Are you investing your energy wisely in relationships and life?

pigThe amount of energy we spend versus how much we generate is a simple way of appreciating our sense of fulfillment in life. We can look at this measurement on a large scale, a year for instance, or at the micro level of a more routine encounter with another person.

The quality and value of our relationships with others  is determined by the sum of a collection of exchanges or interactions.  Every exchange includes both inputs and outputs of energy. If we drill down deeper, we may understand why we value a relationship the way we do by assessing the quality and quantity of what we give and receive, and how well we are able to make adjustments to this balance.

Making adjustments means figuring out how to adapt the relationship to work for us better and hopefully negotiate with the other to do the same.  The ingredients of a fulfilling relationship include passion, vulnerability, ownership (of thoughts, feelings, actions) curiosity and energy. The greater the quality and quantity of these ingredients, the greater our emotional investment will be. However, the greater our investment, the greater the risk, because what we put in may not match what we get by the other person. 

Investment always involves a risk.

Financial planners will tell us that the reward for taking on risk is the potential for a greater investment return long term. We balance our risk taking with protectiveness. Exercising caution in relationships, being wise about how and when to invest further, helps us manage our fear of risk. Similar to the types of stocks we chose or whether we put our money into a savings account, fulfillment in life and relationships is determined in large part by our willingness to lose and our desire to gain.

Wise investors in emotional intimacy consider needs (love and belonging), coping skills (internal and external resources), and how much unpleasantness we can tolerate in the short and long terms) when determining how much energy to put up in hopes of a pay-off.

There are no sure bets, but the more we know about the resources we have to give and how and when to protect them, the more likely we are to cash in on our deepest relationship rewards.


Protection from Rejection

Jeff has been trying to find his soul mate for years now. What he wants more than anything is to find a partner with whom he feels he can just be himself and be accepted for who he is.  The problem, he acknowledges, is that when he meets someone new he doesn’t actually show the parts of himself he is less certain will be accepted.  “I’m just trapped in this circle where I wish I could find someone who will like me for who I am, but I’m afraid to show myself for fear of being rejected”

Worrying whether we will be hurt or disappointed makes sense.  Protecting ourselves from risk and danger is likely what keeps us alive.  But too much caution limits us and can leave us feeling, as Jeff does, that we are just going through the motions.  Surviving but never really living.  Sometimes the ways we have developed to keep others at a distance are so ingrained that we aren’t even aware we are putting our own needs aside.  Sometimes what we mistake for rational, acceptable even desirable behavior is actually a barrier to feeling closeness.

Most of us employ at least one of the following styles of self-protection.  Becoming aware of your patterns is a start towards recognizing and negotiating your needs.

projectorProjector: This person attributes their own thoughts, feelings and beliefs to someone else.   When they feel anger or frustration, they quickly make assumptions about the other person. To avoid getting rejected, the projector pushes people away, secretly hoping the others will guess what the projector wants and give it to them. Cost:  you are dependent on someone else’s ability to recognize what you need.

reflectionReflector: This person keeps everything inside, going over and over their concerns without confiding in others.  This person rarely asks for help because they don’t want to be let down.  Cost: often results in physical symptoms of discomfort including migraines, stomach aches and anxiety

sorryIntrojector: This person assumes they are responsible for everyone else’s feelings and reactions.  This person apologizes frequently. This person is often a peace keeper and a fixer, preferring to quickly smooth over conflicts rather than explore differences.  Cost: Over identification with the feelings of others can make it difficult to recognize one’s own true feelings and needs.

arrows shieldDeflector: This person is the master of redirection.  This person often talks excessively and makes self-deprecating jokes to take attention away from themselves. This person rarely examines their behavior or feelings and resists feedback from others.  This person is likely to only try to get needs met that will require very little conflict and will often redirect any attention they receive to others. Cost: While this person may have lots of acquaintances, relationships are likely to be mostly superficial.

Protective behaviors can be useful.  They give us time to assess relationships and flexibility to determine how and when to be more vulnerable.  Awareness of what styles we use and when so the choice to keep people at a distance is an intentional one, and one we can resist when we want to create more closeness.


That Time Trump Ran for Student Council

sm_rooster_freeThe students filed into the cafeteria to hear the candidates’ speeches.  In an hour they would be casting their votes for student council president.  The two opponents took the stage.  The outgoing president gave the instructions:

“You each have two minutes to state your platform.  Let us know what makes you an ideal candidate for the job.  Afterwards you will each take up to three questions from the audience.  Candidate One, your time starts now.”

