Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Barbara Hudson, MFT

Once our basic needs are met we all seek connection with others and meaning in our lives, but sometimes our own thoughts are actually obstructing our progress. Many different schools of thought have influenced me as a therapist, but the primary tool I use in my work with clients is cognitive therapy, which is the process of examining our beliefs, thoughts, and feelings to see how they are influencing our moods, relationships, and happiness. ‘Flat Earth’ beliefs are ones that may feel true, but on closer examination, are not logical or based on our current situation.

More important than techniques in therapy is the relationship you have with your therapist. Prior to going into private practice I worked in a variety of settings with people in crisis situations ranging from the sudden loss of a loved one, to feeling hopeless and suicidal. In all of those jobs I learned that it was essential to quickly establish a bond with the person I was charged with helping. If I couldn’t do that all the tools and techniques in the world were not going to be useful. That bond is just as important in a long-term therapy relationship. Therapy asks us to open ourselves and be vulnerable with someone who is a relative stranger. The person you choose to work with should be someone you feel a ‘fit’ with. There are many reasons we might fit with one therapist, but not another. If you don’t feel the fit is right by the end of your first session I will be glad to arrange to refer you other therapists who might work out better for you. Our relationship is crucial to our work together. If you have any questions or concerns, please bring them up at any time. I’m happy to explain or clarify anything I’ve said, or anything you’d like to understand about how therapy works.

Whether you’re coming as an individual or a couple you can get the most out of therapy if you clarify what you’d like to get out of it. Setting some goals and envisioning how you would like to be different will help guide our work together.

I provide individual, couple, and family counseling. Depression, anxiety, unresolved grief, traumatic events, and life transitions are some of the issues clients bring to therapy. If you have any questions about your particular issue and how therapy could help, please call me with your questions. Every person is different and my approach to therapy is tailored to your individual needs.

For information about rates, confidentiality, and appointment policies please read the Consent for Treatment, which can be found on the ‘Forms’ page.

The ‘Articles’ page contains essays I’ve written on relationships, therapy, and other issues. You might find them useful in articulating concerns you wish to address in therapy, or thinking about a problem in a new way.

To contact me with questions, or to request an appointment, please see the ‘Contact’ page of the website.

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The Crying Shame

The Crying Shame

With some regularity clients who cry in my office apologize for doing so. I feel a little surprised by this since I thought people knew that we therapists are used to, and expect, a certain amount of crying to happen while we’re working with someone, and when I point out the jumbo box of tissues and tell them it’s quite alright with me, most people give a little nod of acknowledgement, but remain a bit sheepish about the tears. This cultural prohibition on crying has worked its bony fingers further into our psyches than I thought. I know we aren’t supposed to cry at work except under the most extraordinary circumstances (like someone at work dies while they are actually at work) and I know that men aren’t allowed to cry anywhere except maybe funerals, but aren’t we allowed to cry in our own therapy sessions? I’m writing this to say not only yes, we are allowed to cry in our own therapy sessions, and I heartily encourage it.

Crying has a purpose, and while some crying isn’t therapeutic, most of the crying I see is quite therapeutic. Crying signals a shift in our bodies from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system over to the parasympathetic nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system activates when we are stressed and need to respond to something threatening in the environment. The sympathetic nervous system is what is active when we are in fight/flight/freeze mode. People do not cry when they are in this mode. If you think back on a situation when you felt this stressed you’ll see that crying wasn’t on the agenda. Imagine you’re hiking and you surprise a bear and her cub. Your brain immediately begins trying to sort out whether to run, fight, or stand your ground (do not run.) Your sympathetic nervous system will stay in charge until you reach the safety of your car, or maybe even your home and your family. Only then will you switch into parasympathetic mode. That’s when you’ll let down and cry (if bear encounters scare you.) Unfortunately, many of us live and/or work in environments that feel like a dark forest full of pissed off bears. If our sympathetic nervous system is activated too much of the time this kind of chronic stress will have a damaging effect on our immune functioning. Therapy can be a place where we feel safe enough from the problem to cry, which will switch us over to parasympathetic functioning. This is a good thing. Sometimes the switch occurs when we give up on solving the problem with fight/flight/freeze, and that can happen in therapy when we recognize our approach isn’t working and we give up. Getting out of panic mode can relax us enough to open our mind to possibilities and solutions that weren’t accessible when we were all stressed out. This cultural edict not to cry is actually thwarting our body’s natural attempt to get us out of sympathetic functioning. Think about how much effort it takes to keep yourself from crying- once you get it over with you can relax and start thinking about things differently. So, go ahead and cry. I won’t tell anyone.

