Month: October 2013

‘Twas a Dark and Stormy Night: How Creating Ambiance in a Relationship Can Make a Difference

‘Twas a dark and stormy night….. Well, in this case, for those of you in Louisville, it appears that that may be the case tonight.  This phrase, meant to set off the ambiance of a scary or mysterious tale is perhaps one of the most often used openings next to “Once upon a time” in storytelling.  It sets the scene for events to come and sets the expectations of what kind of story this will be.  You aren’t exactly expecting a light-hearted tale when you hear those words uttered.  By the same token, you wouldn’t expect a vampire tale to be set off by “’Twas a sunny day in Vegas, and I had just hit the jackpot.”

The ambiance that we set in our relationships can also have a similar effect on how we view the relationship as a whole.  Couples that describe themselves as very satisfied and happy in their relationships often have stories that capture this ambiance of happy moments, and cherished traditions or unique things that only they do.  They can more often recall positive moments in the relationship or when describing difficult moments, are able to describe those times in a way that shows this epic battle where they came together to fight whatever was challenging them as a unit.  Oppositely, those couples that are at odds with one another describe their relationships as “rocky,” “difficult” and are more often looking at each other as the source of blame during challenging times, like an epic battle fought between each other. Sometimes, while the events may be identical it is the “ambiance” that changes the perspective on the entire sequence of events.

Ambiance can say a lot, and even the most hardened couple will describe the first time they met with a story that is often touching or special to them.  Neuroscience has shown that when we are attracted to someone, our brains are flooded with chemicals that give us positive feelings that actually bond us to that person as the “source” of these happy feelings.  Some scientists have even found that this chemistry in the brain changes how we see events unfold, so that if we were to see something someone did in the first few weeks of the relationship, when those “love chemicals” are flowing, it would change how we were actually seeing the events unfold, when we did not have as many of these chemicals flowing in our brains.  A lot of depression research has been done in this area to show how much our biochemistry affects how we experience the world.  So one could say that ambiance is created by biochemistry…but could it be the other way around? 

Chicken or the Egg?

A long time ago, I had an interesting debate with a friend who insisted that “love” was only a series of biochemical reactions and that something like the feeling or emotionality of “love” did not exist.  I argued that shared feelings, mutual admiration and time together created the attraction.   Is it possible that we were both could have valid points? 

There appears to be a reflection effect, that yes, we are helped in the beginning by a biochemical reaction that elevates feelings of admiration and bonding, but that we are also creating more “happy feelings” through how we treat each other what we begin to create in the relationship.  That what we are experiencing on the inside has a big impact on what we are experiencing and creating on the outside, which in turn creates positive or negative feelings.

Questions to ask:

When I think about my relationship, do I think of a comedy, adventure, drama or romance? Or another type of story?

If I were to imagine the next chapter of my relationship, am I looking forward to reading it?

If I were to think about the “ambiance” of my relationship, how would I describe it? If I wanted to change the ambiance  (and only something that is within your control/responsibility) what could I do?  Don’t let a candlelight dinner be your only option!  Invite the fun or unique into your relationship as well!   

Allow your imagination to run wild. Maybe the next vampire story does begin in Vegas. 

Slumps and Silver Linings

Sometimes your day just sucks and there doesn’t seem to be anything good about it. One thing happens after another and a day that seemed to just get off on the wrong foot is suddenly ruined. Bad days can turn into bad weeks and there you go. You are in a slump.


Slumps (or funks as my dad likes to call them) are hard to get out of and uncomfortable to explain to others. Family and friends notice you are “off” and ask you about it – and then what do you say? Some will explain it away as not getting outside enough; some will say they have been under the weather. Whatever your explanation or the thing that got you in your slump, the best way to get out of the slump is to intentionally find your sliver lining.

Throughout your day, as terrible as your slump day may feel, I will be bold and say that not everything IS terrible and that there are a few shining moments where things are not as bad as all that. Find those moments. Give your attention to them – highlight what that means to your day. I think you will find that the more you look for silver lining moments, the more you will find. The more you find, the less terrible your slump (day, week, month, etc.) will feel.

When we focus our attention on the things that are going wrong or the places in our life where we are dissatisfied we breed an attitude of discontent and negativity. If all you see in your work is one deadline after another, one more productivity requirement without additional compensation, then you won’t be able to appreciate the moments where you are praised for the work you have accomplished this quarter, you won’t really enjoy the coffee your co-worker picked up for you on the way to work.

