NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, January 30, 2017

Is Your Fear of Being a "Bad Person" Preventing You From Asserting Yourself

As children, many people are taught that they have to put others before themselves, even when it's to their own detriment.  Growing up with this perspective makes it difficult as an adult to be assertive because to put yourself first feels like you're being a "bad person" (see my articles: Assertiveness: Learning to Say "No").

Is Your Fear of Being a "Bad Person" Preventing You From Asserting Yourself?

No one wants to feel that they are a mean or hurtful person, but there also needs to be a way for people to take care of their own well-being while also considering others.

When there's a pattern of putting other people's feelings and well-being above your own, you often feel conflicted about what to do when a situation arises where there is a conflict between what you need and what the other person needs.

If you are stuck in this pattern, as a way to avoid feeling the conflict, you might numb yourself emotionally so that you tell yourself that you don't know what you want or need (see my article: Changing Coping Strategies That No Longer Work For You: Avoidance).

For many people that feels preferable than to say "no" to someone else.

This often leads to many unhappy consequences and overall avoidance of possible conflictual situations.

Let's take a look at a fictionalized scenario that demonstrates these dynamics:

Gina grew up in a home where her parents taught her that it was "always better to give than to receive."

During the Christmas holidays, Gina's parents encouraged her to give whatever gifts she received to the local children's donation center.  After a while, Gina unconsciously taught herself to stop wanting toys because she knew that she wouldn't be able to keep them.

Her parents also taught her that she should always put other people's needs first before her own.

Later on as an adult, Gina had a hard time saying "no" when she really didn't want to do something. People who knew her knew that she would always say "yes" and they made many demands on her.

As a result, she often felt bombarded by the many requests that she received from others and exhausted by her own internal conflicts about it.

She felt guilty and like a "bad person" for even having internal conflicts about not wanting to agree to her friends and family's demands.  She felt that a good person would gladly do for others without feeling conflicted.

The result was that, even though she tried to avoid feeling like a "bad person" by complying with others' demands, she still felt like a "bad person" for even having negative thoughts about it (see my article: Overcoming the Internal Critic).

Gina's internal turmoil developed into medical problems, including frequent headaches and stomach problems.  Being sick was the only time that Gina felt it was alright to turn down other people's requests.

Is Your Fear of Being a "Bad Person" Preventing You From Asserting Yourself?

At the time, Gina didn't understand the mind-body connection and how her body was telling her that there was a problem with the way she was sacrificing herself for other people (see my article:

When her doctor eliminated any physical reasons or why Gina was having headaches and stomach problems, she recommended that Gina seek help in therapy to understand if there were emotional issue that were contributing to her medical problems (see my article: Mind-Body Psychotherapy: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Although the connection between the mind and the body was a new concept for Gina at the time, she listened to her doctor and sought help in therapy.

In therapy, Gina began to make connections between what she was taught as a child and her current problems as an adult.

This was the first time that she was able to say out loud that she was tired of acceding to others' demands all the time, but she felt it was the "right thing" to do.  She was in such anguish about this conflict that she didn't know what to do.

Her therapist helped her to look at her dynamic as if she was someone else.  In other words, would Gina feel this way if her best friend told her about this same problem.

Being able to externalize the problem was helpful to Gina, and she agreed that she would not think her best friend was a "bad person" if she said "no" to someone in order to take care of herself.

Even though Gina was able to see the distortion in her thinking, her childhood upbringing still had a powerful hold on her.

Over time, Gina was able to see that how self destructive this distortion was for her health and overall well-being.  She also saw that she was unconsciously somatizing her problems (getting sick) in order to avoid doing things she really didn't want to do, and this wasn't a good solution to her problems.

Gradually, Gina practiced saying "no" in situations with people who weren't close to her for small issues.  At first, this was very uncomfortable, but Gina knew that she needed to do this for herself.

Gina and her therapist also did trauma work for the unmet needs of her younger self, the child who learned to sacrifice at too young an age.

Gina understood that her parents were well meaning, but their beliefs were harmful to her, and she needed to develop her own beliefs as an adult.

As Gina continued to practice asserting herself, over time, she got more comfortable with it and she no longer felt like a "bad person."