CANDIDATE 1: “Well, you all know my IQ is one of the highest.  Please don’t feel stupid, it’s not your fault. Our student leaders are stupid. I have to say, if I were in charge of the nominations, I’d have looked right into that fat, ugly face of my opponent and said ‘you’re fired’.  I mean, would any of you vote for that? Can you imagine that face as our next student council president?”

“Uh, that’s time, Candidate 1. I’m going to stop you right there.  Candidate 2, can you please address the student body with what you hope to offer our school with your leadership?”

CANDIDATE 2: “Thank you, Madame President. Before I do that I’d like to address my opponent’s claims.  I am really shocked to see such a massive hairdo.  Did you all notice it today? It is massive. But I digress.  Clearly we have a problem with school resources.  I believe we can solve this by requiring all low-income students to wear badges so that we don’t inadvertently give them supplies meant for our gifted program.  At least until we can sort all of this budget shortage stuff out.”

Note: No actual high school students were harmed in the creation of this piece. These are, however, direct quotes from some of this year’s presidential hopeful candidates.  It is sometimes hard to imagine why candidates would find this kind of bullying to be an effective way of exciting the electorate.

Strong rhetoric, like that currently making up the debates, stimulates the part of our brains that respond to fear and passion, the limbic system.  When the limbic system is activated it hijacks the rest of the brain, cutting off access to the cortex and slows our ability to use reason and judgment.

As we come to equate this kind of bullying with strong leadership, we can consider where else in our lives we are likely to substitute passion for the critical thinking skills we know are necessary for learning and growth to occur.  Consider the supervisor who ‘sets an example’ by punishing a staff person’s error; the teacher who shames misbehaving students and the relationship that is drama filled and exciting, but lacks deeper intimacy.

In the months since the campaign season began we have seen increased intolerance for diversity and strong divisions along candidate and party lines as people dig in their heels to defend their own ideas.  The very concept of dialogue is seen as spineless and weak – candidates who suggest compromise find themselves quickly out of the running.

In our November 23rd posting we discussed the concept of Constructive Differencing, wherein our differences become a tool for expanding our sense of self and of the world.  When our leaders encourage us to embrace differences and challenge us towards greater understanding of one another, we become more flexible, agile and able to adapt to change.  If we allow fear and aggression to drive our decision making, we may just end up with the leaders, schools and relationships we deserve.


The Most Important Skill Missing from Education: Constructive Differencing

CaptureConstructive differencing, a concept put forth by Dr. Jared Scherz, encourages the creation of a learning environment that embraces differences. Differences become the fertile ground for expanding our self of self, others, and the world. Constructive differencing helps to grow empathy and produces greater intimacy in our lives.

Constructive differencing is based on a premise that people will have divergent beliefs, values, thoughts, ideas, feelings, etc… that we can use to get to know them and ourselves better. Children are not often asked for their opinions making it difficult for them to respect or even embrace what they don’t resonate with. We are often taught that our ability to be accepted and valued depends on our ability to agree with people.  Many of us were raised to see respect in terms of follow directions, doing what’s expected and not questioning authority.

The danger in believing that there is only one way to think about something is that it can set one up to have little interest in or tolerance for new information.  Rigid thinking limits our problem solving skills and inhibits relationship building across differences. The less flexibly we are in our thinking/ perceiving, the more likely we are to approach conflict as a prelude to aggression. Conversely, the more flexible we are in thinking/ perceiving, the less intimidated we are by differences.

We can accomplish this flexible posture more easily through greater awareness of our own insecurities and frailties, which can inhibit our receptivity and distort our perceptions. If Mrs. Smith for instance, doesn’t recognize that she is insecure about her aging process (drying skin, changing figure, etc…), she may not be as receptive to a skinny young female student who talks about being fat.

Curiosity about how children formulate an opinion, come to conclusions, or how they see the world, can help teachers reach students where they are. This is most difficult when students have views that are diametrically opposed to our own. If Mr. Bell’s fourth grade student announces to his class that all Muslims are evil, Mr. Bell may feel a strong impulse to correct his student. Doing so without trying to understand how this child came to embody such a strong belief, risks pushing the student even further toward an extreme polarity.

