How do I get my spouse to talk to me?

If you need help with conversation in general, check the blog post on that topic.  This one will focus on relational dynamics. 

When a couple first meets and strikes up an acquaintance, there's so much to discuss!  The conversation seems to flow so easily, and you can't wait to tell each other about your day.  

As the relationship matures, you may find yourselves in a different place.  You've already told each other all about your families, you don't really want to tell the same jokes over and over, and maybe work just wasn't that interesting today.  Reticence can develop, and then one day, you realize that you can't get your spouse to talk to you about anything except practicalities.  What can you do?  

A large part of successful communication rests on choices you can make.  Here are some of the choices that will help you succeed:

  • Choose the timing.  You might be ready to explode with all your news as soon as your spouse walks in the door, but s/he might need an hour to decompress with a good book before s/he wants to share.  Introversion may play a role.  On the other hand, your spouse may be exhausted by 9 pm, and you might need to wait on a long conversation until the next day.  If you want the best from your spouse, try to catch him/her at the best time for him/her.  This sets your spouse up for success.  You may want to ask if now is a good time to talk.  
  • Choose your topic.  If you're trying to get your spouse to talk to you more, then you will want to pick a topic that works for him/her.  Ask about his/her interests, or favorite moments, or a movie s/he just watched.  You may not be able to get to the deepest darkest secrets in the first conversation.  
  • Choose your reactions.  If you want to encourage talking, be positive about it.  Make it a fun experience for your spouse, and not a test or an interrogation.  
  • Choose your partner.  Your spouse may not be the one to ask about some things.  If s/he is easily overwhelmed by talking about finances, and you want financial advice, ask a financial advisor and then confirm it with your spouse.  If you need to vent about your family and your spouse has already listened to you, seek a friend who's willing to be supportive.  (You should never lie to your spouse or hide information)
  • Choose your attitude. If you were successful at all in getting your spouse to talk more, look on it as a victory.  Don't try to get more than your spouse is willing to give.  Maybe ten minutes is all s/he has today.  By making your marriage a safe place to express emotion, you encourage further sharing.  If you criticize (even "constructive criticism"), you will be less likely to experience a repeat.  
  • Be aware of your spouse's soft spots.  If s/he had a difficult relationship with mom or dad, that probably isn't the first topic to broach.
  • Reinforce.  Thank your spouse for the conversation you had together, and express that you liked talking.  

If it sounds like I'm asking you to cater to your spouse's whims, it's because you want him/her to do something that s/he isn't currently enthusiastic about.  You have the best chance of success if you make it as easy as possible.  After some practice, you may be able to change some of these preferences - maybe after several conversations about what your spouse likes, you can direct the conversation to what you like.  Of course, we hope that your spouse will enjoy the conversations you're having so much that s/he will begin to initiate them and cater to your desires as well.  This is ideal.  You certainly have a right to choose the topic half the time.  If you assert this right, you may be less successful in encouraging conversation.  You may have to start slow when you're trying to change a habit.  

These two had some good conversations

These two had some good conversations

The one thing that a Ouija board can tell you about yourself

The Ouija board was patented in 1891, and since then has been a classic party game.  Sometimes just for entertainment, sometimes for seances, the Ouija board also has been used by some to contact the spirits or to gain insight.  

If you're playing the game properly, you won't be consciously moving the planchette (the triangle with a lens at the center).  But most people find that it does, somehow, move in such a way as to spell out something!  What's happening?

The Ouija board is a perfect example of the ideomotor phenomenon.  This is a phenomenon wherein the body unconsciously moves in response to thought.  It has been observed in instances of folk beliefs, purported supernatural happenings, and even in medical settings.  You may have seen a wedding ring on a thread in front of a pregnant woman's abdomen that is supposed to predict the sex of the baby - same ideomotor response governs this ritual.  

The body has a difficult time remaining perfectly still.  If you've tried to hold a camera perfectly steady without any support, you have probably seen the results.  The body is mostly governed by the brain, and the brain tries to ready the musculo-skeletal system for potential movement.  Sometimes, the movement starts without even conscious thought.  Your brain is still at work, but it doesn't need your conscious mind for the whole process of, for example, picking up a glass.  You aren't considering the movements necessary to open your hand, close your hand, bend the wrist and elbow, aim the glass for your mouth, etc.  Our brains are amazing!  

Back to the Ouija board.  Since your brain is involved in your movement, and since you are aware of the question you've asked, it's very easy for your brain and hands to work together to get you what you want: some sort of result.  If you didn't want some kind of movement on the board, then you wouldn't have gotten it out to play with, right?  You've already selected yourself as a player of this game.  So your brain is trying to help you get what you want.  You don't even need to think about moving the planchette.  And once the start of a recognizable word is spelled, your mind (and therefore your body) expect and help the rest of the word to appear.  And since the planchette can often point between two letters, your mind will bias toward the letters that make sense with what you expect.  

Of course, you could have been dragged into playing this game by a friend.  This is where one of the Ouija rules comes into play.  You must work with someone else.  In prescribing this rule, the game designers have added ambiguity - some number of players will absolutely cheat and move the planchette on purpose.  But for those who swear up and down that they're not moving the planchette, there are still two minds operating the ideomotor effect,  Thus when you are focusing on keeping your hands perfectly still, your partner might be more focused on what word is forming, and then be less likely to notice if she's moving the planchette unconsciously.  

There are several options for testing the Ouija board.  If you don't believe that your thoughts are having an impact on the way that the board works, try a double-blind experiment:

Get a friend to write the alphabet on a piece of paper or cardboard, Ouija board style BUT mix up the letters so they're in an unpredictable order.  Make sure that neither of the two planchette-holders even gets a glimpse of the Ouija board.  Blindfold the planchette-holders and make sure they keep their eyes closed.  Now, ask the question, and have your alphabet-writing friend monitor the response.  It will likely be nonsense.  

