How to Find Marriage Counseling That Really Works—and Why You Shouldn’t Wait

Nearly half of all first marriages in the United States end in divorce, yet couples typically wait four to six years from the onset of problems before seeking professional help. That’s too bad, because numerous research studies have shown that marriage counseling can be effective at significantly improving relationship satisfaction and preventing divorce.

Why do couples wait so long to seek professional help? Many couples steer clear of marriage counseling because they are afraid it won’t work, or because they view it as admitting failure. In the meantime, they usually turn to the sources of support that are most conveniently at hand: friends, family, pastors, and so on.

But these sources of help usually fail to address the deeper issues in a troubled relationship. Worse, well-meaning friends can offer advice that actually causes more problems.

“No one sets out to destroy their relationship, but I cannot tell you the number of hours I have had to spend with couples cleaning up messes that were made from bad advice they had received,” Dr. Greg Popcak writes in his book How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love. “Often, my clients will spend weeks undoing the problems caused by bad advice or poor support before we can even get to the original problem.”

When is it appropriate to lean on friends, family, and faith leaders for support, and when is it time to seek the help of a licensed marriage and family therapist? And how do you find a competent therapist—one who has training and experience in marriage counseling, and who is actually committed to helping you heal your marriage?

Dr. Popcak addresses all of these questions in chapter 11 of How to Heal Your Marriage, but we’ll summarize his advice below.

 

Family, Friends, Faith: The Limits of Common Marital Supports

Couples who encounter problems in their marriage often begin by seeking support from family and friends, and sometimes their pastor or another faith leader. Seeking emotional support and encouragement from family and friends can be a perfectly good first step, Dr. Popcak writes, when those people are able to provide informed peer support.

“The key words here are informed and peer,” he says. Peers are people who are on the same social level as you—not people who are emotionally or materially dependent on you. And an informed peer is someone who has demonstrated maturity, virtue, and good character. This is someone who is capable of lovingly challenging your outlook and assumptions rather than simply affirming everything you say.

While certain friends and family members can provide much-needed support, they are rarely a good source of practical advice for couples experiencing significant marital problems. That’s because friends and family are not usually in the best position to provide objective advice. Moreover, they usually lack the professional training and experience necessary to provide strategies that are research-tested and proven to work. Finally, Dr. Popcak says, in a culture where divorce is common, “most people intuitively know much more about what it takes to end a marriage than how to save it.”

What about your pastor? Your pastor may be able to offer you the spiritual support you need to tackle your marriage problems, but unless he has a professional degree in counseling, he is no more qualified to offer you marriage counseling than he is to treat your medical problems. That is not to say that you shouldn’t reach out to your pastor, but depending on the severity of your problems, most pastors will likely point you in the direction of marriage-friendly counseling.

 

Why Good Marriage Counseling Works

Human relationships, even between two people who love one another, are complicated, and the keys to a healthy relationship are not always obvious or intuitive. This is where a licensed marriage therapist can help. Drawing on decades of research, a competent marriage therapist can help couples learn the habits and practices that make for a happy, fulfilling relationship.

Dr. Popcak, for example, lists eight habits of happy couples:

  1. Regularly connecting through daily rituals of working, playing, praying, and talking together.
  2. Practicing emotional rapport and benevolence.
  3. Practicing emotional self-control, especially during times of stress and conflict.
  4. Practicing a “positive intention frame”—that is, assuming the best about your spouse even when they are at their worst.
  5. Taking care of one another as you work through conflicts.
  6. Practicing mutual respect, accountability, and boundaries.
  7. Learning from mistakes and learning to talk about “perpetual problems.”
  8. Finding good support for their marriage.

Couples who are struggling often think that the key is to solve the conflict between them. In fact, research shows that both happy and unhappy couples have about the same amount of conflict; the difference is that happy couples have the skills to handle those conflicts in ways that draw them together rather than pushing them apart.

A good marriage therapist serves as a sort of coach, helping couples learn these and other skills that will enable them to have a happy marriage. It is this long-term, expert guidance that makes marriage counseling so effective.

But how do you find a good marriage therapist?

 

Choosing a Competent, Marriage-Friendly Therapist

To find a good therapist, start by looking for someone whose training has prepared them to specialize in marriage counseling. Research by Gottman (2011) shows that therapists with specific training in marriage and family therapy have significantly higher success rates with marital therapy clients (over 90%) compared to general practice therapists (as low as 30%).

