Category Archives: Relationships

The Path to Forgiveness

In this post, we explore the concept of forgiveness…What is it?  Who benefits?  Why is it important? And, most importantly, how do we do it?

The idea of forgiveness is a difficult thing.  When we have been disappointed or hurt by someone else our instinct is often to recoil and protect ourselves.  When a person close to us breaks our trust, the last thing we want to do is forgive them.  On the other hand, when we have hurt others, forgiving ourselves can be just as difficult.

However, in order for  true healing to happen, walking the path to forgiveness is a necessary journey.

What Is Forgiveness?

When we think of forgiveness, we may think of cheesy movies where by plot’s end, mortal enemies have become best friends–the closing scene showing them walking hand-in-hand into the sunset.  While this could happen in real life, forgiveness doesn’t usually look like this.

One way to describe forgiveness is to point out what it does not do.  According to Ron Pevny, in his book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging, forgiveness does not…

  • Mean that we have to ignore our hurt feelings.
  • Change the past, or assume that we have to forget what happened.
  • Mean that we have lost and the offender has won.
  • Excuse the act that did the wounding.
  • Absolve the offender of karmic or legal consequences.
  • Mean that we will resume a relationship with the other person–especially if it is not safe (emotionally or physically) to do so.

What forgiveness does is to provide the opportunity for healing and being able to move on with our life, without being limited by what happened.  According to Buddhist philosophy,  “Holding on to resentment is like picking up a hot coal with our hand with the intention of finding an opportunity to throw it at the one who has hurt us.”.

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu states,

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past.  Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.  We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped.  Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor.  When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings.  We become our own liberator.”

When we can forgive, we are able to stop labeling our self as a “victim” and move forward from a place of growth.

Holding on to negative events that lead to ongoing feelings of resentment, anger, hostility may undermine our health.  In one study, psychologists asked people to think about someone who has hurt them, while monitoring their heart rate, facial muscles and sweat glands.  When people remembered these grudges, their heart rate and blood pressure increased.  However, when they were asked to think about forgiving these people, their stress responses returned to normal (Book of Joy, pg. 237).

Steps to Forgiveness

While it seems obvious that forgiveness is a good thing–for our physical and mental health–how do we do it?  Especially since rehashing the juicy details of past hurts can provide an addictive energy rush.

It’s important to remember that forgiveness is a process; one that is repeated over and over as new feelings and details arise as we work to let go.

Pevny breaks down the path to forgiveness into the following five steps:

  1. Uncovering and feeling what happened.  Before we can forgive, we need to be clear about what we are forgiving.  It’s important to explore the actual event–what were the circumstances?  Who said what?  What emotions did you feel?  Take your time and be gentle with yourself.
  2. Committing to forgive.  Forgiveness is a choice–sometimes a difficult one.  When we have held on to resentments for a long time, they become part of our story.  Forgiveness is choosing a new story.
  3. Humanizing the offender.  Forgiveness begins to happen when we are able to separate the person from the action.  To do this requires compassion and the ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective.  Maybe there were things going on that you didn’t know?
  4. Honestly looking at your role in relation to the situation.  This is especially challenging when the emotions are still raw, so it’s useful to use your logic vs. emotions.  Human relationships are never simple.  As my grandmother used to say “It takes two to tango.”
  5. Forgiving and continuing to forgive.  Forgiving is an act of will–we choose.  This act will play out differently for each person.  For some, it’s a private, quiet letting go.  For others, they want to meet with the person involved and voice their forgiveness.  No matter how it manifests, forgiveness is an ongoing process.
What If I Need to Forgive Myself?

When we have hurt others, the feelings of guilt and shame that we carry can be overwhelming.  While we may be able to show compassion to others, doing so to ourselves is more difficult–if not impossible as we’re our own harshest critics.

Pevny suggests that the five steps are applicable to those working on self-forgiveness, and may include specifically asking for forgiveness from those we have hurt (if possible and appropriate).  However, sometimes the person we have hurt is ourselves.  Pevny writes:

“In a great many cases, what needs self-forgiveness is not harm done to others but personal weaknesses or perceived choices or actions that we feel have damaged our own lives.  Self-forgiveness depends upon our willingness to carefully examine our choices and actions and, in many cases, acknowledge that we did the best we could with the awareness we had at the time.  If we see that we did not do the best we could, it requires that we use our regrets not to berate ourselves but as important guideposts on our journeys into a positive, conscious future.  The biggest catalysts for our growth are often (perhaps mostly) what we learn from our mistakes, weaknesses and poor choices.”

Rewriting our Stories…Sometimes We Need Help

Whether we need to forgive ourselves or others, walking on this path gives us the opportunity to rewrite our story–and sometimes the stories of others.  And we know that the journey isn’t easy.  Self-care is important.  If you start on this journey and feel that you are losing your way, please reach out to a trusted friend, family member or professional to provide support.  Sometimes, our hurts are too big walk up to on our own.

And now…a quick lesson in self-compassion.  Enjoy!




It’s All About Relationships

As humans, we are fragile.  Physically, we break bones and sprain joints. We experience muscle pain and headaches. More seriously, we get sick, sometimes so ill that we look death in the eye.

Our fragility also extends to our emotions. Just as our bodies can be hurt, so can our feelings. When we misunderstand another’s intentions or our expectations are not met, we make up stories (true or not) about how others feel about us. Based on our created narratives, we may feel disconnected and unloved.

Support Systems

In preparation for this post, last week I re-posted an earlier article about support systems. The idea of support systems is that we have a circle of care–a community–that we can call on during times of need.

I like to imagine a support system to be like a large web–each small piece forming and connecting to the whole. Digging deeper, what is it that forms the connections?  Relationships!

Some Thoughts on Relationships…

While relationships are what hold our connections together, they can be challenging.  But why? How can we improve our chance of success?

