Learn to be your own guardian angel

 

 

 

Yesterday, in honor of Halloween, I wore a halo left over from a past Halloween to the Chapel Hill Leads Group. A few years ago when the Imago Conference was held over Halloween, I wore a set of wings on the back of my sparkly evening gown to the conference banquet. Someone there handed me this halo saying “You need this.” I couldn’t find her at the end of the evening so figured it was a gift. It lived in my consulting room on the shark puppet I kept on my bookcase– which I thought expressed a certain irony– until yesterday morning when I plucked it off and set it on my head to wear to my favorite business networking group. The wings were big and bulky and did not survive the move to my new home office. But I figured the halo was easy to keep and would come in handy some day, like the day before Halloween. Made of fluffy white material, it looked more like a ring of kitten’s fur, but it worked.

 

 

When I got to Leads, my friends greeted me with smiles and laughter. “You’re an angel!” someone said. “I always wanted to hug an angel!” said another, reaching arms around me. I was surprised to be the only one with any kind of costume in this group filled with funny and creative small business owners.

 

When time came for my turn to have 30 seconds to advertise my services, I stood and addressed the group: “Are you stressed? Are you anxious? Is your mind filled with disaster scenarios? Well, you can change your mind! I can help you fill your mind with positive messages. Learn more at alicecarlton.com.”

 

As often happens, later I wished I’d said: “Learn to be your own guardian angel.”

 

That’s what I learned in my own therapy and that’s what I strive to teach my clients. For good self-care is surely being your own guardian angel. Perhaps we already have guardian angels. I like to think so. Perhaps learning to be your own guardian angel is really opening to the guardian angels that are already there. Who knows? But giving intentional attention to what’s in your mind—to what messages you give yourself—is important in good self-care and in creating the life you want.

 

A student I saw once came in on the verge of a panic attack over a bad test grade. “I wish I’d never taken this course! But it’s too late to drop it! I’m not a good test taker!” she lamented. After finding out she was doing well in her other classes, that she had talked to the professor who was sympathetic and offered to help her if she came in during office hours, I suggested this might just be a blip in the road. “I’m good at finding blips in the road!” she declared.

 

“Let’s think about that statement. Is that really true? Is there a more useful message you could give yourself?” I asked.

 

She thought a minute and then said: “I’m a strong person. I won’t give up.”

 

“Good. I’d add: ‘Everyone has to deal with blips in the road, not just you.’”

 

She smiled, “Yes, it’s not just me.” She had a lighter spring in her step as she left that day.

 

The thoughts we think matter. We can choose the thoughts we think. We forget this but it’s true.

 

Years ago when I had first become a single parent and felt weighed down with enormous responsibilities, I realized I could not allow myself to sink under them. I could not allow myself to fall apart. I had a child to raise. I needed to be a good role model for him. Watching my mind, I saw how fertile it was in creating disaster scenarios, how easy it would be to despair and fall into a black hole. Mark Twin once said, “I am a very old man and have suffered a great many misfortunes, most of which never happened.” I realized if I was going to make it, I would have to pay attention to what I put into my mind. I began to read uplifting spiritual books. I made time to ventilate into my journal. I nurtured relationships with supportive friends. I took up a daily meditation practice. I began the disciplined work of training my mind.

 

The thoughts we think matter. We can choose what thoughts we put into our minds. Just because you think it, does not make it so. Don’t believe everything you think. And as a therapist once told me, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

 

Happy Halloween!

 

October 31, 2013

 

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Reverse Mirror

In dialogue, mirroring usually refers to reflecting back what the other has said to let them know you heard them. A reverse mirror, on the other hand, refers to holding the mirror up to yourself, to examine your contribution to the dynamic between you. Of course, when you’re upset, it is much easier to see what your partner does and says than what you’re doing. But true growth comes from examining and altering your own ways of relating, which is really the only thing you’re in charge of anyway.

When Tom and Sally entered my office and took their seats, I immediately felt the tension between them. He sat on the couch, she sat in the recliner, as far away from him as she could get. I hadn’t seen them in several months so I began by asking how they were and where they wanted to begin today’s session.

“I just feel he keeps disrespecting me,” she began. I saw him stiffen. They had just moved into the house of their dreams on a cul de sac where their two kids, 4 and 8, could play safely, in contrast to their previous rental home on a busy highway. He had just had a promotion to division manager for his company, she had just completed her training to become a massage therapist and had opened her private practice in a lovely room off their garage with a separate entrance. When she had called to reschedule, she bubbled over with excitement about this new stage of life they were entering. Now they were obviously in a bad place. I leaned forward to hear more.