Try asking the question in a language that neither of the planchette holders understands even a word of.  You should expect that, if the spirits are guiding you, they will still respond (at least the spirits that understand the language).  

But the Ouija board really can provide some amount of insight!  As promised in the title, you will learn something about yourself as you use it.  If you use the Ouija board all by yourself, you can sometimes see what your brain is expecting.  If the planchette moves when you're working by yourself, you've gained some insight into what your mind wants to see.  If you're working with a friend, maybe you'll learn what s/he thinks, too!  


It's too big now for us to ignore it, so it's time to cover some basics on consent and harassment.  This is a part of physical and psychological health, and should be discussed whenever you decide to start talking with your kids about sexual health.  All of this is true from both the male and female perspective.  

  • Consent is a verbal affirmative.  It is not the absence of protest.  
  • Some people cannot consent to sexual contact or language.  This includes children, people who don't understand sex and its ramifications, people who can't understand you if you talk to them about sex, people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol and can't express consent, and people who are in a situation where they aren't free to say no.
  • Power dynamics change the rules on whether it's okay to ask someone out.  If you have power over someone (boss, teacher, mentor, authority figure), your subordinate may not feel that s/he can say no to your advances, and therefore can't consent.  
  • If you've asked him/her out and s/he said no, don't ask again.  Your interest has been noted and if s/he changes his/her mind, s/he'll let you know.  Asking more than once can be harassment, particularly if this person sees you often.  

If you're experiencing harassment:

  • Find someone in authority who can be an ally.  Instead of confronting the person yourself, get Human Resources involved, or the owner of the establishment, or the dean of students.
  • Document everything.
  • Don't wait for it to go away.
  • If you are afraid for your safety, get help immediately.  The police are used to helping people; they would much prefer to go out to five calls where nothing was wrong than one call for intimate partner violence/assault.  
  • It is not your fault.  No matter what you're wearing, what you did, whether you said yes before, where you are, or who you're dating.  
  • If the first person you tell doesn't believe you, keep telling people until you find someone who does.

Sweetwater Counseling professionals are available to help you process an experience like this, or to think through your response to harassment. 

The above is not intended as psychological advice.  Please seek professional help if needed.  

Be classy, like these two. 

Be classy, like these two. 

Career Change, Part 2

So you've decided that now is a time to make a change, and you've thought about what motivates you in a career.  How do you figure out what you're looking for?

Start with your strengths.  You might know what some of them are - they're the things that people have complimented you on, or the areas where you know you really shine.  If you don't know, ask your friends and family what they see.  If you hear something more than once, that's a salient point for you.  

Think over your performance reviews and consider what those people in your career have said about you.  Consider the positive feedback you've gotten in work situations as well as the classes you aced in school and college.  

There are plenty of career books available, and I'd recommend What Color is Your Parachute?  You can check them out of a local library.  There are also many career inventories available online.  But it can be hard to know what might work for you until you know what the day-to-day of a job is like.  

If you're curious about this, the best way to find out is simply to ask someone who has the job you want.  Make sure to ask about their least favorite part of the job, and the sacrifices they've made for it.  

Now that you have an idea of what you're looking for, and you've considered what it's like to hold that job, think about how many jobs are available in that field.  If it's something that's generally considered to be fun by many, then it's likely you'll have a hard time getting paid to do it.  But just because there aren't a lot of jobs in your chosen field, that doesn't mean it's off the table altogether.  Maybe you're happy with a small paycheck as long as you enjoy your work (see part one about career motivation).  If not, think about adjacent fields - maybe you can't get paid to knit, but you might be able to get paid to work at a knitting publication with fellow enthusiasts, or maybe you can stick with your current job so that you can earn money in order to buy expensive yarn and go to knitting workshops and classes on your off-hours.  

Everyone faces the decision of what to do with his/her life, and the answer has to be satisfying and motivating the the individual.  Think carefully about what is most important to you and keep those values uppermost in your mind as you move forward.  

What am I doing with my life?

January is a time of year that many people use to evaluate life and to think about new behaviors they might want to start or stop.  But what if you're reconsidering your whole career?  

It's a good idea to periodically think about what you've chosen to do with your life, and whether it's still the right path for you.  Most people won't keep precisely the same job for their full working life, and those who stay in the same field often find that they want to change job titles or subspecialties.  

First, of course, is the question of whether now is the right time to make a decision.  You may want to change jobs, but it may be financially impossible.  Or your new chosen career may require training or experience that you can't currently obtain.  But it's worth doing the research to find out exactly how financial aid works in your area, or to ask about your company's continuing education program or job transition program might work.  Sometimes we get used to one kind of work and we're reluctant to even consider a change that might be for the better, simply because change is difficult.  You owe it to yourself to find out exactly how possible a career transition is before you rule it out!  If you find that it's not feasible to transition right now, don't abandon the idea altogether.  Instead, think of it as a delay in your plan.  Louis Pasteur put it this way: "Chance favors the prepared mind."

Next, consider your motivation in your career.  There are many reasons that people choose career paths, but they fall broadly in a few categories: Compensation; Vocation; and Pleasure.  Of course, motivation changes, and most of us fit in multiple categories, but we have one that is primary.  

Compensation can come in the form of money, benefits, perks of the job, or even time off.  This could be the case for someone who chooses a teaching job so that s/he can be home during the summers, or someone who decides on contract work in order to earn money and be in charge of his/her own career.  Compensation motivates most of us to some degree or another, and should not be seen as selfish.  

Vocation is another word for a calling.  Someone motivated by vocation might go into nonprofit work, but another vocational motivation could be to change an industry for social or political reasons.  Many people who choose careers in health and human services are motivated by a sense of vocation.  