How different could your perspective and attitude be if instead of letting the kids stress you out with the million different activities they are in you took time to intentionally enjoy them making pancakes with you on Saturday. Or intentionally enjoyed catching your kids joyfully playing a game together. Things look different very quickly when we are intentional about what we give our focus to and the importance we place on the things that are good in our lives.

I’m not saying that slumps aren’t miserable and difficult to get out of. The situation that lead to your slump might be something that needs to change to keep you from burning out or being in an extended slump. But in the moment, the day to day in between that change and right now, you have the opportunity to look for something better that is already present in your life. Enjoy the positive things that already exist around you.1


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Antique Shopping: Examining the Hardwiring of the “Perfect” Relationship

I love antique shopping. So much so that when a friend asked me to head out with her, even though I had vowed to challenge my stack of to-dos to a head-on duel, I dropped it like it was hot, and headed out to a local place with her.  Browsing through the decades of old and forgotten treasures, the phrase, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” came to mind; what is perfect for me may be awful for you and vice versa.  As we sorted through, looking at things that caught our eyes, it struck me why this part of this process is so exciting: Finding the perfect piece of treasure is rare, and for me I am looking for something that is original, functional and fits me and what I like.   There is also an interesting decision process of asking questions such as, “Do I really need this?” “Is this going to add to the clutter?” “Is this something that will add to my “happy” rather than subtract?”

This morning as I was thinking about the experience, smiling at the incidences that occurred during the expedition (A man tried to sell us a barber chair “Perfectly functional for your living room!,” I had an allergic reaction to a old fur coat, and got an electrical shock from an old lamp), I thought about how much like embarking on new relationships this can be.  We set out, excited about the opportunity to meet the perfect “one” and along the way have mishaps and adventures, moments of pure joy and crashing moments of defeat. 

Funny enough, my friend had fallen in love with the lamp that gave me an electric shock.  Excited, she had made her decision and we went back in search of the lamp, having left it for diplomatic consideration while we perused the rest of the antique mall.  It seemed perfect for her life: It was exactly what she had set out looking for, it matched her walls and this was one of the best lamps she ever laid eyes on.  As I reached for the switch to turn off the lamp however, right underneath the light bulb a bolt of electricity shook my hand and I immediately jumped back in shock.  She of course had a million questions: What just happened? Are you okay? Are you sure that it was an electric shock? (I mean, I am prone to the unusual, but even this was a little rare for me!)

Thinking back, I remember asking so many questions about dating relationships and friendships in the past that I had this rosy glow about. That when something went contrary to what I thought to be true about the relationship, or a good friend or loved one questioned a piece of the relationship, that I was almost in disbelief that the incident could have actually occurred.  It all seemed so perfect!  What just happened???? 

Sometimes relationships shock (yes, pun) us re-examine what is just underneath the surface of the person we are in that relationship with, be it a romantic relationship or friendship.  In the case of the lamp, it was faulty wiring and the dealer said the only thing that could be done was to completely re-wire the lamp.  I am not an electrician, but it sounded complicated. 

In relationships when this “shock” occurs, instead of saying “Okay, no thank you, I prefer to keep my excitement to turning on the basketball game (or whatever it may be), rather than turning on my lumination devices,” we can move to a state of denial or try and remedy the situation even though we know in the back of our heads that the situation may be harmful. In our state of shock and sadness at the possibility that this won’t work out, either because we have invested so much time and feelings into a relationship, or we have a profound feeling of loss of that person, the relationship itself and/or the dream of what could be for that relationship, we decide that we might just either pretend that we didn’t get shocked or that we are going to try and rewire this lamp ourselves.  The former can be particularly dangerous.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about little shocks or rather surprises that show the dimensionality of a person.  No one is perfect.  However, if this is something that shows the “true colors” of a person, that runs completely opposite to the person that you have come to know, step back and evaluate.  Just like the lamp, if this characteristic is part of the general “hardwiring,” there is a huge possibility that it is not going to change without a big intervention.  And with people, the hardwiring change has to come from a decision from within them, and they have to do the work.  Even if we decide to put on our most protective, insulated gloves, rewiring the person for them is never our business as the other half of the couple, or even in destructive friendships.

So then what happened??

