Sondheim Was Right

When I was in high school, I discovered musicals.  My favorite at the time was Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim.  It’s a mash-up of several fairy tales, whereby they all have to go into the woods to get what they want.  (Symbolism, anybody?)

Toward the end of the work, a widower/baker begins to tell his fussing infant child the story of his mother, creating a legacy for his offspring.  The witch who was the antagonist throughout the plot stands off to the side, offering one of the main messages of the musical in the form of a haunting lullaby, warning:

     Careful the things you say;
     Children will listen.
     Careful the things you do;
     Children will see
     And learn.
     Children may not obey,
     But children will listen.
     Children will look to you
     For which way to turn-
     To learn what to be.
     Careful before you say:
     “Listen to me.”
     Children will listen…
I remember singing along with my tape (yes, I’m that old), in my bedroom and I loved that song for it’s bittersweetness.  Now that I’m a mother and have children of my own, I understand this song on a whole different level.
For me now, the message this song sends is that your sons and daughters will learn about the world through your words and actions.  What lessons do you want to send through how you act?
 The first understandings of how a relationship is supposed to function is from how you interact with your partner.  (At a young age, they cannot separate themselves from the situation; how you react with them teaches them more about the world; not interpersonal communication.)  Therefore, it is very important to model what a healthy, loving relationship looks and sounds like.
I was given the model of dysfunction.  When I was growing up, my parents argued all the time.  They were never affectionate.  I came to believe that the people who are highly involved in your life are also the ones who know you enough to hypercritical about you.  Hugging and kissing was only the stuff in movies and obviously not reality.  As a result, I sought out that same dysfunction I was used to seeing as a child.
Only now as I write this am I realizing that it took another 18  years away from my parents to totally relearn life lessons in how to attract and keep functional relationships.  I think I am not unique in this phenomenon whereby people turn a corner in their insight about their lives in their mid 30s- it’s because they have had as many years away from their family of origin to realize that their understanding of the world and the people in it comes from their childhood and is not necessarily Truth.
When your children experience second hand your relationship you have with their father, mother — biological or otherwise — you are really creating a certain “relationship radar” in your children.  So make the 153Promise to your husband, wife, partner or any other people your children come in contact with to model the type of relationship your children will have when they become old enough to have one of their own.
Children will listen, see, and learn.
Make their lessons happy .

Self Esteem is NOT Vanity

Recently, I was helping someone write their response for an application regarding their career path.  The prompt was to talk about themselves in a way that was otherwise not reflected in their application.  This person kept coming back to me with several revisions because I thought they kept missing the mark.  I softened the blow by saying while there was nothing really wrong with what they wrote, I explained that it didn’t feel authentic… it seemed forced and not like it came organically from the writer.  Rather than writing a heartfelt narrative that taught us about who they are as a person, the piece read more like a résumé in scrawling prose form.

Good writing sessions are almost like therapy; you need to find out what they are really trying to say, and get them to realize it on paper.  When I started prodding a bit, the word fear came out of the person’s mouth.  When I asked what they meant by that the response was, “I am afraid of sounding too boastful.”

That was the light bulb moment.

If you list all the things you accomplish in life, then yes; that is boastful.  But if you are celebrating the great qualities that make you special, then that is called self esteem.

I could easily list all the things I did so far in my life: singing professionally with a jazz group; going storm chasing; winning first prizes in road races for my age category;  having a completely unmedicated childbirth for my son…  Now that starts to sound like I’m bragging.

But if I say I am very emotional in my song interpretation, I have an adventurous spirit, I value making healthy choices through exercise and a natural lifestyle, then I am sharing with you what makes me unique.

I thought it was important to make this distinction right after yesterday’s post about making a 153Promise through instilling a healthy self concept with your children by modeling it with yourself.  There is nothing wrong with loving yourself for who you are… just not for all the things you did.  Overvaluing accomplishments is like white-knuckling your self concept.  If you have to cling onto some list of moments, then you are actually being very insecure.  True inner peace and happiness comes from the ability to shine your inner light for all to see… even if they have no idea what you’ve done.

I don’t get into religion very much on here, but I felt it in my heart to quote a very popular verse.  It says in the Bible in 1 Corrinthians 13 4-5 that love is not boastful and keeps no record of wrongdoing.  Therefore, if you are truly filling your heart with love, it cannot possibly be boastful.  It’s also underscoring that love does not come from a tally of actions.

