggest that it's because we fail to tap into the power of our emotions. We fail to realize that most of our decisions are emotional.

Our bad habits have an emotional pay off and our new choices that will lead to change can often look like they will emotionally punish us. This is not always true. Certainly there are times when we make decisions based on cold logic. I'd submit to you that our logic often lead us to consider our emotional pay off.

Let's say that someone sets a goal of not eating fast food for the next six months. The measurability of the goal is fairly obvious. Either he will eat or not eat in a fast food restaurant over the next six months. But what is the emotional pay off to not eating fast food over the next six months? How will her life be better by not eating in those restaurants over the next six months? We need to understand what motivates us. We need to understand what we really want out of what we are trying to do. By doing this, we can increase the likelihood that we will actually accomplish our goals.

What is a Hopes and Dreams conference about?

Tonight I’ll be kicking off the 2012 Hopes and Dreams conference. Myself, my wife and a couple of others will travel about an hour from here to meet with thirty to thirty-five couples and talk about relationships. But what is a conference all about? I get this question a lot so I thought I would share what they are. These conferences exist to help people become better communicators in general. They can be customized for any population. That is to say they could deal with employee/employer relationships, parent/child, etc. The most common relationship dynamic that they deal with is that of husband/wife. They are based on the idea that we all have three core questions in our life that we want answered in our relationships. One of those questions is the idea that we want to be heard. We also look at what I believe is the most important and necessary ingredient for a healthy relationship. Good communication, commonality, excellent conflict resolution skills all lead to this one ingredient.

The conferences are divided into three levels. In the first level, after introducing the above concepts we talk about what detracts from this important ingredient. Then we move into four negative communication patterns that people struggle with. Typically, almost everyone identifies with at least one of those negative patterns. After looking at these emotional hazards we look at three better ways to communicate. In the second level we build upon this idea by looking in depth at the motivations behind our actions. We look at how our actions either confirm what we say we value or they show us areas for growth. Often they do both. In the third level we build upon this foundation to lay directions for each couples future.

These conferences are built upon some assumptions. They are:

  • Marriages are mortal.
  • Almost everyone is desperately insecure and in need of affirmation.
  • Everyone’s marriage can be everything they hoped and dreamed it would be.
  • Successful marriages require constant attention and work
  • Anyone can learn to have emotionally charged conversations without hurting the person they are taking with.
  • Almost everyone wants a really good marriage and very few people were ever taught what that looks like.
  • Almost anyone can learn how to have a good marriage.

We’d love to have you join us at any of the upcoming conferences or if you have a venue and would like to host one just shoot me an email. For now, I’m curious, what do you think is the most important ingredient for a happy marriage? What is necessary for a couple to not only succeed but be excited that they did?

Parenting to teach, not just stop behavior

Yesterday I wrote about why I don’t believe sandwich sign parenting will work. The day before I wrote about three levels of thinking and how I believe our parenting needs to move to a level beyond punishment as a motivation. One of the readers asked a great question. He asked, What does this look like in real life practically speaking? I answered that question in my next comment but I think it’s a great question that deserves an answer here. Every time we correct our children should involve a debrief or processing time at some point. It doesn’t have to be immediate but at some point we need to make sure our children understand why we did what we did. A good debrief includes four things. It communicates:

  1. What they did wrong.
  2. What they could have done instead.
  3. Why it matters
  4. That this discipline did not change the amount of love you have for them

So often we think that the kids simply know. We believe that they make the connections on their own. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Regardless, having a processing time helps you and them to consider their actions on a moral level. The more you do this, the more it will “wire” their brain to do it.

What they did wrong.  Ask them if they know what they did wrong. Most of the time they will. Listen to how they verbalize it. Ask them why they did it. Help them look inside and identify their own thoughts and feelings. Use feelings words and thinking words. Instead of saying, “You hit your sister because you were angry!” Say, “I think you hit your sister because you were angry.” Instead of “You didn’t brush your teeth because you're a rebellious human being depraved who needs Jesus!” Say, “I feel like you didn’t brush your teeth because you wanted to play longer before bedtime.” Give them the opportunity to agree or disagree. If they disagree you can go through the first part of the process again. When they agree, you can then instruct them on the idea of rebellion, obedience, authority, good dental hygiene etc.         Avoid name calling. This seems so simple but I see so many parents do it without realizing it. They say things that attack the child and not the action. This usually happens when they are reacting and not being proactive but the scars of those words can last for a long time. The problem is not your child, it is the action or lack of action. Focus on that. Ask yourself if you are modeling the behavior that you don’t want your child to be doing. For instance, when I was younger we actually had house phones. Every adult I knew would tell you that lying was bad. But, if I had a dime for every time I heard an adult tell their child, “If that is for me, tell them I’m not home.” This taught all of us that lying is not always wrong, sometimes, it’s situational.

