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.

Got the Midwinter Blues? It’s Okay to Take Care of Yourself

Midwinter can be tough on even the sunniest, most upbeat people. The Christmas lights are gone, it’s cold, it’s dark, and once-pristine snow is getting gray and slushy…kind of like a lot of our moods.

That’s doubly true if you’re at home caring for toddlers and preschoolers. The sheer effort required to get out with the kids (boots, hats, gloves) may mean you’re not getting out as much.

During a recent video chat, Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak helped parents in the CatholicHÔM community brainstorm strategies for getting through the winter blues. Their advice? Give yourself a break!

Take a Break from the “Shoulds”

Before the advent of electricity, the dark days of winter were traditionally a time when life slowed down. The lack of daylight forced people to work less and rest more.

You should feel free to embrace that vibe on days when you’re feeling especially “low energy,” Lisa Popcak told parents.

“It’s okay to take care of ourselves as if we were down with the flu,” said Popcak, co-host of More2Life Radio and co-author of Parenting Your Kids with Grace. “This is a day for canned soup and grilled cheese sandwiches! Everything doesn’t need to be ‘on’ all the time.”

All of us can fall victim to a case of the “shoulds” now and then: I should be cleaning the house, I should be doing more at work, I should be volunteering more at school. Stay-at-home parents can be especially prone to the “shoulds,” often out of a felt need to prove they’re being “productive” by the standards of the marketplace.

But Catholic theology clearly prioritizes being over doing. Our worth isn’t measured by our economic output. Sometimes, the best thing to do—for you and the people you interact with—is to take a break.

One creative mother gave herself a break from her active kids by inventing a game she called “What’s on My Butt?” While she lay down on the couch, her kids placed various objects on her bottom, and she had to guess what they were. She got a break, and her kids were entertained.

“It’s not about the doing of things, it’s the being together and making a connection that matters,” Dr. Popcak affirmed.

 

Ask for What You Need

Don’t be afraid to ask your family for what you need to make it through the day.

Maybe due to the example of idealized television families, many of us seem to think that the people closest to us ought to “just know” what we need, Lisa Popcak said. But expecting our loved ones to be mind readers just isn’t realistic.

Be explicit in naming exactly what would help you: “I really need a half-hour break after lunch.” “Could you help me with…?” “It would mean a lot to me if we could spend an hour together this evening.”

You might be pleasantly surprised at how willing your family is to help you out. Even the littlest children will often cooperate with a request that is worded in a way they can understand.

 

Give Your Body a Break, Too

Catholic theologians have long insisted that our bodies are more than “accessories” to our souls (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #364–365). More recently, brain researchers have increasingly shown how much influence the body has on the state of our minds.

If you’re struggling with the midwinter blues, then, be sure that you’re caring for your body in a way that will boost your mood. As Dr. Popcak writes in Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, three practices are especially important to maintaining our ability to handle external stressors. Those three practices are:

  • Sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most people need between seven to nine hours of good sleep every night in order to function well. Besides healing and recharging the body, your brain does a lot of its most important “maintenance work” during deep sleep. No wonder it’s so critical for mental health!
  • Exercise. Exercise, especially the type that raises your heart rate and leaves you a little short of breath, releases endorphins (natural mood-boosters) and helps stimulate the growth of the hippocampus—the part of the brain that regulates emotion.
  • Good nutrition. What we eat affects how we feel, physically and mentally. Foods rich in magnesium, zinc, probiotics, and B vitamins all have been shown to have a significant positive effect on our mood. In addition, certain nutritional supplements have also been shown to have as much of a positive impact on mood as some prescription medications.

See chapter 6 of Unworried for details on all of these practices.

 

Tap into the Power of Prayer

Prayer is often one of the first things to go when we’re feeling down, which is unfortunate, given how ready God is to help us.

Fortunately, your prayer doesn’t need to be complicated; God responds generously to the simplest, most forthright prayers: “Lord, it’s another cold, gray day. The kids are climbing the walls, the house is a mess, and I’m really struggling. But I trust in your love for me; please give me whatever I need to abide in your love today.”

 

So, to review: Give yourself a break from the “shoulds.” Ask for what you need. Take care of your body. Ask God to supply the grace you need to make it through the day.

These four strategies should be enough to beat your run-of-the-mill winter blues. If you’re struggling with a more serious case of depression or anxiety, though, don’t hesitate to reach out for one-on-one help from a licensed therapist at CatholicCounselors.com.