Over centuries, many religions and spiritual practices have created guidelines to help us to create loving relationships.  One concept common to all religions is “The Golden Rule”–to “treat others as we would like to be treated”.  Because a basic human need is to be happy, this rule sounds like it should be easy enough; however, happiness is subjective.  What makes me happy may make my neighbour miserable. Add into the mix our past experiences, preferences and judgments, and it’s amazing that we can have positive relationships at all! Yet we do.

I suggest that our ability to move beyond what we think we can get out of our relationships, to what we can give is important to developing supportive, healthy bonds.  When we develop the self-awareness to understand and look past our own biases we will have an easier time in relationships. This is what builds connections.

A Quilt of Relationships

At one point in my life, I was an avid quilt maker. I especially loved making scrap quilts and the challenge of using whatever fabric came to hand–no matter how unattractive.

What if our web of relationships is like a beautiful scrap quilt? As a quilter I learned that the more varied the fabrics making up the pattern, the greater interest and complexity in the design. Just as all the scraps weren’t “beautiful” or matched nicely with its neighbour, the overall effect was stunning. As a quilt maker, I wouldn’t notice the “ugly” fabric, but would be aware that something was missing if they weren’t there to balance out the “pretty” pieces.

What would happen if we looked at our own relationships from the perspective of the “whole”–the entire pattern rather than the individual scraps of fabric? Would we be more forgiving? Be able to look at the entire history of the relationship, rather than the latest interaction, and give others the benefit of the doubt? Be less willing to end friendships or family ties because of a “rough patch”?  I wonder…

Relationships in Therapy

Being in a relationship takes courage. Being able to see past our own pain to that of others requires emotional awareness and compassion.

When I start to work with new couple clients, I explain the difference between “couple therapy” and “individual therapy”. When I work with an individual, they are the client.  However, when I work with a couple, the relationship is the client. From this perspective, we start to look at individual actions through the lens of “Will this help or hurt our relationship?”. This question helps to put some distance between our individual wants in order to focus on the other’s needs.

This concept applies no matter the type of the relationship–romantic, friendship, parent/child, work colleagues…

Not easy work, and it’s fulfilling.

At the End of the Day

At the end of the day, it’s all about our relationships. When people at the end of their lives are asked about regrets, they’re not usually about work, money or things.  Their regrets are about missed chances in relationships–those not pursued or that were allowed to end badly. Often their joyous memories involve connection to others.

I suggest we focus on our connections now so that we have fewer regrets.

And now…here’s a link to the official trailer for the movie “Happy” as well as the TED talk from Roko Belic–the creator of the movie–talking about his experience making the movie.  The movie is currently available on Netflix and definitely worth time.  Enjoy!



Triangulation: The Trouble With Triangles

I wasn’t very gifted when it came to high school geometry.  The logic evaded me, and I couldn’t see the point of learning how to prove that right-angled triangles were “right-angled”. However, if my Grade 10 math teacher had told me that triangles were linked to relationships, I would have been very interested!

In a recent post, I explained that if you are in a family you are part of a “mobile” or family system. In this post, we’ll look at a specific relationship habit that can have a negative affect on the quality of family life.

A Story…

Jane, Sue and Rob are middle-aged siblings. Their parents (Marjorie and Ed) recently sold the family home and are in the process of downsizing their possessions before moving into an apartment.  The siblings agreed that the home needed to be sold as both parents were starting to suffer from age-related ailments and having trouble maintaining the property.  Because they all lived in different towns from their original home, they were unable to help their Mom and Dad as much as they would have liked.

In the beginning all was going according to plan.  The house sold quickly, and a suitable apartment was found. However, things started to change once Marjorie and Ed started to pass on family heirlooms.

One day, when Sue was visiting her mom, Marjorie mentioned that she was struggling to find a place for her china cabinet. While she loved the piece, it wouldn’t fit in the new apartment.  Sue, who had always loved the cabinet, offered to move it into her home as she had the space. Marjorie was relieved as her problem was solved; and she would be able to see her cherished cabinet when visiting Sue.

Later that week, Rob called his parents to check in.  Marjorie shared that Sue had offered to take the china cabinet.  Rob was speechless!  His daughter, Rebecca, had always loved the cabinet, and he had expected that his parents would have offered it to her. Rob wasn’t angry at his mom as he understood that her memory wasn’t what it had been; however, he was furious with Sue as she had always known how much Rebecca wanted the cabinet.

Rob seethed all the way home and called Jane to let her know what Sue had done. As he ranted, Jane started to remember past grievances that she had with Sue. Then the conversation really took off! By the end of the call an hour later, both siblings felt better and had decided that Sue had behaved badly.

A few weeks later, the siblings met at their parents’ home as arranged to help with packing. Sue was confused and hurt by the distance she experienced from her brother and sister.  She had no idea what had caused the chilly reception. As the day progressed, she started to remember times in the past when her siblings had sided together against her. She thought about how often she had felt excluded. The day was uncomfortable for everyone–including Marjorie and Ed, who had no idea about what was going on.

The next day, Sue called Marjorie to complain about Jane and Rob’s behaviour.

Welcome to Triangulation

The relationships we share with family members can be stressful. Sometimes they become intense, and as we cope with a current difficulty, past challenges come back to haunt us.  Uncomfortable emotions such as anger, sadness and frustration can arise, and we want to lessen our discomfort. Triangulation occurs when we pull in a third party to help decrease the heightened, negative emotions we are experiencing with the first person.

Triangulation is a habit…a way to make ourselves feel better. In our story, Rob triangulated Jane into the situation with Sue. He was able to let off some steam and continue with his day. Sue pulled in her mom as a way to cope with her negative feelings regarding her interaction with Jane and Rob the day before.

The Trouble with Triangulation

Often, we don’t see that there is a problem with this way of coping. We vent to a third party and then feel better. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. We may be able to move on in the moment, but the original issues don’t get resolved.

When creating triangles becomes a family  habit, relationship problems are pushed underground where they fester–only to be brought up the next time the triangle is set up. Past issues between Jane and Sue were unearthed and discussed when Rob reported on his current dissatisfaction with Sue.