“I did all the packing, I know he had to work, but I thought he would at least take the kids when he was home from work I’ve just had it. And then when he yelled at me and threw the broom, I just got in the car and left.”

“She does this all the time!’ he cried. “I had no idea she was this upset until she started sniping at me with her sarcasm and gave me that attitude. I know she did more packing than I did, but I have to work. I helped all I could over the weekend. I’m sick of the way she treats me!” He pressed his lips together and crossed his arms over his chest and looked away in disgust.

I reflected back what I had heard each say, then instructed them to face each other and begin a formal dialogue, taking turns speaking and mirroring each other. They grumbled but complied. “Who would like to start?” I asked. She began to pour out her frustrations. “I can’t stand it when you yell and curse at me. And throwing things just drives me crazy. It’s just not fair!”

I turned to him. “Mirror that.” He was seething but through gritted teeth he said: “ What I hear you saying is you don’t like me to yell and curse and throw things. Is that right?” She nodded. “Is there more?” again through gritted teeth.

We continued on in this structure for a while, but I felt unsatisfied. Each had a long litany of complaints. Neither seemed to be able to calm down and truly empathize. When I learned that a few weeks ago their argument had escalated to talk of divorce, I stopped them.

“Moving is stressful for everyone. It’s a big upheaval,” I began. “I have known you all for quite a while now.” They nodded. “I know you love each other. I believe you can work this out. Let’s try something different today. Remember “ I extended my hand with my pointer finger out “when you point your finger, there are three pointing back at you?” They nodded again. “You are frustrated with each other, but you are really only in charge of your own behavior.” I held my hands up with palms towards my face, “Forget for a moment what terrible things you see the other doing. Only look at your part, as if looking into a mirror.”

“Like a reverse mirror?” she asked.

“Yes, go inside, take a few deep breaths, and examine your part in all this. Identify one thing you regret. In a moment I’ll ask you to share with each other.”

We sat in silence for a few moments. I noticed their eyes lose focus and their attention go inside. When they both raised their heads, I asked who would like to start.

She began: “I regret leaving when I got so angry. I know that when I get upset, I shut down and often I leave. I know that really upsets you. I’m sorry I did that.”

I had him reflect back what he heard her say. Then he spoke: “I’m sorry I lost my temper, cursed, and threw the broom.” As she mirrored him, I noticed how starkly the atmosphere had changed between them. There was a softness, a sensitivity now. Just in time because our time was up.

“We have to stop now but I encourage you to continue to reflect on your part….and enjoy your new home!” We made another appointment.

“I’m going to do that reverse mirror a lot,” she said before she stood up to leave.

“I will too,” he added.

I have used this reverse mirror exercise with many couples, even some so reactive they are unable to mirror. It has made a difference many times.

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Dialogue with a Teenager

One day when my son was around 13 years old, he did what had become all too customary by that age: push the limits with me. I can’t recall what the issue was—there were so many during those years—but I do recall he wanted to do something I didn’t believe he was old enough to do. And at age 13, he could really push hard. He was bright, articulate, and determined. It probably went something like this:

“No, you can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. You’re too young. There’ll be time for that when you’re older.”

“But WHY? You’re not FAIR! “

He was angry. I was getting angry too. Then something hit me: I’m trained! I teach couples every day how to use the Imago Intentional Dialogue. Ah, I knew what to do. I began to mirror him.

“So what you’re saying is you do believe you’re old enough to do this and you think I’m being unfair!”

“YES!” he screamed.

“Is there more?” I asked with deliberate calm.

“YES! And you think I’m still a little kid. You don’t realize that I’m growing up. You think you can stop me from growing up!”

“So what I hear you saying is that I think you’re still a little kid, I don’t realizing you are growing up, and you even think I want to stop you from growing up. Is that right?”

“Yes,” he replied, a bit calmer.

“Is there more?”

“YES! All my friends get to do t it. You only talk to the strict parents.”

I mirrored him again. “So you’re saying all your friends get to do this and you think I only talk to the strict parents. Did I get it?”

“Yes,” calmer still.

“Is there more?”

So I listened and mirrored him til he told me there was no more. Then I said: “I get what you’re saying. You make sense to me. And I can imagine you feel very angry.”

“Yes.”

“Do you feel that I heard you?”

“Yes.”

