Three Tips for Better Time Outs

What do you do when little Johnny decides that using his tongue to shoot corn across the dinner table is so funny he just can’t (or won’t) stop, despite your repeated requests?

What do you do when your tween daughter’s rage crosses a red line and she starts throwing things around the room?

If you’re like most parents, you probably give those kids a “time out.”

 

Time Outs: A Short History

The idea of giving kids a time out was first proposed in the 1960s by psychologist Arthur Staats. After extensive research, he concluded that briefly removing children from the place where they were misbehaving was much more effective in helping them develop self-control than the all-too-typical parenting approaches of the time, yelling or spanking.

Done properly, a time out removes the child from the circumstances that are causing the problem behavior (corn and an audience, in little Johnny’s case) and gives him or her a chance to focus on regaining self-control. As an added bonus, it gives frustrated parents a break, allowing them to cool down and figure out some productive next steps.

But parents and kids only reap those benefits if time outs are used appropriately. Dr. Staats taught that the technique needs to be applied consistently, and that children need to be warned of the consequences of their behavior in advance. Most importantly, time outs work best in the context of a positive parent-child relationship.

While many research studies have shown that time outs can be an effective approach to helping kids self-regulate, too often, well-meaning parents and guardians deploy time outs in ways that are ineffective, at best.

 

One Tool Among Many

Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak include a chapter on time outs in their parenting books, Parenting Your Kids with Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace. Tellingly, though, those chapters come late in the books, because they are preceded by other chapters aimed at cultivating strong, resilient parent-child relationships. Time outs have their place, but they should be only one of many “tools” in a parent’s toolbox.

 

Three Tips for More Effective Time Outs

Here, then, are some tips for using time outs effectively.

1. Nurturing a vibrant, resilient parent-child relationship comes first. Parents who use time outs as their only discipline method are likely to be disappointed with the results. A better approach is to focus on strengthening your connection with your child using methods such as collecting, “time-ins,” virtue prompting, positive reinforcement, coaching, team building, do overs, and family rituals, to name a few of the other techniques the Popcaks highlight. These practices make time outs less frequent—and more effective when they are needed.

 

2. Time out is about taking a break, not punishment. The main purpose of a time out is to help kids bring their emotional temperature down to a place where they can actually think straight. Once they feel calmer and more regulated, they are in a better place to deal with whatever problem or provocation set them off in the first place. (The Popcaks prefer to talk about “taking a break” with older kids and teens.) The discipline method developed by St. John Bosco, as well as the Theology of the Body developed by St. John Paul II, both point to the real purpose of discipline: helping children realize their full humanity in the image of God. The goal of a time out isn’t punishment; it is creating a space where parents can help kids be better people.

 

3. Make time for coaching or collaborative problem-solving, too. A common misstep is to release a child from time out without any follow up. But if the purpose of time out is to help the child be a better human, then once everyone is feeling calmer and more regulated, the next step is to sit down and do some coaching or collaborative problem solving.

 

In this post-time out phase, the focus is: What is a better way of handling this situation in the future? In other words, how can your child or teen meet his or her real needs in a way that respects you and others? In the case of little Johnny, you might agree that it’s OK to have a corn-spitting contest on the grass outside after dinner—but that it’s disrespectful of others at the table. In the case of your tween daughter, the follow-up conversation might be more involved, but the basic goal is the same.

For much more about effective parenting strategies rooted in Catholic wisdom, check out the Popcaks’ parenting books, Parenting Your Kids with Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace. Better yet, join their vibrant community of Catholic parents at CatholicHOM.com.

How to Turn Your Anger Into Healthy, Holy Action

Should Christians get angry? And when they do, how should they handle it?

Attempting to answer those questions on a recent episode of the More2Life radio show, Bill Donaghy, senior lecturer at the Theology of the Body Institute, pointed to a scene near the climax of the Star Wars movie, The Phantom Menace.

Two Jedi knights are battling the evil Sith Lord, Darth Maul. Their lightsaber battle rages through a power plant until a “laser gate” suddenly closes, separating the two sides. As they wait for the gate to open, the Sith warrior paces back and forth like a caged animal, twirling his double-bladed lightsaber and glaring angrily at the Jedi. One of the Jedi reacts very differently, though: he falls to his knees and closes his eyes in a kind of prayer.

The scene illustrates two very different ways of handling anger, Donaghy told Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak, and points to a key Christian insight about anger. Feeling anger isn’t sinful: “Be angry, but do not sin,” St. Paul told the early Christians (Ephesians 4:26).

Instead, it is what we do with our anger that matters.

Anger vs. Wrath

“Anger is meant to be a gift that calls our attention to an injustice and motivates us to act in proportionate, appropriate, and productive ways so that we can heal whatever that injustice might be,” Dr. Popcak said.