Ask about the potential therapist’s specific training and supervised experience in marital therapy. A qualified therapist should be able to describe their graduate coursework and practical experience in detail. If a therapist gives vague responses, they might not be the right fit.

Next, ask whether the therapist is marriage friendly. What is a “marriage-friendly” therapist? According to the National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists, this is a therapist who believes it is preferable to help couples restore their marriage to health, if that is possible.

It might seem that most marriage and family therapists would hold this belief, but according to one national survey of 1,000 therapists, more than 60% said they are “neutral” on marriage versus divorce for their clients, according to the Registry.

For many Catholic couples, finding a therapist who understands and supports their faith tradition is also crucial. Research indicates that faithful Catholics prefer therapists with competencies in moral theology and other areas specific to their faith. Different faith traditions have unique perspectives on marriage, and working with a therapist unfamiliar with or unsupportive of these views can make counseling challenging.

 

The Path to a Happier Marriage

So, while many couples delay seeking professional help for their marriage because of fears or misperceptions about what it involves, the reality is that good marriage counseling is no different from the sort of help you would get from a coach, financial advisor, or a medical professional.

Throughout the Bible and two thousand years of tradition, the Christian faith acknowledges that good relationships don’t come naturally to us humans. We all need the help of God—and one another—to nurture happy, healthy relationships. Marriage counseling that respects clients’ faith and works from research-proven methods can provide the support couples need to fulfill God’s plan for their marriage.

For more advice about finding professional help for your marriage, see chapter 11 of How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love by Dr. Greg Popcak. The National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists can direct you to marriage-friendly therapists in your area. And you can always get tele-counseling marriage therapy from the many Catholic therapists right here at CatholicCounselors.com.

How to Turn Your Anger Into Healthy, Holy Action

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

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

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

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

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

Anger vs. Wrath

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t React; Instead, Step Back

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

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

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

 

Sublimate Your Anger to God

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

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

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

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

 

Learn to Express Anger Constructively

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

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

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

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help

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

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

­­How to Say ‘No’ with Confidence

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

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

 

How to Know When to Say No

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Another Option: The Qualified Yes

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

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

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

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

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

 

Let Your Yes Mean Yes…

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

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

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

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

Apocalypse Always: How to Stop Catastrophizing

In the classic children’s book Wemberly Worried, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, a little mouse named Wemberly worries about everything, big and small: cracks in the sidewalk, noises in the house, taking a bath—and, especially, starting school. No matter the situation, she constantly assumes the worst will happen.

Her constant worrying about what could go wrong is a hallmark of catastrophizing, where the focus is on the most catastrophic outcomes rather than on more likely, benign possibilities. Catastrophizing is an example of what therapists call cognitive distortions: unhelpful “scripts” that we pull out of our subconscious mind to help us interpret our experiences.

Some other examples of catastrophizing:

  • You find a strange mark on your skin and stay up late researching skin cancer. By the morning, you’re a wreck.
  • Your spouse is running late and not answering their phone; your mind starts fixating on the possibility that they were in a serious car accident.
  • You decide you need to leave your dysfunctional workplace, but you’re so focused on the worst possible outcome (not finding a new job, or finding a new job that is even worse) that you can’t take action.

It’s not that these worst-case scenarios aren’t real possibilities: you might have skin cancer, your spouse might have gotten into a serious car accident, you might not get a better job than the one you’re leaving. But are these the only possibilities? No, and they are not even the most likely possibilities. But catastrophic thinking leads us to focus almost exclusively on the worst-case possibilities, causing stress and anxiety without doing us anything good.

“Catastrophic thoughts like these represent Satan’s way of causing us to spend all of our energy on imaginary problems so that we don’t have the strength to deal with the real problems in our lives,” says Dr. Greg Popcak in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy!

 

Dealing with Catastrophic Thinking

So, what can you do if you recognize yourself catastrophizing in certain situations? Because cognitive distortions are deeply rooted in our subconscious minds—and often related to bad memories of similar situations—it usually isn’t going to work to simply tell yourself to “stop thinking that way.”