Teachers can model for children how to consider multiple perspectives and dialogue about them in a way that invites closeness as opposed to tension. Curiosity is the key and a replacement to the antiquate right and wrong perspective that leads to polarization. Curiosity helps navigate peaceful conflict, because we can’t find a solutions, common ground, or even have a safe/ productive negotiation without each person knowing their beliefs matter. Helping individuals to stay connected, even when they disagree is the single most difficult challenge of teaching students and one that can be helped with an appreciation for curiosity.

Adults working (or living) with children are often tempted to jump in and resolve conflicts and disagreements between children. We solve or advise in a way that takes away the power from students to resolve the problem themselves.  We offer solutions before we fully understand how or why a child has developed the behavior or belief he/she has.

Curiosity about the life of the student in the South Carolina classroom who was defiant and forcibly removed by a community resource officer might have revealed her need for additional services.  Had the administration asked of the other students “How can we solve this problem in a way that doesn’t cause harm to anyone or anything? How can we each get what we want?”, they would have modeled empathy and empowered the students to be a part of creating a learning environment in which they feel engaged.

Committing to Curiosity


CaptureIn this month’s exploration of adaptability, we’ve established that the ability to become and remain curious helps us embrace change and prepare us for new opportunities.  Curiosity has also been shown to contribute to higher academic achievement and greater work performance. It helps us create more satisfying and authentic relationships with others and can help us be better teachers, parents, and partners.

It may be hard to believe something seemingly so simple could have such an impact. But think about the early days in a romance, when everything was new and exciting, or the sense of excitement you once had with a new notebook and pencil at the start of a new school year.  Our brains are wired to seek out novel experiences and can continue to change over a lifetime.

So how do we invite more curiosity?  Seems like a funny question but think about a challenging relationship you have with someone, maybe a student you haven’t been able to reach or a family member you’ve kept your distance from over the years.  Often we trade in curiosity for the need to be right or to avoid further conflict.  As a result, closeness to those around us suffers.

Committing to curiosity requires a willingness to put aside judgement and to sometimes go without an answer in favor of finding more questions.  Here are some tips for inviting more curiosity into your life:

Look for surprises. Take a different route home from work or school.  Take a different seat on the bus or in a meeting.  Try something new off the menu.  Each small experience opens up the chance for some new discovery.

Banish boredom. Boredom is a curiosity killer.  Once we’ve given in to boredom it can be hard to find a spark again.  One woman I know took a repetitive and not very challenging part time job for extra money.  To keep herself challenged she decided that she would learn to perform every task at her position with her left (non-dominant) hand. She said it took a while at the beginning but she enjoyed trying to relearn how to open locks and turn doorknobs and soon found she was able to work more quickly and efficiently than her single hand using colleagues.

Take a vacation from having the answers. The fear of being wrong or seeming not to know something often shuts us down to new solutions.  When children or friends come to you for a solution, before rushing to respond, try answering with “I’m really not sure. Tell me what you’re thinking so far.” You’re more likely to get better solutions with more minds involved in the process.

Hop the fence in an argument. Are you stuck in gridlock with a child or a partner?  Try arguing from each other’s position.  Tell your child all the reasons it makes sense not to clean his room and invite him to convince you why a clear floor is necessary.  Hang in there past the initial giggles and you’ll have to learn a little more about how your partner sees the world.

Reserve judgment.  Judgments, even positive ones, create a roadblock to curiosity.  Once you’ve determined something is ‘bad’ or even ‘perfect’, it’s difficult to look past the decree to see things in a new light.

Maybe curiosity is how the cat got those nine lives in the first place.

Fighting Fair

I was complaining to a friend once about a fight I was having with my partner. “He knows I’m right but he’s too stubborn to admit it!” I lamented.  She asked me if I wanted to be right, or if I wanted to be in the relationship.  Being in a couple requires negotiation and compromise.  My focus on winning, on being right, was pushing us farther apart.  Our fights never seemed to come to any resolution and, despite our ‘agreeing to disagree’, would surface again the next round.

