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.

Does Jesus Want Us to be ‘Nice’ to the Difficult People in Our Lives?


“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).

Jesus couldn’t have been more clear that following him means imitating the Father’s radically generous, unconditional love. He didn’t just preach this love; he embodied it through his death on the cross, and he expected his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

Over the centuries, those words have inspired countless Christians to heroic acts of love, sometimes to the point of sacrificing their lives.

Unfortunately, too many Christians also take Jesus’ teaching to mean that they ought to patiently put up with bad behavior from difficult—or even abusive—people.

But as Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak frequently point out to callers on their More2Life radio show, that’s a serious misunderstanding of Jesus’ call to radical love. In fact, such an approach may not be loving at all.

 

Jesus Wasn’t Always ‘Nice’

To see why Christian love sometimes calls for us to stand up for ourselves, set healthy boundaries, and in some cases, even end a relationship, we need to get a fuller picture of who Jesus really was.

Jesus dealt with “difficult” people all the time. Sometimes, those difficult people were even his closest friends! Other times, they were religious authorities who had it out for him.

Did Jesus quietly tolerate problematic behavior in the interest of “being nice”? He certainly stood up to the religious leaders who opposed him, often in forceful terms that left no question about their need for a change of heart.

Nor did he let his friends off the hook when they went astray. He famously rebuked Peter just moments after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew 16:23).

At the same time, Jesus met known sinners with tenderness and mercy: think of his encounter with Zacchaeus or the woman caught in adultery, for example.

 

Real Love Works for the Good of the Other

Each of these very different approaches had a common motivation: Jesus’ genuine love for the person, tuned to achieve the good of the person he was encountering. As St. Thomas Aquinas would later put it, Christ-like love “wills the good of the other.” Christian love cooperates with God to help the other person become fully the person God desires them to be.

At the heart of our love for anybody, then, is the question: “What do I need to do to help this person achieve the good that God wants for him or her?”

In a healthy relationship, the answer would begin with the needs and desires of the other person. But in the case of someone whose problematic behavior is causing real, ongoing harm to us or other people, the bar is a lot lower. In these cases, really loving the person begins with not letting them mistreat you or other people. Instead, it begins with helping them become a better person.

Usually, the first step is to engage the person in a respectful, cooperative conversation about how to change the problem behavior. In God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace with Difficult People, Dr. Popcak outlines a five-step process for doing that.

If a person isn’t open to cooperatively working on the problem, then the next step might be setting limits or boundaries on the relationship. Ideally, these boundaries are targeted at the problem behavior and don’t cut off the relationship completely.

Sometimes, though, it is necessary to end the relationship entirely, especially if your life or health are in danger. As the Church teaches, we have a duty to care for our own life (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2264).

 

The Love of the Cross

At this point, you may wonder how Jesus’ call for his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me” fits into the picture of Christian life. After all, plenty of saints have suffered, and even given their life, for the sake of Christ.

What distinguishes the sacrifice of the cross, though, is that it served a higher purpose; Jesus sacrificed his life to save all humanity. The sacrifices of the saints and martyrs participated in that sacrifice. For instance, saints such as Maximilian Kolbe, Gianna Beretta Molla, Oscar Romero, and Maria Goretti sacrificed their lives in order to save another life, or to stand up for truth and justice.

Each of us has everyday opportunities to practice this sort of sacrificial love: quietly putting up with a spouse’s annoying but harmless habit, getting up with the baby so your spouse can get some much-needed rest, ignoring a stranger’s rudeness out of charity.

But if you’re dealing with someone whose behavior is causing real problems, then ask yourself: Is putting up with this behavior really the best way to love this person? Does it serve Christ and the Kingdom of God?

If the answer is “no,” then it might be time to imitate Jesus’ other ways of loving difficult people.

For much more on this topic, check out God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts! And if you need professional, one-on-one help navigating a difficult relationship, reach out to one of the Catholic counselors 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.

