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Am I an Empath?

An empath is often described as one who identifies with another person’s emotions as if they were their own. This personality trait goes beyond the usual definitions of relating to others.  For example, being sympathetic is merely understanding another’s experience.  Empathy moves beyond this definition, where somebody feels for or with another person.  Sometimes highly sensitive beings perceive what others are feeling so intensely their emotions are being pulled about with little understanding why.  This experience can be challenging for some because their life can turn upside down when family members or close friends experience the agitating cycles of life.

Despite this challenge, this form of empathy is often thought of as a gift.  I agree with this perspective.  Those who relate emotionally to the experiences of others in this fashion often assist in the healing experiences for others because they validate others feelings in meaningful ways.  Sometimes those who are empathic bridge communication gaps where language has no nourishment.

Recently neuroscientists have discovered the human brain contains specific brain circuit structures called mirror neurons.  These neurons primarily respond by interpreting the emotional state of others, then translating these experiences into mirrored responses.  This research provides scientific answers to how this process occurs.  Furthermore, the latest research describes how human beings experience and interact in their environment and how we are wired to connect.

If you’re very empathic and highly sensitive, what can you do to create emotional stability?  I recommend taking a moment in the morning to establish an emotional baseline.  As you feel a shift during the day, ask yourself, “is this mine?”.  It may also be helpful instead of thinking “why” are you feeling this way, ask yourself “who” may be feeling this that you are picking up on.  This isn’t to say all emotions belong to others.  When it is your emotions, it’s possible there is somebody in your social-field who is picking up on you whom you can connect with.  This reality of the human experience presents an ideal opportunity to become vulnerable and realize that you’re not alone.  After all, we are biologically wired to understand how others feel and experience the world together.

photo credit: canstockphoto.com – pressmaster

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Creating Emotional Equality for Your Kids: From Your Threenager to your Teenager

 

Life seems to be getting busier and busier from soccer practice to choir rehearsals, school projects, and bedtime stories. I think we sometimes forget how intense life can be for a teenager or even for your three-year old learner. As an adult, we often get stuck in a mindset where we believe our adult problems are real and our teens problems are miniscule in comparison. Sometimes we forget how difficult life can be in high school. Maintaining friendships seem more difficult these days, with all the technology and social media barriers. Your little ones experience these difficulties as well. This could be with making friends at daycare and when family members are too busy to play or acknowledge their presence. When your child is experiencing all these stressors, they may come across as having a bad attitude, disrespectful, over-sensitive, or selfish. In reality, our kids are really just trying to figure out how to navigate life and may lack skills or verbiage to describe their stress and pain.

At the same time my daughter was experiencing her newfound emotions as a teen, I had the joy of also raising a three-year old who I deemed was like a threenager.

Threenager: A three-year-old child who has just as big of an attitude and overwhelming emotions as a teenager but with even less words or skills to regulate themselves.

I felt a little overwhelmed at times with all of their emotions as well as my own. Here are some tips and tricks I used to not only survive this time but also help my children thrive during these hard times.

  • Do not minimize your children’s emotional experience. Even if their problem seems small or easily solvable to you. They are having a hard time.

Instead, listen to their story, validate their feelings and offer your unconditional love and support.

  • Avoid Blame. There are times when your child is experiencing a natural consequence such as losing a friend because they wouldn’t share or added to a rumor about them.

What they really need is empathy and support. “It’s hard when you lose a friend.” Or “you seem to have had a bad day.”

  • They don’t need you to fix it. It may seem easier as a parent with life skills to solve problems for our kids but there is a bigger reward when they learn to solve the problem on their own.

You can sit with them and help them come up with their own solutions, “how do you think you can fix this?” or “what would you like to be different?” Also never underestimate the power of sitting and problem solving with your child over a glass of chocolate milk. It does wonders in my home.

  • Respect their boundaries. If your child is having a hard day and they do not want to talk about it or refuse a hug, do not personalize it, allow them time to work on the problem on their own.

Be there for them when they are ready for a hug or to talk. You can offer reassurance by telling them “I can see you want some space right now, I am here if you need me.”

