The Fine Line Between Containing Emotion and Stoicism

There are times when we need to contain our emotions. We learn the art of this growing up; from our parents when we were given the space to be frustrated in the moments of not getting something we wanted, from our teachers when we quickly realized that we were “sharing” them with 28 other children, from society in general. The ability to contain is what helps us get through difficult times – we inherently know we can’t be a complete mess around our co-workers and family members, even though we may feel like it. It is then, in our moments of alone time, that the tears come and we can release what has built up in our effort to get through a challenging day.

But what is the difference between containing emotion and being stoic? I have worked with many clients whom I would categorize as being fairly stoic in their emotions. It is almost like a tightness, a guardedness; not only are they containing emotions from others, they are also containing them from themselves. I had one client describe it as “Express emotion? In our house, it felt like I wasn’t even allowed to experience it.”

When we move from containment to stoicism, it has most likely been taught to us. Very often, it is homes in which we were taught or shown by example that emotions were meant to be private, at all costs.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Although it will initially feel like a violation to your system, it first starts with giving yourself permission to explore. First by going backwards and spending some time looking at how emotions were expressed in your family, and then by looking at how you can move yourself towards feeling a little looser in the emotions department. This will begin the process of giving yourself the freedom of the natural ebb and flow of emotion.

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One Thing You Should Say to a Loved One

Here I go with the shoulds and shouldn’ts again 🙂 Yesterday we talked about something that you should never say to a loved one, today we focus on something you should say to a loved one:

“You can count on me.”

In order to be independent, we have to be dependent. We are a relationship species and our attachment system works in us to aim for a secure base in order to feel safe. This requires our ability to rely on others to be our emotional anchors.

And the same goes for us. In  healthy relationships, we rely on another’s presence and investment. In order for the relationship to be fully healthy, this is a reciprocal process. When we know that the relationship provides shared stability, we feel grounded and it gives us permission to be curious about ourselves – leading to movement and growth.

You can count on me; what a lovely thought. 🙂

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One Thing You Should Never Say to a Loved One

I tend not to rely on the “shoulds” or the “shouldn’ts” when giving suggestions to clients as those two words lock us into some rigid thought patterns which work against movement and growth. When it comes to relationships; however, there is one thing you should never say to a loved one:

“Make me happy.”

We grew up with notions of fairy-tale love; love that completes, love that comes in on its’ white horse and whisks us off to a castle to live happily ever after. (That does sound kind of nice!) But it isn’t realistic. It doesn’t show the work of love, the investment of love, the time and effort of love. Sometimes we may not say those actual words to a loved one, but it is believed, implied, or understood as being a part of their job.

We are not responsible for another person’s happiness. We are responsible for our own happiness. Are we responsible for how we make other people feel? Of course we are. We make choices every day that either feed the health of the relationship, or foster its dysfunction. Do we want to be with someone who cares about and shares in our happiness? Absolutely! But when it comes to happiness, it is our responsibility to work towards a feeling of contentment across all fields, including the love we have with others.

And so, love compliments. It compliments the love and respect we have for ourselves, it builds upon inner contentment, it becomes woven into our being through action and intent. Love will compliment and give power to the happiness we set out to seek for ourselves. 🙂

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A Lovely Quote about Realization

I came across this quote which got me to thinking:

“Our lives change externally as we change internally.” – Caroline Myss

As a therapist, I have the privilege of seeing this almost every day. The ability to change something structurally comes only when we have found the courage to explore.

When we give ourselves permission to really examine something, that is when realization works to change our thought patterns, our core beliefs, and consequently the energy we release into the world. We are no longer burdened by the internal dialogue that may have seemed real, but in fact was working against our own intuition.

The first step to structural change is to simply be curious; to ask ourselves “Does it have to be this way?” When the internal shift happens, we know it and those realizations help to inform us and guide us to greater growth.

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Healthy Coping Strategies for Family Systems

In our third and final post in this series about family systems, we look at steps we can take when dealing with a closed family system and/or fostering an open one. The first step begins through understanding and acceptance that the relationships we have are not always the ones we want. I often refer to our propensity towards eternal hope, and we can often stay stuck in a place of wishing that our familial relationships were easier/better/kinder, etc.

Understanding that sometimes we have to manage our familial relationships, gives us the permission to put some much needed steps into place:

  1. Boundaries. Boundaries are an important part of a healthy family system. Giving people their space for privacy, trying to understand their position in times of conflict, aiming for balance in terms of time spent together, the expectation of good manners and kind behaviour towards each other, rules for repair.
  2. Take space when you need to. If you are trying to work with a closed family system, there will be times when you will need to distance yourself from the chaos of it. And that is okay. Communication is key in letting family members know that space is important right now as some much needed processing needs to take place. In a open system, members tend to be able to find some balance between time spent together and time spent apart to best maximize both the individual and the group.
  3. Use your voice. One of the ways we focus on good communication in families is to be able to tell others how something makes us feel. There are times that we can overlook a slight or a jab, and other times we can’t. Very often, we will sacrifice our own needs or wants in order to not create conflict. Beginning to recognize what can’t be overlooked is an important step in telling a loved one that their behaviour hurt you in some way. Being able to say something calmly, focused on fact and feeling, short and sweet, will allow you to feel as though you said what needed to be said regardless of the outcome.

Relationships can be tough. They also require work. But they are also the most rewarding and fulfilling social connection that we have; working towards the health of a relationship becomes our number one goal in living a life that is focused on meaning, love and overall contentedness.