Anger that is appropriately channeled into setting things right—“righteous anger”—is better than unreasonable patience with evil, St. John Chrysostom, a doctor of the Church, once said: “He who is not angry when he has good reason to be, sins. Unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices.”

Wrath, on the other hand, is sinful. Wrath is “anger that is inappropriate, disproportionate, and unproductive,” Dr. Popcak said. While righteous anger aims to restore and heal, wrath seeks to destroy.

If anger is a gift from God—a signal that something is wrong that needs to be put right—then how do we handle this powerful emotion in a way that serves the good? Here are a few tips.

 

Don’t React; Instead, Step Back

The key to handling anger well is to avoid being reactive. Instead of launching into a hasty response fueled by the chemicals flooding your brain, pause, step back, and consider what is really driving your anger.

Is it really the thing in front of you that is provoking your anger, or is the thing in front of you stirring up old wounds? Is your child’s whining the real problem—or is the deeper problem that you are hungry and exhausted?

Understanding the real source of your anger is critical to addressing it in a proportionate, productive way.

 

Sublimate Your Anger to God

As you are collecting your thoughts, pray for the grace you need to handle the situation well.

“Anger isn’t so much a call to action as a call to prayer,” Dr. Popcak said. “Without prayer, anger can cause us to feel stuck, powerless, and perpetually outraged with no solution in sight.”

“We have to stop and say to the Lord: ‘Lord, I’m a mess,’” Lisa Popcak added. “’Everything is dysregulated inside of me because I feel like there’s an injustice happening. You went through the worst injustice possible. Show me what to do with this.’”

In the language of the Theology of the Body, your goal should be to sublimate your anger to God. Sublimation is not about repressing or denying your anger, Donaghy said; it is about “lifting it up to God, giving it to God and asking God to come into it.”

 

Learn to Express Anger Constructively

Righteous anger focuses on setting things right and finding solutions. In other words, it has a constructive purpose.

Setting boundaries for a respectful discussion can help. In a conflict with your spouse, for example, you might agree that each of you has a right to express their thoughts and feelings, but that it is not acceptable to express those thoughts and feelings in a disrespectful or destructive way.

Similarly, constructive anger focuses on finding solutions that address the concerns of all parties involved. The priority ought to be healing, restoring, and strengthening relationships, not “winning,” which only fosters resentment and fuels the cycle of angry conflict.

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help

Sometimes, dealing with anger —yours or someone else’s— requires some extra help. You can find Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s advice about handling anger in many of their books, particularly Parenting with Grace (for handling kids’ anger), Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart (for anger as a gift from God), How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love (for handling anger in a marriage), and God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People (self-explanatory, really).

And for more in-depth, one-on-one help, reach out to one of the many pastoral counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

Boost Your Spiritual Growth: Try the Eulogy Accountability Challenge in Your Marriage or Friendship

When you go on a long trip, do you prefer to travel solo or with a friend?

Regardless of your usual travel preferences, when it comes to our spiritual journey, it’s good to have a companion who can help us find our “true north,” overcome obstacles, and get us back on track when we get lost. In fact, the Catholic Church insists that none of us comes to faith alone or is saved alone; we need one another, because our three-in-one God made us for relationship.

We can work for one another’s good in lots of different ways, of course: providing emotional support, lending a helping hand, worshiping together, and so on. But here’s a way that Christian couples (or close friends) can be more intentional about working for one another’s good—and strengthening their relationship at the same time.

This exercise from chapter 2 of Dr. Greg Popcak’s book, God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People can help us do just that. Dr. Popcak didn’t give this exercise a name, but let’s call it the “Eulogy Accountability Challenge.” The name is appropriate because this exercise is anchored in your idea about who you want to be at the end of your life. To put it another way, what personal characteristics or qualities do you want to be mentioned by whoever delivers the eulogy at your funeral?

“The key to working for your own or others’ good is discovering the kind of person you want to be at the end of your life and supporting each other as you struggle to become that person­,” Dr. Popcak writes in the book.

Together with your friend or spouse, work through the following steps. You’ll each need at least one sheet of paper.

 

1. Envision Your Ideal Self

Begin by prayerfully considering the qualities you wish to be known for at the end of your life. Be specific. For example, you might aspire to be:

  •  Loving
  • Wise
  • Understanding
  • Empathetic
  • Truthful
  • Responsible

List these qualities on a sheet of paper. Invite your spouse or close friend to do the same.

This list may change over time, but it should represent your best sense right now of what it means for you to become most “fully yourself”—that is, most fully the person that God calls you to be.

 

2. Identify Challenges

Now think of a situation that causes you to act or feel toward one another in a way that doesn’t align with your desired qualities. For example:

  • Maybe you are unpleasantly snippy and curt first thing in the morning.
  • Maybe you always shoot down your friend’s or your spouse’s suggestions.
  • Maybe you lose your temper when you get into a disagreement.
  • Maybe you don’t follow through on responsibilities, leaving them for the other person to take care of.