So praise yourself — and your children — for all the qualities  you and they possess; not for all the things in a record of accomplishments.  Otherwise, the love starts feeling conditional… nobody wants to feel loved for the growing list of things they did.

Instead of giving praise for making the Honor Roll or scoring the winning point of a game or cleaning their room, acknowledge their hard work, their courage and their integrity.  That’s true love without an attachment or condition.  And when they fall short, don’t shame them… use it as an opportunity to explore what happened inside themselves and how they can learn and grow for future success… and do the same thing with yourself.

Make the 153Promise of nurturing a healthy self esteem without the fear of being boastful.

 

 

 

 

It Starts With Yourself

I’m in my 40s.  When I was in school, I remember this PSA on TV:

It was so prevalent in our culture because of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” platform and the huge presence of the drug culture.

I was never part of that crowd, so it never really had much of an impact upon me.  However, I think it’s totally appropriate now that I’m a parent.  Kids do learn from their parents.  So what lessons do you want to teach?

It’s easier to watch what you say to your children about their behaviors, but what are you saying about yourself ?

If you put yourself down in any way, you are basically saying, “I’m crap.”  This damages your children’s self esteem because they are created by you.  Do you really want them thinking, “I’m the offspring of crap” ?

I always remember this warning when I hear, “Oh my… your daughter looks JUST like you!”  I get this all. the. time.  Now, can you imagine if she hears me say in the mirror, “I hate my nose… I wish I had bigger lips… my butt looks fat…”  Instead, I beam with pride and say, “Thank you!  She’s so lucky, isn’t she?  Because I’m gorgeous!!!”  And I’m NOT being sarcastic!  Lighthearted, yes, as not to be boastful.  But I want my daughter to feel proud that she comes from me.

The Dove line of beauty products nailed it in their recent beauty campaign:

Are you crying yet?

So please remember that when you make the 153Promise to love your child, that 153Promise starts with you!  Remember to be kind to your own spirit and teach your children that they are valued… by valuing yourself.

Kisses!

 

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

It’s only twelve days until Christmas, and people everywhere are rushing around to buy gifts for each other.

I’ve been to one party where the “rule” was for everyone to buy each other a $20.00 gift card.

I know some families who start groups on FB just to list what they want for gifts.

One of my colleagues said her mother texted a due date for gift requests before her shopping day and she got a another text warning her that if she missed the deadline, she’d only get socks and underwear.

I have to say, I never quite got the concept of buying gifts when they seem to be a mandatory exchange.  If I have to buy for you and you have to buy for me, why don’t we just agree to skip the whole business and just stay at home with a good movie instead of getting mauled at the mall?

After all, why do we give gifts, anyway?  Isn’t it as a token of affection?  Isn’t it as a symbolic gesture during Christmas to replicate the giving of the gifts from the Magi?

Don’t get me wrong- I love the season with the yummy foods, beautiful lights, and cozy smells.  But I am suggesting that we re-examine the spirit in which gifts are supposed to be given and if you still feel the pressure to get something for those near and dear to you (if you haven’t already), consider a gift that goes far beyond some pretty wrap, bow, or bag.

Or even if you have purchased the requisite present, imagine if came along with the  153Promise of giving them daily affection with the goal of supporting a functional, loving relationship.

Some possible ways to do this are:

-Buy some books on parenting, relationships or self-help books about issues you are currently working on and sharing that purchase with your loved one

-Take your family shopping together for games (that you play at a table- NOT a computer) you can play as a family

-Have a family meeting to decide on a few day trips like the zoo, a museum, or some other experiential activity

There are many other possibilities… one great way is to ask them what they’d like to do, rather than what they want.

So as you watch everybody else run around for last minute shopping for things that most likely will end up in the back of the closet in a few weeks, why not make the decision to put a stop to that materialistic pressure and put your energy into truly making the spirit bright… by showing your affection through deeds and time and making an effort on a daily basis to show them just how much you love them.

That’s a gift everyone will be able to enjoy all year long.

Don’t Repeat Your Past

If you’ve watched enough news commentary on any media channel, you’ve most likely heard the some variation of the adage, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

This sentiment is especially true about relationships.  There may or may not be a genetic component to dysfunction, but it certainly is hereditary.