These simple reframes as a parent have gone a long way to create a safe and equal relationship with my kids. It has eased some stress on my end and helped my children to gain emotional intelligence and gain life skills that are invaluable into adulthood.

If you would like to schedule a family session or session for your child, please call us at Wasatch Family Therapy at 801-944-4555

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Have a Conversation

Have you ever had a conversation where you just needed to vent? You just needed to get out all the pent-up frustration, anger, disappointment (whatever emotion that you were feeling at the time out), and the person that you were talking to immediately started telling you how to “fix” the problem? How were you feeling in that moment? Heard? Validated? Or the opposite?

Recently, my 17-year-old came in grumbling and lamenting about the struggles of high school existence. I listened for a bit, commiserated on how terrible small-town living is (sarcasm), and offered really “helpful” suggestions. Cue the eye-roll! Yep, I fell into the “fix-it” pattern; it’s ingrained. We are a society of “fixers.” We want to listen to an issue, come up with a few reasonable alternatives and fix the issue. But what happens if there isn’t a solution? Or, really a problem to be fixed?

The “fix it” trap is a very common style of miscommunication within couples and families. Wait…miscommunication? They’re talking about an issue and the other person is trying to help them with it, how is that miscommunication? The miscommunication happens when the intent of the speaker and the intent of the listener don’t match up. You might be asking yourself, “How am I supposed to know what my spouse/child/friend wants or needs out of a conversation? I’m not a mind reader!” My response is simple, yet really difficult for many of us because it’s something completely different from our typical pattern…ask. You read that right, just ask the person what they want or need from the conversation.

During the exchange with my child, after seeing the eye-roll and hearing the frustrated huffing and puffing, I knew that I had not given them what they needed from me. However, I didn’t want to make an incorrect assumption, again, so I simply apologized and asked, “I’m sorry, how can I help you right now? Is this something you need to talk about or something that you need help figuring out?” Now, I know that people are going to read this and say to themselves, “I try asking my child/spouse/ friend what they need and they just get mad!” Yep! The pattern is ingrained in the other direction as well. Sometimes the speaker may not even realize that they aren’t seeking a solution, but an opportunity to talk. What are you supposed to do then? Listen.

Take the time to really listen to what the person is saying, validating his/ her experience (even if you don’t agree), ask some questions to clarify to make sure that you are truly understanding, and empathize with what’s happening. Giving the person your undivided attention will give you (and the other person) the opportunity the truly ascertain what’s needed from the conversation. Go talk!

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The Secret To A Happier Marriage: Dr. Julie Hanks on “Good Things Utah”

happy coupleRecently, I was interviewed by “Good Things Utah” as to what is the secret to a happier, healthier marriage. And really, who doesn’t want this kind of marriage? One in which both partners feel connected, valued, and loved. From my 20+ years of experience as a clinical counselor, I’ve found that fostering the skill of empathy can really make all the difference for couples.

What is empathy exactly? Feeling bad for someone who’s struggling? Relating to someone else because you’ve gone through something similar? I like the research of Theresa Wiseman, who helps us understand empathy by breaking it down into these 4 parts:

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Heal Trauma, Improve Behavior

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Are the children in your life (whether in your family or your professional world) seeming to constantly misbehave? Do you know adults who seem to have missed some important steps in growing up? Maybe that adult is you. Have you heard of the ACE studies? ACE is an acronym that stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences and is the title of a growing body of research that is shedding new light on how childhood trauma impact a person’s social, psychological, intellectual, physical, and spiritual well-being.

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Attuning To Our Partners In Small Moments

Hold Me Tight Therapy Group

According to John Gottman, in every interaction in our significant relationships, there is an opportunity to attune or turn away. We have many experiences where we notice our partner, and we make a choice: “Do I ATTUNE myself to what is going on,” or, “do I turn away?” Pay attention to what happens when you turn away. What are your thoughts? What happens to the other person? What does your body feel like? What do you choose instead?

A-T-T-U-N-E is an acronym for just how to turn toward our partners in a supportive and empathetic way. Our job with each other is to create emotional safety, and it is through small moments, like attuning, that create stability and ongoing romance. When we feel acknowledged, we feel secure and safe.