Because of triangulation, past hurts are more difficult to heal.

A Particularly Harmful Type of Triangle

The above story deals with triangulation between adult siblings and a parent–leading to ongoing painful relationships. However, when triangles are created between a parent and non-adult child the repercussions are much worse.

When couples are having relationship difficulties, it is often tempting for one (or both) members of the couple to triangulate in a child/young adult as a way to decrease their feelings of tension.  This can range from complaining to a child about a partner’s bad habit to a full-on disclosure about what is causing a relationship breakdown.  Sometimes parents will speak to each other ‘through the child’ to avoid having to talk face-to-face.

Ideally, in a family system, the parents are the “head” of the household.  For healthy maturation children need to know that the adults in the system are stable as they provide a “united front”. By triangulating a child into adult concerns, we are robbing them of that stability. We may end up pitting the child against a particular parent, damaging that relationship. A child/young adult’s self esteem can be damaged as they learn that “half of their gene pool” is not acceptable.

If you feel the need to complain about your partner to your child, please stop! If you cannot speak to your partner directly, find someone else you can speak to until the situation improves.

Ending Triangulation

Triangulation is a habit.  Like any habit, with work and awareness, we can choose to do something different.  But how?

  • When feeling upset about another’s actions, resist the urge to bring in a third party. We can practice self-soothing tools.  Go for a walk, have a bath or shower, watch a movie or read a book. Find something that will distract you from the painful emotions until they have calmed enough that you can look at them from a rational vs. emotional mindset.
  • Refuse to be brought into another’s triangle. Getting involved in drama can be exciting! However, we’re not doing ourselves or others any favours. Rather than getting caught up in the story, you can help the other person to calm down. Encourage them to speak to the person with whom they are having the difficulty.
  • When you are calm and ready to talk, start a conversation with the person who is the source of the negative emotions. This may take some time and require outside support–especially if this has been a pattern for a long time and there are deeply buried resentments.
A Word of Warning!

Triangulation can be a difficult habit to break. We use it because we may experience some immediate relief. Not triangulating is hard. Taking the first step to speak to another about what is bothering us takes courage and we can’t predict  how they will respond.

When we change our pattern and refuse to take part in a triangle, the person inviting us in may become angry.  It’s important that we hang in there and gently explain that we don’t want to continue in this behaviour.  Again, this takes courage and consistency.  It may take awhile, but you will see positive results.

Triangulation–Not Just in Families

Once you become aware of the triangulation dynamic, you may begin to see if everywhere–at work or in friendships.  Where there are two people interacting, there is the potential for triangulation.

Being swept up in a triangle can be exhausting.  We can choose to do something else!

An now, where was Homer Simpson when I was in high school?  Enjoy!

When the Ground Cracked

At some point in our lives we go through periods of transition and discernment about where to go next.  We can learn so much from the experiences of others.

Below is the latest  “Point of View” article entitled “When the Ground Cracked” published in the October 2017 issue of Psychology Today.  It is a moving and honest account of moving through this process.  Here is Tova Mirvis’ article in its entirety. 

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels and The Book of Separation, a memoir to be published this month.


The blind date had been arranged by a friend of mine who thought that this young man and I were perfect for each other. He was a first-year law student who knew many of my friends. I was a senior in college, a few months away from graduating and awash in uncertainty about what was to come.

In the Modern Orthodox Jewish community of which we were both a part, the rules of courtship were rigidly prescribed. Physical contact was prohibited. Dating was intended to lead directly to marriage and family. Since childhood, I had been taught to believe in a detailed set of rules and a preordained truth. Orthodox Judaism was a life built of minute actions, each one a single brick that contributed to a reliably secure structure.

Aaron, as I’ll call him, was sweet, soft-spoken, and gentle, and on our first date, at a local kosher restaurant, we catalogued all the ways we were similar. We had been raised in the same religious sphere, one that espoused the idea that you could be part of the secular world yet remain strictly observant. Ours was a world of studying sacred texts, adhering to the exacting laws of the Sabbath, and eating only food that had been rabbinically approved. The innumerable rules not only governed every aspect of our lives, they also built a community that was all-encompassing. By remaining inside it, we were surrounded by people who ordered their lives as we did, getting together for Sabbath meals and living in close proximity to one another. We didn’t have to challenge or struggle or question; we just had to follow the path laid out for us.

This was especially comforting because I sometimes felt the presence of a wily inner self. It was as if other versions of me were hidden inside, like a Russian nesting doll. Ever since I was a little girl, sitting beside my mother in synagogue, I would look around at the other congregants who were supposedly deep in prayer and wonder what they were really thinking. In accordance with the strict laws of modesty, the married women wore hats, many of which blocked their faces from view. I was curious about what more complicated stories might lie beneath. Were they as happy and faithful as they outwardly appeared? Did they really believe the content of the prayers they recited, or did they sometimes chafe at the abundance of Jewish laws that regulated their lives? Did they have any doubts, like me?

Aaron and I got engaged 12 weeks after our first date. I was a little nervous about how quickly we’d made this decision, but I pushed away the feeling. There was a clear path before me now. To be engaged seemed to lock in who I was and would always be. Getting married felt like an insurance policy against the possibility of change. At our wedding, I walked down the aisle, a tulle veil covering my face and casting the world in an ethereal haze. The ring on my finger bound me not just to my husband but to our religious life together.

 I was correct that marriage was the best way to quiet my questions, at least for a while. We had three children and raised them the way we had both been raised. I dutifully instilled in them the Jewish teachings that had been drilled into me, though I sometimes heard an inner voice questioning what I was saying. And I still found myself glancing at the people around me in synagogue, though now I was one of the married women wearing a hat that drew a line across my view. I quietly wondered: Did anyone else harbor fantasies of escape? Did they ever feel that the truest parts of themselves had to be kept out of sight, even from those who presumably knew them best?
“I don’t know if I really believe in this,” I would sometimes confess to Aaron, wishing for the freedom to lay bare my full self, hoping that we had the kind of marriage in which we could burrow down to the raw truth. An anxious look would flash across his face. “But I want to be Orthodox,” he would say.