Carrying Your Cross—Concrete Steps to Overcoming Difficulties

 

Life can feel like one challenge after the next. Or maybe, when things are good, we have a hard time trusting the good, because it feels like we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak.

The Theology Of The Body reminds us that although the world is fallen, God is working through us to rebuild his kingdom. Carrying our cross doesn’t mean just learning to put up with the problems and frustrations of this broken world, but rather to face them with strength and virtue and where possible, through God’s grace, to overcome them. Pope St. John Paul reminded us that focusing on what God created us and the world to be is more important than focusing on what we and the world are today.

We tend to get frustrated when we have to deal with persistent problems, challenges, and stressors. Of course, that’s understandable. But when we look through the lens of the Theology of the Body, we can see that God is always giving us the grace we need to bounce back in the face of trials and respond in ways that help us to cooperate with his grace and make a positive difference. As Christians, we’re called to do whatever we can to show the world that God’s power is always working in us–even in the middle of persistent problems–and that he is giving us the ability to make whatever challenge we’re facing better–even if just in small ways.

It’s true that some days that work can seem harder than others.  But there are a few tips we can draw from the Theology of the Body to persevere even when we start to doubt ourselves or feel worn down.  First we need to keep our eyes, not on what’s in front of us, but rather on how God wants to work through us to make the situation into what he wants it to be. Second, we need to remember that it isn’t all up to us.  We need to keep bringing the situation to God–not just once, but again and agin until its resolved– and ask him to help us discern the next small step.  Third, we need to lean into virtue–that is, the spiritual strengths God wants to give us.  We need to prayerfully ask, “What are the virtues or strengths would help me overcome this challenge and what would it look like to practice them?”  Fourth, we need to look at failure–not as a closed door–but as feedback that we bring back to prayer and then leads us back thought these steps until we find the solution.  If we can work this process, we can fulfill the promise that St Paul makes in Romans 8:28 that to those who love God, all things work to the good.

Here are three practical steps to accomplish the above points:

1.  Center Yourself– When you’re struggling to recover from a setback or disappointment, before doing anything else, the first step has to be centering yourself. Bring the situation to God, pray, “Lord, help me rest in you, trust in your grace, and gather the resources and support I need to make a plan and see this through.”  Then refocus on a goal–any goal–that represents the next small step you can take.  You’ll feel less like running away if you can identify the next step forward and focus on gathering the resources to help you take that next step.

2.  Get Out of the Tunnel–We often find it hard to bounce back from disappointments or challenges because tunnel vision causes us to get stuck trying to find the one big thing we can do to solve this problem once and for all. Especially with more complicated situations, there is rarely one thing you can do to make the problem disappear. Instead, concentrate on the next small thing you can do to either address the problem or insulate yourself from the problem or both. Focusing on small steps you can take in several areas– instead of searching for ultimate answers to the one big question–allows you to come out of the tunnel and begin to see new options on the horizon.

3. Make A “Got It Done” List–We all know about To-Do lists but what about making a “Got it Done” list?  Sometimes we struggle with bouncing back from a problem or setbacks because we feel like we’re  just not up to the challenge.  You can combat these feelings by intentionally calling to mind–and better yet, writing down–all the past times in your life when you were sure you weren’t up to a challenge but, through God’s grace and your good efforts, you managed to succeed.  Making a “Got It Done List” will help you remember that you have conquered many difficult situations before and remind you that between you and God, there is nothing you can’t handle moving forward.

Looking for more practical steps to navigating life’s challenges? Check out our videos, books, and pastoral tele-counseling services at CatholicCounselors.com.

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Quick Links and Resources:

God Help Me! This Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!

Pastoral Tele-Counseling

Getting Over The Grumpies—The Secret Antidote for Shifting Your Mood

When we’re feeling frustrated, burnt out, or just downright grumpy, it can be easy to get stuck in those feelings. Maybe because it’s comfortable, maybe because we’re trying to figure out what’s wrong, or maybe because we just don’t know how to overcome our negative mood. 

A recent study out of the University of Texas explored the effects of expressing gratitude on the gratitude giver and receiver. The study revealed that more often than not people hold back from offering thanks to others because they either feel uncomfortable doing so, or believe that the person receiving their gratitude will feel awkward. The results of the study indicated however, that expressing gratitude, even in the simplest ways, can have a big impact on how the giver and receiver feel about themselves, each other, and their overall mood. 