Help them identify what they could have done differently Be specific here. Get input from them. Help them to be part of the solution. What could they have done differently in the situation? Sometimes, it is as simple as having done what you asked them to do. Maybe they could have asked you for help or they could have asked for a longer time frame to get it done. Maybe they could have done a thousand other things. Help them to identify a few. This is especially helpful when you have a child that is struggling with impulse control. Maybe your five year old is throwing temper tantrums. What else could they do when they are extremely frustrated or angry? What would you like to see them to do? Don’t dismiss their ideas or feelings. Rather work at helping them view their beliefs about those ideas and feelings critically.

Tell them why it matters Why is what they did or didn’t do important? Why was it so important that they would be disciplined for doing or not doing it? What part of their character are you working on developing? How does this help them to be the type of adult you want them to become? This is where teaching about doing right for the sake of right is discussed. Why is it important that my child talks politely to my wife? Why is it OK for my daughter to ask clarification questions when she doesn’t understand what I’m saying or doing when we’re at home but not when we are at the grocery store talking to another adult? Why does it matter that your two year old brush his teeth every night? Why does it matter at all? Why does it matter if your child is lying?

That this discipline did not change the amount of love you have for them. Again, this seems like a no brainer but the truth is that it may not be. If you have violated some simple rules of good communication, this will be a good time to say your sorry. Maybe some self-disclosure would be good here. “You know, sometimes Daddy gets angry and wants to say things that he should not say too” or “Sometimes, mommy gets so frustrated she actually sees red.” Discipline is not about changing about one behavior, it is a part of creating and building a whole human. Tell your kids that nothing they do can ever change how much you love them. Tell them that every day. Especially tell them that when they are being disciplined. Sometimes, perhaps often, discipline is done in anger, which the child interprets as meaning there is something wrong with them. It is important that we express the truth that it is their actions that bother us not them. Use discipline time as an opportunity to grow your child beyond someone who is concerned with consequences only. Show them the best way to live. Show them how to do right simply because it is right. This opportunity will not always come immediately after the discipline intervention but it should happen within 24-36 hours.

Guilt, shame and parenting. Sandwich sign parenting won't work

Yesterday I talked about the three levels of thinking and how they effect life. I promised to talk about this woman and the parenting style of shame and fear. Then the conversation had some great questions about how exactly does it look to discipline with an eye toward teaching moral reasoning versus just punishment. I'd like to deal with why I think the lady making her son wear a sandwich sign won't work like she hopes/thinks it will. It might work...but I doubt it.

Guilt and shame rarely work for the long term. That is not to say that people don't experience guilt or shame and then make life changing decisions about how they are going to live their life. It's just rare that it happens. People change when they have something to aspire to. They change when they have hope. I fear that this poor woman may have already lost and this is evidence by a desperate attempt.

Guilt and shame typically lead to resentment and loss of hope. This type of parenting is rooted only in the reflective stage and I could probably argue it is actually in the reactive stage. It's usually born out of frustration and is followed by statements that say something like, "Everything else I've tried isn't working..."

I'm not blaming her. To be honest, I'm not interested in assigning blame at all. I do wonder what kind of male influence the young man has in his life. What kind of consistency in discipline has he had growing up? Too often we as parents are inconsistent and we wonder why our children make bad choices. Here's my question for people who think this is a good thing.

If knowing the law and the consequences of the law didn't work, why will this work? Why will this shame tactic be the one that works? Why will this suddenly be the one thing that "makes him see."?

It won't.

I'm not saying the boy shouldn't be disciplined. I'm not saying he doesn't need some structure. Obviously, he needs both of these things. But a person selling drugs is doing so for reasons that wearing a sign designed to embarrass and shame aren't going to fix.

This is emotional thinking because it feels good in the moment. It feels like I am doing something. It's like those silly Facebook status's that try to shame people into reposting. They don't actually do anything. They don't actually change the way we live. This type of punishment fails to look at the values that drove this young man's actions. If fails to deal with him holistically. It fails to see that we are complex creatures as human beings.