“I know. We are,” I would assure him, tucking away the questions. We had originally connected because we were so similar, the life path we yearned to follow so rigid and certain. Now, years later, there was simply no way to change course.

At night, in the dark, my unease emerged nonetheless. I lay awake imagining the firm ground below me giving way to cracks. Or pulling a thread on a sweater and watching as it came apart in my hands. I wondered what would have happened had I not gotten engaged so young, so quickly. What if I had allowed myself the time to question and wrestle and experiment? What if I hadn’t been so afraid of the unknown?

I continued to observe the rules of Orthodoxy, hoping all this activity might eventually take the shape of actual belief.  I felt alone in my marriage but warned myself away from the hard places—it was easier to remain in denial about the differences between us, which I saw no way to change. I still didn’t know if anyone else felt the same searing loneliness, the same jagged-edged doubt that I did. But I couldn’t hide from the fact that I didn’t believe in the tenets of my faith. And there wasn’t any space inside my marriage for the person I was slowly becoming.

As I neared my 40th birthday, my questions took on an urgent tone. For how long would I try to deny what I really knew? I recalled how on holidays as a child, I eagerly anticipated the moment when a group of designated men blessed the congregation. With their black and white prayer shawls pulled over their heads, these men recited a special incantation while the rest of us followed the strict admonition not to look at them, mindful of the stories of what supernatural punishment could befall a person who did: Some said you would go blind, or become corrupted. Automatically heeding the rules, I kept my eyes squeezed shut, afraid of seeing something forbidden.

Now, I could no longer keep my eyes closed.

I left my marriage. I stopped going to synagogue. I began to break the religious rules. After years spent trying to keep both my marriage and my faith intact, the two came apart with a single snap.

Surely many married people have room to change and evolve within their relationship. Surely, for some people, marriage and faith can be disentangled, one remaining intact while the other falls away. But for me, leaving one necessitated leaving the other. From the start, they were entirely intertwined. Orthodox life was the foundation that my marriage was built on, so as the former dissolved, so did the latter. Both were structures that were supposed to match the shape of who I was, and instead, both had come to feel like a vise.

Divorced and no longer Orthodox, I had no clear path before me. There were no more assurances that if I followed a specific set of rules I would be blessed and content. There was no longer a defined, clear-cut way to raise my children, whose custody my ex and I shared. Now at sundown on Friday, when I once would have lit the Sabbath candles at an exact time, preparing for a day to be observed in a precise way, I could go anywhere, do anything. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted that to be. Now when I ate nonkosher food or wore sleeveless shirts that I once deemed immodest, it was hard to recognize myself. Each transgression was new and destabilizing, each its own separate leave-taking.

 Gone, too, that web of community that had always surrounded me—those invitations to Sabbath dinner tables, that comfort of knowing that community members would show up with meals if there was an illness or death in my family. Many of my Orthodox friends ceased speaking to me altogether. I discovered that sometimes the price to be paid for freedom is loneliness.

But slowly, the sense of disorientation began to ease. Soon it felt less strange to break rules that had once seemed so taboo. I accepted that change always comes with loss. I came to understand that the people who no longer spoke to me were part of one small world; with time, there would be other worlds I would discover for myself. I began to enjoy the fact that I could sample new foods, explore new places, entertain new ideas, meet new people, try out new ways of being.

I still had questions: How could I maintain a sense of tradition? How could I ease my guilt about having upended so much of my life? But now there was room for doubt and uncertainty, growth and change. I didn’t have to convince myself that I believed things when I didn’t. I didn’t have to teach my children to adhere to rules whose validity and value I questioned. It became easier to say what I really thought. There were no easy answers, but after all this time, I felt as if my eyes were finally open.

The Curiosity of Perception

On February 26, 2015, this photo became an Internet sensation as people argued about whether the colours of the dress were blue and black or white and gold.  People in my workplace at the time, defended their position and couldn’t understand how others didn’t see what they did.

According to the Wikipedia article on this item, the phenomenon revealed differences in human colour perception which have been the subject of ongoing scientific investigation in neuroscience and vision science, with a number of papers published in peer-reviewed science journals.

Unfortunately, some perceptions aren’t as black and white (or white and gold!) as the dress conundrum–or as easy to understand.

What is Perception?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines perception as the way we think about or understand someone or something.  It’s the ability to understand or notice something easily.  Perception describes the way that we notice or understand something using one of our senses.  It’s part of being human, and one of the ways that we make sense of our world.  But how does it play out in daily life?

Perception in Practice

If we are always using our sense of perception, do we ever run into problems? Unfortunately, yes.  Our perceptions can lead us down the path of judgement–which can encourage separation from others rather than inclusiveness.

An Exercise

Take a moment and imagine that you are on a crowded bus.  It’s the beginning of the day and you’re travelling to work.  On the bus is a father with two young children.  The man is starring into space as his children run up and down the aisles, yelling at the top of their lungs. The boys appear to be unkempt–dirty faces and rumpled clothes.  Their father ignores them as they ask a woman sitting near to them if they can have a bite of her muffin.

Many people’s first perception could be that the “father is incompetent”.  Why isn’t he parenting his children?  We may think that the children are badly behaved and neglected. We  wonder if there is a need to call Family and Children’s Services.

How does our opinion change, if we know the story of this small family?  What if we were able to read this man’s mind to discover that he had been at the hospital all night sitting with his dying wife?  That this visit would be the last time that the boys would see their mother?  Suddenly, we see the situation from a place of compassion, and a desire to help may take hold of us.

It comes down to perception.

