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The Holidays are Coming…

Holiday Stress Tips

It’s that time of year again and many of my patients are already anticipating the pressure and emotional turmoil that each of our families bring to the holiday table.

One of my clients just left a session saying, “I love them all but they drive me crazy”. I asked her what behaviors specifically drive her crazy. She talked about her uncle who drinks too much, her mother who is a perfectionist and has to have “everything just right”, making everyone uncomfortable. She talked of her husband not helping enough with her sons on Christmas morning, the cousins who talk to load, each too much, sing off key and the aunt who makes the same horrible cake every year and on and on. We were both laughing at this point as Marie is incredibly funny and of course her Spanish family sounds so similar to my Italian family that I couldn’t help feeling right at home.

I’m guessing no matter what ethnic background you come from you can identify. At one moment when Marie became a bit somber I asked her how it would be to be without her father, who died of a heart attack in July. She began to tear, and started recalling all the Christmas’s of the past, how she wished she could return with him to those days. I asked if her perfectionist mother, her uncle who drinks too much, her aunt who is the horrible baker and her cousins who talk to loud and sing off key were there. Of course she remembers they were all present. Despite their idiosyncrasies her memories were filled with crazy love despite the imperfections of her family.

Marie is feeling more pressure this holiday season because it will be the first without her father. She is less tolerant of the shortcomings of family members because her loss over rides everything else.

As we age the holidays can still maintain their magic but they also consist of many memories we wish we could re-enact. We all lose people and dreams along the way. Maybe were not in the marriage we fantasized about, or maybe some are alone and wondering if there magical Christmas or joyous Hanukah will ever be with a special someone. Maybe we never quite reached the status we desired, or made the money we thought we would, or maybe we, like all other human beings, are forced to cope with the realities of an ever-changing life. Our dreams have been disrupted and the season and our lives are not quite what we fantasized.

Marie realized as we talked about her Dad that eventually a holiday season will come when all these irritating people will not be present, and she may indeed miss them. After all her Dad was expected to be here for many years to come. He wasn’t perfect but he was her first boyfriend and he truly loved family. He taught her to cherish all family members despite their faults, and family to him was not just blood relatives but all those whom he engaged in a genuine relationship.

Let’s all make Marie’s realization our holiday perspective. Life and family seldom go according to our dreams but we can make awesome memories if we give in to the reality of the people in our lives. We all know what to expect, try to accept or at least develop gratitude for the fact that we are here one more year to celebrate togetherness. It takes little ability to get along with people who act exactly the way we desire. True compassion, empathy and wisdom exist when we give up control and develop a loving heart with the family we were given, not the one we created in fiction. Someone your sitting next to this year may not be here next holiday season, and it could be you!
Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.
Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience

A Christmas Story


It has been several years since my Dad’s passing but there is one Christmas gift he gave that I remember more than any other.  Years later I still feel enormously grateful for the gift he gave me that never faded, never worn out and never failed to be a gift that sustained me throughout my life. I hope all parents will remember the meaning of this story as you contemplate what to give your children this season.

When I was 9 years old I asked for a Lionel train for Christmas. I wanted that train so much that I couldn’t think of anything else. I dreamed about it day and night, imagining what it would look like speeding along its miniature track. Nobody else in my neighborhood had a Lionel. I would be the first to own one, and that I believed would make me special.

On Christmas morning I woke up when it was still dark and tiptoed past my sleeping brother. The stairs creaked in our apartment so I stayed on the edges, hoping to keep the magic moment to myself. A light was on in the kitchen and I peeked in to see my father sitting at the table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. He looked up at me, something shifted in my heart and I knew there would be no train under the tree.

Without a word I ran into the living room and stood before the Christmas tree. Blinking back tears and still believing in miracles I hoped the train would just suddenly appear before me. Maybe I missed it, I thought, picking up boxes and shaking them. Maybe it’s in a closet or maybe it’s outside on the porch.