Pleasure is the idea of working at a job you simply enjoy.  You may not enjoy every minute of it, but it gives you pleasure, and you want to work at doing something you enjoy.  Many artists and athletes are motivated by the pleasure of their jobs.  If you fall into this category, then it's worth it for you to have a job you enjoy rather than a job that might pay more, but be less enjoyable.  

Stay tuned for the next part of career transition!  


Sometimes you get to combine art and therapy!  

Sometimes you get to combine art and therapy!  

Racist Uncle Bob coming to Christmas dinner? Read this first.

Oh, Uncle Bob.  You just don't know when to quit.  Your jokes start out funny and end up with the Holocaust.  It's always too soon.  

There are many ways to deal with racist/sexist jokes.  Many of us just ignore them because we value keeping the peace.  If this is you, no judgement.  

Some of us escalate quickly by saying something like, "How can you even say that?!"  This tends to start an argument and put the joker on the defensive, which may be exactly what he wants - a lot of these people just like the attention of being the outrageous one.  You also run the risk of making your host/ess uncomfortable by calling out one of his/her guests.  

Some people prefer to laugh awkwardly, or weakly.  Let me encourage you to avoid this, because it may encourage the joker to think this kind of behavior is okay.  S/he obviously hasn't mastered the art of conversation because s/he is resorting to crude humor to feel comfortable, and therefore s/he may not notice that you are uncomfortable with the joke.  

One way to deal with this, and the one that I recommend, is to ask the person to elaborate.  For example, if the joke deals with racial stereotypes, you could ask what the joker meant, or why the joke is funny.  Sometimes this forces him/her to state outright a racist belief, and this can make the joker realize that it's inappropriate.  Another way to get to the same result is to try to engage the joker in meaningful conversation about the joke.  You can ask if s/he hates the target racial group, or ask why s/he feels negatively toward women.  You can also pretend that you don't understand the joke.  For example, if Uncle Bob makes a joke about sexual assault, you could say, "I must be confused.  How is rape funny? Would you explain?"  You may also be able to make the person realize that what s/he said is inappropriate by pointing out that it's uncommon: "Wow, I haven't heard that word in a long time," or, "I didn't know people were still telling sexist jokes like that."

If you are feeling brave, you can also straight up call someone on his poor behavior.  It's within your rights to politely point out that you don't find that kind of comment to be funny.  If Uncle Bob is perpetuating a stereotype, you can say something like, "I don't think that's funny," or, "Racist jokes aren't appropriate in this family."  You can also say, "I wonder how (friend who is in the target group) would feel if she knew my uncle said that about her," or, "I wonder how you'd feel if someone said that about your daughter/wife/mother."  

If it's your house, you can just ask Uncle Bob to stop.  "Please don't make racist comments in my home."  You can bring the kids into it, too: "I don't want my children to be exposed to sexist comments like that."  

Unfortunately, some people are jerks.  You will probably not completely change Uncle Bob's attitudes.  But at the very least, he'll think twice before he tells another off-color joke to you!  And a big part of what is important in speaking out is the act of making sure that if anyone nearby is the target of the joke, they know that they have allies.  It makes a huge difference to hear someone stand up for you, even if it's only once.  You could also come to realize that the rest of your family doesn't want to hear that kind of trash either, but they were too afraid to say anything.  When you politely and thoughtfully speak up against bigotry, you are helping to change the whole culture of your family!  

"Did you really just say that?"

"Did you really just say that?"

When your thoughts overwhelm you

The human brain is extremely complex, and we still don't completely understand how our thoughts are generated.  But that doesn't mean that we can't take control of them!  

People suffering from depression and anxiety often find themselves struggling with overwhelming thoughts.  These could range from, "I really messed up" to "I will never amount to anything," or even to thoughts of suicide (If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, please call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK).  

In my work with clients, I teach many techniques to evaluate and control thoughts.  The first step in the process, though, is to realize that you are not your thoughts.  

This feels obvious.  After all, we know we have bodies, brains, feelings, thoughts, and impulses..  But try to remember the last time that you critically evaluated a thought or feeling to determine if it is even truthful.  Usually we just accept our thoughts and feelings as they are.  "I'm a bad person" echoes so many times inside our heads that we just believe it, instead of valuing that thought for what it is: a fleeting thought that could be true or false.  We feel fear, therefore we assume there is something to be afraid of.  This explains the feeling of relief after a roller coaster ride - it felt scary, but since you reminded yourself that you were safe, you felt relief.  

Thoughts come and go.  You've probably had this experience with an embarrassing moment: it felt awful at the time and you couldn't stop thinking about it, but now the sting has faded and you hardly think about it at all.  

On the other hand, if you dwell on a thought like "I'm a bad person", you cause it to become stronger.  It's the same way that we try to remember something by reciting it.  You're practicing the very thought that you want to forget!  

So how can you notice the thought but not rehearse it?  There are several techniques for this, but one is called "defusion" by practitioners of acceptance and commitment therapy.  Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith (2011) provide many ideas on this, but I'll share a few of my own and one that works for me.  

Imagine your thoughts as paper boats floating on a stream.  Listen for the sound of the stream, picture it, smell the water and the mud as well as the leaves.  Once you have a good picture of the stream, imagine your intrusive thoughts as written on paper boats that you place in the stream.  Watch the boat float away from you on the stream.  When another thought arises, place in onto the water and watch it float away.  Some thoughts will pop up again - just keep putting them into the water.  Notice that you can have a thought and then watch it leave you.  You're aware of the thought, but you don't have to engage it, and you  don't have to follow it along the same old path of depression.  You can gently release it.  

Don't judge your performance in this.  If you start to do so, just notice that thought and then place it onto the stream.  