Perception in the Bigger Picture

There is a concept about perception that I encountered years ago in the Utne Reader.  The writer was exploring how the citizens of one country could be convinced to wage war against the people of another.  She suggested that the first step was to change the population’s perspective of the proposed enemy–a movement from seeing them as people to “Them”.  “Us” were the ‘good guys’–honest, hardworking, family-focused, ‘in the right‘.  Over time,  “Them” became demonized–a ‘not “Us”‘.  The writer posited that it’s easier to be willing to hurt others when we don’t see them as human.

Again, it comes down to perception.

Perceptions and Thought Patterns in Health

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Full Catastrophe Living:  Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness writes about the connection between perception (thoughts) and health.

Kabat-Zinn states:

“Although we are often unaware of our thoughts as thoughts, they have a profound effect on everything we do and they can have a profound effect on our health as well, which can be better or worse.”

The writer goes on the explain that in his opinion there are two basic filters on the world–optimism and pessimism.   Individuals who are more pessimistic tend to blame themselves for negative events in their lives and see them as lasting for a long time.  When encountering a negative event or failure, pessimistic thinking may look like:  “I always knew I was stupid and this proves it; I can never do anything right.”.

Individuals who have a more optimistic perception of negative events tend not to blame themselves and if they do, see them as short-term ones that will be resolved.  Rather than catastrophizing, i.e. having sweeping global statements about the event, they see the event as having specific consequences related to the incident.

From a mental health perspective, Kabat-Zinn cites research showing that individuals who have a highly pessimistic perception/style are at a significantly higher risk for becoming depressed when they encounter a negative event than are those who have a more optimistic way of thinking.

It appears that our perception of the world and what we think about those perceptions has an effect on our health.

Working With Perception in Therapy

One of the gifts of therapy is the opportunity for a change of perspective.  Often the binds and broken relationships that we find ourselves in can be connected to judging a person, place, historical event or situation and then creating stories based on our perceptions. These stories become the narrative that runs through our lives.  Changing perspective helps us to change our stories.

There is a story of a young woman who lost her memory due to a stroke.  Until her memory returned she had no judgments about anything from her past.  One day she met a man who introduced himself as her father.  Until that time, the daughter had chosen to end the relationship with her Dad due to a serious misunderstanding.  However, because of the brain trauma, she was able to look at everything from a place of ‘beginner’s mind’–i.e.  it was all new.  Because she didn’t know the history, she was able to develop a positive relationship with her Dad that continued once she became well.

In Life Review Therapy the therapist helps the client to look at past, painful events from the perspective of the current day.  Like the example of the young father on the bus, the client is able to fill in the pieces of missing information and in doing so re-frame stories that they may have been telling themselves.

When couples come to therapy, a lot of the work involves helping each partner to see situations, conflicts and past hurts from the perspective of the other.  In the process, each person can gain an understanding of how misunderstandings arose, the repercussions of shared actions and a greater love and respect for the resiliency of themselves, each other and their relationship.

At it’s core, therapy is mostly about stories–the stories that a client tells are the clay that is molded by the therapist and client together to create something new.  A thought that I’ve often heard clients express, sometimes in a state of bemusement is: “I’ve never thought of it that way before.”.

It’s all about perspective.

Now, for a lesson in perspective from childhood…enjoy!

Jealousy: The Green-Eyed Monster

“The jealous are troublesome to others, but a torment to themselves.” 
William Penn

Jealousy.  Unlike joy, compassion and love; jealousy isn’t one of what we think of as the positive emotions.  In fact, it seems to carry such a stigma that we don’t even like to admit when we feel it.  However, if we can get past labeling emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and instead experience them as they are, what can be learned from jealousy?

What is jealousy?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve felt jealous.  M green-eyed monster puts in an appearance when my partner mentions a particular female co-worker on a daily basis.  Sometimes all it takes for my  monster to stir is for one of my children to say that Billy’s mom makes the best Halloween costumes ever–after I’ve spent weeks struggling to make a passable cow outfit.

I suspect that we all know the feeling.  The flash of heat, the wrench in our stomach as we see ourselves as not measuring up to the object of another’s praise or desire.  But what is jealousy?

Sara Eckel, in her article “Listening to Jealousy” published in the November/December 2016 issue of Psychology Today, defines jealousy as “the emotional reaction to a threat to one’s relationship from a real or imagined romantic rival”.  Eckel goes on to write that “To be romantically jealous is to recognize that your partner might feel attraction to someone else, that he or she might act on that feeling, and that you might be powerless to stop it.”

However, jealously doesn’t only occur in romantic relationships (such as my feelings towards the costume-making parent).  We can feel jealous during our friendships with others (Anne met Julie for lunch and didn’t include me).  Jealously between siblings for parental affection is also very common and can wreck havoc in family relationships.  A common experience of jealousy can occur when a new baby enters the family–as both siblings and a parent can feel jealous of the extra attention that a newborn requires.

For couples practicing ethical non-monogamy, jealousy can become especially complicated due to the number of relationships and combinations involved.

The Difference Between Jealousy and Envy?

The easiest way to think about the difference between jealousy and envy is that jealousy is about people and envy is about things.  We can be envious of our friend’s new car (I want the car that he has.) and jealous when this friend flirts with our partner.  Jealousy almost always involves a third party.

What Does Jealousy Teach Us?  Is It Useful?

Once we get over the shame and denial of feeling jealous, what can jealousy teach us?

Like anger, jealousy calls us to pay attention.  It’s a wake-up call in our relationships as we realize that our partners, friends, family members can be attractive to others. Perhaps we’ve been taking them for granted.  When people have been in our lives for a long time, relationships can become stale or less of a priority as we cope with family, work and other challenges.  Jealousy is a reminder that we value those people in our lives and perhaps something in the relationship needs attention.

From a relationship perspective, evolutionary psychologists see the purpose of jealousy as a way to help ward of mate-poaching, and preserve social bonds.  Nothing says “this is my person” as putting an arm around a spouse at a party!

When Does Jealousy Become a Problem?

