Background Shadow

The Paralyzing Power of Rigid Expectations

Election 2012 is upon us, and political pundits from both sides  are issuing dire predictions if the other party wins. From Facebook to Twitter, TV to radio, lunch rooms to dinner tables, we learn that half of us will be desperately unhappy when election results are tallied.  Why?  Perhaps because when our expectations are set in stone, our future prospects grind to a halt…


It’s like we wear special glasses that only allow  us to pay attention to information that supports our expectations. [Read more…]

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How to Stop Worry in Its Tracks

Stuck on the Worry Train?

Are you stuck on the Worry Train?

It’s an illusive mental locomotive that takes many of us on a captive ride during waking hours.  We long to disembark, but the wheels of the Worry Train spin faster and faster – powered by an endless supply of what if  fuel:

What if I lose my job?  

What if I have a wreck?  

What if I look foolish or stupid? [Read more…]

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Point of View is Worth 80 IQ Points

Linda Stone ·

via Point of View is Worth 80 IQ Points.

I like the story Linda shares in her post.  It has applications for numerous fields, even mental health therapy.  As a therapist, I embrace the need to approach each client with an open and curious mind, resisting the pull of attachment to a specific outcome.

Now think about daily life: what solutions might we discover if we approach everyday problems with an open, curious, exploratory frame of mind?  What would it be like to hold loosely to what we know and become willing to explore new possibilities?

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Inaccurate Family Lessons… A Droll Tale

As children, we learn many lessons from our families.  By demonstration (more than by lecture) families teach us things like how the world works, who we are, and what our value is.  They teach us how to communicate and demonstrate what words mean.  Yet sometimes family lessons pass inaccurate information through several generations.

Last weekend, inaccurate information was exposed during a family visit.  My aunt commented on an article of clothing by observing, “That looks so droll”.  She meant that the clothing looked dull, uninspiring, and drab.  I grew up hearing droll used in this way – and I never wanted to be considered dull, drab, or uninspiring.  Yet once, that word was applied to my public speaking effort.  A few years ago, I gave a humorous speech in a Toastmaster’s meeting that had the audience laughing, but I overshot my time by four minutes and judged the speech a failure.  A few days later, an in-house news article at work referred to my “droll speech” – not only was it too long, it was dull, and I was offended!

Imagine my surprise when I shared my chagrin with my husband and he asked why I was bothered: “Don’t you know that a droll speech is a humorous or amusing speech?” he asked.  “No”, I replied, “I thought it meant that my speech was dull and boring, after all it was too long”.   How embarrassing – inaccurate information transmitted by my family caused me to be offended by an inoffensive comment.

What we learn in families can feel so true that we filter out any contrary evidence.  Last weekend, my aunt did not believe me when I told her the true definition of droll. I suggested that she consult an online dictionary, and she exhausted the page trying to find evidence to support what she had learned from her grandmother.   My aunt and I laughed about the inaccurate definition of droll passed down through four generations of our family.  Today, we each use the word accurately.  Other lessons our families teach us are more difficult to unlearn.  Some of us learned that our only true value is in our looks.  Others learned that acceptance is something to work for and earn.  Still others learned that we are worthless and unimportant.  Such inaccurate lessons chain us to emotional pain.  What family lessons might we need to unlearn?

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The Insidious Power of Shoulds…

Have you ever considered how our shoulds can work against us?  Those thoughts running through our heads in the form of “_______ should _______” reflect our values and rules for living.   Such thoughts compare the way we are to the way we think we ought to be.  Yet they work against us when they are rigid, not critically examined by us, or unrealistic.  Maybe I’m 5’8” and big-boned.  If my rule for living tells me that I should weigh 120 pounds, I will be judged inadequate or defective if I weigh 138 – even if my doctor tells me I’m healthy.

In Self-Esteem, McKay and Fanning (2000) observe that “this is the tyranny of the shoulds: the absolute nature of belief, unbending sense of right and wrong.  If you don’t live up to your should, you judge yourself to be a bad and unworthy person” (p. 111, emphasis added).  Maybe this explains why some of us get our emotional chains jerked by common and troublesome rules of living like these:

  • I should maintain a 4.0 GPA.
  • I should never feel anger.
  • I should have it all together.
  • I should be perfect at _______.

Yet surely not all shoulds or rules for living are unhealthy.   So how do we tell the difference between those rules spinning through our heads?  Mckay and Fanning (2000) suggest a test with 4 criteria:

  1. Is the suggested rule flexible?  Do I allow for exceptions? Maybe not if my rule includes words like never, always, perfectly….  Flexible rules permit some failure to meet the ideal standard.
  2. Is the rule owned by me? Have I critically examined it? Does it make sense to me?  If not, I may have unquestioningly accepted someone else’s rule.  It’s like buying a house without a walk-through, or buying shoes without trying them on for fit.
  3. Is the rule realistic?  Is it based on a test of positive and negative consequences?  Unrealistic rules demand that I act on principle regardless of the pain my action brings myself or others.
  4. Does the rule enhance my life rather than restrict it? A healthy rule encourages me to do what is supportive and nourishing – except when long-term consequences would be painful to myself or others.