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How to Ruin Your Marriage in 10 Easy Steps

How to Ruin Your Marriage in Ten Easy Steps

            Did you think it would be difficult to tear asunder your life-long pledge of love and fidelity? What could possibly happen to ruin this perfect union of souls? I’m here to assure you that it’s much easier than you think. You can practically do it in your sleep. Follow this easy step-by-step plan and you’ll be planting your flag on the shore of Divorce Land before you can spell L-A-W-Y-E-R.

Step One: Consider your home an etiquette-free zone.

Why shouldn’t you be allowed to forgo common courtesy in your own home? Dispense with all that tedious ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ business. When you want something bark out a command, or better yet, just grunt to indicate you’d like someone to pass the butter. Feel free to interrupt conversation with cell phone calls whenever you’re not fond of the topic your spouse has brought up. This tactic is even more effective if you ignore the phone during your favorite television programs- especially if you’ve recorded them. That way, you can convey contempt at the same time you’re innocently watching TV. This kind of marital multi-tasking is sure to create the kind of atmosphere that will lead straight to divorce.

Step Two: Remain oblivious to household chores.

Why not view your spouse as a free housekeeper? Allowing them to clean up the kitchen, do the laundry, vacuum the floors, and scrub toilets will free up your time to pursue the hobbies and interests that you didn’t have time for when you had to cook and clean up dinner all by your lonesome self. If you are the sort of person who isn’t capable of ignoring mold in the sink and dust bunnies the size of armadillos then you should at least make some very bitter remarks about what a selfish slob your partner has turned out to be. If you want to ruin your marriage it’s important to seize this opportunity to be critical because, as we all know, messy people are deeply flawed and don’t know it.

Step Three: Let Yourself Go.

Love means never having to go to the gym again. The grueling workouts, and years without dessert are behind you now. Your beloved promised fidelity, right? You never have to worry again whether you can attract the opposite sex. You already did that, so mark it off your ‘to do’ list and move on. Even if they have the audacity to complain about that extra hundred pounds or so, you can accuse them being shallow and point out that they are supposed to love you for who you are on the inside.  While they’re at the gym cycling off their rage you can console yourself with some ice cream.

Step Four: Keep your money separate.

Keeping this mine and that yours will allow you both to imagine that you’re not in this thing together. This shared delusion will prevent a lot of unpleasant fights about major purchases, debt, retirement, student loans, savings, and any number of other things that might reveal you to each other in both practical and philosophical ways. Never mind that the government will not care one penny what your personal financial arrangement is when they garnish your wages to make good on your partner’s debts to the IRS.

If you happen to be in the pre-wedding stage of your marriage then for sure don’t ask for, or provide, full financial disclosure before the nuptials. This could lead to a very grown-up conversation about shared (or not so shared) dreams, values, and goals. If the bank and credit card balances suddenly make your darling ever so slightly less appealing then please don’t console yourself with fantasies about your money staying your money (unless you want to get on the fast track to ruining your marriage before it’s even begun.) As far as the government, creditors, and lawyers are concerned once you’re married your money is in one big pile.

Step Five: Use your partner as an emotional crutch.

If you have always found dealing with your parents to be emotionally crippling then this is your chance to get someone else to do it for you. Also, if you develop an aversion to going to the grocery store because something about reading The National Enquirer headlines causes you have panic attacks, you can just get your spouse to go for you. That will be much easier than going through the hassle of seeking treatment for your anxiety disorder. Therapists call this kind of marital arrangement ‘borrowed functioning’ and sympathetic type spouses will put up with quite a bit of it, but if you borrow the functioning without any intention of ever giving it back you’re heading for trouble.

Step Six: Pay no attention to your marriage.

Imagine you get your dream job and in the contract you sign when they hire you it says that there will be no formal or written performance evaluations and they cannot fire you. This is a big relief, right? You have total job security. Pretty soon you notice that you can come in late, pay no attention at staff meetings, read comic books at your desk, and turn in a half-hearted effort when somebody calls you on it. The only consequence seems to be that your co-workers act crabby sometimes and you just don’t feel the enthusiasm you used to feel for the job when you were just an intern there.