The Theology of the Body reminds us that God created us to be a gift to each other. When you receive a gift, it is only appropriate to say, “Thank you.” Christians are called to love one another, and one of the most important ways we can love each other is by reminding each person in our lives how important, how treasured, and how special they are to us. Sometimes we can feel foolish telling other people how much they mean to us, but today, perhaps sharing our gratitude for one another can be one small way we can fulfill St. Paul’s admonition in 1 Cor 4:10 to be “fools for Christ.” Take a moment to find some small way to let the people God has brought into your life how grateful you are to them. Tell your spouse, your kids, your family, friends and co-workers how much you appreciate them, and don’t forget to say “thank you” even for the little things that others do for you. It’s a simple way you can be God’s blessing to others and remind others of what a blessing they are to you.

Here are three ways to boost your mood (and another’s mood) through gratitude:

1. Recognize the Gift–Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that you shouldn’t say “thank you” to someone who is “just doing their job” or “just doing what they are supposed to do.”  There are lots of people who don’t do their jobs and fail to do what they should. The fact is, it takes effort to try to do what’s right and fulfill our responsibilities to one another, and it’s an effort that deserves to be recognized. In a world that sees people as objects and takes everyone for granted, we Christians have a special duty to remind each other, and the world, how important each and every person is in the eyes of God and how precious a gift it is when someone does something–anything–to make our lives a little easier or more pleasant. Be that person who recognizes the gifts others give you today. Acknowledge everything someone does for you today with a simple “thank you” and a smile.

2. Celebrate the People In Your Life–Is there someone you especially appreciate? Someone who makes a difference in your life just by being who they are?  When was the last time you told them how important they are to you?  Today, take a minute to actually hand write a short note to tell them how much they mean to you. You might thank them for something specific they did, or for how they make you feel, or just thank them for being in your life. Let them know what a gift they are to you and how you wouldn’t be the same without them. Then drop it in the mail or leave it someplace where they can be surprised to find it later on. It doesn’t take much effort, but you’d be surprised by how much of a difference this little effort can make.

3. Get Happy–Research shows that people who make an effort to practice simple gratitude habits can increase their happiness set point by up to 30%. Your happiness set point is the natural level of happiness you experience in your everyday life and it is remarkably stable. Whether people are surprised by good things or frustrated by unpleasant events, they tend to return to their happiness set point fairly shortly thereafter. But simple acts of gratitude like keeping a gratitude journal, saying “thank you” to others, and finding simple ways to acknowledge how much the people in your life mean to you have been shown to significantly increase a person’s happiness set point, increasing their overall sense of wellbeing and joy.  It turns out, the best way to be a happier person is to remind yourself to express thanks for all the little blessings you’ve been given and all the people who bless your life everyday.

For more ways to live an abundant life, check out our resources at CatholicCounselors.com

Quick links and resources:

Broken Gods—Hope, Healing, and The Seven Longings of The Human Heart

Praying For (and With) Your Spouse

For Better…Forever—The Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage

Beating Burnout

Are you feeling a lack of connection, struggling with motivation, feeling bored or constantly overwhelmed? If this feels familiar, you’re probably experiencing burnout. 

To put it simply, burnout is “effort minus meaning.” The Theology of The Body (TOB) speaks to this when it reminds us of the difference between work and toil. Before the Fall, the work that Adam and Eve did to tend the garden was joyful and fulfilling. It had purpose and meaning, and their efforts literally produced good fruit. After the Fall, because sin knocked the entire world out of order, work became toil. The earth fought back against their efforts to cultivate it. Their work felt like a struggle. They lost sight of the purpose of their efforts. Work became something that divided them instead of making them feel united for a common purpose. This is the basis of burnout–when our efforts seem meaningless.

Reclaiming our joy in the face of burnout means reconnecting with the meaning and purpose behind what we’re doing and approaching our work and relationships in a way that enables us to feel more connected to God, the people around us, and our own best-selves. Often it takes making a conscious effort to step back from what we’re doing and intentionally reminding ourselves why we’re doing it, who we’re doing it for, and what our goal is in choosing to do it in the first place. Then, we need to ask ourselves if the way we’re doing something is really serving those goals. If not, it’s time to make some changes. God doesn’t want us to settle for grinding our way through the day in our work, life, or relationships. Burnout can be a sign that we’re starting to settle and that we need to step back, and practice what the TOB calls “receptivity” by giving our situation to God, asking him how He wants us to approach the work, role, or challenges in front of us, and listening for His voice to guide us through.  If we do this, his grace will bring the meaning, purpose, and joy back into everything we do.