The forms of jealousy that I’m writing about in this post, are those in the normal range of behaviour.  As noted in the Psychology Today article,

“In its most extreme form, jealousy can be exceedingly damaging–it’s the leading driver of homicide of romantic partners, particularly of wives, girlfriends and exes.  It can also compel people to attempt to control their partners in unhealthy ways–incessantly monitoring their whereabouts, cutting them off from friends and family, or trying to undermine their self-esteem and convince them that no one else would have them.”

 If you see yourself or your partner in these behaviours–seek help immediately by contacting the police, shelters specializing in abuse (if you are feeling unsafe) and a therapist to help you to deal with the situation–either as the person experiencing jealousy or as the target.

What To Do If You’re Feeling Jealous?

Jealousy itself isn’t the problem, it’s what we do with the feelings that are aroused. Jealousy can launch a cycle of negative behaviours such as accusation, paranoia, revenge and controlling that will damage a relationship.

What can we do instead?

  • Admit to your partner that you feel jealous and tell them about the underlying emotions–love of the partner and fear of losing them.
  • As a couple, look at what may be missing from your relationship.  As noted above, jealousy can be a wake-up call.  Perhaps intimacy has been waning or one or both partners is missing one-on-one time.
  • If jealousy is a current theme in your relationships (both romantic and platonic) check in with a therapist as this may be a longstanding challenge that you don’t need to continue to carry.

Jealousy doesn’t have to be a torment when you can see it as a teacher.

Now, for some vintage James Taylor.  Enjoy!

The Other Side of Bullying

In last week’s post we looked at the affect of bullying on adults (especially in the workplace).  This week, we’re switching to the other side of the equation and looking at the bully.

While the research and knowledge about the effects of being bullied appear to be consistent, the data is not so clear about the effects of being a bully on the individual engaged in the behaviour.  There is also conflicting information about how bullies are created, and if they are unhappy individuals, as is commonly assumed.

Is There a Payoff?

When we think about the inner life of a bully, there is a common perception that the bully is operating out of a place of sadness or past trauma.  But is this true?  Are bullies miserable?

Not according to a 2015 study out of Simon Fraser University (cited in the National Post). When researchers surveyed a group of Vancouver high school students, they discovered that bullies were the least likely to be depressed. They also had the highest self-esteem in the survey group and the greatest social status.

The survey results were explained by the research study lead, Prof. Jennifer Wong, this way:  “Humans tend to try to establish a rank hierarchy.  When you’re in a very limited arena in which you can establish your rank [high school, workplace], and climbing the social ladder to be on top is one of the main ways…Bullying is a tool you can use to get there.”

These results seem to confirm the belief that our actions and ideas provide some type of payoff or fulfill a need.  Therefore, if a bully thinks that their behaviour is in their best interest, he or she will need to change their belief system in order to change their way of interacting with others.

Is Bullying Only a North American and Human Phenomenon?

In a guest blog published in the on-line issue of Scientific American, Prof. H. Sherrow (Assistant Professor in the Anthropology and Sociology Dept. at Ohio University) states that bullying occurs all over the world and in other animal species.  Citing various research studies, Sherrow concludes that there are no countries or cultures in which bullying was not occurring. As people tend to be people, I wasn’t surprised that bullying is world-wide and cross-cultural.

What did surprise me was that bullying takes place in other species.  Sherrow describes observations of bullying occurring in societies of primates (chimpanzees, baboons) as well as in groups of rats and mice.  Bullying behaviour appears to be widespread.

Being a Bully in the Internet Age

According to Professor Sherrow, bullying, both in the animal kingdom and in human society, can be a way to maintain social order–ensuring that no one acquires too much dominance, status or power.  However, the crisis comes when our modern language and culture are combined with bullying.

Before the Internet, bullying was confined to our social groups (school, workplace, neighbourhood) and was done by people we knew.  Bullies knew their victims, and that relationship alone may have been enough to limit the bullying activity as well as the number of people involved.  Now, with the opportunity for cyber bullying, we can be bullied on a global level, by strangers. Also, with the anonymity of the Internet and the creation of “virtual” relationships rather than “in-person” interactions, normal social inhibitions are removed.  When on-line, individuals can say whatever they want without seeing the immediate results of their actions.

Where Do Bullies Come From?

As with many things in human development, the creation of bullies is a question of nature vs. nurture.  Are bullies born or created?  It can be difficult to untangle the two parts of the question.  For example, one idea regarding the creation of bullying behaviour is that children learn these actions by observing family members.  However, is this method of interaction also passed on genetically from their parents or grandparents?

Much of the research seems to lay the blame for the creation of bullying behaviour on parents.  For example:

  • Bullies are seen to be a product of strained parental relationships due to parents unreasonable expectations around activities such as school, sports or social standing.
  • Bullies have experienced inconsistent discipline when growing up.  In the September 2016 on-line issue of Scientific American MIND, psychotherapist Toni Rodriquez writes that both harsh and punitive parent styles, as well as overly permissive styles, can lead to bullying behaviour in children.
  • Children who have experienced physical abuse and/or harsh physical punishment often become bullies.
  • Parents of bullies often model aggressive behaviour in front of their children by using more forceful rather than cooperative means to settle conflicts.

Other suggested theories as to why bullies are created include:

  • Watching violent television and/or playing violent video games raises individuals levels of aggression and normalizes anti-social behaviour.
  • Lack of supportive peer networks.  Children who are isolated or feel disliked by peers often use bullying behaviour to gain some social control.
  • Bullies have been victims of bullying behaviour.
Are You A Bully?

This is a difficult question, and somewhat insulting as no one likes to be perceived as a bully.  If you’re wondering, here are ten behavioural indications that you may be heading down that path–especially in the workplace.