She also felt more alive emotionally and physically and more aware of what she really wanted and didn't want.

Is Your Fear of Being a "Bad Person" Preventing You From Asserting Yourself?

When she did do things for other people willingly and without undue sacrifice to herself, she did these things with more joy.

Underlying many people's inability to assert themselves is a fear of being a "bad person."

This belief is often internalized at a young age and hard to overcome on your own.

The conflict between not wanting to acceded to someone else's wishes and feeling like a "bad person" is often very difficult to bear and many people unconsciously numb themselves to their own desires as a way to not dealing with the conflict.

Due to the mind-body connection, unresolved emotional problems can develop into medical problems, like headaches, high blood pressure, and other medical issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
Getting to the root of the problem is the first step in overcome a problem with being assertive.

Working on the underlying emotional trauma is usually necessary so that it doesn't keep getting in the way of your making healthy changes.

When you're ready, taking action is the next step to learn how to be assertive in a healthy way.

If you have trouble asserting yourself, rather than continuing to struggle on your own, you could benefit from working with a skilled psychotherapist who can help you to overcome the underlying issues so you can begin to take care of yourself and lead a happier life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Empowering Yourself When You Feel Disempowered

Life presents many challenges that can lead to your feeling discouraged and disempowered.  Often, the key to feeling empowered is to take action, even if it's a small step, because, as the saying goes, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step" (see my article: What's Holding You Back From Achieving Your Goals?).

Empowering Yourself When You Feel Disempowered

When you feel disempowered, you might feel that whatever step you take will be inconsequential compared to the larger goal.  It's easy to talk yourself out of taking action if you try to imagine what your steps should be from beginning to end.

This can leave you feeling discouraged and stuck.  But it's important to remember that, along the way, life will present opportunities that you can't know about right now.

That's why it's so important to maintain a sense of hope, which will help you to get from one step to another and help you to feel empowered enough to maintain your course.

Helpful Tips:
  • Take Action: The action doesn't have to be big.  You can start by writing down your goal and then defining what steps you need to take to get there.  Then, break down those steps into smaller, more manageable steps and take some step every week to get closer to your goal.  You can also start by talking to someone who has already accomplished what you want to do.  Ask questions about what worked and what didn't work.  Talk to supportive friends and family members who will encourage you.
  • Appreciate the Journey:  Often, people who have worked on long term goals, have remarked that the journey to accomplishing their goals turned out to be more valuable than the end goal.  Along the way, they met interesting people and learned new things.  The journey itself helped to them to broaden and grow (see my article: Being Open to New Experiences).
  • Keep Things in Perspective: Although things might seem bleak at the moment, change your focus to the long view.  Rather than telling yourself all the reasons why you can't accomplish what you want, imagine yourself in a few years time and what it would feel like once you have accomplished your goals (see my article: Experiencing Happiness as Part of Your Future Self).  Hold onto that good feeling and sense of accomplishment to get you through.  Most things that are worth accomplishing take a while to accomplish.  Also, remember other times when you have felt discouraged and things worked out for you (see my article: Staying Positive and Focused on Your Goals). 
  • Spend Time With Others Who Are Positive and Working Towards Their Goals:  Naysayers can give you many reasons why you can't accomplish what you want.  They will reinforce your own self doubts.  But people who are persevering in their goals, even when there are challenges, are inspiring to be around and can help to motivate you to work on your goals even during challenging times (see my article: Finding Inspiration and Motivation to Accomplish Your Goals).
  • Cultivate a Mentor in Your Life:  Having the support of a mentor can make all the difference in terms of your accomplishing your goals, especially when you feel discouraged.  A mentor can see qualities in you that you might not see or appreciate.  
  • Stop Comparing Yourself Unfavorably to Other People:  Being around positive people, who are persevering in their goals, despite obstacles, is inspiring.  But some people, who don't feel good about themselves, compare themselves unfavorably to these people.  Remember:  It's not a competition.  When you find yourself comparing yourself unfavorable to others, notice it, recognize it as self defeating and switch your attention back to yourself (see my article: How to Stop Comparing Yourself Unfavorably to Others).
  • Don't Get Discouraged If You Stumble:  Thomas Edison had to work out almost 3,000 theories about electric light and only two of his experiments worked.  He said, "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up" (see my articles: When Self Doubt Keeps You Stuck and Overcoming Your Fear of Making Mistakes).
  • Acknowledge Yourself For Each Step Towards Your Goal:  Some people don't feel that they deserve any recognition as they take steps towards their goal.  But this can be discouraging, especially if it's a goal that will take years.  So, it's important to give yourself credit for each step that brings you closer to your goal.  Celebrate each milestone (see my article: Achieving Your Goals: Learn to Celebrate Small Successes Along the Way to Your Final Goal).