Whatever the challenge is, write it down.

 

3. Apply Your Ideal Qualities to the Challenge

Next, reflect on how you might act differently if you were to more fully embody the positive qualities you listed in the first step.

Be specific. How might your words, tone of voice, or actions change? For instance, would you be more patient or understanding? Focus on your own behavior and how you can align it more closely with your spiritual ideals.

Don’t offer your partner suggestions about how to complete this step!

 

4. Share Your Aspirations

Share your reflections with your spouse or friend. Make a commitment to help one another practice the positive qualities that each of you listed—not just in the particular challenge you named, but in other aspects of daily life, too.

 

5. Respectful Accountability

When you notice your partner or friend acting in a way that seems inconsistent with their stated spiritual ideals, gently remind them of their goals. For example, you might say, “You mentioned wanting to be more patient. Can you help me understand how your actions help you become a more patient person?”

Obviously, the key here is to be as respectful to the other person as you would want him or her to be toward you. After all, this is a two-way street: you’re each helping the other, so at some point, your partner will be giving you a gentle nudge toward your best self, too.

Done right, this exercise should help each of you along the path to becoming the person God calls you to be—and deepen the intimacy of your relationship.

For in-depth, one-on-one help strengthening your marriage or other relationships, reach out to a Pastoral Counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.

 

­­How to Say ‘No’ with Confidence

Listen, before we start this article, would you mind getting up and grabbing me a sandwich? Liverwurst and onion on rye, with a little bit of that fancy mustard…?

If you even thought about saying “yes” to that request—or if you find yourself often saying “yes” to things you later wish you hadn’t—then you need to keep reading, because we’re going to talk about how to say “no” when you need to…without the guilt.

 

How to Know When to Say No

Most of us don’t like telling people “no” when they ask for our help. We humans are wired to cooperate with one another, after all. In general, we want to be helpful!

But the reality is, it’s not always good to say “yes.” For one thing, if we said “yes” to everything that was asked of us, we wouldn’t have time to fulfill our primary responsibilities in life. And sometimes, saying “yes” to someone causes more harm than good. Consider these examples:

  • After taking her kindergartener to his classroom, Sandy gets stopped in the hallway by the president of the PTA, who begs her to help coordinate the fall fundraiser. Sandy feels pressured to agree, despite already having a full plate. As she drives away, she finds herself fuming with resentment and frustration.
  • Jenny doesn’t want to alienate her adult son, so she frequently agrees to his requests for help, even though he has a serious drug addiction. When she refuses his requests, he accuses her of “rejecting” him, so she keeps helping—even though his situation keeps getting worse.

The hard truth is that sometimes it’s more generous and loving to say “no” to someone, even when it makes us feel uncomfortable or makes the other person feel let down.

And that’s the key to knowing when to say “no,” says Dr. Greg Popcak, founder and executive director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. Instead of basing your response on how we feel (guilty, empathetic, pressured), focus instead on the more objective question of what kind of response will lead to the best outcome for both you and the other person.

“When somebody’s asking something of us, especially when they’re pressuring us, the question to ask ourselves isn’t, ‘Do I feel like doing this or not?’ Or even, ‘Would they be upset with me or not?’” Dr. Popcak said recently on the More2Life radio show. “The question to ask ourselves is, ‘Is there a way to say “yes” to this request that is good both for me and the other person?”

By basing your answer on an objective assessment of what is going to be good for both you and the other person—rather than on the shifting sands of emotion—you set yourself up to resist pressure and shed feelings of guilt.

Even better, your answer is grounded in genuine love for the other person. Prior to becoming Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyła wrote a book titled Love and Responsibility. In that book, he argues that Christians are not only called to love, but to love in a way that actually achieves the good of the other person.

Rachael Isaac, a pastoral counselor at the Pastoral Solutions Institute, encourages clients to evaluate decisions by checking three key indicators of well-being: “I always ask my clients, ‘What is going to lead towards greater meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue in your life?’” she says.

If saying “yes” creates resentment and burnout, it’s not the most generous response: “It doesn’t allow us to work for their good or ours if saying yes breeds resentment or frustration.”

 

Another Option: The Qualified Yes

It’s good to remember that there’s often a third option besides “yes” and “no,” says Lisa Popcak, vice president of the Pastoral Solutions Institute and a certified family life coach. She calls it the “qualified yes.”

A qualified yes involves saying “yes” to the what of the request, but placing conditions on the how and when.

In the example above, Sandy might tell the PTA president, “I’d love to help out, but the only time I have available in my schedule right now is Monday afternoons from 2 to 3:30. Is there another job I could do that would fit in that time slot?”