If catastrophizing is causing significant problems in your life, you might want to reach out to a therapist for help; you can find many Catholic Pastoral Counselors who draw on psychology and the wisdom of the Catholic tradition at CatholicCounselors.com. Another option would be to work through the process outlined in God Help Me! The Stress is Driving Me Crazy! or Unworried: A Life without Anxiety, also by Dr. Popcak.

Either way, you’ll be led through a “cognitive restructuring” process that is aimed at challenging and altering negative thought patterns to promote healthier thinking. Here’s a brief outline of what that process might look like:

  1. First, you’ll identify the type of events that trigger your anxious, catastrophic thinking.
  2. Next, you’ll name what this type of event means for you—why does it matter? What does it “say” about who you are, or how others see you?
  3. Then you’ll identify the memories of past experiences that provide the basic template for your catastrophizing way of thinking.
  4. Next, you’ll begin to develop a more helpful way of thinking to replace the unhealthy, unhelpful, catastrophizing script. For people of faith, this involves carefully listening to what the Holy Spirit is whispering to our heart.
  5. Next, you’ll make a conscious connection between this new way of thinking and experiences you’ve had that reinforce the truth of this new script.
  6. Finally, you’ll develop some practical strategies—physical, mental, spiritual, and relational—that you can take to further strengthen your mind’s connection with this new way of thinking.

You can find an abbreviated version of this approach in another post on our blog, “Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This Journaling Exercise.”

Changing old ways of dealing with stress doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t mean we’ll never have another worrying thought.

But remember: God doesn’t want you to live with constant, overwhelming stress. And with the right support and an openness to God’s grace, you don’t have to.

Feeling Overwhelmed? Try This 3-Part Journaling Exercise

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

 

Start by Identifying Old, Unhelpful Scripts

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

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

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

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

 

A Journaling Exercise for Rewriting Old Scripts

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

 

1. Vent about the stressful situation 

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

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

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

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

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

 

2. Identify the distortions

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

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

 

3. Write yourself a helpful letter

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

Dear friend,

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

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

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

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

10 Ways of Thinking That Sabotage Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Top Ten Types of Unhelpful “Self-Talk”

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

 1. Mind Reading

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

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

2. Filtering

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

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

3. Magnification

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

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

4. Catastrophizing

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

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

5. Emotional Reasoning

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

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

6. Polarized Thinking

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

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

8. Fallacy of Internal Control

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

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

8. Personalizing

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

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

9. The ‘Shoulds’

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

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

10. The Fallacy of Change

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

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

 

Changing Unhelpful Self-Talk

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

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

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

Want to Handle Conflict Better? Take Your Emotional Temperature

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Emotional Temperature Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Keep It Under 7 or 8

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

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

Give Your Kids ‘Little Lice’ (and Other Affectionate Touch) to Help Them Thrive

In Latin America, they call it piojito—literally, “little lice”—but parents all around the world use this special form of physical affection to bond with their children. The Spanish name hints at the basic technique: parents draw their fingertips over their child’s head, back, or arm in short, gentle strokes.

The resulting sensation might remind some people of little lice, but the effect is more magical, evoking a warm, cozy feeling—and a sense of closeness between the person giving and receiving the touch.

It turns out that lightly stroking the hairy parts of our skin at just the right speed activates special nerve cells called C-tactile fibers. The activated CT fibers signal the release of dopamine, which in turn lights up parts of the brain that process sensation, emotion, and reward. The resulting burst of pleasure motivates us to seek out the same connection again, strengthening the relationship.

 

We’re Hard-Wired for Physical Affection

But if the idea of imitating creepy-crawly little bugs turns you off, don’t despair. Piojito isn’t the only way to connect with your kids; many types of physical affection are just as effective. 

What is most important, according to Dr. Greg Popcak, is for parents to be generous with appropriate physical affection.

“We’re hard-wired by God to long for affection and to want to be affectionate with each other,” Dr. Popcak says in a video on CatholicHOM, the Catholic parenting app. “In fact, for mental and physical well-being, affection is a more fundamental need than even food.”

The importance of so-called “social touch” for kids’ healthy development has been understood for decades. In the moment, physical affection measurably reduces stress and pain. But it also releases growth hormones, boosts the immune system, and strengthens brain development. Children who experience regular affectionate touch often display stronger cognitive skills, empathy, and emotional resiliency.