Getting Help in Therapy:
People who have experienced emotional trauma, especially early childhood trauma, or who suffer from depression or anxiety can find it too overwhelming to empower themselves, so the tips outlined above might not be helpful.

Empowering Yourself: Getting Help in Therapy

These tips might even have the effect of making them feel ashamed that they can't use these tips to overcome their obstacles.

If you're struggling and feeling disempowered and stuck, you could benefit from seeking help from a licensed psychotherapist who can help you to develop the capacity to overcome your history and to take positive steps for the future (see my article: Therapists Who Empower Clients in Therapy).

Everyone needs help at some point in his or her life.  Sometimes, you need a specialist who has skills that your friends and family don't have to help you overcome your problems (see my article: Learning to Feel Hopeful in Therapy: Developing a Stronger Sense of Self).

Rather than struggling on your own, get help to overcome your personal history so you can accomplish your goals and lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Your Parents' Relationship Can Affect Your Beliefs About Relationships

While it might be common knowledge that people are affected by their early childhood experiences, many people don't realize that their relationship choices are affected by their parents' relationship (see my articles:  Looking at Childhood Trauma From an Adult PerspectiveAre You Living Your Life Feeling Trapped By Your Childhood History?, and Letting Go of Childhood Trauma That Affects Your Adult Relationship).

Your Parents' Relationship Can Affect Your Beliefs About Relationships

Most of the time, this occurs on an unconscious level so that it remains out of awareness.

Many people don't realize how affected they are by their parents' relationship until they're in therapy and a skilled psychotherapist helps them to start making these connections.

Let's take a look at a typical example in the form of a fictionalized scenario:

Emma started therapy because she was deeply unhappy in her marriage.

After five years of marriage, she questioned whether she wanted to remain in the relationship or if she wanted to get a divorce.

Two years into her marriage, Emma discovered that her husband, Carl, was cheating on her when she found emails from another woman (see my article: Coping With Betrayal in Your Relationship).

As she continued to delve into Carl's old emails, she found emails from other women that dated to the beginning of her marriage to Carl.

Your Parents' Relationship Can Affect Your Beliefs About Relationships

When she confronted Carl about it, he apologized to her and promised her that it would never happen again.  He told her that he would never want to do anything that would jeopardize their marriage.  He said these other women made him feel attractive, and he realized he was being selfish (see my article:  The Connection Between Infidelity and the Need to Feel Attractive).

At that point, with some misgivings, Emma told him that she forgave him, and they decided to put the matter behind them.  But Carl's infidelity was never far from Emma's mind.  Even though she wanted to forgive him, she didn't trust him.

Your Parents' Relationship Can Affect Your Beliefs About Relationships

Shortly before Emma began therapy, she received a text message from a woman who claimed to be having an affair with Carl.  She told Emma that she was determined to have Carl to herself and Emma should divorce him.

Initially, when Emma confronted Carl about the text message, he denied even knowing this other woman.  But Emma didn't believe him and as she continued to press him for an answer, he admitted that he had been seeing this other woman for several months (see my article: Infidelity and Broken Promises).

After that, Emma told Carl that he had to sleep in the guest room until she figured out what she wanted to do, and that's when she started therapy.

Emma felt highly ambivalent about her relationship with Carl.

On the one hand, she still loved him and she didn't want to give up the marriage.  But, on the other hand, she felt hopeless that he would ever stop cheating and she felt there was no future to their relationship (see my article: Your Relationship: Should You Stay or Should You Go?)