In the second example, Jenny might say to her son, “I love you and I want to help you, but I can’t help you harm yourself. When you’re ready to enter a treatment program, I’d be happy to pay for it.”

“You’re attempting to meet their need,” Lisa Popcak says, “but it’s within the boundaries of what will work for you without demeaning you, diminishing you, leaving you exhausted, or distracting you from all the other responsibilities that God has given to you.”

 

Let Your Yes Mean Yes…

Christians should remember that even Jesus said “no” sometimes, said Andy Proctor, another pastoral counselor at the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

“Jesus certainly said ‘no,’ sometimes forcibly, sometimes even to those closest to him,” he said. Delivered with prudence and humility, “no” might be what the other person really needs to hear, he added.

And if you need any more encouragement, just remember that Jesus himself calls us to clarity and integrity of heart in the commitments we make to others: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one,” he says (Matthew 5:37).

For more advice from Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak, tune in to the More2Life radio show every weekday between 10 and 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time, or catch it on your favorite podcast app. And if you need more help setting healthy boundaries in your life, you can connect with the Catholic counselors at the Pastoral Solutions Institute at CatholicCounselors.com.

4 Questions to Help You ­Discern the Next Chapter of Your Life

The heroes of the Bible had it easy, didn’t they? Anytime God wanted to communicate his will to them, he sent an angel or a burning bush or a prophet or a patch of wet wool (see Judges 6:36-40 for that last one).

For the rest of us, discerning major life decisions can feel a lot more difficult:

  • Should I marry this person or not?
  • What field of work should I study for?
  • Should I take this job or not?
  • Is it time to end this relationship?
  • Where am I going to put my time and energy during my retirement?

Most of us wish God would just telegram us with the “right choice”; Instead, he invites us to engage in a richer, more dynamic conversation with the Holy Spirit.

Fortunately, he has also given us some basic principles to follow as we have that conversation with him. Drawing on those principles, here are four questions that the Pastoral Counselors at the CatholicCounselors.com suggest you ask as you prayerfully discern your next big life decision.

1. What will bring you closer to God?

It’s tempting to focus on the immediate consequences of a big decision, but it’s important to always prioritize our ultimate destination.

“The end goal of every decision we make needs to be directed towards one thing: knowing and loving God more,” says Jacob Francisco, M.A., LMHC.

A prerequisite for good discernment, then, is that we’re trying our best to lead a good and holy life: staying connected to the church, receiving the sacraments, and basically trying to do what God wants in the decisions of our daily life, said Dr. Greg Popcak.

For Christians, this also means respecting the “guardrails” that God provides to keep us on the right course.

“God’s never going to ask us to do something that’s contrary to the Ten Commandments or the teachings of the Church,” Dr. Popcak said. Those teachings are part of a 4,000-year-old conversation that God has been having with his people. “He’s not going to just randomly say to us, ‘Well, I’m going to make an exception for you.’”

2. What is your heart’s deepest desire?

One common misconception is that following God’s will means denying our own happiness—but that’s just not the case, says Jacob Flores-Popcak, M.A., L.P.C.

He sees a lot of Catholics assume that if they have two options, “it’s the one I don’t like that’s probably the one God is calling me to in order to help me grow in humility or holiness or whatever.”

It’s true that God may call us to do something difficult or unpleasant for the sake of our own long-term well-being. Exercise can be tough, for example, but in the long run, it makes us stronger.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the hard, unpleasant thing is automatically the good thing. “God is not asking you to just randomly seek out crosses to nail yourself to,” Flores-Popcak said.

Keeping in mind that God wants our happiness, we can begin our discernment by reflecting on the deep desires of our heart, said Anne Brunette, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.

“God will put a desire on your heart before he calls you to it,” Brunette said.

The principle that the deep desires of our heart can help us discern our course in life is a key feature of the discernment approach developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola. St. Ignatius taught that our problem wasn’t desiring too much but desiring too little. In other words, we need to move beyond our petty, superficial desires and instead pursue the desires that lead us to the bountiful life God wants for us.

3. What leads to more meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue?

And what does that bountiful life look like? Dr. Popcak suggests that the life God wants for us is always characterized by meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue.

We lead a meaningful life by using our gifts to be a blessing to others and to make a positive difference in whatever we do, he said.

Intimacy is about fostering deeper relationships with God and others. When we’re prayerfully discerning a choice, then, we can ask: What allows me to make my relationships healthier, stronger, deeper, and more honest?

And virtue, the third guiding principle, is about seeing every situation as an opportunity to become a stronger, healthier, holier person—that is, more fully the person God made us to be.

“So, in discerning God’s will for our lives, we’ve always got to ask, ‘How can I use the thing I’m going through right now to become a little bit more of that whole, healed, godly, grace-filled person I’m meant to be?” Dr. Popcak said.