  1. You expect others to run errands for you, such as picking up your lunch, coffee, etc., because you are in a position to do so.
  2. Your colleagues don’t look you in the eye–maybe due to fear.
  3. You often say “I paid my dues.”, and use that as an excuse to disregard the suffering of co-workers.
  4. You blame others for work problems–especially subordinates.
  5. You rarely take suggestions and often devalue the ideas of others.
  6. You actively ignore specific colleague(s).
  7. No one speaks at the meetings you attend due to their fear of sharing their opinions in front of you.
  8. You don’t listen to others as your feel that your ideas are the best.
  9. You go out of your way to make others uncomfortable–and enjoy it.
  10. Your peer group is made up of people who don’t/won’t disagree with you.

If you see yourself in some of these behaviours, you can make changes.  Awareness is the first step.  If you can relate to the causes of bullying (for example, negative experiences when growing up) or you feel that it would be helpful to develop more pro-social communication skills; talk to a trusted person or therapist that you feel you can work with.

After self-awareness, the end of bullying behaviour starts with apologies and forgiveness; as well as having compassion for yourself.

Now for something to make you smile.  Enjoy!






Bullying…It Doesn’t Only Happen to Children

When I was in Grade 1, I was bullied.  In hindsight, I was a prime target–small for my age but with a big vocabulary.  I was new to the school and stuck out like a sore thumb.  This was a long time before the Internet so my bullying experience took the form of  teasing and name-calling.  I didn’t want to go to school and suffered from stomach aches.  My parents’ attempts to solve the problem involved telling me not to be so sensitive and to stand up for myself. I’m not sure if my teachers were aware of what was going on, but the common belief was that ‘kids will be kids’.  I can’t remember how the bullying ended–maybe my abusers grew bored or found another victim.  By second grade I had learned to blend in, and was always aware that the bullying could begin again.

Adults and Bullying

While there is much research and many resources available about childhood bullying and the effects of childhood bullying later in life (higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide), until the late 1980’s there appears to be few resources on bullying experienced by adults.  Thankfully that has changed.  Websites such as are just one of many that provide useful information across the lifespan.

What is Bullying?

Simply defined, bullying is various types of abuse (deliberate cruelty) aimed at another individual or group of people by another person or group.  While childhood bullying can be easy to see, adult bullies tend to operate subtly.  They may attack when no one else is around or find ways to justify their behaviour.  A clear sign that you may have encountered a bully is if you consistently feel ‘off’ or uncomfortable after interactions with this person.

Types of Adult Bullies

While bullies come in all shapes, sizes, ages and genders; they can be placed in one of the following categories:

  • Conceited Bully: This type of bully is egotistical and shows little or no mercy for others.  They feel good when in control or hurting others.
  • Imprudent Bully: These bullies lash out at their victims and have no emotional control.
  • Somatic Bully:  Bullies in this group aren’t always violent, but they may threaten physical harm.
  • Verbal Assault Bully: These bullies use words as weapons.  Verbal bullying can lead to feeling negatively about your life and ultimately to depression.
  • Ancillary Bully:  While these people may not actively bully others, they side with the bully to avoid being bullied themselves.
A Real-Life Story

Stewart (not his real name) worked for a mid-sized company.  The employee demographic was mostly male between the ages of 25-40.  Stewart was a little older than the other men.

Stewart, married with two children, was the sole wage-earner for his family.  There wasn’t much extra money available for Stewart to buy the latest gadgets or go out for lunch with co-workers.  He wasn’t able to afford contributions to the endless fundraising opportunities that circulated around the office, and usually had to decline buying chocolate bars, muffin dough, or other items that co-worker’s were selling on behalf of their children.  Stewart appeared to be different from his colleagues.

Over time the other men in the office stopped asking Stewart to join them for lunch or coffee.  They didn’t include him in discussions about the latest technology.  Stewart began to be isolated at work.  Eventually, a new employee joined the company and the overt bullying started.  Stewart was an easy target because he was already separate from the group.  While previously, the other men may have thought Stewart was ‘different’, but wouldn’t have voiced their thoughts to others; with the bully’s encouragement, it now became ‘acceptable’ to openly be cruel.

Stewart’s time at work became increasingly difficult.  A long-term employee, Stewart had always received stellar performance reviews.  However, once the bully arrived, his job performance began to decline.  Stewart started calling in sick on a regular basis.  With his doctor’s support, Stewart took some time off of work on stress leave.  Over time, and with support, Stewart was able to talk to his supervisor about his experience and changes were made.  Eventually, Stewart decided to leave the company and found another job where he could start again in a new environment.

Signs of Workplace Bullying

Many instances of adult bullying occur in the workplace.  According to the writer at, these are the signs of workplace bullying.

  • Being excluded from on-the-job social events
  • Co-workers excusing themselves from the work area when you come in
  • Others being late or absent to meetings you call
  • Receiving the “silent treatment”
  • Having your presentations ignored
  • Colleagues refusing to assist when you ask for it
  • Having co-workers spread lies about you that no one refutes

Sound familiar?

If You’re Being Bullied…

If you’re being bullied, what can you do to stop it?  Bullies enjoy the results of their behaviour, so they often don’t have an incentive to stop.  While you can’t change how they act, you can change how you respond to them.  As bullies don’t usually choose to pick on people who can fend for themselves or fight back, here are some ways to regain your power.

Keep Yourself Safe
Safety is the first priority.  If you feel uncomfortable with a situation, leave.  You can also ask for support from a trusted colleague so that you are not alone with the bully.  If necessary you can contact police or other emergency services.

Tell Someone You Trust
Find a safe person and tell them what has been happening.  Be open about who is doing the bullying and give clear examples of the occurrences.  Document what has been going on so that you have details if needed.

Confront the Bully
Bullies victimize those who they see as unable to defend themselves.  Either alone (if you feel safe) or with support (colleague, supervisor, police, lawyer) you can expose the bully and hold them accountable for their actions.  Having clear, documented evidence of the occurrences will be useful at this point.

Avoid Being Reactive
Bullies feed off the non-assertive reactions of their targets.  Depending on the situation, an assertive response is needed while others may be handled by you being ‘unimpressed’.  Humour can often be useful…”I can’t believe you just said/did that”.