At one point, Emma told her therapist, "All men are dogs," which she used as a rationalization for remaining in the relationship.   She felt that no man would ever be faithful in his marriage, so even if she left Carl, she would only find another man who would also cheat on her.  She said, "Maybe it's better to stay with the devil I know than with the devil I don't know."

As Emma's therapist listened to Emma's family history, she began to see why Emma felt this way.

As the oldest of five children, Emma helped her mother, who was overwhelmed, to take care of the younger children.

Emma's father was hardly around.  He worked two jobs and on the weekends he went out by himself.

Her parents argued in front of her about her father cheating with other women. Her mother would cry and plead with him to end his affairs, and he would argue that, as a man, he had a right to his freedom.

Your Parents' Relationship Can Affect Your Beliefs in Relationships

Her mother often told Emma, "All men are dogs."

Emma felt very sad for her mother because she knew that her mother was very unhappy.  So, she tried to be as helpful as she could in an effort to try to make up for her mother's unhappiness (see my article:  How to Stop Being the "Rescuer" in Your Family).

But no matter how much she did for her mother, Emma could never make her mother feel happy.  She continued to hear her parents arguing late at night about other women, and this situation never changed until her father died when Emma was away at college.

Emma's father's death, due to a sudden heart attack, was all the more troubling because he was with another woman when he died.

Soon after he died, Emma's mother found out that he had other children from his numerous affairs that she never knew about while he was alive.

One of the other mothers contested his will in an effort to get money for their children, so Emma's mother was drawn into a long, protracted legal battle, which she eventually won, but it left her broken hearted.

A few years after that, Emma's mother died, and Emma felt that her mother died of a broken heart.

As Emma and her psychotherapist talked about the possible connection between her feelings about men and her parents' marriage, initially, Emma denied that there was a connection.  She was so convinced that all men were unfaithful that she wasn't open to looking at the possibility that there could be other men who don't cheat on their wives.

But, over time, as they continued their discussions and Emma's therapist asked her if she knew of married couples where the husband didn't cheat, Emma suddenly realized that she had numerous friends and family members where the husbands were faithful.

This was something that Emma had always known, but if was as if this information and her attitude towards men never connected--like these two factors remained separate in her mind.

Gradually, Emma came to realize that her views about men were very ingrained from an early age based on her parents' relationship and her mother's warnings about men and that she had never questioned her views.

Emma also realized that she was exposed to her parents' problems at too young an age to fully understand.  She came to see that, as a child, she took on a parental, protective role with her mother instead of being the one who was mothered and protected (see my article: Having Compassion For the Child That You Were).

Emma and her therapist did a lot of work to help Emma grieve for the younger part of herself who took on an adult role before her time.

As they continued to explore her feelings about her marriage, Emma realized that she had taken the same long-suffering role that her mother took with Emma's father.  Emma's therapist told Emma that this might be her unconscious way of holding onto her mother, and this resonated with Emma (see my article: Holding Onto Grief as a Way of Staying Connected With a Deceased Loved One and An Unconscious Identification With a Deceased Love One Can Be an Obstacle to Change).

Several months later, Emma had a stronger sense of self and she decided that she no longer wanted to be with a man who was cheating on her, so she filed for divorce (see my article: Letting Go of an Unhealthy Relationship).

Your Parents' Relationship Can Affect Your Beliefs About Relationships

Two years after the divorce, Emma met a man who eventually became her second husband.  At that point, she no longer believed "all men are dogs," and she and her husband were happy and faithful together.

There are many ways that your parents' relationship can affect your relationship choices and how you see romantic partners.

Most of the time, the effect is unconscious.

You might experience your views not just as your personal views but as "the truth," especially if your beliefs are deeply ingrained from a young age.

Psychotherapy provides an opportunity to look at long-held views, discover the origin of those views and gain a different perspective.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you realize that you are caught in negative beliefs and recurring negative patterns in your relationship, you could benefit from working with an experienced psychotherapist who has the skills and knowledge to help you discover the origin of your recurring patterns so you can begin to make changes.