4. How does God want me to move forward?

Finally, it’s good to ask God not just what he wants us to do, but how he wants us to do it, Dr. Popcak said.

For example, it’s pretty clear that God wants us to share his message of good news with the world. But how we do that matters; we need to approach that task with love and respect, taking into consideration the circumstances of the person in front of us.

The same is true of our big life decisions. We might be called to end a relationship, for instance, but we also want to prayerfully discern how we can do that in a way that leads to the best outcome for the other person as well as ourselves.

Looking for more discernment advice? Check out The Life God Wants You to Have: Discovering the Divine Plan When Human Plans Fail by Dr. Greg Popcak. And you can get one-on-one guidance from any of the Catholic counselors at the Pastoral Solutions Institute by reaching out at CatholicCounselors.com.

How Happy Couples Find Time to Connect

If you want a happy marriage, one of the simplest, most effective ways to get there is to spend time connecting with your spouse every day.

It’s such a simple marriage hack that many couples who come to the Pastoral Solutions Institute are initially skeptical of the recommendation, according to Dr. Greg Popcak.

“You’d be surprised by how many couples are downright disappointed to think that something as simple as having dinner together four times a week and instituting a weekly date could change so much,” he writes in his book, How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love. Just as strong bones support a healthy body, he says, regular “rituals of connection” are essential for supporting a healthy relationship.

The importance of regular rituals of connection for strengthening a relationship is well documented in more than six decades of research. Couples who find time to regularly work, talk, play, and pray together report much higher levels of satisfaction across every aspect of their lives than those who do not. They are much less likely to run into problems with their relationship, too.

That research has been backed up time and time again by the experience of the counselors at the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

“I had a couple that started counseling due to a number of communication struggles,” says Robert Taylor, MS, MSW, LCSW. “When I asked them to start small with the rituals of connection, they began with a simple, quick morning prayer ritual that eventually expanded to some brief talk time to check in with each other on the needs of the day.”

Over time, this practice helped the couple to be more in tune with one another and greatly reduced the resentment that had built up due to their lack of connection, he said.

Happy Couples Prioritize Time Together

The main reason many couples object to these rituals of connection is their perception that they don’t have the time to fit them in, said Dave McClow, M.Div., LCSW, LMFT: “Usually, the big objection or complaint is: ‘We’re too busy!’”

These couples are often trying to find “extra” time to connect in their busy schedules. But happy couples do just the opposite: they prioritize their time together, and then work out the rest of their schedule.

It doesn’t need to be complicated, McClow said. “I ask couples to break it down into a five- or ten-minute activity and tie it to something they are already doing, like meals or bedtime,” he said. “That makes it more doable, and they don’t have to create another space in the schedule.”

Don’t Divide Up the Day’s Work; Do It Together

Working on things together rather than dividing up the day’s work is often a good way for couples to spend more time together, said Judi Phillips, MS, LMHC.

She once counseled a busy couple with high-powered jobs and three small children.

“When I first suggested rituals of connection to them, they said, ‘Judi, you’re crazy, there is no way!’” she recalled. “So, I talked with them about how they could use the ways in which they were already together to be more intentional in their connections.”

Instead of taking their usual approach of dividing and conquering the work of putting the kids to bed, for instance, they did it together. Then, after the children were in bed, they made sure to have meaningful conversations not related to the logistics of the day. They shared something interesting they had seen or read during the day and shared their thoughts about it.

Those simple commitments had an almost magical effect on their relationship.

“They came back and reported to me that they felt more connected to one another than ever,” Phillips said. Instead of seeing these times of connection as one more thing to do, they actually began looking forward to them. Plus, they found themselves giving one another more leeway when one of them was irritable or defensive.

In the end, the couple became really committed to these regular opportunities to connect, Phillips said: “They said there was no way they would ever let it go because they found how it so significantly and positively influenced their relationship.”

You can learn more about marital rituals of connection in How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love. Or, if you need more one-on-one relationship counseling, reach out to the Catholic counselors of the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

How to Give Helpful Advice Without Overstepping

We’ve all been there, watching someone struggle with a problem without making any progress: the spouse who is perpetually late, the friend who won’t leave a dead-end relationship, the college graduate whose job search has stalled out.

Meanwhile, we can see exactly what they need to do to fix their problem…if only they would just listen!

It’s one thing to yell advice at the television as we watch our favorite team fall apart on the field. But when the person in question is someone close to us, our “helpful advice” will probably be ignored—or worse, met with annoyance.

There’s a better way to help the people closest to us, though, as Dr. Greg Popcak discusses in his book, God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People. Here’s a summary of the process he outlines in chapter 2 of the book.

 

What’s Your Motivation?

Before offering your advice, take a moment to ask, “Why am I so eager to jump in with my two cents?”

Let’s face it: sometimes, it’s less about them and more about us looking for some kind of personal ego boost.