How To Put The Brakes On Anxiety

“Try taking a few deep breaths.”

If you frequently suffer from anxiety, you’ve probably heard this advice, but a lot of people dismiss it out of hand: How are a few deep breaths going to fix things? I’m facing a real crisis here!

It’s true that deep breathing won’t make the cause of your stress go away. But it’s also true that this technique is really good at putting the brakes on anxiety, helping you calm down enough to address the cause of your stress more effectively. God designed our bodies with this feature, so why not use it?

To understand why deep, controlled breathing works, it helps to understand a little about the physical roots of anxiety.

Your Body’s Emergency Response System

Picture Alex, a firefighter, in the moments after an emergency call comes into the firehouse. He springs into action, grabbing equipment as he races to the fire truck; in a moment, he and his crewmates head out, sirens blaring and lights flashing.

Meanwhile, a similar scene unfolds inside Alex’s body. Seconds after the emergency call spurs Alex into action, his hypothalamus releases hormones that mobilize the body’s defense systems. Alex’s heart rate increases, his breath comes more quickly, the pupils of his eyes dilate, and blood and energy are diverted to his muscles and other vital organs.

This is the same physiological response that has turbo-charged humans’ bodies in the face of danger for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s what Alex needs in order to perform his best when he gets to the scene of the emergency.

When Your Brain Issues a False Alarm

But what happens when the brain sounds the alarm in a situation that doesn’t require a short-term, high-performance physical response? What if, for instance, you have serious financial worries that keep you up at night for hours at a time, your mind racing? Or what if you have to attend a social event at your new job, and you spend days worrying about what could go wrong—or worse, days replaying and critiquing every interaction you had at the party?

When your brain deploys an outsized physiological response to a situation that doesn’t really call for it, the result is anxiety. Unlike the boost that Alex got, the physiological effects of anxiety aren’t helpful; in fact, they can be downright harmful. Will a racing mind or heart help you address your financial problems? No. Will sweaty hands, a clenched stomach, and shortness of breath help you navigate the social labyrinth of your workplace party? Not likely. In fact, you’d probably be better able to deal with these genuinely stressful situations if you weren’t so anxious.

Before you can begin to tackle the external source of your stress, then, you need to regain control of your body. Researchers have identified a number of techniques that work, including deep, controlled breathing.

Control Your Breath to Tamp Down Anxiety

Why does deep, controlled breathing work to tamp down the body’s stress response?

The two main regulators of the body’s physiological state are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system; the sympathetic nervous system revs things up in the face of a threat and the parasympathetic nervous system slows things back down. Normally, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in shortly after a threat has passed, releasing hormones that help your body’s systems calm down. But when your brain wrongly activates the sympathetic nervous system in response to an ongoing, non-physical threat, anxiety and its symptoms are the result.

Controlling our breath is one way we can consciously activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Researchers have long noted the connection between controlled breathing and a calmer state of mind, and in 2017, a team at the Stanford University School of Medicine identified a patch of 175 nerves that seem to be key to that effect. These nerves monitor your breathing as a clue to your physical state; they send their findings to a brain structure called the locus coeruleus that modulates the activity of the whole brain.

By taking deep, controlled breaths, you’re telling your brain, “It’s okay, we’re not in immediate danger.” This activates your parasympathetic nervous system, putting the brakes on your runaway anxiety.

Four Steps to a Calmer You

Here’s one controlled breathing technique you can try the next time you feel anxious:

  1.     Place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Close your eyes.
  2.     Count to four as you breathe in through your nose.
  3.     Count to seven as you hold your breath.
  4.     Counting to eight, blow out through your mouth.

Repeat for at least five minutes or until the anxiety passes. If you’ve been dealing with chronic anxiety for a long time, it may take as long as twenty minutes to calm down.

This trick works so well, it is regularly taught to professional athletes, performers, and emergency responders.

Of course, anxiety is a complicated phenomenon. Deep, controlled breathing techniques aren’t a one-and-done solution to chronic anxiety, which may require the help of a professional.