A- Acknowledge

T- Turn Toward

T- Tolerance

U- Understanding

N- Non-Defensive

E- Empathy

Here are some fun ways to practice attuning opportunities:

  • Go for a walk with a spouse or child.
  • Plan a picnic.
  • Cook dinner together.
  • Call each other during the workday.
  • Volunteer in the community.
  • Plan an outing together: hike, bike, or drive.
  • Visit the beach.
  • Go dancing together.
  • Plan to attend brunch.
  • Get away to a secret location.

Whatever you decide, remember the importance of attuned engagement and the strengthening power it has.

For extra support or help making repairs in your relationship, make an appointment with Wasatch Family Therapy at 801.944.4555.

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Empathy: The Secret Sauce of Happy Marriages

Empathy: The Secret Sauce of Happy Marriages

Everyone has an innate desire to be understood, to be heard, and to be validated. This is why close relationships can be so powerful.

They give us the opportunity to connect with others in ways that allow both individuals to be seen, respected, loved, and really feel known by the other person. But as many of us have experienced, even burning love can cool down, and even couples who once had a deep emotional engagement with one another may find themselves feeling disconnected and dissatisfied.

As a clinical therapist of more than 20 years, I’ve sat with many disheartened couples who are confused about where their love has gone and why they don’t feel the same way about each other that they once did. There are a great number of reasons why a marriage or romantic relationship could be in distress, and I won’t attempt to solve or remedy all of them in a single article. I will say that one thing I have seen work wonders in improving relationships and alleviating marital and personal hardship is empathy. I call it the “secret sauce” of a happy marriage. In fact, a Harvard research study from a few years ago showed that marriages were more successful when the man tried to demonstrate empathy in his interactions with his wife. Clearly, there’s something important and noteworthy about it.

So what is empathy exactly? It’s a willingness and ability to sit with another person, really listen, and reflect back your partner’s experience. Some individuals are naturally empathetic, whereas others need to work to develop it a bit more. Either way, it can be an invaluable trait to bring to a marriage. Here are some ways that you can use empathy to improve your relationships.

One of the first things to do is to listen to the emotional message in your partner’s pleas. This can be difficult because the words and the emotional message might not be the same thing. For example, if your spouse says things like, “you always come home late,” or “you never text me when you’re on your way,” it may be tempting to get defensive at the criticism.

However, I encourage you to listen for the deeper meaning in the words. It’s likely that what your partner is actually trying to communicate is “I miss you when you’re away and want to spend more time with you,” or “I’m scared that I’m not important to you.” Practice this communication skill of deciphering the underlying message, then figure out how best to respond to it.

Another good strategy for employing empathy in your relationships is to step out of your own emotional experience sometimes to fully listen to and seek to understand the other person’s. This is not easy. When a spouse is giving critical feedback, your gut reaction is likely one of trying to explain, defend, or rationalize, but these uncomfortable situations are when empathy is needed the most. Press the pause button on your own feelings, and as painful as it might be, try to see things from the opposite perspective.

And finally, show empathy by reflecting back your partner’s experience in your words. This is an aspect of active listening that can help to clarify any inadvertent miscommunication. Using phrases like “what I’m hearing you say is ____” or “you must be feeling _____” can help make sure you two are on the same page. The Harvard study showed that women were happier when their husbands were making their best effort to respond empathetically to their negative experiences. So if you’re not perfect, don’t stress! This is a skill to learn and to develop, and a marriage or close relationship is the perfect opportunity to practice.

Empathy is not necessarily a cure-all, but it is a crucial component of a healthy relationship (especially a long-lasting one like a marriage). In times of distress, practice these methods to strengthen your connections to the ones you love.

(c) Canstock Photo

Need help to develop more empathy? Get coaching with Dr. Julie Hanks

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Stronger Relationships Through Vulnerability

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The Pixar movie Inside Out goes into the head of a little girl, Riley, who experiences her world through the lens of her emotions, each represented by a unique character, Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy and Sadness. Joy is the leader of this group of individual emotions/characters, and works throughout the movie to protect Riley from sad emotions. Finally at the end of the movie, Joy learns that sadness is was pulls people in, and allows Riley to make the connection with her parents that comforts her and helps her begin to manage all the other emotions that are swirling around in her growing brain. That connection with her parents can also be called secure attachment.