If we’re living a Christ-centered life, though, our main motivation should be to love the person in the way God loves them. The Christian definition of love is wanting the other’s good. Our aim, then, should be to help our friend or family member become more fully the person God intends for them to be.

Aligning our desire for the person we’re trying to help with God’s desire for them is absolutely critical. If we’re not on board with God’s plan for them, then we’re at risk of simply trying to impose our own wishes, desires, and preferences on the person we’re trying to help. Rather than helping the person become the unique and wonderful reflection of God’s image that they were made to be, we’re really trying to remake them in our own image.

The reality is, playing God is way above our pay grade.

 

Are You Invited to the Party?

Unless you’re in a formal mentoring or supervising relationship (as the parent of a child, for example), steer clear of offering advice that hasn’t been asked for.

“The rule of thumb when helping others is wait to be invited to the party before you offer to bring the potato salad,” Dr. Popcak writes.

That doesn’t mean you need to sit by biting your tongue. You can offer your help, respectfully: “I know you’re struggling with your job search. I think I might be able to help, if you want.”

Whether the person is open to hearing your advice or not, this approach strengthens your relationship because you’re showing up as a respectful ally, not a boss ready to take charge of their life.

 

Start with Listening

Listening is an act of love, the saying goes, and it’s a critical part of giving good advice.

“If you really are interested in helping a person become what God created him to be, your first step should be to ask him who he thinks that is, and then you should be quiet and listen,” Dr. Popcak says.

If “who does God want you to become?” is a little too abstract, break the question down. Ask them what qualities they want to be known for at the end of their life. Do they want to be known as a strong person? A loving person? Wise, prudent, patient, creative?

Next, ask a follow-up question: If the person were to live out those qualities in the situation that is causing the problem, how would he or she act differently? In other words, if they approached the problem in a way that lined up with their aspirations, how would the situation change?

Often, this question helps a solution to “snap into place,” Dr. Popcak says. Better yet, because the solution comes from inside the person and lines up with their own stated values, they are more likely to act on it.

 

For more ideas about how to help the people in your life, check out God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace With Difficult People. Or, if you want more one-on-one advice, connect with one of more than a dozen Catholic counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This 3-Part Journaling Exercise

In a previous post, we discussed types of self-talk that only make stress and anxiety worse without addressing the root causes. (See “10 Ways of Thinking That Sabotage Your Life.”) Now, let’s look at one strategy for breaking the habit of unhelpful self-talk so that we can practice ways of thinking that actually reduce stress and anxiety.

 

Start by Identifying Old, Unhelpful Scripts

First, a quick review. “Self-talk” is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of our experiences. Unhelpful or harmful self-talk is often a “script” rooted in memories of experiences from our past. When we encounter a similar type of experience, our unconscious brain pulls out the old script and runs through it as a way of making sense of the new situation.

The problem is that the old script doesn’t give us a good handle on the new situation. The old script is what cognitive behavioral therapists call “cognitive distortions,” so named because they distort our perception of reality.

Dr. Greg Popcak explains how to identify the ten most common types of unhelpful self-talk in his book, God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy! A few examples include mind-reading (assuming you know what others are thinking without having sufficient evidence), catastrophizing (expecting the worst-case scenario to happen and seeing it as inevitable), and polarized thinking (viewing situations, people, or yourself in extreme, all-or-nothing terms, without recognizing any middle ground).

But once you’ve identified an old script that’s keeping you from achieving a happier, healthier life, what do you do next?

 

A Journaling Exercise for Rewriting Old Scripts

One option is a three-step journaling exercise that helps you take apart the old script and rewrite a more helpful one. Here’s a summary of the process as Dr. Popcak explains it in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

 

1. Vent about the stressful situation 

Start by writing a single sentence that describes what happened. For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back.

Keep it pretty straight-forward, focusing on the bare facts of whatever is causing you stress and anxiety.

Next, vent! Write down what this event means to you. Why is it stressing you out? For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back. This is the fifth job I’ve applied for where they never even called to set up an interview. I thought I was a perfect fit, but they obviously don’t think so. I feel worthless, like a complete failure.

 

2. Identify the distortions

 Next, re-read what you wrote as if it were written by a friend; your job is to sort through each statement and separate facts from distortions. Make notes in the margins classifying each statement. For example:

I applied for this job I really wanted two weeks ago, and I still haven’t heard back. (That’s a fact.) This is the fifth job I’ve applied for where they never even called to set up an interview. (Also a fact.) I thought I was a perfect fit, but they obviously don’t think so. (Distortion: mind-reading,) I feel worthless, like a complete failure. (Distortion: polarized thinking, i.e., all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking.)