If the stream doesn't work for you, you can imagine giving the thought to your higher power or religious figure, or possibly to an ancestor. Some people see the thoughts as dandelion seeds floating on the breeze, or as cars driving past them on the street.  The idea is to distance yourself from them..  

By not following the thought path you've used in the past, you'll soon find that it isn't quite as compelling as it has been in the past.  Make sure to practice your defusion!  

Hayes, S. C., & Smith, S. (2011). Get out of your mind & into your life: the new acceptance & commitment therapy. New York, NY: New Harbinger.

The above is not meant as psychological advice.  See a qualified professional for help.  


En Gedid

En Gedid

Conversation Skills

A good conversation is one of life's great joys!  But conversation skills aren't really taught in a formal setting, and not everyone knows how to pick them up.  There are few key tenets of good conversation.  

The most important part of good conversation is to focus on your partner.  Listen, instead of just waiting to speak or planning what you're going to say.  Almost anything that someone says can afford opportunities for a clarifying question.  Don't worry about how you will be perceived, just listen to your partner with an open mind.  

If you don't know the group very well, try to follow the conversation trend rather than change it.  Once you're more comfortable, you'll know what the group likes to talk about.  

Start a conversation by asking about low-risk topics like hobbies, family, or (depending on the culture) careers.  In some cultures, it's considered rude to ask about someone's career before you know a person, because this could be perceived as asking about his/her income.  If you find an area that s/he is an expert in, this is a great way for you to learn something new and keep the conversation going.  

Ask about a person's opinion.  People love to give their opinions!  Best restaurant, their review of a recent book or movie, or what they think about a sports team's performance.  

Watch body language.  If people start to fidget uncomfortably, it might be time to let someone else talk.  

Think of conversation as a game of catch.  If someone asks you a question and you answer it, this is analogous to that person throwing the ball to you and you catching it.  You're now holding the ball.  You must ask the other person a question in order to continue the game.  You can ask the same question s/he asked, or you can choose another one, but if you continue talking about yourself, remember that you're holding the metaphorical ball and that no one else can play until you toss the conversation to someone else.

Include everyone.  This is mostly the responsibility of the host or organizer of the event, but if you notice the conversation is revolving only around travel to Italy, and one person hasn't been to Italy and is therefore left out, then the next topic should include that person: you could ask about his/her travel experiences, or where s/he would like to travel.  

Keep an open mind.  You don't have to agree in order to appreciate a contrasting opinion.  You can ask the person to elaborate, and you may find yourself with a new point of view!  

Sweetwater Counseling offers a range of social skill training and a 2-session short course on interpersonal effectiveness.  Call for a free consultation by phone!  

These two have mastered conversation skills

These two have mastered conversation skills

Crafting Family Rituals

Rituals and traditions are a part of most religions and cultures, to some degree or another.  Many families develop their own rituals.  But did you know that these rituals are an important part of how we relate as spouses and families?  

Rituals make it clear who is a part of the family and who isn't.  They solidify the belonging that we feel when we take part in them.  They teach us what is valued in our families, and they provide a point of stability in times of change or grief..  

Some family rituals are passed down through generations, and these are a great way to give your family members a sense of continuity and history and to welcome a new familly member.  However, some families don't have those traditions, and some family legacies are negative.  You may not want to build your own family on the same foundation.  You may also just have gotten caught up with daily life, and not had a chance to build these rituals.  

The good news is that you can start your own family traditions!  Build them using the foundations that are important to you.  For example, if you value conversation with family, you can institute asking each member of the family to share the high point and low point of his/her day at dinner.  If a religious faith is fundamental to your family, try a family prayer before everyone leaves for the day.  

One of the keys to tradition is flexibility.  Keep the observance consistent, but allow for some flexibility.  If your kids are small, you can slowly bring them into the full observance of the tradition as they are able.  If your spouse balks at the idea of a ritual of morning prayer, compromise on the form of it.  If you forget the tradition of a goodbye kiss in the morning, just move it to the evening.  The important thing is to keep at it.  

Your teenager might protest that "this is dumb".  But one day, s/he will appreciate the stability and rich history that you've provided.  

Try to make the tradition inclusive.  If you have a family member of a different faith, then a prayer may not be the right choice.  You can ask your children to help you design the familly ritual.  You might be surprised what they come up with!  Make sure that your tradition allows participation from every person.  

Keep your tradition fun.  Now isn't the best time to fix table manners or to correct grammar.  You want the whole family to look forward to whatever you've chosen, and it should be easy to participate (instead of something that forces each person to perform well).

Look into your family's heritage if you're stuck for ideas.  You want to look for something that's unique to your family, so if you are already going to a religious service at holidays, you should add something special before or after it that includes only your family, in order for it to become a family tradition.  

In summary: Start with your values; be consistent; be flexible.  

The above is not intended as psychological advise and is for informational purposes only.  
Tea is a tradition for my mother and me

Tea is a tradition for my mother and me

Surviving the Holidays with your Family

In my practice, I experience an uptick in traffic right after major holidays.  What's going on?  Does Christmas stress people out?  Yes, sometimes, but mostly it's that enforced family time!  

We often travel to stay with our families, which means we're together 24 hours a day for several days.  This usually leads to too many people, not enough space, not enough sleep, and more alcohol than usual.  

And guess what - most of us have changed since we were children!  

We no longer fit into the roles that our family expects.  Perhaps you were the peacemaker in your family when you were a child, but now you refuse to appease your racist uncle.  Maybe you were the serious brainy one, but you've discovered that you tell a pretty good joke.  It's normal to realize that you don't fit together as a family in the same way you used to.  

A healthy family takes this in stride and adjusts (albeit with some discomfort) to changes.  You'll be teased about it, but your family will adapt in time.  You have the right to be accepted for who you are now (but you still have to follow the rules of your host unless you want to go stay at a hotel or leave the house).  