“Are you ready to listen to me now?”

“Okay, I guess,” he replied reluctantly.

I expressed my point of view, pausing after each sentence or two to ask him to tell me what he heard me saying. After I got it all out, I asked him if what I said made sense. It did. Then I asked him what he imagined I was feeling.

“Oh, you’re just worried about me because you love me,” he replied.

I felt tears in my eyes. Thus ended that day’s battle. We both had calmed down, we both felt heard. I did not change my limit.

Pretty good, right? It gets even better. A few days later, or I should say nights because it was after 11 pm. I was practically brain dead. He was wide awake. I was headed to bed as we were scheduled to get up early the next day to drive to Greenville with a group to help repair houses damaged by the floods from Hurricane Floyd. He had agreed to go but was now having second thoughts. Getting up early on a Saturday morning to do something in a group with Mom was fast losing its appeal. “Mom, Mom, come here, let’s do that mirroring thing!” he hollered.

In case you’re wondering, we did go on the service trip. Listening and mirroring him did not mean I had to allow him to abandon a commitment at the last moment. But he went a bit more willingly.

We used the dialogue process from time to time as needed during the next few years, usually at my initiation and with some initial grumbling on his part. But he did it and it helped. It helped a lot. It became one of my main strategies for surviving his adolescence. Along with a few key phrases such as “I’ll have to think about it” and “Because I said so IS enough of a reason!”

But the story gets even better. Fast forward a few years to the summer after his freshman year at college. He had had two semesters in a dorm with no parents and felt pretty grown up. He was living back at home, however, and I felt there were still some rules. Minimal rules: if you decide at 3 am to spend the night elsewhere, I expect to find a message on my cell phone to that effect when I wake up the next morning so I won’t worry you are dead in a ditch. I turned my cell phone off at night so he wouldn’t risk waking me up with a late call. Somehow he found it hard to remember to do this. Or to comply with the rule about cleaning up the kitchen after himself. We had a lot of conflict. It peaked on July 4th when he had a few friends in the front yard around a small fire pit way past when I went to bed. One decided to come inside to use the bathroom around 3 am and scream from inside the living room to her friends outside. This woke me up. I was not happy. I was angry. It took me til 5 am to calm myself and go back to sleep. I was thinking maybe he should go live the rest of the summer with his father. Or maybe be sold into slavery. Yes, we had a lot of conflict.

During one of these conflicts, as we sat across the kitchen table from each other, he spoke very emphatically: “Mom, I want you to mirror that! I want to make sure you heard me!”

Ah, he had gotten it! I thought, Surely this skill will help him in his future relationships.
It all started with me mirroring him in the midst of an argument. I did not think he would respond favorably had I suggested I teach him the intentional dialogue. I imagine he would have said something like, “Get away from me with that therapy stuff!” Dialogue with a teenager probably comes under the category of dialogue with an unwilling partner. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to just start mirroring him. I submit that if a mother and a 13 year old boy can learn to dialogue, anyone can. Try it. It really works.

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Imago Relationship Therapy

Some years ago, when I was still new to private practice, I met regularly with three colleagues for peer supervision. We shared cases and helped each other think through how best to help our clients. One day in 1991, as I sat in the big stuffed chair in a colleague’s office, I talked about a tough relationship issue. She handed me a book from her shelf. “You need to read this book,” she said emphatically. I looked at the cover: Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix, Ph. D.

 

I took it home and read it straight through over the next two days, completely absorbed. The next year I signed up for the training. It was 1992. My son was five years old. Yet I left him with his father while I made three trips to New York City to train with Harville Hendrix himself. I was captivated. He had taken a lot of approaches I had studied and been trained in—Transactional Analysis, Gestalt, family systems, Jungian, psycho dynamic therapy—and focused them on relationships.

 

Here’s the theory: Imago is the Latin word for image. It refers to that first internalized image we form when very small from the family we grow up in about what love is, what life is. When we leave our childhood home as adults and go into the world looking for a mate, our imago operates like an invisible sensor causing us to be attracted to some people and not to others. We tend to fall in love with someone who is like our parents in all the good and bad ways. At first, intoxicated by love, we only see the good. This first stage of relationship we call the Romantic Stage, when we feel attraction, infatuation, and form an attachment. It can last anywhere from three weeks to three years. Inevitably, it is followed by the Power Struggle Stage, when the person of our dreams sometimes seems like the person of our nightmares. This is when the real work of relationship begins. We must learn to deal with our differences, with disagreements, and with conflict. Whatever is left over from the past–unmet needs, childhood wounds– comes up. If we understand what’s happening, it can be an opportunity for growth. If we don’t, it can begin the nightmare that ends in divorce court. The way through to the third stage, the Conscious Relationship Stage (or from Romantic Love to Real Love), begins with becoming thoroughly acquainted with our own childhood wounds and those of our partner. This way we learn to become a more loving person (which is what I think it’s all about anyway).