Now, imagine that marriage has written performance evaluations that you and your spouse must complete every year on your anniversary. Not only are these evaluations a part of your permanent record and could be used as evidence in a divorce proceeding, but these evaluations might also be passed on to your next fiancé if this marriage doesn’t work out. You are going to be scored on various marital duties such as, demonstrations of affection and gratitude, willingness to pitch in and help with household tasks, enthusiasm in bed, patience with in-laws, pets, and children, emotional availability, fair fighting skills, etc., etc. Yikes! You might offer to make pancakes on Sunday a bit more often if this were the case.

People seem to think that once the wedding is over they can finally begin to concentrate on other things, which would be handy if it were true. While your marriage might only occasionally need the kind of time and attention you gave it when you were dating, it will need some portion of your time and attention every week or so. Set up a date night, go on vacation alone together regularly, and keep up on what is happening in your partner’s life. Loving someone is not something you can do in your speck of spare time, or while you are doing something else. Loving someone requires your full attention now and then.

Step Seven: Make big decisions without consulting your spouse.

If you are thinking about quitting your brain softening job, trading in the wagon in for a sports car, tossing your birth control, buying a chain of drive-up liquor stores, or moving to Italy, then do not, under any circumstances bring this up at home. Your spouse will probably have an opinion about it and you might not like it. Why not just spring it on them and hope they enjoy surprises? Well, because that would be very disrespectful and unfair.

Step Eight: Refuse to have sex…often.

You have your reasons; you’re tired, you’re not in the mood, the children might hear, you don’t like the way your thighs look in moonlight, and it’s Wednesday. This is bound to make your spouse feel unloved, unattractive, unattached, and eventually resentful. I’m not saying you should lie there and take it- mercy-sex is anything but merciful, but if you want this to work out then you’re going to have to figure out when you would feel like having sex. ‘Not during this football season’ you say? Perhaps the real reason you don’t want to have sex is due to some lingering resentment toward your partner for not telling you he was going to buy a chain of drive-up liquor stores. Resentment will kill your sex as life as fast as you can say ‘limp libido’ five times. If you have resentments that you carry into bed then it’s time to call a therapist to help you unload them out in the driveway so you can sell them at your next garage sale with all the other stuff you don’t need.

Step Nine: Refuse to talk about it.

You know who you are. If you tell me ‘nothing’ one more time I will never ever ask what’s bothering you again. ‘We’ll just get into another fight,’ you say? Time to call the therapist. If you haven’t figured out how to have a fair fight by now then you need a professional referee to explain the rules. Not talking about it will eventually lead to not talking about much of anything. Pretty soon you’ll be sitting across from each other in a restaurant genuinely wondering what everyone else could possibly have to talk about for an hour and a half.

Step Ten: Scoff at your partner’s dreams.

Your wife wants to become a writer? Laugh heartily and ask her when she decided you should be a one-income household. Your husband wants to go to Africa? Sit down and calmly compose a list of flesh eating bacteria known to originate in Africa. These reactions are sure to elicit the kind of deflated resignation that will lapse into something more malignant with time. Your job as a spouse is to support your partner’s dreams. Marriage remains popular because it is the kind of sanctuary that allows people to dare to dream beyond ‘find the perfect man/woman and live happily ever after.’ Marriage is a personal growth incubator and spouses deserve the same kind of encouragement to grow that children do. What if they actually start arranging to fulfill their dreams? Smile, and cheer them on like your relationship depended on it. It does.

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You Are Not Supposed To Be ‘In Love’

Someone asked me recently why he should work on his relationship with his seemingly irretrievably resentful wife, when it would be so much easier to start over with someone new. I’m not a big advocate of doing whatever is easiest. It doesn’t usually result in my becoming a better person, or gaining any insight, and it seems unlikely to produce anything I will value. Easiest works well for inconsequential things like putting on shoes. My client had found out, slightly too late, that how you treat your spouse is very consequential. His behavior towards her for the previous ten years had resulted in her feeling angry and bitter. Now, mind you, she had contributed to the situation by putting up with him and resenting it, instead of telling him when he was doing things she didn’t like. He was pondering the value of spending some portion of his future figuring out what he had done that was so awful and changing himself so he wouldn’t be inclined to do that anymore. So his real question was; what is the value of examining my impact on other people?