An unhealthy family with very rigid roles will not adjust to these changes.  This family will try to force you back into the role you held as a child, or maybe the role they wish you occupied.  If this doesn't work, an unhealthy family will keep trying instead of learning and adapting.  Eventually, you or your family may experience rejection of the new person you've become.  

You may have recently realized that your family had some unhealthy patterns of behavior that you're not willing to reenact.  Maybe the way that your parents handle conflict is cruel, and you've decided you don't want to be a part of this.  If this is the case, your holidays may become fraught and you might be anticipating some hard conversations.  

How do you handle this?  

  • Remember your rights as an adult.  You are free to leave a family gathering if you feel uncomfortable.  You can take a break by walking around the block.  You can refuse to participate in activities with which you do not agree.  You have the right to be treated with respect even if others disagree with your views.  
  • Be respectful of others.  You don't have to agree in order to be polite.  
  • The old advice about avoiding talking about sex, politics, and religion is still pretty good!  Think up conversation topics before you go.  Sports, trivia, family photo albums, a new book or movie you liked, or asking about everyone's hobbies and kids and pets are usually safe.  
  • Keep an eye on your alcohol consumption.  Just because you aren't driving anywhere doesn't mean you don't want your wits about you.  You're much more likely to get into an argument if you've been drinking.  You may think you need that wine to listen to Aunt Phoebe's arthritis complaints, but what you really need is a clear head.  
  • If you are the host/ess, you get to make the rules!  You can forbid cursing in your house, you can choose not to serve meat at Thanksgiving, and you can tell people that it's time to go.  Just because someone is older than you are doesn't mean s/he's more important or more powerful.  
  • If you think there might be trouble, stay at a hotel.  It's more expensive, but you're not trapped in the house if things go south.  Rent a car so that you can leave if you need to.  
  • You are not required to justify or explain your life choices.  You can simply say (over and over again), "That's the decision I've made," and bring up something else.  
  • Holidays may not be the time to have the heavy conversation you need to have with your family members.  You may want to wait until they don't have houseguests, or until you move past all the holiday parties and responsibilities.  

If you're having trouble contemplating or surviving the holidays with your family, Sweetwater Counseling offers single-session troubleshooting and longer-term therapy to deal with family problems.  Wouldn't you like to look forward to the holidays again?  


Anxiety about Current Events; or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Mute Button

Watching the five o'clock news was a part of life in my house as a child.  I didn't have much interest in it, but my parents would watch, and I would watch when there was an election or an important event.  

I have recently worked with several clients who find the news so distressing that they choose to filter it in some way, or they develop anxiety symptoms related to a particular news topic like climate change or the election cycle.  While it's important to stay informed, it is also wise to know your depth in your consumption of the news, and some filtering is probably a good idea.  Here are a few ideas to consider as you think about consuming the news:

  • If a warning is given, like "the following footage is graphic and may be disturbing to some viewers," take the warning seriously.  If you're prone to anxiety, look away.  You won't miss anything important.  
  • If you find that you're getting upset about the news, limit your consumption.  Use a service that gives you the headlines in three minutes or five minutes.  You'll be aware of events but you won't have to hear all the details that might overwhelm you.  
  • Remind yourself what you are and are not responsible for.  You can make a difference in your community and family, but there is little benefit to taking on the problems of the whole world.  
  • Check the source.  Facebook is not a news outlet, and it has no reason to check the veracity of the posts provided.  
  • Use several sources to get your news, and make sure that you choose sources with opposing views or biases so that you get a well-rounded point of view.  News sources originating in other countries can be very helpful for this.  
  • Watch for tricks that might be covering up a false narrative.  A single sentence cut from a full speech can be misleading, and a single sob story could be true but not representative of the statistics on a given issue.  You want scientific evidence of whatever you're being told.  

Look into the profit model of your chosen news source.  If you're not the customer, i.e., if you're not paying for it, then you are the product.  This means that advertisers are paying for the news that you are trusting, and therefore the news source cannot be impartial.  If a pharmaceutical brand is a large advertiser for a magazine, that magazine will have to be careful about writing an expose on that drug's side effects.   Quality journalism costs money, and if you are getting your news free online, then someone else is paying for that journalism.  It may be a nonprofit with a political motive, or maybe a business that's making money based on how many visits are made to its website.  The goal, then, is to maximize site visits and not to provide you with insightful journalism.  

How can just talking possibly help?

In my office, you won't just be talking!  

You will be an active participant in setting goals and in learning to be your own therapist.  I enjoy listening to my clients, but I will also help you learn new skills that you'll be able to use for the rest of your life.  Depending on what you are dealing with, I may give you some worksheets or some exercises to try at home.  We'll figure out what works for you, and then you will practice those new skills.  

Some sample tools you might learn are: relaxation; assertive communication; analyzing your emotions and thoughts; thought stopping (for those persistent cyclical thoughts).  You'll learn about your diagnosis (if applicable) and you'll learn about what psychological science applies.  

It's important that you feel heard and supported throughout your therapy experience, but if I only listen to you and don't teach you any new skills, you run the risk of having to come right back to therapy the next time you encounter a challenge in life.  There's nothing wrong with coming back to therapy, but I would love to see you learn to coach yourself through the difficult patches.  If you decide to come back to see me later, you might learn a different set of skills, or you might want to bring your spouse to work together.  

And don't forget how important words are.  Leaving out even a single word can totally change the meaning of a sentence.  Think about the question, "Are you wearing that tonight?"  Now add a word: "Are you really wearing that tonight?"  It changes the tone of the conversation.  In the same way, changing the way you talk or think about something in your life can change your whole day.  You might go from thinking, "I can't do anything right," to "I made a mistake and I'll do it right next time." 