 

The basic skill taught in Imago Therapy is the Imago Intentional Dialogue Process. Not meant to replace ordinary conversation, the intentional dialogue is a structured way of talking most useful when there is a conflict or touchy topic. Dialogue is really a listening exercise. Listening is very difficult when we are upset. Dialogue slows down the process to help us listen to each other. It involves first one person taking the role of sender and the other as receiver. The sender shares a frustration, the receiver gives a neutral reflection, called a mirror, of what the other said: “What I hear you saying is you are frustrated with me because I get home late so many nights from work.” Then the receiver asks: “Is this correct?” and, if yes, then “Is there more?” Dialogue continues until the sender gets it all out. The receiver then summarizes, validates, and empathizes. Then they switch roles–the receiver now becomes the sender—and gets a turn to share his/her point of view on the given topic. It may start with a current issue but can deepen as the sender realizes the other’s behavior reminds them of past hurts from childhood. Most people say it feels awkward and artificial at first, but with practice, it becomes a powerful tool for couples to use.

 

The training was wonderful. There is nothing like a group of therapists hanging out together. After a long day of training, we went off in small groups to dinner at various New York restaurants. We had no reluctance to share intimate details of our own lives as we tried on the theory like a new dress or suit. We walked the streets late at night, exploring the city, laughing, and sometimes singing songs from Broadway shows. At the end of the week, I left the hotel and visited my childhood friend in Brooklyn, staying over with her Saturday night to get the cheaper airfare. Andy and I had been friends since fourth grade so this was a real treat. She had a daughter the same age as my son so we compared notes as parents. As a lawyer who wished she had become a therapist, she was fascinated to get a vicarious dose of Imago from me.

 

Imago became my passion. Its vision of the healing power of the intimate partnership sustained me through many ups and downs in my own life. And finding that I could use it to help couples who had worn out previous therapists just thrilled me no end. Riding on Harville’s marketing coattails as I built my private practice didn’t hurt either. A bonus for us all was that Oprah became a fan of Imago and had Harville on her show many times. Now there are over 2000 Imago therapists all over the world. Thanks to modern technology, we keep in touch through email, weekly phone bridge trainings, and annual conferences. In Imago World, support and consultation are available to me at the stroke of my keyboard. Conferences feel like family reunions. And now more and more couples seek me out because I am an Imago Therapist. Learn more at www.gettingtheloveyouwant.com.

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Welcome to Relationship Journeys

Welcome to Relationship Journeys. I intend this space to be for reflections of many kinds from my 35 years of practice as a psychotherapist. I have certainly seen and heard a lot over the years as I have worked to help people create the lives and relationships they want, including the most important relationship: the one with themselves..

I began my journey as a preschool teacher. After college (English major at the College of William and Mary in Virginia), I joined the National Teacher Corps and taught in a demonstration kindergarten in Little Rock, Arkansas. This was 1969 when the importance of early intervention was a fairly new idea and public kindergartens had not become the norm. I came to Chapel Hill in 1971 and became director of a church-based kindergarten-day care center. There I developed an interest in family therapy. I saw young children having difficulties, then when I met with their parents, I found out the entire family was having difficulties. I also volunteered as a counselor with the UNC Human Sexuality Information and Counseling Service from 1971-74. It was the first peer counseling program in human sexuality in the country and gave me further experience.

All this led me to the UNC School of Social Work (1974-76) to learn more about therapy. Earning an MSW seemed to be the shortest way to get a passport to become a therapist. My own therapy during those years helped me to see the value of therapy from the inside out. Therapy became the safe haven from where I began to rethink all I had been taught, to get to know myself on a deeper level, learn valuable self-care skills, and begin to chart my true path in life. Among many other lessons, I learned I was born to be a therapist, I just needed training.

Thirty-five years later, I have been honored by the trust my clients have given me and fulfilled by the experience of helping them solve life problems, find their own power, and create satisfying lives for themselves and those they love. In this blog, let me share some of what I have learned.

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