1.  Remember Where You’ve Been–When we’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, it’s easy to get stuck in the moment and feel like there’s no end in sight. To get some stress-relieving perspective, step back and remember all the other times you were able to overcome the stresses and challenges you were facing. Remember God’s faithfulness through past trials. Praise him for the ways he has been present to you all along. Recall the ways you worked with his grace to keep yourself together through those times and ask yourself how you could take advantage of similar strategies this time around. Sometimes, the fastest way to get where you’re going is to remember where you’ve been and all the things God has helped you overcome to get you where you are.  Remember that someday you’ll be looking back on this present, stressful time as just one more mountain you’ve conquered through God’s grace and your faithful efforts to persevere.

2.  Tap Your Reserves–The best way to understand burnout is to think of it as an increase in stress combined with a loss of meaningfulness. Often, when we get stressed, we try to conserve our strength by only using as little energy as possible to accomplish the tasks that are associated with our life or relationships. We phone in our work. We keep taking the easy way through the day, and checking out of difficult relationships. This can be OK for a day or two when we just need a little time to collect ourselves, but if it becomes habit, this can create burnout, as we feel our lives becoming both more stressful and less meaningful. What can we do? We have to tap our reserves. Ask yourself, how could you bring just a little more of yourself and your creativity to this work or relationship? What might make it fun again? Do you need to change your approach? Learn new skills? Get new help? Take things a little less seriously? Ironically, the best way to beat burnout is to bring MORE of yourself to your tasks and relationships. The more you can convince yourself to tap your reserves, stop going through the motions and reinvest in your life, the happier–and more stress-proof–you’ll be.

3.  Check Your Cables–Sometimes, when a piece of equipment won’t work, fixing it is as simple as checking to make sure it’s still plugged in. The same is true for us. When stress has got us to the point where it’s difficult to find the energy to move, we need to check our cables and make sure we’re still plugged in—to God and the people who love us. Stop trying to do it all yourself. Give the situation to God. Tell him how tired you are and how much you need his grace, not only to keep going, but to approach the situation in a new way so that you can glorify him. Then reach out to the people around you. Let them know that you need their help–both in terms of emotional support and practical help. Let the people who love you actually love you and work for your good through this trying time. The more we work on staying connected to our power source–that is, grace and the good people who share our lives–the more energy we’ll have to enjoy the work God has given us to do.

For more resources on beating burnout, check out:

Tele-Counseling Services

Unworried: A Life Without Anxiety

The Life God Wants You To Have

Learning from Jesus’ Example–How To Deal With Antagonistic People

During this Holy Week, we are reminded of the ways that Jesus confronted and responded to those who antagonized him. We can use His example to help us effectively respond to the antagonistic people in our life, but that may look different than you would expect. 

Theology Of The Body (TOB) reminds us that every person has dignity and deserves to be treated with love–including the people who we experience as antagonistic and unsupportive. But TOB also reminds us that loving people doesn’t mean letting them treat us however they want. Loving someone means working for their good. We aren’t working for another person’s good if we allow them to demean themselves by behaving in a cruel, abusive, disrespectful, antagonistic, or unkind manner. We can’t just do whatever comes naturally–whether that means avoiding conflict or enflaming it. Instead, when we feel attacked, we have to ask God to help us make a response that serves the ultimate good of everyone involved.

Jesus modeled two ways of confronting abusive behavior. Sometimes, when he was clear about the greater good being served–for instance, the salvation of humankind–he patiently bore the wrongs committed against him. But other times, when the greater good required it,–for instance, when the Pharisees intentionally tried to twist his meanings, confuse his message, or undermine his mission–he confronted them. Like Our Lord, we must always respond to antagonistic people with the greater good in mind. Rather than simply reacting, we must bring our emotions to God and ask him to teach us how to respond in a manner that will glorify him, help us be our best selves, and lovingly challenge the antagonistic person to be better. Sometimes that will require us to give them the space they need to self-correct, and other times it will mean being more direct.  With prayer and practice, we can learn to deal gracefully with even the most antagonistic, unsupportive people.