If your goal is to have a emotionally healthy relationship with anybody, you have to do a lot of work on yourself.  I say this because I firmly believe that it’s impossible to have a healthy dynamic with anybody until you have a healthy relationship with yourself.  It all comes down to self esteem.

If you don’t have the ability to love yourself, you cannot truly love someone else.  We first get our ability to love ourselves from our family of origin.  We develop our sense of Self from our initial care givers.  We learn what type of World it is “out there” by the people who first create the environment we explored as babies and toddlers.

It’s a deep concept, but if you are still operating as an adult based upon your first three years, then you are letting your inner child still cry for validation, and that is NOT a good way to deal with anybody.

Child development experts say that 80% of our psyche is created in the first three years of our lives and we spend the REST of our lives developing the remaining 20%.  Sometimes, we have to go back to our past to retrain that 80% to instill in us the confidence, security and sense that we are valued as a person.  We have to heal that inner child so we are no longer operating from a repressed toddler temper tantrum.

How to do that?  There’s tons of books out there to help you, but what worked for me is to list all the stuff that I didn’t like about my present life and work it backward.  How did I get there?  How is what’s going on today ultimately linked to my past?  And how is that linked to my parents?  I also learned about THEIR pasts and understood what motivated THER behaviors as well.  Think of it as a Freudian Family Tree…  only the descendants are maladjustments to one’s surroundings.

I’ll give you just one small example of the insights I got from doing my work: decisions.  I’m very bad at making them.  Mainly because my father was hyper critical when I was growing up and I learned that whatever I DID do was probably wrong.  Therefore, any choices I was faced with as an adult was met with a lot of anxiety on my part because I did not want to repeat that feeling I had as a child of doing something wrong, thereby confirming that my father (and later on, peers) were actually right: that I was a deeply flawed human being.  Therefore, any time I was faced with making any type of choice, I’d have a meltdown.  I remember crying in the mall because I needed shoes but couldn’t decide between the black or brown ones.  I left in tears with nothing.

Or I’d get myself so worked up when someone would ask me, “What do you want to do for dinner tonight” and I’d just say, “Nothing,” just to avoid making a decision- I couldn’t possibly articulate my needs because I didn’t even know what they were.  So then the well-adjusted person would actually believe me… and do nothing!  I’d then feel invalidated and spin things around on THEM and make them out to be the enemy… only because they put me in the position that reminded me of being a kid, and I had cast them in the role of my father.  I’d be triggered as an abuse survivor and I’d be lashing out at a friend and they were like, “What the heck?  I was just trying to be nice to her!”

Pretty messed up, huh?  Now imagine if I had pulled that illogical nonsense with my child…  But people do that all the time.  And so the cycle continues.

So it’s ESSENTIAL to really examine your behavior, identify patterns and figure out the causes so you do not operate from a position of dysfunction and inability to regulate your emotions; otherwise you will take all your baggage and pack it even tighter for your loved ones and they will be stuck carrying that heavy load and somehow believe that they asked for it and deserved it.

Imagine a happy childhood, how yours was not, and make the changes you need to make so you can give to your child what you did not get from your own caregivers when you were a kid.

Sometimes, your 153Promise can be in the form of loving your own inner child so you can do the same with the next generation.

It’s Never Too Late: Part Two

So, how is it that I can now have a relationship with the same man — my father — who caused me so much pain that I had put a gun to my head?  The answer is in my acronym for LOVE.

He listened to how much pain I had been in.  He observed what I was doing with the rest of my life as an adult.  He validated my position by not making excuses, and he empathized by making a change in his behavior from my perspective.

That last step took several attempts, I gotta tell ya.  He had to say he was sorry several times until I actually believed him.  The reason being, he’d sometimes revert back to his behaviors when I was a kid.  As a child, I didn’t say anything.  But as an adult, it would HIGHLY trigger me and I’d blow up and estrange myself from him… for years.  I was not the most graceful about it and I’m sure I caused him pain, as well.  I will own that piece.  It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation for my behavior when I say that I had developed CPTSD from my childhood so I had difficulty regulating my emotions… I still do.  But I’m much better with it today.