The benefits of physical touch last well into adulthood, according to one decades-long study by Duke University researchers of 482 people. The researchers found that individuals who received lots of affection from their mothers as eight-month-old infants “showed significantly lower levels of distress, anxiety and hostility” as 34-year-old adults.

 

But I’m Just Not Affectionate!

Parents sometimes tell Lisa Popcak, a family coach and vice president of the CatholicCounselors.com, that they’re “just not affectionate” or that their children aren’t affectionate. But while some people may shun affection due to a neurodevelopmental disorder such as autism, in most cases, “if we aren’t affectionate, it’s actually because somehow affection was trained out of us,” she says.

The good news is that even people who aren’t used to giving and receiving affection can train themselves to become more comfortable with it. But because this involves physical changes to our nervous system, it might take some time, much as it takes weeks or months of practice to develop a new physical skill.

Start by pushing yourself a little out of your comfort zone, Dr. Popcak advises, gradually building up to a more affectionate way of interacting with your kids.

 

7 Ways to Practice Physical Affection with Your Kids

Remember, too, that physical affection comes in many different flavors. Here are seven to try with your kids in the coming week:

  1.     Hugs, especially as part of a daily leaving or returning ritual
  2.     Cuddling on the couch
  3.     Gentle back and shoulder massage
  4.     Holding hands
  5.     Tickling, playful wrestling, or piggyback rides
  6.     Hand games (“Miss Mary Mack,” “Say, Say Oh Playmate,” “Stella Ella Ola,” etc.)
  7.     The gentle pressure of a soothing hand

And then, of course, there’s always piojito—the magic touch that soothes, calms, and connects…despite its association with “little lice.”

If you’d like more parenting help, come join our Catholic parenting community on the CatholicHOM app, where you’ll find the CatholicHOM Foundations course, a library of helpful videos and podcasts, and a supportive community of Catholic parents. For more in-depth help with family issues, visit CatholicCounselor.com.

But I don’t want to spoil them!–How to Have a Healthy and Positive Relationship With Your Child

I want to have a good relationship with my kids but I don’t want to spoil them!”

Does this statement feel familiar?

Attachment does not mean that you have to give your children everything they want, when they want it, and how they want it. It means listening to them, taking the time to understand why they want the things they want, and—if you can’t let them—brainstorming more godly and efficient ways that you could help them meet at least some of those needs in the here and now.

Alternatively, if you have to say no, as parents often must, it is always for a good and objective reason (for instance, your child’s safety or well-being) and not just because you don’t feel like it or because you reactively tend to say no to things out of stress and irritability.

In infancy and toddlerhood, fostering healthy attachment means responding promptly, generously, and consistently to cries. It means trusting the schedule God has built into your child for sleeping, feeding, and comforting and not making your child “cry it out” at night, or cry for long periods as a matter of habit during the day. Crying is never good for a child. It always means he needs help in regulating some system in his body (Sunderland, 2008). God gives parents the responsibility to attend to those cries promptly, just as he tells us He does in Psalm 34:4. “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.”

As your child matures through childhood and adolescence, his needs become more complicated to meet. Parents should, as much as possible, use the “qualified-yes” technique in responding to these needs unless the request is for something that is truly contrary to the child’s well-being. For instance, if a child asked for something the parent couldn’t afford, the qualified-yes technique would have the parent say, “I can afford to contribute only X toward that, but let’s talk about ways you might be able to earn the difference if it is that important to you. Otherwise, this is what I can do. What do you think?” This would be as opposed to saying, for instance, “You want me to spend $250 on a pair of sneakers? Are you crazy?”

With the qualified-yes technique, the child learns that the parent is always someone to whom he can turn to get help in meeting his needs or making a plan by which those needs could be met. Because of this, even when the parent can’t supply what the child wants or needs, the child still feels attached because he has been heard and helped to come up with a plan. And, if the child decides that having that thing really isn’t worth the effort after all, it is he who makes that decision, and not the parent who makes himself an obstacle to achieving that need or want.

For more on how to use the qualified-yes technique as a way of fostering attachment through childhood and adolescence, check out our books Parenting Your Kids With Grace and Parenting Your Teens and Tweens With Grace!

 

Quick Links and Resources:

Parenting Your Kids With Grace

Parenting Your Teens and Tweens With Grace

Discovering God Together

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