You can change the way that you're feeling using words, so talking about your feelings is pretty important.  But that's not all you'll be doing if you decide to work with me!  

Erin Kramer

Lying to your spouse: when and how to do it

Spoiler alert: Never.  

If you want to preserve your marriage, you must respect your spouse and trust that s/he wants a truthful answer to anything s/he asks.  The truth can be hurtful, but it is impossible for your marriage to grow and thrive in the midst of a lie.  You will live in fear that your spouse will discover the truth, and your spouse will be working under a false assumption, so any work you do to improve or even maintain the marriage will be done on a marriage that doesn't actually exist.  Later, you will have to try to convince your spouse that, even though there was a lie between you, all that other stuff that you said (I love you, we're happy together, you're the only one for me) was true.  

When you have to tell your spouse that you lied, you make him/her feel foolish, because you have been operating with a full set of facts and he/she has not had all the facts.  Your spouse has been fooled by you into believing something that you knew wasn't true, and this makes him/her feel gullible.  

Once the truth comes out (and yes, it will), the amount of trust lost in the relationship is proportional to the amount of time the secret has been kept.  As hard as it is to come clean now, it will be much harder later!  

There will never be "the right time" to tell someone something they don't want to hear.  It's best to avoid late at night, but other than that, the best time to tell your spouse the truth is right now. 

This should be distinguished from saying something hurtful to your spouse in order to cause pain, and then using the excuse that "it's just the truth."  An example of this would be the classic "does this dress make me look fat?"  You could say, "it's not your most flattering look", or "I really love the way you look in that other one."  You do not need to say, "Yes, that dress makes you look terrible."  You must not lie, but you don't need to say the first thing that comes into your head, either.  If your spouse continues to ask for a direct answer, you may have to answer yes, but there are ways to cushion the truth in compliments.  "I don't know if that's your color/style.  Maybe we could go shopping this weekend for something you'd love. You deserve something new!"  

The Gottman Institute research has found that for every one negative interaction between a couple, the couple must have five positive interactions in order to maintain a happy relationship.  5:1 seems like a pretty high ratio, particularly when a couple is going through a rough patch.  A positive interaction can be a simple compliment and a "thank you" response.  So if you are having to give your spouse a piece of bad news, keep this research in mind.  


Lisitsa, E. (2017, March 13). The Positive Perspective: More on the 5:1 Ratio. Retrieved September 22, 2017, from


How can a counselor help if s/he hasn't been through the same thing I'm dealing with?

Sometimes I am asked how I can help a client if I haven't experienced the same thing.  This comes up because I'm 32, and so I haven't yet experienced all of what life holds.  I've never been through a divorce, I don't have any children, and I haven't been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  It can be easy to conclude that a counselor can't help you if s/he hasn't experienced the same things you have, perhaps citing the idea of walking a mile in someone else's shoes.  

This makes a lot of sense on the face of it.  Everyone seeking emotional health services wants to be heard and understood.  However, most of life's unique experiences elicit, more or less, the same set of emotions.  A divorce is a unique experience, but it elicits grief, anger, and other emotions with which your counselor is already familiar.  Parenting is a unique skill, but it relies on a solid sense of self and on learning to love well and wisely.  Medical issues are again unique, but they often are accompanied by helplessness, fear, anger, and sorrow; these emotions are not unique.  

The treatment modalities used at Sweetwater Counseling are designed to work in different ways for different problems.  Your clinician will work with you on formulating goals for your treatment that are specific to you and your situation.  The methods we use have been tested on people dealing with a wide variety of problems, so even though I haven't experienced Post-traumatic Stress, I have researched the treatments that work best for it.  My colleague and I are always learning more so that we can help you with things we have faced ourselves, and things we haven't faced yet.  

Of course, there are specializations that might be appropriate to seek.  For example, since I have never parented, I refer clients who have parenting questions to my colleague who specializes in early childhood development and is a parent.  Drug and alcohol addiction is a field in which I am only minimally trained, and I refer those clients to a specialist.  To find out if Sweetwater's services are right for you, give us a call.  

You may also want to seek a therapist who has a similar demographic to you if you are specifically interested in working on issues related to your background.  For example, some women prefer to see a female clinician to deal with issues related to gender socialization or sexual assault.  Some people prefer a clinician who shares their racial background if they want to talk about issues of racism or discrimination.  Your therapist wants you to feel comfortable, so s/he can help you find a referral if you feel, after the initial appointment, that you are not a good fit.  

The above is for informational purposes only.  Please consult your therapist for advice.  

Help! My friend is depressed!

It can be so scary to hear your friend say s/he is experiencing depression or anxiety.  It's hard to know how to help while still respecting his/her privacy.  You may not know if suicidal thoughts are an issue.  Since most people will face some form of emotional illness at some point in life, you undoubtedly know people who are struggling right now.  One of the worst parts of mental illness is the way that it isolates its victims from help - a depressed person feels that s/he doesn't deserve or shouldn't need help; an anxious person is too afraid to leave to house to get the help s/he needs.  

How can you help a friend in trouble?  While not an exhaustive list, this will give you a few ideas.  