We’ve been okay for the past three years or so, and I think it’s pretty stable now.  I’ve learned; he’s learned, and we’ve moved from living in the past to trying to stay in the moment.  (He is a big worrier about the future.)  There was a big symbolic moment when I knew he had actually changed.  My son was two at the time.  He had picked up a candle.  I could tell it made my dad nervous: would my son break the candle?  Would he bang it on something and break that other thing?  I just held my breath as I looked to my dad and what he’d do…  He just looked at me, looked at my son, took a deep breath… and laughed!  He got it!!!  He understood the present moment and what was most important.  Not the candle, not the table or whatever… his daughter and his grandson.

So that’s how it can happen.  If you have a history of a strained relationship with someone due to unresolved tension in the past, go to that person.  Tell them you’re sorry.  List what you did so they know that you “get” it.  Then say that they deserve better and you are going to do better.  Admit that you need help in doing that by asking them what you can do from now on.  Then listen to them.  Don’t defend or excuse.  Observe what they do- not only what they say.  Validate their point of view.  And finally, empathize and make decisions from their perspective.  Ask yourself, “What would they want me to be doing right now so they know they are loved?”  Then do that thing.

Granted, this is NOT easy to do.  You have to put your heart on your sleeve.  They may not be ready because trust has been violated in the past.  But if you make the 153Promise to do things in a loving way, they’ll come around.  I did… because my dad did.

If you get rejected at first, make the 153Promise to love YOURSELF every day by working on improving your own life.  Do the work.  After a while, they’ll notice the change and they’ll come to trust it because they’ll see that you are doing it not to get anything from the deal, but because you realize it’s just the healthy, right thing to do.

You may need outside resources.  Seek out therapy.  If you can’t afford it, find group meetings in your area.  Research online.  Join an internet forum.  Get a self-help book on Amazon, or go to the local library and ask for a good book to check out.  I’ll even make a list of books/resources on a page here… I’ll update it as I get suggestions, so if you know of a great resource, email me at jennyontheshelf@gmail.com.

You’ll notice that I don’t mention my mother in part of this healing process.  That’s because even though she was not the active abuser, she’s always maintained that she was a good mom.  MY version of reality is that a good mother’s first job is to protect… and in that respect, she failed.  Cleaning up the mess after the damage does not win any awards in my book.  She’s failed to convince me that she’s really listened, observed, validated, or empathized.  I’ve heard the word “love” come out of her mouth countless times, but I’ve never felt it the way I need to in order to believe it.  It saddens me to say this, but she may not even be capable of that due to her own issues.  I’ve stopped interpreting this as my shortcoming, and I’m working on making my peace with this.  In that way, I’m making that 153Promise to her… to stop judging her for her inabilities.

It’s my wish for all of you reading this post that you are inspired to acknowledge the past to those you love, make positive choices in the present, and look toward the future with hope and optimism.  I sincerely believe that in taking this approach, we can heal a lot of our own wounds and help in repairing others’ we may have contributed in causing.

In doing this work, it’s not too late to attain “One Million Kisses” with those whom you want to show healthy love.  Who’s to say you can’t “kiss” retroactively???  Maybe taking that one step to make it right can get you half way there!  Maybe doing your work on the past while making changes today can double up your “Kissing Kounter!”

When I first thought about the possibility of literally kissing my child a million times, I thought it would be impossible; NOT SO!  The secret lies in taking one day at a time… it’s best way to live life, isn’t it?

Make that first step today…  It’s NEVER too late!

 

What is “Love,” Anyway???

What a crazy question, right?  Yet I find a lot of instances where people do not know what it looks or even feels like.

Yes, there’s romantic love, familial love, platonic love… but what they all should have in common is respect for the individual.  It is not about controlling the other, or giving into the other person’s desires despite your own.  That enmeshment creates a very unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship, also known as codependency.

Rather, there should be a very clear boundary between where one person ends and another begins.  (The only exception is in very young children, before they even have a sense of themselves verses the outside world.  More on this later in a post about “Attachment Parenting.”)  These boundaries should be clearly articulated with expectations and follow through when they are violated so the love is not given or withheld as punishment.  That would be very cruel and would teach someone that your love is conditional to meeting certain criteria.  It would damage someone’s self esteem to think that they are not essentially loveable enough just for who they are as a person.