Let’s look at a few practical steps to deal with the antagonistic people in our lives:

1. Take a Step Back--TOB reminds us that, in all things, we are obliged to be loving; that is, to work for the other’s good. But that means different things in different situations. Sometimes, when a person is really working hard to be kind and loving, but they have a momentary lapse, the most loving thing we can do is bear that wrong patiently–to make it safe to make a mistake and self-correct. Other times, when a person is habitually behaving in a manner that undermines their dignity or ours, the most loving thing to do is to admonish them–to set limits that address their offensive behavior. But we can’t always immediately know the right thing to do. That’s why it’s our job to cultivate receptivity. That is, at all times, it’s our job as Christians to step back from the situation we’re in and ask, “What choice does God want me to make that will see to both my wellbeing and the wellbeing of this other person?” The better we can be at asking this question in the moment and responding accordingly, the better we will be at cooperating with God’s grace and allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us through difficult relationship situations.

2.  Hold Up A Mirror–People are often unaware of how they are coming across. We might experience someone as antagonistic, or selfish, or hostile, but they might see themselves in an entirely different light. Instead of just reacting out of our perception of a person, we have to first hold up a mirror so they can see how they are coming across. Before you react, say something like this, “Listen, there’s just something about the way you’re coming across that feels really X (hurtful, antagonistic, unsupportive, etc).  Is that what you’re trying to do or am I missing something?” Saying this allows the other person a glimpse of how they are coming across so they can either clarify or change their approach. Doing this is one way we can “bear wrongs patiently” without reducing ourselves to a doormat.

3. Reassess the Relationship–If a person who is close to us persists in being hurtful or offensive, despite our efforts to address the situation charitably, it may be time to reassess the relationship. Ask yourself, “In what situations, or what contexts do I feel safe with this person?” Then limit your relationship accordingly. For instance, what level of service can you continue providing without feeling like you are being treated as an object? Scale back your service to that level. Or, in what contexts does this person tend to behave themselves? (When they’re in public?  When they are on the phone? For an hour or two but not 10?) Restrict the relationship to those contexts where they can handle themselves in a manner that doesn’t undermine their dignity or yours. This way, you aren’t cutting them out of your life–unless there is simply no safe way to be around them–but you are working for your mutual good even though you are having to set a limit. If they complain about the boundary you’ve imposed, simply tell them that you would be happy to remove the boundary as soon as they are willing to take the concerns you’ve expressed to them seriously and change their behavior. What happens next is up to them (whether you maintain the boundaries, or you feel safe to adjust the boundaries). God does not ask us to make relationships work all on our own regardless of how the other person treats us. He merely asks us to be charitable in all we do and make sure that whatever we do is done prayerfully, and with the intention to work for the overall good of the other person, our relationship with them, and ourselves.

If you would like more support dealing with the antagonistic or difficult people in our life, contact us at CatholicCounselors.com. 

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Quick Links and Resources:

God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! 

How To Heal Your Marriage

Having Meaningful (Sometimes Difficult) Conversations with Your Adult Sons & Daughters

Pastoral Tele-Counseling Services

 

Fasting From Falsehood

The Lenten season has arrived. For some, this season is a time of great healing, blessings, and connectedness to God. For others, this time is challenging or comes with feelings of sadness or suffering. But what really is the point of Lent? And whether it is difficult or peaceful, how can we use this time to strengthen our relationship with God? 

A common Lenten practice focuses on sacrificing, or giving something up for 40 days. The intention of this is to say, “Lord, I love you more than I love this thing that I am giving up.” Then, each time we think about the thing we have sacrificed, or have a desire for what are fasting from, we instead shift our focus to the Lord and do something in that moment that leads us closer to Him. However, it’s easy for this practice of sacrificing to become twisted into the belief that we are meant to suffer throughout Lent (or in general). While this is not the case, there are two important things to address about suffering in order to understand why. 

First, we must recognize that we are not called to just suffer. Jesus did not suffer for the sake of suffering, he suffered to work for a greater good—for our greater good. This is the difference between suffering and redemptive suffering. Suffering without meaning is misery. Suffering with meaning, however, is redemptive suffering—and redemptive suffering leads to healing, works for a greater good, and leads us closer to God.