When we fought, I don’t believe either of us had the goal of resolving anything.  As I look back, I realize our fights were about letting off steam, venting emotions that were not being shared.  Sometimes, I believe I picked fights just to get my partner to engage with me and so I could yell some of the things we never seemed to be able to discuss. That was not fair to him and not fair to the relationship. Capture

Fighting fair means exploring the differences, being curious about the other’s experience and applying this understanding to solutions that work for you both.  Our three-part series on fighting fair can help you get past the explosions of emotion and towards resolving issues that have interrupted the closeness of your relationship. These are some of the tips that fair fighters use:

  1. Know and speak from your feelings. Anger is usually a surface level emotion, a way of expressing a deeper need or want.  Ask yourself what it is that you need from your partner.
  1. Give a little, take a little. Negotiation and compromise are essential in a good marriage.  Be prepared to adjust your expectations as you work towards a solution together.
  1. There’s a time and place for everything. Fair fights are mutually agreed upon and occur when both partners feel they are best able to engage. Don’t be afraid to ask for a time out if things get too heated, but be certain to circle back at an agreed upon time.
  1. Stay curious. The goal of a fair fight is for each of you to learn more about the other and how you relate to one another.  Ask for feedback from your partner.  “Am I making sense?” “How is this to hear?” and accept constructive criticism that tells you more about your partner’s perspective.

For more help with fighting fair in your relationship, log into our courses here.

Need Anything?

Take a moment and ask yourself “What do I need right now?” Are you thirsty? Maybe your foot has fallen asleep. CaptureMaybe you’ve been staring at your computer screen all day and you need a walk (go ahead, I’ll wait.).

Paying attention to more than the most immediate of basic needs is often not something we have been taught or encouraged to do.  In fact, placing the needs of others before our own is often seen as admirable and to tell others of what we need might be judged as being selfish.  But remember the airline attendant’s speech at take-off.  Before helping others, we are instructed, be sure to secure your mask and start the flow of oxygen.

Most of us can probably think of at least one relationship in which we ignored or brushed off something we needed from our partner.  At first this might have seemed like a way to let our partner know he/she was important, or to show interest.  But over time resentment starts to build. We might even dig in our heels and refuse to take care of our partner’s needs as well. Eventually we will have grown apart. And if we don’t spend the time identifying our needs, we’re likely to repeat the entire process again.

So how do you learn to recognize your needs?  It starts with awareness.  Some needs are easy to identify because our body sends us strong signals like a dry mouth to alert us to a need for water.  Our emotions can also be clues to help us discover our needs.  When we are uncomfortable or unhappy, something is missing.  In these moments it can be helpful to ask “How this experience is different from what I expected?  What did I need in this instance that I did not get?”

Identifying needs is a process.  It requires an openness to exploring feelings and to accepting what we might discover.  For more help in recognizing and expressing your needs, log in to our courses on Basic Human Needs.

ISO Romance: How to Get the Relationship You Want

“I think I’m ready to start dating again” announced my client, a 30 something, divorced suburban teacher.  “But this time, no jerks!” (Well, that’s not exactly the word she used, but you get the idea).  ‘G’ had had a few short-term relationships since her last divorce but nothing really lasting.  She joked “I will give a guy the best three months of his life, and then, he’s outta here!” It seemed that she hadn’t been able to find someone that really ‘clicked’ for her.  She admitted that sometimes she’d stay with a guy because she’d rather have the company than be alone, but she’d find herself cancelling dates and making excuses until the inevitable ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ speech.  Sometimes she delivered it, sometimes he.

I asked G. what she thought would be different this time.  “This time”, she answered, “I want to find someone I’m excited to be with – something that feels like it could have a future.” She sighed and I suspected there was more she wanted to say.  “You know, I would like an old-fashioned, honest to goodness romance!”

Here’s where we began:

Start with You

Up until now, G’s efforts at dating had been entirely online.  She scoured the profiles looking for men who ‘didn’t look creepy’ and who listed a few things she found interesting.  She went on many coffee dates, looking for red flags that would confirm her suspicion that it could never work.

“What are you bringing to the table?” I asked her.  She was confused initially.  All of her efforts had been to find someone who had traits she found interesting.  And if things didn’t work out, she could be pretty hard on herself, assuming she was too old or tall or fat or thin or……

Our first task was to help G. identify the strengths she brings to a relationship.  G is an excellent planner, she is able to throw a party or organize a trip with little notice.  She is also outgoing and friendly, always doing things for others.  Next, we looked at areas where G. might not excel.  She wished she could be more spontaneous and people were always telling her she needed to take time out for herself.  G. would need a partner who could appreciate her strengths, be comfortable with her taking the lead, but be able to take over planning sometimes so she could learn to be cared for by others.

Learn From the Past

This was a little harder.  G’s divorce was a painful one and she still held a lot of anger towards her ex-husband.  While she could easily identify what was wrong with him, it was harder for her to recognize her part in the end of the relationship.  Gradually, as she realized she no longer had to ‘win’ or convince him she was right, she became more able to accept the fact that she wasn’t always as direct as she could have been and she had given up trying to understand his point of view. In an effort to avoid conflict, she had also avoided speaking up for what she wanted.