It’s been said by relationship gurus that “Love” is a verb, not a noun.  It’s what we DO to show love to the other person.  And how we love tells a lot about who we are as a person.

Therefore, I think it’s necessary to define my version of love since the 153Promise is all about reminding your child/significant other or anybody else in your life that you love them.  I’ve thought about it, and I think I can boil it down to a very simple acronym… LOVE.

(As if you didn’t see that coming…)

Love is: Listening     Observing     Validating     Empathizing*

Listening is a lot harder than you think.  It requires time and attention.  It means stopping what you are doing and really making them top priority.  It’s not multi-tasking, like letting them talk while you are folding the laundry, or patiently waiting while they talk so you don’t interrupt them, all the while trying not to forget what YOU want to say next.  Rather, listening requires taking yourself out of the equation while you only regard what they are saying.  It is trying to learn who they are as a person as they share their thoughts with you.  It is silently communicating with your eyes that you care what is coming out of the person’s mouth.  (Has anybody ever said to you, “Are you even listening to me?”  Chance are, you violated one of my definitions above…

Observing means realizing that to really love a person, you need to regard not just what they say, but how they say it, what they look like, and all the other clues they leave for you… either consciously or unknowingly.

Percentages differ upon the research, but it’s widely accepted that the vast majority of communication is non-verbal.  Therefore, we need to be hyper vigilant in reading all the signals in a relationship. If a husband asks the wife if it’s okay to go out with the boys instead of making good on his promise to take her out for dinner and she says, “That’s fine,” look at her face.  If she’s not sincerely smiling, and you take her response as a green light, you will be one sorry husband.

If you ask your son at the dinner table if anything interesting happened in school that day and he keeps looking down at his plate and is covering his peas with his mashed potatoes, you should know that he’s withholding something.

Or if you teenage daughter suddenly starts doing her own laundry when she always used to complain about it as a chore, you may want to beat her at switching it over to the drier.  Chance are, she’s wearing things you didn’t buy.

I’m not suggesting being a helicopter parent or a controlling partner.  But it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a lot more to showing love than giving them a chance to talk to (or at) you.  You do NOT want to be that parent whose kids say to their friends, “Nah… my parents won’t even know/notice” when confronted with a temptation.

Validating is one of my favorite words.  It means that you respect their point of view because you took the time to empathize with them.  They feel like you really “get” them and that true communication occurred.  It can be done through using phrases like, “What I hear you saying is…” or you can confirm that you understood by respecting their wishes or honoring their requests, as long as they are healthy and reasonable.  It also establishes trust because if they come to you and you basically say, “I understand,” they will keep coming back to you.

Think of how many times couples fight because one comes to the other just to vent about a problem and the other responds with, “Well, you should have….” or “Here’s what you should do.”  Did the person with the problem ask for a solution or criticism?  Of course not.  And the other person gets his or her feelings hurt because they thought they were helping, and it was not well receive.  Double invalidation.  Really, the first person should say, “I really need you to be my support right now and hear what happened to me.”  And the other person only needs to say, “I’m so sorry you are hurting.”  To which the first will say, “Thank you.  I knew I could come to you.”  Warm fuzzies all around.  The same holds true with toddlers.

A little kid just wants validation that they are being heard.  It’s not even that they really need to get what they want; they just want to know that you understood what they said.  Once you validate a person, everything afterword becomes less crucial.  There are not more battles of will or hurt feelings.  It’s actually pretty magical when you start making validation a top priority in a relationship.

Encouraging has the word “courage” in it.  (I am a self-confessed Word Nerd!)  But that’s not all- “courage” has its roots from the French “couer,” or “heart.”  That means when you encourage someone, you are actually helping them to believe it in their heart.

If your daughter doesn’t make the volleyball team, you encourage her that she’s still a great kid and that if she practices over the course of the year, maybe she’ll make it next time.  Or you can encourage your friend to keep looking for a job, even though he’s not getting any bites and you may even introduce him to your neighbor whom you know is hiring.

So, that’s it: listening, observing, validating, and encouraging.  If you do practice those four verbs, I truly believe that you will be fostering a healthy relationship and be well on your way to your daily 153.

*In later posts, I changed “Encourage” to “Empathize”