Psychotherapy can help to free you from the effects of your early childhood history, so rather than continuing to be enslaved by your history, you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Monday, January 9, 2017

#NYC #Psychotherapy Blog: How to Stop Getting Caught Up In Other People's Emotional Drama

If emotional drama is a way of life for you, it's easy to keep caught up in other people's drama (see my article:  Hooked On Emotional Drama: Getting Off the Emotional Seesaw).

How to Stop Getting Caught Up in Other People's Emotional Drama

Why Do People Get Caught Up in Other People's Emotional Drama?
Not everyone gets involved in other people's drama.  Many people run the other way when they detect the chaos of emotional drama.  They find it stressful and annoying, and they want nothing to do with it.

But there are also many people who become fascinated by the drama.  For them, emotional drama has been part of their life since childhood and so it feels "normal" and even exciting.

Recognizing and understanding the root of the problem--that it usually begins early in life--is the start to resolving it, but it's not the entire solution because having an intellectual understanding often doesn't change anything.

It's often a way to take the focus away from oneself by focusing on other people's problems.

What Are the Consequences of Continually Getting Caught Up in Other People's Drama?
For people who habitually get involved in other people's drama (when they're not creating their own), it can feel exciting and addictive.

How to Stop Getting Caught Up in Other People's Emotional Drama

It might start with gossip about an argument between two friends.  It might begin with a rivalry between two family members or some other similar event.

The problem is that, besides usually being a waste of time, the person who habitually gets involved with drama usually gets pulled into the negative vortex of the situation.

Even though it might have started as "juicy gossip," the drama has a way of spiraling out of control and having negative consequences for everyone involved as the problem snowballs beyond anyone's expectations.

So, while it might start with a shot of dopamine and bring excitement, it usually degenerates into a bad situation.  Everyone involved usually loses in the end.

Let's take a look at a fictionalized scenario that illustrates the problem:

Anna liked to say that there was "too much drama" going on among her friends.  But even though she expressed disdain for emotional drama, she found herself getting continually pulled in whenever there was a situation among family or friends.

On a certain level, Anna knew that whenever she got involved with a brouhaha that was going on with other people, she eventually felt exhausted, depleted, annoyed and regretful.

But try as she might, each time a similar situation arose, she felt compelled to jump in and get involved, no matter how many times she vowed to herself not to do it again.

The situation that brought her into therapy involved a problem between two close friends who had a bitter argument about one of the friend's husbands.

Rita called Anna in tears after she found out that their mutual friend, Lisa, was having an affair with Rita's husband, Carlos.  Although her husband and Lisa both denied it, Rita found text messages and nude pictures that confirmed her suspicions.

Rita told Anna that she threw her husband out after she found out about the infidelity, but she wanted him back.  She had thrown Carlos out many times before because of his affairs with other women.  But she feared that there was something more than sex between Carlos and Lisa, and she was afraid she would lose him to Lisa if she didn't take him back.

But before she took him back, Rita wanted Lisa to know that she had to stay away from Carlos because she didn't want to take him back if they were going to continue the affair.  The problem was that Lisa wasn't taking her calls, so she wanted Anna to speak with Lisa.

When Anna heard what happened, she couldn't believe it.  She and all of Rita's friends knew that Carlos was a philanderer.  He had even tried to hit on Anna.  But Anna couldn't believe that Lisa, who was a close friend to both Anna and Rita, would have an affair with Carlos.

How to Stop Getting Up in Other People's Emotional Drama

Anna stayed on the phone with Rita for hours.  Although she felt compassion for Rita, she also realized that she also felt excited.  Her heart was racing, her breathing was heavier and she felt energized.  

By the time she agreed to call Lisa, Anna was completely immersed in Rita's problems.  When Anna put down the phone, she felt pumped as if she had run a race.  

A few minutes later, she got a call from her friend, Paula, who had been friends with Anna and Lisa for more than 20 years.

"Can you believe what's going on with Rita and Carlos!?!," Paula said.  

Then, without even waiting for an answer from Anna, Paula launched into her own interpretation of the events and they remained on the phone for two hours.

By the time Anna got off the phone, she realized that she forgot to go to the store for tonight's dinner, which the store was now closed.

She hurried to something throw something together for dinner.  Then, she thought about how she would approach Lisa.