“Arthur.”  My Father’s voice was gentle as he kneeled down next to me. “We could not afford the train. I’m sorry, because I know how much it meant to you.”

He put his hand around my wrist and squeezed, a gesture he used only when he was discussing issues of the utmost importance. “You may not understand what I am about to say now, but someday you will” he said. “On this Christmas morning, with just you and me in this room, I would like to give you a gift far greater than anything money can buy. I want you to know that I will always love you. No matter what happens in your life, I will always be with you, believing in you,supporting you,cheering for you. No father could ever love a son more than I love you, and that love will never rust or need repairs-it will always be yours, now and for the rest of your life.”

I must have given him a look of doubt and perhaps confusion-How can love make up for a Lionel?-for he squeezed my wrist tighter and leaned toward me. I breathed in the familiar, bittersweet odor of Chesterfields and Maxwell House coffee, mixed with plenty of sugar and cream. “Believe me  Arthur,” my father said, “this will come to mean more than any other gift I could give you, I promise you that.”

This Christmas, many years later, it is still the best gift I could have ever received. His love, even after he is gone, lives inside me in a very powerful way. Try to give the gift of eternal love this season, it is truly everlasting.

What is your favorite Christmas Memory? Please share it via comments below.

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Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.

Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience

Charlie Sheen-”Winning” in America

Each morning I wake up, get ready for my workout, and turn on the TV as I take my first steps on the elliptical machine. Recently I see Charlie and his latest quips leading the morning news. Shortly thereafter my colleagues, journalists and media pundits tell viewers that he is bi-polar, schizophrenic, addicted to cocaine, or heroin, has a sex addiction and an anger problem that will shortly end his life.

The Pain of Generalizations

I have been a practicing clinical psychologist for over 35 years and I cannot diagnose Charlie Sheen with any certainty. I have watched the interviews and can see that he appears, and I accent the word appears, impulsive, angry, disoriented and quite anxious mixed in with grandiose thinking. However until he has been sober for a significant period of time it will be unclear as to which diagnosis will aptly fit his personality. Substance abuse frays our nervous system and it often takes months for a person’s neurochemistry to recover. In many cases when addiction ceases more than one diagnosis may be applicable. We generalize when we want to appear certain in the face of ambiguity for an assortment of reasons. Some people want to appear as the expert, others are prone to categorizing because they can’t stand the slow process of truly getting to know another person. Still others are simply unaware of the hurt they can cause a vulnerable soul by assuming and not knowing the truth.

Winning is an American Theme

We love winners in our culture, we love to follow the lives of celebrities and unfortunately we seem to love to see those who supposedly have everything fail in the public eye. Charlie Sheen, after all, is a winner as he frequently states according to the lifestyles our culture idealizes. He is a millionaire, he is a celebrity, he attracts the attention of millions every week on his TV show and he has the freedom to travel the world, speaking his mind and hanging out with seductive, attractive women. Doesn’t his resume speak to success according to our image driven way of thinking and behaving? Maybe it is not Charlie Sheen that is on display these days; maybe it is our way of being that is in the limelight.

We Win when We Understand the Truth

So if winning is not having celebrity status, if it is not simply created by acquiring money and notoriety, then what is winning in the truest sense of being human?
Study after study has proven that winning psychologically, emotionally and spiritually is when we become good people with a deep understanding of human nature. Money and status are not evils if they are seen from a realistic perspective. If you earn money because every day you do something you love and if what you do is in the service of others your occupation is a winner. If your character is such that you enjoy giving to others and if you enjoy creating an environment in your home, in your friendships and in your work where people can thrive due to your grace and generosity you are a winner of the grandest proportion. If you know how to love and sustain intimacy, if you are humble despite your achievements, if you disdain arrogance and value open mindedness, and oppose oppression of all people you are a spiritual winner. If you want to contribute to making our world a more compassionate, free and loving place to exist long beyond your lifetime you are a humanitarian winner.