On the other hand, God designed our bodies with this neat feature. So the next time someone suggests taking a few deep breaths to put the brakes on your anxiety, why not try it?

For more about this topic, see the book Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, by Dr. Greg Popcak. And if you’d like to explore this topic further with a Pastoral counselor, check out our tele-counseling services at CatholicCounselors.com.

This Is My Circus And These Are My Monkeys! — How To Gracefully Deal With Drama and Stress

Does the world around you feel chaotic? Are you having a hard time knowing how to handle certain challenges that are coming up in your life? Often when situations are escalated, we can quickly become overwhelmed and feel as though we don’t know where to start or what to handle.

This is because drama pulls us out of the receptive spirit God calls us to live in. It makes it difficult to hear God’s voice and cooperate with his will. We’re so busy living in reaction to the drama-causing events and people that it sometimes doesn’t even occur to us to ask God what to do.  The Theology of The Body reminds us of the importance of resisting the impulse to get caught up in our drama: that, even in the middle of the drama, it’s important to cultivate receptivity, the ability to step out of the craziness that’s happening around us, center ourselves in God’s grace and respond (rather than react) to what’s happening in a loving, responsible way that glorifies God, works for our good and the good of the people around us.

Here are a few ways to ensure we are responding with a receptive spirit:

1. Take a Dramatic Pause–When the drama is mounting, we’re often tempted to try to get control of what’s going on around us, and that’s what pulls us in. Don’t jump into the drama.  Instead, take a dramatic pause.  Mentally take a step back and look inside yourself.  Offer up a quick prayer.  Ask God to give you peace and perspective.  Ask for the grace to respond to this situation rather than reacting to it.  Then think, “Where do I want this situation to go?  What do I need to do to move it in that direction? What do I need to do to protect myself and the people I care about from the drama?”  THEN and only then are you ready to act.  When drama strikes, the best way to get control of the situation, is to reclaim your sense of self control.

2.  Get the Other Person Back “On Book”–When actors forget their lines, they are said to be “off book.” When people are creating drama, they’ve forgotten how to be their best selves.   After reclaiming control of ourselves, the next thing to do get them back “on book”  that is, remind them of healthier ways to deal with the situation they are creating drama about.   Don’t criticize their behavior.  Instead, help them refocus on solutions rather than their reactions.   Don’t say, “Calm down.” or “You’re really overreacting”  Say, “Listen, I really want to help but you’re just lashing out right now.  Can you focus on what we can do to make this better?  What’s the next step you can take to make this better?”   Try to help the person creating the drama refocus on solutions and reminding them that you’re here to help.

3. End the SceneRemember, it is not your job to save other people from their own drama.  You should do what you can to be helpful, but if they resist your efforts, get worse, or lash out, the best thing you can do is end the scene.  When a person is too seriously caught up in their own drama, anything you say or do can and will be used against you.  Although it might feel like you’re being insensitive, the best thing to do is to say something like, “I want to help, but the most important thing you can do right now is take some time to pray about this and think about what you want to do to try to make this situation a little better.  Let me know when you’re ready to do that and I promise I’ll be here.”  Then, find a way to make a graceful–or if necessary, abrupt–exit.  If you can’t redirect someone who is in drama, the most loving thing to do is to refuse to contribute to it, even if that means withdrawing. If the person continues to try to draw you back in, suggest places they can turn for more professional support, and encourage them to turn to those resources.  If they are serious about seeking help, they will be grateful for the suggestions. But if they are just interested in creating more drama, it would be better for you to step out as gracefully as you can.

Find more resources at CatholicCounselors.com!

 

Quick Links and Resources:

Unworried—A Life Without Anxiety

God Help Me! These People Are Driving Me Nuts!

Pastoral Tele-Counseling

St Sebastian Center for Performance Excellence

Learning From Jesus’ Example–How To Deal With The Antagonistic People In Your Life

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. 

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)