By the next day, she called Lisa and broached the topic with her.  Before Anna could get too far, Lisa got angry and interrupted her and told her that she was the third person who called her about the "so-called affair" that she was having with Carlos.

Not only did Lisa deny that she had anything to do with Carlos, but she was offended and hurt that anyone would think this, "Whatever pictures Rita thinks she had--they're not me!"  

The conversation devolved into a big argument where Anna told her that she didn't want to be Lisa's friend anymore and Lisa told Anna that she didn't want anything to do with her as well.  Then, they both hung up in anger.

Anna was sad, angry and exhausted.  She realized that she had only made the situation worse and she wanted nothing to do with Rita's problems.  

A few days later, Rita called her sounding sheepish.  She and Carlos were back together again.  She realized that the messages and pictures that she found on Carlos' phone were from a few years ago and they didn't involve Lisa.

Rita was annoyed that Carlos kept these pictures and messages on his phone, but she forgave him and they were planning to take a romantic vacation together soon.  She also apologized to Lisa and told her that she didn't want to lose their 10 year friendship over a mistake that Rita had made.

Then, Rita said, "Lisa is very angry with you and I don't know if she will ever have anything to do with you again."

Anna's mind was spinning by the time Rita got back to talking about her reconciliation with Carlos and how passionate they had been the last few days, Anna wasn't even listening.

All Anna could think was, "I allowed myself to get pulled into someone else's drama and now I may have lost a good friend.  I'm too old for this."

After their conversation, Anna sat quietly for a while.  She felt that there was something old and familiar about all of this, but she wasn't sure what it was.

She tried to reach Lisa to apologize, but Lisa didn't return her calls.

When Anna talked to her husband about it, he told her that this was just like her feuding family and all their emotional drama.  He suggested that she talk to a therapist.

During Anna's therapy sessions, she began to see the similarity between the situation with her friends and old pattern of triangulation in her family.  

How to Stop Getting Caught Up in Other People's Emotional Drama

Anna's mother was constantly getting into arguments and disputes with her siblings and then Anna and her sisters wouldn't see these relatives for months because of the feuding.

Anna realized that she had unconsciously developed the same pattern in her relationships.  Even though she was in her mid-30s, she was still getting in the middle of these feuds with friends as if they were teenagers.

After she overcame the shame and guilt, she was able to come to terms with the underlying issues and why it was so familiar, exciting and compelling to her.

Gradually, Anna worked through her family issues in therapy, and she learned to be more involved in her own life and not get pulled into these dramas.  

The initial excitement and compulsion to get involved in other people's emotional drama is often unconscious and based on early personal history.

When it comes to getting involved in drama, age often has little to do with it.  

An objective outsider might look at the situation and think that the people involved are acting like teenagers, but the people involved in the situation often have little awareness of this.

We each carry around our younger selves, including the infant, young child and the teenage selves.  Any one of them can get activated in a particular situation.

You might recognize the pattern in hindsight, but this is often not enough to disengage the next time because of the unconscious nature of the problem.

Boredom or depression can also be a factor in wanting the temporary "rush" involved with the drama.

Getting Help in Therapy
Since this problem is usually difficult to overcome alone, getting help in therapy is often the solution.

A skilled therapist can help you to understand the roots of this problem and why it feels so compelling whenever it occurs, despite the fact that it hasn't ended well in the past. 

Rather than suffering alone and continuing to make the same mistakes, freeing yourself from the effects of your history in therapy can help you to lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many people to overcome a habitual pattern of getting involved in other people's emotional drama and to stop creating their own.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

NYC Psychotherapy Blog: Are You Enabling Your Adult Children?

In prior articles, I've discussed the concepts of enabling and codependency: 

In this article, I'm focusing on parents who enable their adult children.

Are You Enabling Your Adult Children?

Before I discuss parents enabling adult children, I want to stress that, of course, most parents want the best for their children and would never do anything intentionally that was harmful to them.

At the same time, good intentions can sometimes lead to bad outcomes.  With regard to enabling adult children, this often means that these children don't learn the necessary skills to develop and grow psychologically.