As we reviewed her more recent relationships she realized that she had been seeking a particular ‘type’, looking for traits she assumed to be completely opposite of her husband so she wouldn’t make the same mistake again.  The mild-mannered banker who never yelled seemed so pleasant, until she grew bored of his inability to state any preference for a movie or restaurant. In her efforts to find something her husband was ‘not’, she had lost sight of what she wanted a partner to be.

Use Your Resources

Online dating certainly has its merits.  For the working woman, it can offer a quick and convenient way to put yourself out there and to make initial contacts. The search parameters make it possible to limit contacts to college graduates or men who scuba dive but G. was finding that despite her carefully crafted profile she still wasn’t meeting men who were a good match for her.

I suggested G let her friends, family and co-workers all know she was on the market.  She balked at the idea at first, not certain she wanted to let others know she was looking.  While G. said she was optimistic about finding someone, she recognized a part of her was afraid of being rejected.  She would frequently go out with people ‘because they asked’ rather than ask out the handsome man she’d noticed at the gym last month.

I suggested that she tap into her network. There is a good chance that someone knows someone who knows someone that could be a match for her.  The people in her network are people she has chosen because they are people she enjoys being with or respects. A referral from these folks is much more likely to be closer to the mark than the options that get generated from a dating site algorithm. While it might mean swallowing a little of her pride, it is possible that her friends have just been waiting for her to ask so they could introduce her to a cousin who would be absolutely perfect.

Take a Chance

G. had been on a dating hiatus because it had started to feel like work.  She had forgotten to have fun with the process.  She even had a routine for setting up dates! She’d scour the matches, contact three a day and try to make at least three coffee dates a week.  Dating is a numbers game for sure.  Some sources say it takes about 50 dates for every promising match.  So I didn’t fault G for her system. But I was worried she was going to develop a urinary tract infection if she kept drinking that much caffeine!! I encouraged G. to research local meet up groups and special interest clubs.  If she didn’t meet someone every time, she’d at least be meeting people with similar interests and people who were also willing to put themselves out there.

Enjoy the Ride

My hope for G. is that she can start to think about dating as a way to learn more about herself and others and not just as a means to an end.  Settling too quickly, taking the first partner to come along, might have felt like a relief in the moment but hasn’t been getting her closer to the relationship she’s always imagined.  Every date that doesn’t work out gets you a little closer to what you’re looking for.  I hope G. will be gentle with herself the next time things don’t work out.  She will have just learned more about what she doesn’t want.  And that’s a huge step towards getting what she wants.

In the end, the love you find will only be as good as the love you have for yourself.  Trust that you’re worthy and make the romance you deserve.


Am I in a Dysfunctional Relationship?

wilted flowersAll relationships have their ups and downs. In successful relationships, partners learn to explore disappointments and disillusionments together, each taking ownership of their own part In the problems and learning to overcome toxic behaviors together. For a partnership to be healthy, both partners need to learn why they act and react the way they do.  In dysfunctional relationships unhealthy patterns go unchanged.  Bickering and arguing, avoiding and withdrawing become standard and it can be difficult to objectively assess your relationship.

If any of these statements are true for you, it could be an indication that something is amiss in your relationship and you could benefit from counseling or support:


I am on edge about making my partner upset – you find yourself avoiding conflict and going out of your way to ‘smooth over’ any differences.

I make my choice to stay together because I don’t want to be alone – Fears of never finding another partner, or only ending up in another relationship like the one you are in keep you stuck in a relationship you don’t find satisfying

I’m embarrassed to introduce or spend time with friends and my significant other – Your partner’s behavior has become unpredictable or you worry that your friends would not approve of how they see you being treated

I feel controlled – you have limited opportunity to make choices or decisions in the relationship, you find yourself cancelling or avoiding events because your partner won’t want to go or will make thinks unpleasant if you do

I have to plead with my partner to meet my needs – you regularly or frequently find yourself feeling the relationship is ‘uneven’ and that your partner does not place importance on your needs

A healthy relationship requires healthy partners. The only way to improve a dysfunctional relationship is for both partners to identify and take ownership of their contributions to the problems.  That is often not a reality in dysfunctional partnerships.  If your partner is unwilling to participate in couples’ therapy, individual counseling can help you to recognize why you act and react the way you do and help you to build your own sense of self, giving you more choices and options in your intimate relationships.