  • If your friend expresses that s/he wants to commit suicide, get immediate help.  You can go to an emergency room or call a crisis hotline.  In the US, call 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).  If your friend refuses to get help immediately, you can call the police and ask them to perform a wellness check.  They will go to the person's home and check on him/her and may take him/her to get additional help at the emergency room or at an inpatient mental health facility.  
  • Encourage your friend to get help.  You are not responsible for your friend's behavior, and s/he may refuse to seek counseling.  In this case, do not try to be your her/his therapist.  Listen to what s/he has to say, but feel free to continue to encourage your friend to see a qualified professional.  
  • Do not try to "cheer her up" by reminding her that things will look better tomorrow, or that she has always been such a happy person, or that she is wrong about her feelings. In doing so, you make her feel like it's wrong for her to feel the way she does.  You can, however, try to cheer him/her up by taking him/her out to do something fun or stay in and have fun.  
  • If you believe in a higher power, use spirituality to help.  Pray for/with your friend.  
  • Don't shy away from this topic with him/her.  It can be intimidating, but all you need to ask is, "how are you feeling?"  
  • Keep your friend close.  S/he may want to avoid social opportunities, but it's important that you keep inviting him/her to events and that you keep after him/her to join you.  S/he may not be the soul of joy right now, but s/he needs to get out.  
  • Keep an eye on your own mood.  Caretakers often forget that they can easily slide into depression themselves.  If you are spending significant time helping a friend or family member, you may need to see a counselor yourself for a few sessions to help you deal with this stress.  Sweetwater Counseling has experience with caretaker stress.  Call or email to talk about this..  
The above is for informational purposes only.  Consult your mental health professional for help.

How can I find trustworthy friends?

Most of us have had a range of friend experiences.  There's the loyal best friend, who's available at any time to laugh or cry with you.  The occasional acquaintance, who you see in the same social circle but don't know very well.  There's the high school friend who remembers your embarrassing moments as well as your triumphs.  And then most of us have had an experience with the bad friend.  

This could be an experience of betrayal, or one of simply being used up.  It could be as simple as having betrayed a secret, or maybe as complex as turning other friends against you.  These experiences can be extremely painful and can ruin relationships.  

So how do we tell which friends are worth trusting?  Is there a way to know before you work on a relationship?

Sort of.  Naturally, there's no foolproof formula for this.  However, there are certainly some warning signs for those people who are truly toxic.  

  • Look for a person who has other friends.  If he/she has no other friends, there is probably a reason.  This isn't to say that you can't befriend him/her; some people are just shy.  But if the person has no other social life, then you will be the person he/she leans on for everything.  Consider the idea that this person may have alienated his/her other friends.  Even if s/he is very close with family, s/he should have friends, too.  
  • Watch out for a string of unstable or broken relationships in the person's past.  Everyone has a few broken relationships, but your potential friends should not have very many.  It's rare that one needs to truly cut another person out of one's life.  A pattern of short-lived volatile friendships or romantic relationships is not a good sign.  
  • How do you feel after you've been with this person?  Are you energized and happy, or do you feel drained or angry?  Overall, you should feel good about spending time with a potential friend.  You should feel that you have gotten some of your social needs met.  Introvert or extrovert, everyone has some social needs, and your time with a friend should make you feel confident and cared for.  Of course, sometimes you will spend time listening to a friend who is going through a rough time, and this may cause you to feel sadness along with your friend.  
  • Are you compromising your own needs or boundaries for your friend?  Is your friend regularly calling in the middle of the night, or doing something you've asked him/her not to do?  Do you find that you get sucked into doing favors for this person when you don't want to?  A good friend will respect you and your feelings.  S/he won't ask for something that you can't give, or that would take you away from other friends and family.  
  • Is your friend jealous?  Is s/he angry when you spend time with other friends or with your spouse?  A good friend will want you to grow and to have a healthy social and family life.  
  • How much of the time is about you?  50% of time spent with your friend should be spent talking about things that you want to talk about, or doing activities you like.  If you're always doing what the other person wants to do, you can try asking your friend to alternate who talks or who decides on an activity.  A good friend will understand and will be happy to go 50/50 on this.  
Your cat doesn't count as a friend because technically you belong to him/her and therefore it's not an equal relationship

Your cat doesn't count as a friend because technically you belong to him/her and therefore it's not an equal relationship

Which kind of psychology professional do I need?

The field of psychology is broad and encompasses many different kinds of professionals with many different degrees.  This post will help you think about your needs and whether Sweetwater Counseling is the right choice for you.  These guidelines apply for Pennsylvania.  

  • Psychiatrist: This person has a medical degree and can prescribe medications.  S/he will get an idea of your symptoms and will work with you to try to find a medication-based solution.  S/he will usually also recommend that you work with a therapist or counselor weekly in order to find behavioral and environmental solutions.  You will probably see your psychiatrist about once a month until you find out what prescriptions work for you.  Your psychiatrist may also do some talk therapy with you, but this is rarer.  S/he may recommend some medical testing to find possible causes of your symptoms.  
  • Psychologist: This person has either a doctoral degree in a psychological field (can be anything from Christian Counseling to a Ph.D. in psychology) or was grandfathered in under a previous licensing system and has a Master's Degree in a psychological field.  S/he will use counseling techniques to help you talk about your symptoms and to guide you toward finding solutions.  
  • Counselor: This person has a Master's Degree in a psychological field.  This can be a social work degree, counseling ministries degree, or clinical psychology degree.  S/he will help you to meet your goals using non-pharmaceutical methods.  These can range from traditional talk therapy to solution-focused or art therapy and many things in between.  Can work with families, couples, and individuals.  
  • Marriage and Family Therapist: This person has a Master's Degree in a psychological field, and will use similar techniques to a counselor.  Can work with families, couples, and individuals.  
  • Coach: This field is not as strictly regulated in the state of Pennsylvania.  A coach tends to work for a specified time period to achieve personal and professional goals, and focuses on those goals rather than emotions.  


It is very important that you check the kind of degree that your clinician has.  Many people have degrees in social services and counseling fields, but they are not all able to provide the same level of care, and their focus may be different from yours.  It's not enough to determine what level of degree it is, you need to find out what the degree is in.  