What Does "Enabling" Mean?
Let's start by providing the negative definition of "enabling," which is how I'm using it in this article.

Basically, the concept of enabling developed in the recovery community to describe spouses, family members and others who intend to "help" someone with an addiction but who make the problems worse with their "help."

Common examples of enabling in this sense is the wife (or husband) who calls the spouse's employer to make an excuse for an absence when, in fact, the spouse is too drunk to go to work.

In this case, the intention is for the spouse with the drinking problem to keep his job.  However, the unintended consequence is that the spouse with the drinking problem learns that he can continue to drink and his spouse will make sure that everything is taken care of with the boss.

Anyone with an ounce of compassion for the wife in this situation can understand why she's doing this.  If her husband loses his job, she and the children will also suffer terrible consequences.  But, at the same time, she is unknowingly and unintentionally making the situation worse because there are no consequences for the husband at home or at work--at least for a while.

Presumably, these excuses can't go on forever.  In the meantime, since alcohol problems tend to be progressive, without help, the husband's drinking problem will get worse and can lead to serious health problems or death.

The same scenario often occurs when parents make excuses for their adult children to shield them from experiencing negative consequences.

Let's take a look at a fictionalized scenario to understand these consequences better:

Sandy and Ann:
Sandy's daughter, Ann, moved out with roommates when she was 25.

Initially, when Ann moved out, she wasn't making much money, so Sandy paid most of Ann's portion of the rent and helped to pay for Ann's phone.

As time went on, Ann got a promotion to a managerial position at her bank, and she was doing well enough so that she could afford her own apartment in Brooklyn.  But she asked Sandy to continue to pay her rent for the next six months until she was settled in.

Sandy was happy to help her and continued to pay Ann's rent for the next six months--even though it came at a financial sacrifice.  Sandy cancelled a vacation she planned to take.  She also became a lot more careful about other everyday expenses so that she could continue to help Ann financially.

A few months later Ann approached Sandy for more money because she maxed out her credit cards and the balances were so high that she could no longer make minimum payments.

When Ann told Sandy what happened, Ann was shocked.  She had no idea that Ann was running up her credit cards.  She told Ann that she would pay off her credit cards, but she needed to be more careful in the future about how she spent money.

Are You Enabling Your Adult Children

Ann agreed to be more responsible, but this pattern continued for the next few years with Ann living above her means to have whatever she wanted and Sandy cutting back more and more on her own expenses to bail out Ann.

By the time Ann turned 30, she had a high paying executive position at her bank, but she continued to get deeper and deeper in debt.

As a single parent of an only child, Sandy was getting increasingly concerned about Ann's financial problems.

On some level, she knew that she had enabled this problem by constantly bailing Ann out, but she felt too guilty to refuse to help her.

Sandy offered to pay for Ann to see a financial advisor to help Ann develop better financial skills, but Ann wasn't interested.

Then, one day, Sandy came to visit Ann and told her that she had run up a new credit card and she couldn't pay it.  When Ann told Sandy that the balance owed was $25,000, Sandy was shocked.  At first, Sandy refused to help her.

At that point, Ann got enraged and said in a desperate tone, "What am I going to do!?!  If the credit card company contacts my employer, I'll be so embarrassed!  I'll lose my job! You have to help me."

Sandy wasn't sure what to do.  She agonized about it for days.  Then, she confided in her best friend, Meg, who was already familiar with this dynamic between Sandy and Ann.

Meg listened patiently, as she always did, and then she told Sandy that Ann was in deep trouble with her overspending habit.  Then, she took a deep breath and told Sandy that Sandy was also in trouble for enabling Ann.

Sandy knew that Meg was right, but she felt too guilty and afraid not to help her daughter, so she took money from her savings account, gave it to Ann and told her that it was a loan and she had to pay her back.

Ann was taken aback when Sandy told her that she had to pay the money back, but she was feeling desperate, so she agreed to pay Ann back within the next two years.

After Sandy gave Ann the money, they each felt momentarily relieved and didn't talk about it again for a while.  But as time went on and Ann didn't give Sandy any money to pay back the loan, Sandy got concerned.