Second, it is important to understand the difference between what St. Ignatius referred to as Consolations and Desolations. Consolations are movements of the Holy Spirit that lead us closer to God and help us move towards meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue in our life and our relationships. Desolations are moments where satan is whispering in our ear and we are being lead towards feelings of powerlessness, isolation, and self pity and/or self indulgence. Now, this does not mean that consolations always feel good and desolations always feel bad. Consolations can sometimes be very difficult, sometimes they don’t feel good at all in the moment—but they do ultimately lead us towards meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue. 

So how do these concepts relate to our Lenten practice? If making some sort of Lenten sacrifice leads you towards greater healing through meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue, then that can be a wonderful focus for the next 40 days. However, if giving something up leads towards a sense of powerless, isolation, or self pity/self indulgence and feelings of empty suffering, God might be calling you to focus on something different this Lent. Perhaps if you struggle with self esteem or self acceptance a helpful Lenten practice would be to focus on taking care of yourself. This might be difficult, but would lead you closer to God by being a good steward of God’s creation in you. Maybe if your tendency is to bury your feelings or hide your feelings behind an unhealthy coping mechanism a fruitful Lenten practice would be to begin journaling daily or seek counseling. Again, this may feel uncomfortable, but would be a practice of redemptive suffering which would lead you towards greater healing and strengthen your relationship with God.

These are only two examples, however the goal and focus of Lent is to grow in relationship with God and to move us closer to becoming the whole, healed, godly, grace-filled selves we were created to be. 

If you need support throughout your Lenten journey or would like to learn more about how to move from a place of desolation to a place of consolation, check out The Life God Wants You To Have, or reach out to our Pastoral Counselors at CatholicCounselors.com.

Overcoming Your Inner Critic

Have you ever felt held back by thoughts such as “I can’t,” “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not doing enough,” etc.? The emotional part of our brains is wired to think these hurtful thoughts as a feeble attempt to protect ourselves from potential threats. However, when we listen to these reactionary thoughts, it’s easy to begin to believe these hurtful statements about ourselves.

The Theology of The Body reminds us that we live in tension between what it calls “Historical Man” and “Eschatological Man” That is to say, we’re caught between the person we are and the life we have today, and the whole, healed, godly, grace-filled person we’re called to be and the more abundant life God is calling us to live. Through his grace, God is working to make all things new–starting with us, our lives and relationships! Of course, the enemy doesn’t want any of this to happen. He is constantly whispering in our spiritual ear, telling us that “thus-and-such isn’t possible,” or “who do we think we are?” or “you can’t do that!” or, “that’s never going to change” or even, “why bother trying.”

St Ignatius of Loyola called these kinds of messages “desolations.” Desolations represent the voice of the Enemy, who is trying to tempt us away from doing what God would have us do and having the life and relationships God wants us to have. The more we listen to these desolations, the more we block God’s grace from having the effect it could on our life and relationships. Desolations make us feel stuck, demoralized, undermined, and thwarted–often before we even start. It takes a lot of work to rid ourselves of desolations and learn to be guided by the consolations of the Holy Spirit, but the more we do this work, the more confident we become in the face of the various challenges we encounter in every part of our life. Even in the face of big, serious, persistent problems, we can feel confident, powerful, and effective, because we are confirmed in the knowledge that all is possible with God.

Here are a few ways that we can move towards consolations and overcome our inner critic.

  1. Acknowledge Daily Successes—When desolations are taking over, we often think about the things that we didn’t do well or “should” have done better. Especially at the end of the day, we reflect on the things we didn’t get to on our to-do lists or the things that we wish we had said or done. But this type of daily reflection causes us to feel powerless, defeated, not good enough. Instead, write down the things that you do well daily. Did you reach out to a friend? Hold the door open for someone? Clean up the pile of papers on the counter? Finish a project? No matter how big or small, write down at least one success, accomplishment, or thing you did well each day. This helps us to lean into consolations by recognizing what we are capable of and what we did well which replaces those hurtful thoughts with helpful thoughts. 
  1. Recognize Your Strengths—When you acknowledge your successes each day, ask yourself, “What strength or virtue helped me do X well?” Identify the strengths or virtues that you used to help you accomplish that task. Were you thoughtful, determined, patient, etc.? These are the strengths that you have, that make you who you are, and that you can use to help you be effective in any situation you may face. 
  1. Use I Am Statements—As mentioned previously, the enemy uses desolations to make us focus on all the things we are not and all the things we “can’t” do. The Holy Spirit, however, uses consolations to remind us who we are and all the things we are capable of. Once you have identified your strengths as described above. Write them down in a list and remind yourself of them every day by saying, “I am thoughtful,” “I am determined,” “I am patient,” and so on. Fill in your strengths into those I Am statements and use them as a reminder of who you are and who God created you to be. 