So why does my title suggest that our shoulds or rules for living have insidious power?  Unhealthy rules for living can stealthily attack our self-esteem in two ways.   First we may judge ourselves by rules that do not truly fit us.  Maybe I grew up believing that I should be self-sufficient.  That rule may promote some academic achievement, but my self-esteem may take a hit if I become unemployed and have no job prospects.  Second, our rules may attach moral judgments to essentially non-moral tastes, behaviors, and situations.  Maybe our families gave us “an impossible dilemma: ‘Follow the rules we’ve created about how you should look or act or be condemned as worthless and bad’” (p. 122).   In childhood, my small faith community articulated specific rules for living, and some people applied moral judgments to my favorite recreational activities: swimming, tennis, and going to G-rated movies.   My self-esteem took a hit because my tastes and recreational preferences differed from those of my grandmother’s religious peers.

I think it’s important to determine if our shoulds or rules for living are healthy. 


Mckay, M., & Fanning, P.  (2000).  Self-esteem.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

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Rainy Days and Mondays….

…. Rainy days and Mondays always get me down. – The Carpenters, 1971

It’s not a Monday, but I woke up to a rainy day in Northern VA, with the line, “rainy days and Mondays always get me down” running through my head.  Composed by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams, The Carpenters’ recording of Rainy Days and Mondays went to #2 on Billboard’s  Hot 100 chart in 1971.   It went to #1 in my head this morning when I woke up to a dismal sky and steady rain.  Guess what word was emphasized in my mind? Always – as in rainy days always get me down.    

 In a recent moment of motherly frustration, I advised my husband that our daughter never begins her home school day on time (as determined by me).  My morning assessment of rainy days and my late night assessment of my daughter’s work ethic share something in common: each is an example of a distorted thinking pattern called over-generalization.  We over-generalize when we make universal rules or laws out of single facts and fail to prove our rules or test our laws.

A habit of over-generalization causes our universe of daily options to shrink.   If rainy days always get me down, I have no other possible outcome for today.  If my daughter never starts her studies on time, I am destined to always be frustrated.  But what happens if I test my rule about rainy days? I find that it is untrue!  In fact, I have lived through plenty of rainy days without feeling down, and today is rather pleasant.  What about my law of home school tardiness?  It is honestly untrue as stated.  What’s the broader truth? My daughter has been tardy of late, but she started studies much earlier the previous two years.  Gradually, I begin to see more home school possibilities.

Does a habit of overgeneralization ever shrink your universe of daily options? It might if your statements or thoughts include words like:   always (I’m always late), never (I’m never on time), everyone (Everyone thinks I’m weird), no one ( No one likes me) , all (All dogs are mean).  Here’s another example: you delete a file from your computer, and you immediately become an idiot.  If you recognize this bothersome habit, it may be time to test your universal rules.  For example, if you seek evidence concerning the universe of dogs, consult the owner of a retired greyhound or an adopted coonhound.

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Most of us go through each day looking for what we saw yesterday and, not surprisingly, that is what we find. – James A. Kitchens

The inspiration for this post came from an author I’ve never read, but his single sentence, found in a Google search, resonated with me.  It prompted a question of which I can’t let go: what do we look for each day?

Think about relationships and consider something most of us have: a problem relative.  Let’s call him/her, Pat, and imagine that Pat regularly fails to meet our expectations in some area.  Maybe Pat has a history of whining or avoiding responsibility.  Each day, we expect Pat to behave as he/she did the day before, and we are rarely surprised.  So we daily respond to Pat just as we did the day before.  When a change for the better occurs, we don’t believe it is real.  We still perceive or look at Pat as having the same historical problem behavior.

Now think about how we look at ourselves.  Imagine a woman who is frustrated by a lifelong failure to lose weight and maintain it.  She has dieted numerous times, lost the weight, and gained more back too many times to count.  So when she starts a new eating/exercise plan, she may expect failure even as she hopes for success.  Perhaps her expectation colors the way she responds to inevitable slips:  all or nothing thinking causes her to look at each slip as abject failure, and another diet crashes and burns.  What would happen if the woman did not look at a slip as ultimate failure?

Maybe we need to experiment with changing the way we look at (think about) others and ourselves.

How might the way we look at things affect our daily experience?  How might it help or hinder change?

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We keep chasing after perfection as if it is an achievable goal,

when really it is the most grand and painful of all mirages.    Courtney E. Martin

Ms. Martin penned these words about the female preoccupation with weight in Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters (2007).  Yet almost everywhere I look, even in the mirror, I see traces of the struggle for perfection in our culture. Young, middle-aged, or mature adult, we are inundated by media images presenting impossible-to-attain ideals for every stage of life.  It may seem that the only way to escape the deluge is to move to a cabin in the middle of the wilderness… 

Lacking access to an isolated cabin, what happens when our self-image is media driven?   Perhaps our daughters request breast augmentations for high school graduation presents.  Maybe we mourn the appearance of crows’ feet even though we’re clearly the proper age to have them.  Perhaps retired women, with beautiful faces, feel disappointed when reunion pictures fail to make them look 10 years younger.  Maybe we chase dreams of living in houses, driving cars, or wearing clothes we cannot afford.

Mirages are optical phenomena, creatures of our visual perceptionDriving down a long stretch of road on a hot day, we perceive a wet pool of water up the road.  Yet when we reach the spot, the pool of water has disappeared.  Such is the case with chasing perfection – attainment is always out of our reach.  And in all our effort, we miss the value of who we really are.   Helping clients discover their inner value is another thing I love about being a therapist.   

How do you determine your true value?  What works and what doesn’t work?

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