Please understand, I'm not condoning selling drugs or whatever else he did. I hate drugs. I hope that he never sells again. But shaming and guilting isn't going to work.

Moral reasoning says there is a right way and a wrong way to treat people, even those people who break the law. Think of the golden rule. Jesus said, "Treat others as you would want them to treat you." Even, if you don't think religion should factor into this, the golden rule is commonly accepted as a good thing. I simply do not believe that anyone would want to be shamed into doing the right thing. If you say that you do, I don't believe you. That's good enough for me. Moral reasoning as parenting says what is the right thing to do? It asks questions such as, "Where did the values that drove these actions come from? How do we shape his values and morals? Do we want to teach him (or anyone) that it is ok to guilt people into actions?"

What about you? I've stated why I think this is wrong. What do you think? Why? By the way, I'm not arguing that this should be illegal as some seem to be arguing.

Tomorrow, I'm going to answer a reader's question about what does it look like in everyday living to parent from a moral reasoning perspective.

Child, Do what's right or...

Someone once wrote that feelings cannot be disputed because they are experiences. Whereas beliefs can be disputed because they are how we interpret our experiences.

I completely agree with this sentiment. I believe its very important to understand the distinction before we try to understand life, we must first seek to understand how we make sense of life. Before we can understand that, we must our own thought processes. We must understand how our own thinking works.

Dr. Robert Lehman, a man who has been very influential in how I view these issues, once delineated three ways of thinking that I'd like to share with you here. I believe understanding these views will help us to better understand our thoughts and feelings.

  1. Reactive or emotional reasoning. Reflective or emotional reasoning is just pure reactions. I feel it so it must be true, whatever true is. So the wife caught in a marriage she doesn't like will convince herself that "it will always be this way." This person makes decisions based simply on how they feel about a situation. If a person is caught in this mode of thinking they are usually all over the place emotionally. Almost everything is about how they feel. They have very little impulse control and rarely think about the consequences of their actions beyond the short term.
  2. Reflective thinking. This person considers the consequences of their actions. They will consider what will happen from what they do. This person will even consider how their actions affect other people. They consider the consequences in the short term and the long term. Sometimes, this person will weigh the risk of the negative consequence against the potential positive of doing whatever they are considering. I knew a nine year old girl who would do this. When threatened with a vague "punishment" for not doing her room, she ask for specifics on the punishment. She was deciding if she was willing to pay the price or not. This is reflective thinking but it is incomplete.
  3. Moral Reasoning. Moral reasoning is when someone decides what they are doing based purely on what is right. Their moral compass is put into play with decisions. These people do the right thing because it is the right thing to do not necessarily because it will get them anything. It goes beyond reflective reasoning because it asks the question of "what is the right thing to do?" It is not only concerned with the outcome, it is actually concerned with the morality of a decision.

This is important because a person who is stuck in the first category of reasoning will not be able to debate their beliefs about their feelings. They will be ruled by their feelings. Relationships will be short or tumultuous or both. So many things happen that impact our feelings. Those feelings are real. Debating them is pointless. It's an experience that the person has lived. The person's beliefs about those feelings can be debated.

Think about marriage. Successful couples don't always feel like being faithful or kind or gentle but they can be all of those things all the time. They can chose to do something about their feelings.

Think about individuals. They don't have to be ruled by their feelings. They don't have to give up hope that life will always be the way it is today. They don't have to live the same bad story line over and over again. They can see change in their life.

Think about parenting. Think about how these three different levels of thinking affect parenting children. The techniques used to shape the child. Think about how often parenting is about instilling fear. Fear of the parent, fear of the consequences and about how rarely, in my opinion, it is about instilling the desire to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

Tomorrow I'm going to write about the woman who made her son wear a sandwich sign about being a drug dealer and making bad choices. If you haven't read that article yet, be sure to find me on Facebook and like my page. You can click to it on the right sidebar on my webpage.

Points to ponder: 100 words or less. MLK Jr. style

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid…. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer…. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.” (148 and well worth the extra 48 words)

~ Martin Luther King Jr.

8 Limited Thinking Patterns

So often we allow our thoughts to run unexamined through our brain. Often those thoughts lead to negative behaviors. Below is a list of 8 limited thinking patterns that I will often explore with clients.  They are taken from the book Thoughts & Feelings by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis and Patrick Fanning. It is a fantastic book.


This post originally ran last year. It evoked a high response and I thought it would be beneficial to reblog it today. What patterns do you find yourself running into? Enjoy.