My friend decided to leave the lamp.  Having kids, she didn’t want to take the chance, which is another piece of this puzzle to consider as well, especially for romantic relationships.  If you have kids and have started to question the hardwiring of the person that you are dating, keep in mind their safety as well.  Physical and emotional safety.  If your gut tells you that this person may not be a good person to have around your kids, listen to that voice. It may give you an answer you don’t want to hear, but one that may make up your mind when facing a difficult decision.  We did walk away with some fabulous treasures, including “perfect” non-electric Christmas gifts for family members and friends.  A watchful owl picture, a gift from my friend, now adorns my front-door table, reminding me to stay wise and invite good people into my life as I hope you will yours.   



Push Yourself, but Don’t Over Do It

Have you ever heard the saying “pain is weakness leaving the body?” I think that is ridiculous – and completely untrue. I hear this most from people when they are working out. They push themselves and push themselves until they are physically exhausted and can’t stand up straight. I truly admire and respect those with the extreme physical discipline to go the extra mile and stay in the space that is uncomfortable – but when you are pushing yourself to the point of pain that is just foolishness! It isn’t good for your body or your mind and you are going to feel terrible tomorrow (making your no pain, no gain theory a total bust).


This is true in all areas of our lives. I’m talking in work, family, and other things we commit ourselves to. If we are really pushing ourselves to the point where we are exhausted, where are reserves are left at zero, and we are in either physical or mental distress then we are forced to recoup and aren’t able to function well. A good friend told me recently,

“Find your edge, the place where you can’t go any farther and then back off a bit. Never do as much as you can, do just a little bit less.”

My initial type A, overachiever reaction is:

“NO! I’m not lazy and I can do this at 110% all the time. Don’t expect less of what I am capable of!”

And then I take a minute to think about what he is really saying.  He is really saying that if you operate from a place where you can act with consistency then you are more productive and your effort will be more sustainable. When you need to do more the energy and capacity will be there. In layman’s terms: You can do what you do longer and can move into overdrive when and only when you really need to.

We experience burn-out so regularly doing this, that, and the other. Our culture values going above and beyond to the point where you have nothing left. What would happen if you took a gentler, more consistent approach to the things you do? Worked consistently and sustainably at work, at school, in your family, in your hobbies? You would have so much more to pour out and offer others and yourself simply by making sure you never had to tap into your last reserves of energy. You might even be happier because you would be taking care of you!1


My good friend is Matt Harris, a yoga instructor and a fellow therapist. He works in Louisville, specializing in couple’s therapy.


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Keeping Your Cool when Life Happens

Life has so many changes and times when you really can’t control what happens. When life happens you can do one of two things.

  1. You can totally loose your cool, call people colorful names, and steam for the rest of the day.
  2. You can take a minute to process and decide on a course of action that is both positive and productive.

I am a strong believer in continuums and reactions like this often happen on some sort of scale. The most frequent outcome of things gone haywire is some combination of angry outbursts and then problem solving.

Where do you fall on that continuum? How much of a freak out do you need to go through before you can problem solve and come to a productive rational conclusion?

Sometimes your ability to keep your cool is related to the kind of situation. When the situation is related to something that is very important to you, something that you are really invested, in it is easier to go off the handle than it is to calmly recalculate and adjust for what needs to happen next. What are you invested in or passionate about? Maybe it is related to work, family, or a significant other. You melt down when you aren’t able to meet productivity requirements or when a staff meeting doesn’t go the way you had hoped. When your family changes their plans (for the 15th time) and you are stuck to make dinner for 4 extra guests with little time to prepare. When your partner decides to go hang out with friends instead of checking out a new class you were both going to attend.

fly-off-the-handleSometimes small things really rub our raw spots and to others they seem trivial. The things that cause us to loose our cool have such an effect on us because they are important to us. So what is the difference between the times where you can just adjust your plans or your approach and get things done vs. the situations where we feel like we are left high and dry? The difference is how important they are to you and the more important a situation is to you the more you need to plan for how to manage any shifts in advance.

  • Identify areas of your life where you tend to loose your cool, feel very anxious or angry.
  • Once you know where you struggle make a plan B for those moments. A little cheat sheet for yourself as to what you can do next or what you can say to yourself that will be comforting.
  • Find the situations that you are able to adjust to with little difficulty.
  • Explore how you are able to be successful in those situations vs. others. Why are you able to adjust and how to you do your adjusting? Why don’t you go off the handle and how can you translate those feelings into situations that are more difficult to remain calm?

To recap: Plan B for when you might loose it and find out where you are successful in working through life’s curve balls. You are already successfully keeping it together in some areas of your life, now we just need to move that success to the areas where it is harder to adjust.1


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