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Open Family Systems; Optimal Growth

Continuing our exploration from yesterday in which we looked at closed family systems, today we will examine what an open family system looks like. In an open family system:

  • Individuality is regarded as just as important as the group dynamic. The family as a group is an important element – it is one of the things that provides its members with stability and consistency. In an open system; however, there is just as much emphasis on who its members are as individuals, and those qualities are honoured.
  • Unconditional love is present. In an open system, family members are praised for their successes and forgiven for their mistakes. The group does not suffer as a result of an individual’s mistake. That is not to say that the family does not struggle at times through challenges, and there can be conflict, but an individual is supported through that process and not outcasted as they would be in a closed system.
  • Other people are accepted into the system. In an open system, families accept the partner choices of its members. Again, there may be trepidation or concerns about who a family member has chosen, but the emphasis to conform is not present.
  • Chaos is not typically present and there is a focus on repair. Conflict may arise at times in an open system, but generally speaking, it doesn’t reach chaotic levels. If there are disagreements, there is a also focus on repair. This allows resolution among the individual parties which in turn, strengthens the group.

If you were lucky enough to have been raised in an open system, you are most likely carrying on quite nicely. The lessons we learn from an open system allow us to bring those principles to our own children. If, however, you were not raised in an open system but wish to have one, begin first by examining these characteristics, reading about secure attachment, and adopting a flexible and open thought process to what each individual brings to the group as a whole. Tomorrow we will close out this series with some coping strategies for dealing with a closed system as well working towards an open one.

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Closed Systems and How They Affect Relationships

When we look at family dynamics and what is healthy versus what is unhealthy, one way to do that is through the perspective of whether or not the family works from the position of a closed system or an open one. Today’s post will look at the closed system and how it affects the relationships within it. If you come from a closed family system, here are some of its characteristics:

  • Conformity to the system is required. Both for the spoken and unspoken rules, members of the family are expected to conform. As a result, family members struggle with issues of control and rigidity.
  • The group is regarded as greater than the individuals within it. Very often, in a closed family system, children are raised with their parent’s intentions and not their own and as a result, little emphasis is placed on individuality. Acceptance comes at a cost.
  • There is often enmeshment in a closed system due to co-dependence. It is often quite common to have adult children continuing to live at home in a closed system (*note: there is a trend for young people to return home after college to save money – this is not the same as adult children living at home due to enmeshment.)
  • There tends to be more chaos. With greater need to control, rigid thinking, and oppression to individuality, you are creating a breeding ground for conflict.
  • No information comes in and no information goes out. The closed system wants allegiance and is very protective of its group. This can often create hesitation in someone seeking therapy, as they feel a great sense of disloyalty to the family.

Growing up in a closed system is an oppressive process. Some people will take the path of least resistance and will adhere to the system; others will begin to believe in the system as being the “best way” and will continue its dynamics in their own families; others will decide that what they want is an open system; one that is based on healthier principles and optimal growth. Tomorrow we will look at open family systems, followed the next day by healthy strategies.

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Let’s Talk About Avoidance

Sometimes when we are feeling stuck, we tend to lean into some defense strategies in order to avoid an inner truth. We will talk around an issue, find excuses, sometimes we project our problems or insecurities onto others, we stay so busy we don’t have time to think about it. We resist. 

Avoidance allows us to stay at the surface. It allows us to stay away from something painful, it protects us from feeling rejected, hurt. It attempts to keep uncertainty at bay. It prevents us from owning the problem and solving it.

Recognizing our stuckness is the first step. Recognizing that we have spent time avoiding the issue is the next one. It is with these two realizations that we can make the conscious decision to dive a little deeper – to be willing to cross into uncertainty to where vulnerability lies. It is here that working through the pain (while gaining a greater understanding,) will also build our inner strength and sense of agency. It allows us to feel hope.

When we push past the false security of avoidance, we feel movement. This allows us to continue to follow the stepping stones to our larger goals; creating an inner sense of emotional health and well being.

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A Quote About the Storms of Life

Thank you to my friend Gurlie who sent this quote my way:

“Not all storms come to disrupt your life, some come to clear your path.” – Unknown

When we are in the midst of a storm, we are often preoccupied. We are focused on what is happening outside, we are at times anxious, wondering if we should be taking greater shelter, we are focused on the unknowns and we worry about the aftermath.

When we are challenged by a storm in our own life, we often focused on the unanswered question of “why?” This is a natural response as we are curious creatures; we also feel comforted by knowledge and understanding. Sometimes we will never get the why question answered. Sometimes we get the answer years later.

It is important while in the midst of the storm to not get too preoccupied with the storm itself; rather to try and ride the storm, seeking shelter in our support system and having faith that we are going to be okay. If we never weather the storm, we also won’t see the rainbow when we step outside.

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The Gift of Appreciation

Appreciation is about value. It is that to which we recognize that something or someone holds an invested place in our life.

Sometimes it comes with a sense of awe – the brilliant colours of the sun rising over water, the luminous effect of a full moon or a sky full of stars, the reassuring presence of moutains in the distance.

Sometimes it comes with a sense of wonder – the marvel and intricate system that makes up our body, the feeling we get when a ‘coincidence’ moves to a serendipitous moment, the times when we can feel the presence of grace.

Sometimes it comes with gratitude – the feeling we get when someone does something for us out of love, for the blessings that are present in our life, for the times we recognize as opportunites for growth and renewal.

What we appreciate, appreciates. It grows as we water it. Appreciation is about recognition – it is the act of praise, it is found in a compliment, it is felt within. It is a conscious act that can only increase our sense of what is valuable – leading to a more peaceful and settled place.

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