Sadness is a primary emotion, and primary emotions are our vulnerable emotions. Sometimes we don’t feel safe being vulnerable, so we mask our primary emotions with secondary emotions. Secondary emotions are the reactions to our primary emotions that are designed to protect our vulnerabilities, so we sometimes use them to put up walls or push others away. This serves an important purpose in situations where we don’t feel safe, but can cause problems when something happens that causes us to feel unsafe with a romantic partner, a family member, or close friend.

If someone we care about does something that hurts us, we might feel sadness, or rejection, or fear, when we are hurting we work to protect ourselves and mask our sadness, rejection, or fear with anger, disgust, or frustration. We lash out to prevent the other person from hurting us more. This behavior starts us on a cycle of pain and protection.

If we can figure out a way to break the cycle, we can rebuild trust and emotional bonds, and regain that sense of comfort and attachment to important people in our life. Just like in the movie, the key to breaking the cycle is to become vulnerable, to express our feelings of sadness or fear. This can begin to change our interactions, and as our loved ones are able to respond to our primary emotions, we are able to be comforted.

The next time your partner expresses anger or frustration or disgust, try to imagine what primary emotion they are experiencing that is being masked, then respond with empathy to that primary emotion. You may be surprised what creating a safe space for them to be vulnerable does for your relationship!

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The Thing That Gets In The Way of Our Sense of Worthiness

Wasatch Family Therapy Depression

If you haven’t heard of Dr. Brene Brown that likely means that you are not a psycho therapist. She has become a ROCK STAR in profession therapy circles and I have become an ABSOLUTE Brene Brown JUNKIE!! I have read and re-read every book she has written; listened and re-listened to those same books; high-lighted, outlined and committed to memory her main premises because her research findings are revolutionary and understanding and then applying them holds the key to what she would term a “whole hearted” life.

What exactly does Dr. Brown study, you might ask. Promise yourself that you won’t lose interest and stop reading when I tell you because as unappealing as the main emphasis of her research might seem on the surface, it is essential to understanding how to develop, among other things, a sense of worthiness, the ability to feel loved and the experience of feeling that we have a place where we belong in this big bad world.

Dr. Brown studies SHAME, which is, as she puts it is “the thing that gets in the way of our sense of worthiness.” Shame is defined as, “The belief that we are not enough,” that we are somehow flawed, imperfect, less than, don’t measure up, inherently bad, that we are a mistake. We use all kinds of ineffective and downright damaging tactics to try to avoid feeling shame such as trying to be perfect so that we can avoid the judgement of others; numbing our feelings through any of a number of methods including, but not limited to, drugs, alcohol, food, television, social media, work (anything that will allow us, for a time, to escape from uncomfortable emotions); and, of all things, attempting to protect ourselves from feelings of loss by what Dr. Brown calls “foreboding joy” which is an ineffective tactic designed to diminish the experience of loss by not fully embracing the joyful moments that life has to offer – the thinking being that if we don’t fully embrace some aspect of our lives, when it’s gone, we haven’t lost anything because we had nothing to lose.

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The Worst Feelings in the World and How to Get Rid of Them

Distraughtman

Have you ever had that awful pit in your stomach, a wash of discomfort throughout your body, or incessant thoughts that you just can’t seem to get out of your head in the middle of the night? I believe we all have, but it can be difficult to identify or explain what those feelings are.

Really powerful emotions (both positive and negative) are often very difficult to describe. We sometimes just don’t have the words. Having the words can enhance a positive experience or bring comfort to a difficult one.

I have spent the last several weeks reading Brene Brown’s books I Thought it Was Just Me (But it Isn’t) and The Gifts of Imperfection. Brene Brown is a self-described shame researcher/story teller who has helped bring understanding to very difficult emotional experiences. She said that the four most common difficult emotions that people experience are embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, and shame. Brown illustrates that knowing the differences and definitions of these four experiences makes all the difference in how we interact with them and move through them effectively. Let’s start with the definitions:

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