First, I pointed out that it was quite possible that even if he moved on to a new non-resentful person that within a couple of years he would be facing the same question. Since he wasn’t planning on changing anything about his behavior it seemed likely his new partner would resent the same things his wife does.  I also figured he would end up choosing someone who was inclined to develop resentment by not complaining because his reaction to such complaints was so hostile that most people would probably either decide not to complain very much, or leave the relationship. This was how his wife ended up in her current predicament. He preferred to believe that his wife was a particularly petty, bitter person inclined to harboring resentment, rather than think that anyone might find some of his behavior objectionable. I pointed out that this falls into the category of believing that the only thing wrong with his relationship was his wife. We think that, of course, we are so wonderful that any problem that has developed couldn’t possibly have anything to do with us. This attitude alone is enough to irritate your spouse enormously. So, we had already identified two things that his wife might resent.  His manner of posing the question of how to fix this mess indicated that he didn’t recognize his contributions to his current dilemma. But, even more than that, he failed to see his wife as unique and worth the effort merely because they had shared ten years together. He now for the first time had the opportunity to learn something about himself while he also got to know her better than he ever had. On some level he was really asking; do I want to know my wife and myself more intimately?

In the first part of any relationship we tend to focus on the better parts of our partner, and we tend to present the best part of ourselves. ‘In love’ feelings filter out each other’s weaknesses, but time and experience together remove that filter, and allow us to truly see each other. People generally mistake this process for ‘falling out of love’ rather than a rare opportunity for intimacy and growth. It is when you fall out of love that a deep genuine connection can develop, because that is when you really get to know a person. When that time comes hope like crazy, that through luck or good sense, you chose a basically good person; someone with very irritating faults that you cheerfully put up with because you admire them so much.

Marriage provides special opportunities for growth and intimacy that are not available in short-term relationships. I think I should define what I mean by ‘growth’ and ‘intimacy’ because these words are tossed around constantly as if everybody knows exactly what they mean and I find many people mean something very different than I do.  Growth in my mind is the process of becoming a more mature person. That means restraining an impulse but still addressing the feelings that prompted it. It is learning to tell the difference between our thoughts and our feelings. When I talk about growth within a relationship I mean seeing that others, like our spouse and our children, may feel or think completely differently about all sorts of things than we do, and not feeling threatened by that. Growth is learning to manage our moods and feelings on our own. Intimacy happens when we share those feelings without expecting others to understand, accept or share those same feelings.  I think people believe that intimacy will make them feel safe, known, and loved, but it can also make you feel scared and vulnerable. We sometimes think we are being intimate when we share our feelings and thoughts with our spouse when really it is only a thinly veiled disguise for persuading them that they should think, feel, or do, something the same as us. That kind of ‘sharing’ doesn’t generally lead to intimacy because we have no real interest in what our spouse’s actual thoughts or feelings are; we just want them to be the same as ours. This kind of sharing usually leaves us feeling that we are not intimate with our spouse because so often they don’t agree with us. People will then say things like, “we’re not close anymore”. What they are really experiencing is that they no longer share the delusion they are the same. We delude ourselves into believing this because it is so reassuring to find someone who feels, thinks, or votes the same way we do. That is precisely why real intimacy can result in our feeling scared and vulnerable. We now have to face the fact that we are a bit more alone in our thoughts and feelings than we thought we were. Some people will find this so threatening that they will quickly scramble to find someone else to be their ‘soul mate,’ meaning they will look for someone else to share their ‘sameness’ fantasy. Intimacy is a connection with others that is based on who you really are, rather than whom you want people to think you are, or who they want you to be. Admitting your faults as well as your strengths to yourself and someone else can be a humbling, and at times humiliating, experience. Our partner isn’t likely to love our faults any more than we do but the slow realization that they still love us anyway can create a powerful connection over time.

Falling out of love is your big chance to grow up and stop looking for a reflection of yourself in your spouse. You will be required to change your perspective from ‘what can I get from you?’ to ‘what can I learn from you?’  If you insist that marriage is a place where you get things you want, rather than a place where you learn things, then the ‘fallen out of love’ portion of the relationship is not for you. The kind of love you find at this point will not make you feel all warm and sweet inside, but it will be exhilarating, humbling, confusing, and profound at times. You may also become a much better person as a result. If that’s not for you, then you should find a new non-resentful spouse. However, couples that get past this point together without giving up in despair, report their relationship reaches new levels they never thought were possible.

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