Whenever Sandy brought up the loan, Ann got annoyed and reminded Ann that she had agreed to pay her back.  Ann didn't like being "badgered" for the money and she said she would start paying back Sandy soon--as soon as she had the extra cash.

But time went on and Ann never brought up the loan and never gave Sandy any money.  Instead, she got herself deep into debt again.

When Ann approached Sandy for more money, Sandy had run out of all options and, even though she felt very guilty, she told Ann that she would have to deal with this new debt on her own because she couldn't help her.

Ann panicked and approached her close friends for loans, but she had already borrowed money from all of them and still owed them so they told her they couldn't lend her any more money.  Having no money to pay, Ann had to file for bankruptcy, which ruined her credit and caused her to lose her position with her bank.

Ann had no choice but to give up her apartment and move back home, which she resented.  Then, instead of looking for another job, she spent all day sleeping in her former childhood room. She refused to speak to Sandy because she was unable to help her.

Faced with this increasingly difficult situation, Sandy began therapy because the situation was overwhelming to her.

In therapy, Sandy learned about the concept of enabling and how she had unwittingly contributed to her daughter's problems by constantly bailing her out.

Sandy knew that she had to make changes, but it was extremely difficult for her to say "no" to her daughter.  But she took responsibility for her part in Ann's problems, and she began to deal with the underlying reasons that caused her to enable her daughter.

Sandy discussed in therapy that she had always felt guilty about separating from Ann's father, who was a gambler who gambled away their savings when Ann was a child.

After they separated, Ann's father disappeared from Ann's life and Ann blamed Sandy for this.  As a child, Ann was too young to understand her father's gambling problems and Sandy never explained it to Ann--even when Ann became an adult.  In fact, they never discussed it.

Ann realized in therapy that, due to her guilty feelings about the marital separation and Ann's father's abandoning Ann, Sandy felt she could never say "no" to Ann.

Ann had to work through her guilt in therapy before she could accept that she did what was best for herself and Ann when she left Ann's father, and it was time for her to stop trying to overcompensate for it by constantly bailing out Ann.

She also knew that she needed to speak with Ann about it and set limits with her, including how long she could continue to live with her and expect that Sandy would support her.

It was one of the most difficult conversations that Sandy had ever had in her life, but by the end of their conversation, Sandy explained why she separated from Ann's father.  She also gave Ann six months to find a job or she would have to move out.

It took a few days before Ann came back to Sandy and apologized for her behavior.

She told Ann that after her father left, she blamed Sandy, but she also blamed herself.  She felt that she must have been unlovable and that the only thing that made her feel good about herself was spending money (see my article:  Learn to Stop Overspending as a Way to Avoid Uncomfortable Feelings).

She understood now that she had placed herself in an untenable situation and it was always headed for disaster, but she couldn't face it until now.

Ann began attending Debtor's Anonymous 12 Step meetings to deal with her overspending habit and she started putting her life together again.

Although it was very hard for Sandy to set limits with her daughter, she realized that neither she nor her daughter would have made any changes if she had not confronted her own underlying reasons for enabling Sandy.  This, in turn, led to Ann facing her own problems.

Confronting your enabling behavior toward an adult child can be one of the most difficult things you do in your life.

You can find many rationalizations and excuses for your behavior, but until you face it and make a commitment to overcome it, neither you nor your child will be able to change this dysfunctional behavior.

In the scenario above, the enabling behavior was about giving an adult child money, but it can be about anything--enabling substance abuse, enabling overeating, enabling workaholism, and so on.

Getting Help in Therapy
Parents often find it increasingly difficult to stop enabling their children on their own.

It's easy to continue to bargain with yourself, "I'll just do it this one time and then I'll stop," in much the same way that your adult child can bargain with him or herself to continue to engage in dysfunctional behavior.

Getting help in therapy can provide you with the tools you need to take yourself out of the cycle of ongoing enabling.

Parents are often surprised that once they take a stand and stop enabling their adult children's dysfunctional behavior, their children will have no choice but to confront their own behavior and make changes.

The first step, picking up the phone and setting up an appointment with a therapist for a consultation, can be the hardest step, but it's often the first step to making positive changes.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome negative enabling behavior so they could lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.