  • Clinical Psychology: This course of study encompasses a whole-person paradigm of psychological health.  A degree in this area means that the holder has studied biological, cultural, environmental, and family bases for health and illness.  S/he has studied child and adolescent development, personality psychology, social psychology, family and marital therapy, and counseling skills.  S/he is able to review and understand current scientific research.  S/he will be familiar with many different methods of dealing with anything from life transitions to depression and anxiety.  Depending on the bestowing institution, a faith focus may be included.  Sweetwater Counseling clinicians all have Clinical Psychology degrees.  
  • Counseling: This course of study deals more with counseling skills.  This person will be familiar with several methods of counseling directed at different kinds of illness or life transition.  S/he will often have an empathic focus.  This degree is similar to one in Christian Counseling.  
  • Counseling Ministries/Pastoral Counseling: This degree focuses on a religious framework of counseling.  This person has worked on the integration of counseling skills with relgion, and has studied the field of psychology primarily from a religious perspective rather than a biological one.  These degrees often focus more on using Biblical wisdom as a method to counsel.  
  • Biblical Counseling: This degree is not a psychology degree, but a religious one.  A Biblical counselor will help you apply the wisdom of the Bible to your daily struggles, and can help with spiritual direction.  
  • Social Work: This degree focuses on the cultural and social aspects of problems in living.  This person can often help with family issues and is a good choice for someone who is looking for help navigating possible services available.  S/he is very knowledgable about charitable organizations and govermental services that might be a fit for your needs, and can help you interface with these organizations.  S/he has studied cultural variables that might cause your trouble.  
My plush neuron, Oliver (named for Oliver Sachs)

My plush neuron, Oliver (named for Oliver Sachs)

Your first steps toward preventative care (and a use of the phrase "fixin' to")

The first thing to address when thinking about a healthy mind has to be the biological brain-as-blob-of-meat issue.  Wait, don't skip this one!

It may seem like you've already heard about how it's important to keep your body healthy.  And it is.  But not just for the nebulous goal of "health and long life".  It's impossible for your brain to function at its peak if your body is poorly maintained.  You can actually contract mental illness just by failing to take care of your body (Moy 2009).  And not just dementia or anorexia nervosa. 

If you're concerned about maintaining your mental health, or if you've struggled with depression or anxiety and you worried that you might relapse, you can't afford to dismiss your physical health.  I'll talk more about what that exactly means.  Yes, I actually talk to myself to help me write.  Shut up, it works. 

This makes sense, if you think about it.  Your brain is an organ, so just like your heart or lungs, it's affected by obesity, high cholesterol, thyroid problems, vitamin and mineral deficiency, and myriad other conditions.  The brain is powered by nutrients in the blood, which come from everything you consume, like food, beverage, drugs, air particles, and chemicals.  If you don't take care of the brain's needs for nutrients and oxygen, it can't possibly serve you properly.  It would be like giving a race horse nothing but corn husks and dirt and then wondering why he doesn't keep up with his peers.  Your brain only gets what you decide to give it.  You have to actively choose to give it the best you can, and your brain will serve you well for years to come. 

I'm fixing to (my mom is from Oklahoma, where that phrase is common) give you some ideas on this in later posts.  The main one I want to emphasize for now is regular check-ups with your doctor.  And while I'm at it, nothing on this blog should be considered as medical advice, because I'm not a doctor and I don't want to get sued.  And I don't have anything worth suing over, except my wonderful family. 

But you should go see your actual doctor.  He/she can do all kinds of helpful things, like checking your blood pressure and BMI, monitoring your prescriptions, answering questions about any symptoms you have (you want to get that rash looked at), and telling you about other tests you should have regularly, like mammograms, prostate screening, and PAP tests.  Although these things don't seem directly linked to your mental health, they absolutely are.  That fatigue you're feeling could be a blood chemistry problem, and the anxiety might be caused by excessive caffeine or sugar.  You could get the mental health symptoms taken care of as easily as a single doctor visit.  So call your PCP (primary care physician, not angel dust.  More about drug use later)! 

Moy, M. L. et al. Multivariate models of determinants of health-related quality of life in severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, Vol. 46, 2009, pp. 643-54


What's with the Latin?

Sometimes, when my colleagues and I are in a particularly expansive and idealistic frame of mind, usually aided by some Malbec and a dangerous feeling of daring to stay awake far later than bedtime, we fantasize about a world in which psychological health is broached in the same was as physical health.

Sort of like this - income disparities aside, many of my readers take basic daily actions to care for their bodies and those of their family members. You might make sure to really really try to get eight hours of sleep, or at least insist that your teenager does. You scrub your body free of bacteria and you keep your hands and face especially clean to prevent infection. You brush your teeth, so that when you're older, you still have teeth to brush. You probably give some thought to the nutrition of your breakfast food, at least when you're buying it in the store (you know, when you thought about buying the packet of plain oatmeal and somehow ended up home with Frosted Flakes®).

So by the time you get to starting your day, you've performed several actions that are designed to provide health and long life. Don't forget about your annual doctor visit, your trips to the eye doctor, dentist, GYN, and any specialists you see. These are all just for you – you're also probably taking care of your family's health as well! Those of we with pets even take them to the vet every year.

Now ask yourself this: what was the last thing you did for your brain's health? Did you throw one of those fish oil supplements at it, work half the newspaper crossword two weeks ago and then hope for the best? If so, you're a little bit ahead of the curve.
See, psychological health plays more like emergency care for most people. You're arguing constantly with your teenage daughter, and just about the time you think you will lose your sanity if she slams that door one more time...

you find a therapist in your insurance network, see him/her for ten sessions until the crisis passes, and then you head back to your normal life.

What if it didn't need to be this way? Can you imagine, like my wine-soaked peers, how we might do life differently if we kept tabs, even passively, on our brain health? Even better, are there some simple things that could actually help prevent those crisis situations, so that instead of needing to see a counselor right the hell now, we could be aware of a problem building and defuse it?

I'm so glad you asked.

Insanity Wolf!

Insanity Wolf!