 

3. Write yourself a helpful letter

Finally, continuing in your role as a helpful friend, write yourself a letter that responds to the facts of the situation in a way that grounds you in reality, puts things in perspective, and offers practical steps that might actually help address the situation. Here’s an example:

Dear friend,

I know job hunting can be discouraging and demoralizing. But don’t make it harder than it is by listening to negative thoughts grounded in faulty thinking! The reality is, there are many possible reasons why these employers didn’t get back to you, including reasons that have nothing to do with you—so stop “mind reading!” And the fact that you didn’t get these jobs doesn’t make you a “failure”; it means you didn’t get those jobs, and that’s it. Plenty of successful people experienced way more rejection before finding success.

Here are three things you can do. First, take some time to pray, and just rest in the assurance of God’s care for you. Second, get some professional help with your job search process: hire a job coach, or take an online course to spruce up your resume. Third, ask around about a Christian job support group you could join, or start one yourself. Getting some friends to support you on the journey will help you keep going.

As you write this letter to yourself, avoid any “empty talk”: platitudes, pep talks, or encouragement that isn’t backed up by evidence. Focus on putting the facts of your situation in a more realistic light and naming practical things you can do to move forward.

This exercise can help you get on top of your stress and anxiety, but for a more comprehensive, one-on-one approach that takes your faith into account, reach out to Dr. Popcak and the therapists at CatholicCounselors.com.

10 Ways of Thinking That Sabotage Your Life

Some ways of thinking help us lead to a healthier, holier, happier life. Other ways of thinking aren’t helpful at all, leading us to powerlessness, isolation, and self-indulgence.

This was one of the key insights of the great spiritual master St. Ignatius of Loyola, who realized that some thoughts (or “movements of the soul”) drew him closer to God and his own well-being, while others led him away from those things.

More than five hundred years later, a similar insight among psychologists would give birth to cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy that has proven effective for treating anxiety and depression.

As Dr. Greg Popcak points out in his book Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, the two frameworks—one spiritual and one more science-based—can both help us identify whether our “self-talk” (the little stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our experience) are healthy, godly, and productive. Identifying unhelpful self-talk can help us take steps to change the unconscious “scripts” that are sabotaging our lives.

Dr. Popcak goes into more detail about St. Ignatius’s approach to discerning helpful and unhelpful thoughts in Unworried, but for now, let’s turn to some of the most common types of unhelpful self-talk identified by cognitive behavioral therapists.

 

The Top Ten Types of Unhelpful “Self-Talk”

The following list of “cognitive distortions” (so-called because they distort our perception of reality) is taken from chapter 2 of Dr. Popcak’s book, God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

 1. Mind Reading

Mind reading involves assuming you know what others are thinking without having sufficient evidence.

Example: You’re in a meeting and your boss looks at you briefly with a stern face. You immediately think, “My boss is disappointed with my work,” without any concrete evidence or feedback to support this assumption.

2. Filtering

Filtering involves focusing exclusively on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive.

Example: You receive feedback on a project. Despite receiving nine positive comments and one slightly critical one, you focus solely on the criticism, ignoring all the positive feedback.

3. Magnification

Magnification is exaggerating the importance or severity of events, often perceiving them as more disastrous than they are.

Example: You make a minor mistake in your report and think, “This is a disaster! It’s going to ruin my entire career,” amplifying the significance of the error.

4. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing involves expecting the worst-case scenario to happen and seeing it as an inevitable outcome.

Example: You feel a mild pain in your back and immediately think, “What if it’s a serious illness? I might end up bedridden and unable to work.”

5. Emotional Reasoning

When you believe that what you feel must be true, even if there is no factual evidence to support it, you’re engaged in emotional reasoning.

Example: You feel anxious about flying and conclude, “Because I feel scared, flying must be a very dangerous way to travel,” even though statistics show it’s quite safe.

6. Polarized Thinking

Polarized thinking involves viewing situations, people, or self in extreme, all-or-nothing terms, without recognizing any middle ground.

Example: You don’t get the promotion you wanted and think, “If I’m not a complete success, I’m a total failure,” seeing things in black-and-white terms.

8. Fallacy of Internal Control

The fallacy of internal control leads you to believe that you are responsible for events and feelings that are actually outside your control.

Example: Your friend is in a bad mood and you think, “It must be because of something I did,” assuming you have more control over others’ emotions than you actually do.

8. Personalizing

Personalizing involves attributing external events or others’ behaviors to yourself, often blaming yourself for things you are not responsible for.

Example: Your spouse is short-tempered one evening and you immediately think, “They must be upset with me,” taking their mood as a reflection of your actions or worth.

9. The ‘Shoulds’

The ‘Shoulds’ involve imposing rigid rules on yourself or others about how people should behave, leading to guilt and frustration when these expectations are not met.

Example: You tell yourself, “I should always be working and productive,” and feel guilty whenever you take time for leisure, imposing rigid rules on yourself.