My Wish for Charlie Sheen

Stop listening to the pundits on daily TV, resist fighting yourself and others and seek out the help of an experienced, empathic, proven mental health professional. Stay in treatment with that person until you can sustain an internal sense of calm and happiness that you have never before realized, then and only then will you be ready for the rigors and benefits of primetime.
Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

http://www.balanceyoursuccess.com

Celebrity Divorce Creates Anxiety in Shaky Marriages

The heralded splits of Tiger and Elin, John and Kate have made many marriages wrought with conflict seem in doubt of surviving. Try to remember that celebrity marriages are no different than yours, we all tend to fall in love (the easy phase) with an idealized view of our partner. It is exciting, changes our neurochemistry, and lifts our spirits tremendously in the early going.

The early phase, which I call Image Love, is partly based on our longings at the time. Most often these longings represent insecurities in ourselves we unconsciously hope to resolve through our new found love. Of course, as time progresses disappointment can set in as we discover the real person in front of us. He or she can’t possibly make up for our past hurts and doubts. Some couples don’t realize this is happening and they think they have fallen out of love. Not realizing this phase is the juncture of where true, mature love begins.

If we have the courage to take responsibility for our own shortcomings we can begin the process of healing and changing. If we blame our partner we find ourselves disillusioned and extremely discouraged. Our eyes start to drift to the next new love that can solve our life long problems.

My wife and I are in our 30th year of marriage. We have had our ups and downs and have had major disagreements over time. As the initial “falling in love” phase slipped away and the real relationship began we struggled to a degree as all couples do. The early physical attraction and ability to connect verbally was our beginning foundation but not enough to make for a sound, resilient love.

What happened over time that made the relationship as powerful as it is today? Falling in love progressed over time to loving each other’s character; the person deep within was discovered and revealed. I can remember seeing my wife care for my dying mother, caring for our very ill oldest daughter, delivering her mother’s eulogy with grace and wisdom, loving my dad as he became depressed after my mother’s death. I have watched her sing to her father in a nursing home, as he lies motionless and unresponsive. I marvel as I view her excitement for our adult daughter’s careers, her unselfish love for them along with the inordinate interest she takes in all aspects of their lives. Her support and belief in me has always been a constant. Even the care and love she has shown to our puppies is unselfish and devoted.

When my mother died my dad said her funeral was like the “league of nations”. People of all religions, races and ethnic backgrounds attended. My wife is the same way, she makes friends from all walks of life and she loves diversity. She abhors prejudice and bias and is deeply affected by human beings mistreating others. She can sense arrogance and opportunism miles away.

At this moment she is planning for Christmas day, my favorite day of the year because she makes it a wondrous experience. I share all of these experiences to say that my love for her is greater than ever, not because we agree on every major point, we do not. Not because she is idealizing and adoring of me, she is not. Not because she needs me, she does not. But my love has grown to its depth because of who she is, her essential character.

If you’re going to work through difficulties in your relationship you must develop love for each other’s character, the essential person deep within. It is always revealed at the most difficult times, not the days at the beach.

Don’t be threatened by hearing of the stars marital demise, even though the pundits spin stories daily we have few actual facts about their lives. Don’t be threatened if there are days when you question whether you made the wrong decision. It is normal to have doubts. It is also critical to express your dissatisfaction, to address conflict directly, with tact and empathy for your partner. When we love with all our hearts we get hurt, it is often not intentional. Try not to personalize every hurtful encounter, try to understand the perspective of your partner. And most importantly work hard to identify the areas of difficulty you brought into the marriage. He or she is not responsible for your past, but if you take responsibility for your own shortcomings your spouse is more likely to help you work through your sensitivities.

Always remember marriage is more work in the beginning and more joy as years go by. As understanding of yourself and your spouse is increased your relationship can become a great friendship and one that many will admire. A wonderful benefit for your efforts is that your children will have a model for love and conflict resolution that will guide them in their relationships throughout their lives.