Use Effective Communication
Avoid personally interacting with the bully unless necessary.  Whenever possible, communicate with the bully either by putting things in writing (clear and concise language) or by having a third-party present.

Identify If There Are Other Victims of the Bully
Bullies often have more than one target.  If there are other people being victimized, consider a joint, formalized response.  There is power in a group!

Being A Target Isn’t Your Fault

Being the target of a bully isn’t your fault.  Often it’s a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when the bully is looking for a victim.  The responsibility for the negative behaviour lies with the bully.

Next week, we’ll explore bullying from the perspective of the bully.   How and why does the behaviour start?  Is it possible to stop being a bully?

In the meantime, here’s a video showing a social experiment about bullying.  Warning…at times it’s difficult to watch.






Are you Rooted?

Are you rooted?  If you are a gardener, your first thought may be about plants; but I’m talking about being connected to a place.

When our children were preschoolers, my husband and I seriously considered moving  from our home to a bigger city in order to be closer to family members.  We had arrived in our city due  to employment, and the plan had been to stay for a few years before moving on.

As part of the decision-making process we listed all the things that we would like to have in a new community.  What would we miss by moving away?  How could we replace the doctor we relied upon, my hairstylist who had been part of our children’s first haircuts? Where could we find a neighbourhood park that we loved as much as the one we already had?  What about our friends and neighbours?

After creating many lists of the pros and cons of going vs. staying; we decided to stay. We could visit family, and so many things about our community were irreplaceable. We were rooted.

The Importance of Being Rooted

“To be rooted”, philosopher Simone Weil once wrote, “is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.”  When we are rooted, we feel that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves.  We have a vested interest in the health of our community.  We develop a sense of ‘hometown pride’.  We care.

When we feel attached to our community, we’re more likely to be social and volunteer. We feel a connection to our local economy and may support neigbourhood businesses by spending our money locally.  As we learn more about our community, we may support local farmers at the market or join a Community Shared Agriculture group.

A key benefit is that the system is reciprocal…when we give to our community, it gives back.  Our support systems grow, there are more local choices, and there is a sense of belonging that we experience when we walk down the street and say ‘hello’ to people that we know, or the local barrista already knows our order when we walk in the cafe.

Being Rooted in our Community is Good for Us

Research confirms that being rooted in our community is good for us.  In the July/August 2016 issue of  Psychology Today,  author Melody Warnick (in her article”Right Where You Belong“) describes a study conducted in Tokyo.  This study discovered that elderly Japanese women who felt attached to their neighbourhood were more likely to be alive five years later than were women who didn’t care about their communities.  For women who liked where they lived and also interacted with their neighbours, their chance of survival compared to more ambivalent residents increased by 6 percent.

In her book Lonely:  Learning to Live with Solitude, Emily White describes her experience with loneliness.  She cites many studies that show the connection between loneliness, loss of health and increased mortality.  However, we may be less lonely and have an already-developed support system in place when we are rooted in our community.  These support systems are there when life becomes difficult.

Rootedness In Practice

When I think about support systems, I  often remember a particular example of individuals being rooted in their community.  There was a group of widows that attended the same church.  As Sundays can be difficult for people on their own, this group of women would plan a day’s worth of activities (church and lunch, followed by a matinee or concert).  By the time each arrived home, the day was mostly over– they had connected to others and enjoyed themselves.  These women made a point of including anyone they knew who needed to take part in this group–especially new widows.  Participation ebbed and flowed, and the group continued to be there when needed.  They looked out for each other.

Being Rooted Takes Effort

Being rooted and building community are reciprocal, and takes effort.  For many years a laminated copy of this poster hung beside our door.  It was a reminder of how to grow roots.  It recommended:

  • Turn off your TV
  • Leave your house
  • Know your neighbors
  • Look up when you are walking
  • Greet people
  • Sit on your stoop
  • Plant flowers
  • Use your library
  • Play together
  • Buy from local merchants
  • Share what you have
  • Help a lost dog
  • Take children to the park
  • Garden together
  • Support neighborhood schools
  • Fix it even if you didn’t break it
  • Have potlucks
  • Honor elders
  • Pick up litter
  • Read stories aloud
  • Dance in the street
  • Talk to the mail carrier
  • Listen to the birds
  • Put up a swing
  • Help carry something heavy
  • Barter for your goods
  • Start a tradition
  • Ask a question
  • Hire young people for odd jobs
  • Organize a block party
  • Bake extra and share
  • Ask for help when you need it
  • Open your shades
  • Sing together
  • Share your skills
  • Take back the night
  • Turn up the music
  • Turn down the music
  • Listen before you react to anger
  • Mediate a conflict
  • Seek to understand
  • Learn from new and uncomfortable angles
  • Know that no one is silent although many are not heard. Work to change this.

These ideas may sound like a lot of work, and the payback is tremendous–much more than is originally put in…and it’s good for us and others!

Now, for a flashback to how some of us learned about community; here’s some vintage Sesame Street.  Enjoy!



An Introduction to Ethical Non-Monogamy

The following is a guest post from my friend and colleague Karen Grierson.  Karen is a Registered Psychotherapist, specializing in individual and relationship therapy with adults. She is experienced with a broad spectrum of relationship styles and power-exchange dynamics, gender identities, and sexual orientations, including almost 30 years with the BDSM, polyamory, and swingers communities in Southwestern Ontario. Karen has also trained as a support group facilitator for those who have offended sexually, through Waterloo Region’s Community Justice Initiatives.  For more information about Karen, please visit her website.

One of the many interesting issues our clients sometimes bring to us in the course of relationship counselling is the idea of contemplating “open relationships”. Opening a relationship generally means a transition from monogamy to an introduction of other (sexually and/or emotionally) intimate partners. This can mean a lot of very different things, because there are as many ways of opening a relationship as there are people considering open relationships, so from the outset, part of our work as therapists is to make sure everyone is on the same page with the language being used to describe intentions and interests. Continue reading An Introduction to Ethical Non-Monogamy