10. The Fallacy of Change

The fallacy of change means believing that your happiness depends on changing others to meet your expectations or desires.

Example: You believe, “If I can make my partner more outgoing, we’ll be happier,” thinking that changing someone else is the key to your happiness.

 

Changing Unhelpful Self-Talk

These distorted ways of thinking have real consequences for our life, leaving us poorly equipped to deal with things the way they really are. Moreover, a number of studies show that cognitive distortions lead to poor mental health and poor relationship satisfaction.

The good news is that once we recognize our unhelpful self-talk, we can change it—although that can be challenging, given that these self-sabotaging scripts are often deeply rooted in our subconscious brain.

We’ll look at some steps to help us rewrite those scripts in a future post, but if you can’t wait, contact a Catholic therapist at CatholicCounselors.com.

Want to Handle Conflict Better? Take Your Emotional Temperature

Hurricanes are measured on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, and earthquakes are rated on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale.

Human stress can be measured, too, using the Stress Temperature Scale (sometimes known as an Emotional Temperature Scale). Unlike hurricanes and earthquakes, though, keeping track of your emotional temperature can be really useful for avoiding conflict with other people—and handling it better when it’s unavoidable.

By regularly monitoring your emotional temperature, you can take steps to lower it before it gets too hot. This is useful because when our emotional temperature gets too high, the problem-solving part of our brain tends to go “offline” and the reactive, “fight or flight” part of our brain takes over.

That’s not a problem if we’re facing an imminent physical threat, but in the context of human relationships, the reactive brain almost always makes things worse.

Over a period of days or weeks, keep a notebook where you track your emotional temperature several times a day. You can also jot down “triggers” that make your emotional temperature spike, and how you tend to react when that happens.

Here’s the Stress Temperature Scale as outlined in Dr. Greg Popcak’s book How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love. You can find another version of this tool geared toward kids in the books Parenting Your Kids with Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace, both by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak.

 

The Emotional Temperature Scale

1–2: Relaxed. At this level, you’re pretty “chill.” You’re not really focused on any problems or challenges; your heart and respiration rate are in the low to normal range. You’re mainly warm and affectionate toward others.

3–4: Relaxed but alert. You’re engaged with and alert to your surroundings and getting along well with others. Whatever challenges you may be facing feel manageable.

5: Alert and focused. At this level, you’re still working well with others, but you may feel a little distracted by problems or concerns that are taking more of your attention. You’re working a little harder to meet challenges, but they still feel manageable.

6: Alert and stressed. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline begin to be released. On the surface, you seem to be in control of your reactions, although some people might comment that you “seem a little off.” You’re distracted, and it may be difficult for others to get your attention. You need to make a conscious effort to be polite and pleasant in interactions with others. It feels like you’re struggling to stay on top of things.

7: Irritable. As stress hormones continue to flood your bloodstream, the part of your brain that filters nonverbal signs of disgust and irritation begins to go offline. You may sigh, roll your eyes, fidget, or otherwise show your irritation. At the higher end of 7, you may avoid eye contact with others. The problem-solving part of your brain is still engaged, but just barely.

At this point, people who are attuned to their emotional temperature will know to take a break or find another way to lower their stress level.

8: Angry. Now your nonverbal filters are definitely not working, and your verbal filters have begun to collapse: your tone of voice and choice of words definitely betrays your anger, although you aren’t yet raising your voice or using insults. Different personalities express anger in different ways. Some people withdraw, becoming quiet or sullen and pouty. Others may “tantrum,” engaging in emotional manipulation and finger-pointing. Still others may take a superior attitude, offering lengthy explanations of why they’re right and others are wrong.

Emotionally savvy people know to walk away from the conversation once they hit this point, taking a long break to cool down, pray, reflect, and otherwise regain control.

9: Very angry and feeling like a victim. Now your verbal filters have completely collapsed. If you tend towards pouting or withdrawing, you will probably be shut down for the rest of the day. This is when the name-calling, insults, and raised voices begin, all of which will seem perfectly justified by the circumstances or the other person’s behavior.

10: Outraged and out of control. Now your brain’s physical filters have shut down; doors are slammed, tables pounded, random objects thrown or kicked. At this point, people may physically hurt one another.

 

Keep It Under 7 or 8

Tracking your emotional temperature in a notebook over the course of a week will help you identify strategies for keeping your stress level below an 8, the point at which your brain stops being able to solve problems effectively, and the point at which the primitive fight-or-flight part of your brain takes over. Record your stress responses, and write down ideas for how you’d prefer to handle things in the future.

For strategies to help you lower your emotional temperature, check out Dr. Popcak’s book, God Help Me! This Stress Is Driving Me Crazy! along with other titles such as How to Heal Your Marriage: And Nurture Lasting Love and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace. And if you need professional help managing your anger, reach out to a Catholic counselor at CatholicCounselors.com.