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Healing from an Affair

Contrary to what many believe recovering from an affair can actually make a marriage stronger. It is unquestionably a devastating experience that takes much time and work to overcome but I have witnessed several marriages that have reached a deeper level of love when both parties learn a great deal from the pain caused by infidelity.

Of course this positive outcome does not always occur. If the individual who has had the affair is not deeply regretful and willing to have the courage to absorb the anger, frustration and pain of his or her spouse there is little hope for resolution. A poor outcome is quite likely when the cheater continues to blame his or her spouse. Let’s face it, there is no excuse. Many people are miserable in their marriages and they seek help, they tell their spouse how unhappy they are and they open the door to doing the work necessary to form a deeper bond.

We all become disappointed in our long term relationships at times, it is perfectly natural. In our fast paced lives we often take each other for granted, store resentments and then if we don’t know how to communicate directly and honestly we find ourselves drifting into despair.

I had a wonderful experience with a couple earlier this year after an affair. The husband, a very successful businessman, was over-worked, stressed to the limit, feeling unappreciated by his wife and children and one night, late in the office he and his administrative aid ended up kissing. From there an affair began that had an anti-depressant effect on his mood, he was feeling younger, more desired, and of course she listened to his woos about his marriage with undivided attention. Eventually her husband, feeling suspicious of her late work hours, checked her phone messages and was able to retrieve text messages that were filled with sexual talk and love statements. Everything unraveled thereafter and when I met my patient he was living in a hotel feeling confused, sexually attached to his young lover but feeling tremendous disappointment in himself for his actions. He didn’t know if he loved his wife, he felt so much excitement with the younger woman and could not resist talking to her regardless of the fact that his business and marriage were failing.

Even though he is quite bright his ability to express directly was very limited. He could manage work conflicts but when it came to expressing his deeper feelings to his wife, friends, children he felt very inept. He grew up in a home where achievement was a stringent requirement. His father, a surgeon, and his mother, a divorce attorney, showed little warmth to their children or to each other. When his father died he felt little emotion, his mother did not shed a tear and re-married 12 months later.

As we returned to what I call the scene of the crime we discovered how distorted his views were of success and in particular of intimacy. He learned early that to gain love you must achieve at all costs. He was worn out, somewhat depressed with his existence despite his affluence and he found a way to stimulate himself out of the monotony of his life through the affair.

We tend to reenact the roles we saw in our parents marriages without much awareness. If we received little empathy growing up we don’t really know how to share with others in a deeper, more meaningful way. My patient longed for closeness but if it didn’t come easily he retreated into work, never letting his wife in, or allowing her to understand his disappointment. His views of mature intimacy were extremely limited. Most importantly he began to realize how he over-rated his closeness to his lover; the excitement of new sex gave him relief in an addictive fashion. It wasn’t based on truly knowing another person.

Over time he felt less and less attachment to her as he and his wife discussed openly the disappointments they had in each other and with my help, we discovered the negative stories about themselves that both brought into the marriage. They gradually increased their understanding of each other’s histories, their empathy for each other grew and at the same time their feelings of love were uncovered and deepened. She still has a long way to go before she regains the trust she previously had but the process is evolving.

Today my client participates in one of my group coaching sessions; he is most respected by members as a person who tries valiantly to understand others and himself. An experience he had never witnessed in his own home. He has apologized to his children and he has become an emotionally involved dad rather than a dad always trying to motivate his children to achieve more and more. His wife recently commented that he is actually fun, not as serious and intense as in the past. He is no longer exclusively pre-occupied with achieving and performing to win love. He has learned that the most important ability for sustained success in love and in work is to be able to employ empathy to listen and understand others. In the process we learn more and more about ourselves. So today a man who sought a secret affair for solace can’t wait to go home, play with his children and actually give his wife a real, passionate kiss rather than the perfunctory peck he gave in previous years.

He is liberated internally by increasing his ability to relate assertively, even when he is about to express dissatisfaction. We all need to continually practice expressing when we are in conflict, if we don’t the emotions won’t go away, they come out sideways. Thus the formula for being vulnerable to an affair.

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