For more support on overcoming your inner critic, reach out to us at CatholicCounselors.com.

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Quick Links and Resources:

Unworried—A Life Without Anxiety

A Great Day For A New You—When Its Time To Make a Change 

Broken Gods—Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart

Maintaining Peace While Home For The Holidays

 

The Holiday hustle and bustle is upon us and while many things can be very joyous, there are also many things that create stress as well. One of the biggest stressors this time of year can be the pressures and expectations from family members, especially extended family. Everyone has their own idea of what the holidays “should” look like and it’s easy to feel torn in many different directions—often to the detriment of our own needs, desires, or expectations. 

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Are difficult people robbing you of your peace? 

Check out:

God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!
(Making Peace with Difficult People)

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It’s true that as Catholics we are called to be generous to others and to say, “yes” to opportunities to be of service. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a right to have our needs met as well. In fact, the principle of “mutual self-donation” articulated in the Theology of The Body assumes that in godly relationships, all the people in the relationship are equally committed to meeting each others needs, even when it requires them to grow and make sacrifices for one another. Sometimes, this mutual self-donation does not occur, which may leave us feeling overwhelmed, drained, or disappointed, especially around the Holidays. But there is hope! We can in fact work to create this mutual self-donation in our relationships by being assertive about our needs. Assertiveness allows us to achieve mutual self-donation, by seeking a healthy balance between meeting our own needs and being attuned to the needs of others. It enables us to see ourselves not as vending machines that exist solely to be used up by others, but as persons, who have gifts to give others but who also have a God-given right to be loved and treated with dignity.

Assertiveness is a virtuous practice, however can sometimes be difficult. Here are a few ways to be gracefully assertive and achieve mutual self-donation in your relationships:

1. Be Direct–Jesus said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’.”  In other words, it is important to be clear, direct, specific, and honest about what you can do for others and what you need from others. This is the essence of assertiveness. When you feel like others are taking advantage, don’t get resentful. Instead ask yourself, “Have I been honest about my needs?”   Have you been direct about the kind of help you need from the people in your life? Have you let your needs be known–not just by hinting at them and hoping others will just “get it”–but by stating them clearly, specifically, honestly, and directly? The first step to being gracefully assertive is taking the time necessary to clarify what your needs are and to state them honestly with the expectation that others will be as generous to you as you are attempting to be generous to them.

2. Use the “Qualified Yes” Technique–When other people ask you to do things for them, instead of feeling stuck between having to say “yes” to everything and not being able to meet your own needs, and saying “no” too often, use the “Qualified Yes” technique. In other words, when someone asks you to do something for them, don’t immediately focus on whether you can help at all, instead, focus on negotiating how and when you might be of assistance. For instance, if your parish asks you to help with an event, you might say that while you wouldn’t be able to run the event, you could assist with this part of it. Or if your mom or siblings ask for your help with a project Wednesday evening, you might say that while you can’t help Wednesday, you could be available Thursday. Using the qualified yes technique allows you to avoid polarizing requests for help and feeling trapped between disappointing others and meeting your own needs.  Instead, this method gives you a way to be generous to others while still being faithful to your own needs and obligations.

3. Use Relationship-Friendly Boundaries–Sometimes you do need to set boundaries with people but you don’t have to feel like you are threatening the relationship to do it. Setting basic boundaries doesn’t mean pushing people away or even frustrating them. It just involves proposing a healthy and appropriate way for them to get their need met while saying “no” to less healthy or appropriate suggestions. For instance, if your in-laws are pushing you to stay with them over the holidays, but you know spending that much time together would be hard on all of you, you might say, “We’re really looking forward to getting time together, but I think it would be better for all of us if we stayed at a hotel.”  In this example, you’re respecting the desire for everyone to have family time, but you are setting a boundary that increases the likelihood that getting this time together will be pleasant and successful. Set boundaries that focus not so much on avoiding short term conflict, but on the long term health of your relationships.

For more resources for maintaining peace during the Holidays—or anytime of year, check out our resources at CatholicCounselors.com.

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Quick links and resources:

God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! (Making Peace with Difficult People)

Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace

How to Heal Your Marriage (And Nurture Lasting Love)