How Bullying Starts at Home

If you’re like most self-respecting parents, your response to the title of this blog was probably, Not in my home, it doesn’t! I am 100 percent against bullying. I would never condone anything that encourages my children to develop those behaviors.

Until fairly recently, I would have been right there with you in voicing a similar protest. However, since bullying is a topic that is very close to my heart (as you know already if you’re a longtime follower of my blog!), I regularly think about what causes it and how we can prevent it from happening. I have come to the conclusion that kids learn bullying behaviors not only from each other, but also from us, their parents! That’s right. I’m not innocent on this count, and you probably aren’t either. Let me explain.

You might not think of yourself or anyone in your family as a bully (or as someone who is being bullied). But consider this: Bullying doesn’t just happen when someone steals your lunch money or calls you names. In my opinion, it happens anytime another person repeatedly and purposefully lowers your self-confidence, maliciously hurts your credibility, intimidates you, ridicules you, puts you down, and more. Do any of these things hit uncomfortably close to home?

In today’s post, I’d like to share with you some of the ways in which I believe our kids are learning bullying behaviors at home. You may object to my analysis or think that I’m overreacting, but I promise you, children are very observant and impressionable. They pick up on our attitudes and behaviors with uncanny ease, and we often see those attitudes and behaviors magnified in their young lives. With back-to-school season upon us, it’s very important to take an honest look at what goes on in your home to make sure that you aren’t inadvertently modeling or condoning bullying behaviors.

*We bully in our marriages. It may be uncomfortable to admit, but in most marriages there’s a dominant spouse—and that partner isn’t always gentle about getting his or her way. Think about the married couples you know. Chances are, with many of them it’s very obvious who “wears the pants,” as the saying goes. On one end of the spectrum is the stereotypical henpecked husband, whose most commonly uttered phrase is “Yes, dear.” On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the timid wife who is intimidated by her husband and who allows him to make all of the decisions.

Most couples fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but the point is, in our marriages we often use our anger and displeasure to influence our spouses. Unfortunately, even uglier things like name calling, threats (e.g., “I’ll leave you if you don’t do this!”), and abuse sometimes happen as well. Even if you and your spouse make a point of having disagreements and fights when your children aren’t around, don’t fool yourselves: The youngest members of your household see the dynamics between you and your husband or wife. And if bullying behaviors are a part of those dynamics, your children are absorbing them.

*We bully our kids. When a parent tells a child, “Just do what I told you. Why? Because I said so! If you don’t, I’ll take your allowance away,” it’s accepted and considered normal. But now, imagine those words coming out of a child’s mouth as he or she is talking to a classmate. Suddenly, they’re much more shocking, and even menacing.

Can you see how kids take our more authoritarian parenting methods and twist them into bullying behaviors? Yes, of course there are times when, for one reason or another, we must issue commands instead of taking the time to explain to our kids what we want them to do and why it’s important. But I would caution all of my fellow parents to be very careful in how and when you give “orders” to your children. Too many commands along the lines of “Go to bed!”; “Don’t argue!”; “Be quiet!”; and “Never do that again!” and your children will assume that that’s how they should relate to their peers.

*Our kids bully each other. Admit it: In most families, siblings can get away with a level of name calling, put-downs, and conflict that would never be allowed on a sports team or in a school. And often, I’ve noticed, we treat our siblings the same way at age 40 as we did when we were 14. Do your kids see you being put down at family gatherings, for example, or hear you talking about how stupid your younger sister is? Whether you allow your kids to strong-arm each other too much or permit them to see nasty behaviors happening between their adult parents, aunts, and uncles, the fact is, poor relationships between siblings often encourage bullying tendencies in our young people.

*Our kids bully us. Kids bullying their parents? It goes against nature…or so we’d like to believe. But in reality, we let our kids bully us all the time. For example, your teenage son comes home in a bad mood, snaps at you when you ask how his day was, and slams the door to his bedroom when you request that he help you set the table for dinner. You know what you should do: Your son’s behavior was unacceptable, and there ought to be consequences. But you just don’t have the energy for that struggle, so you let him stay in his room and set the table yourself. Essentially, he has just used his surliness to bully you into doing what he didn’t want to do himself.

I could give you more examples of how kids use bad behavior, tears, tantrums, and more to bully their parents, but if you’ve been a mother or father for more than a day, you don’t need me to extrapolate. You know that often, it’s just so much easier to “give in to the terrorist” than it is to confront your child and correct her behavior. But if we allow our kids to manipulate us in this way on a regular basis, we’re teaching them that this is how to get what they want with everyone else in their lives, too.

*Our kids are being entertained by bullying. Throughout childhood, but especially as they reach the teenage years, kids watch popular television shows and movies that are full of examples of kids bullying each other, as well as their parents. If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes flicking through the channels on your television.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to point fingers or accuse anyone of terrible parenting practices. I’m a dad myself, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that being a parent is the most challenging job in the world. We will all make many mistakes, despite our best intentions, as we try to raise empathetic, values-centered kids.

Here’s the point I want to make: Since you may not be able to influence what your child is exposed to at school, you must be as vigilant as possible regarding what happens in your own house. Make every effort to ensure that aggressive, mean-spirited, controlling, and dominating behaviors aren’t present in your home, even when you’re frustrated or upset. Remember, your kids will adopt the behaviors, attitudes, and habitual responses that they see you and your spouse exhibiting, regardless of what you tell them is right or wrong. Let’s all commit to being more aware of what we do, say, and allow at home as we continue the fight against bullying!

 

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Summer Goal: Happy Kids (and How to Instill the Happy Habit)

One of the best things about summer is the fact that most of us get to spend more time with our kids. They’re home from school for a few months, and while our time off doesn’t generally mirror theirs, we adults still tend to take more vacation time during these lazy, hazy, crazy days than we do at other times throughout the year.

That being the case, this is the perfect time to teach your children some important life lessons. Specifically, I’m referring to lessons about happiness. If you’re familiar with my message, you already know that I believe happiness and success are not the same thing, and that our society tends to prioritize achievement over things like contentment, balance, and well-being. All too often, this state of affairs causes us to become overstressed, overscheduled, and overwhelmed—a lifestyle that doesn’t really leave very much room for “happy.”

The good news is, semi-constant stress and dissatisfaction aren’t inevitable. In fact, the root of much of our unhappiness can be traced back to our childhoods—which means that as a parent, you’re faced with a very important responsibility. More than sending your kids to a deluxe sleepaway camp or supervising their summer reading, the absolute best thing you can do for your children this season is to instill habits that will cultivate lifelong happiness.

Now, don’t panic. I’m not saying that you need to forgo pool trips and ice cream runs for lectures on the power of positive thinking—far from it! I’m simply suggesting that you take advantage of summer’s slower pace (and the increased amount of family time that goes with it) to help your kids develop healthy habits that will contribute to their happiness now and throughout the year. Here are eight suggestions to help you get started:

*Show your kids what happiness looks like. Kids do what they see us doing, not what we tell them to do. If you live a frenetic, stressful, and unhappy life, chances are good that your kids will grow up to do the same. When it comes to instilling happiness habits, the most important thing you can do is model the behaviors and attitudes you want them to adopt. So if you feel that your own priorities are out of whack, that your coping mechanisms are unhealthy, or that your outlook could use improving, do what you need to do in order to make the necessary adjustments. (Viewing my Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life program at www.toddpatkin.com or reading some of my previous blog posts will give you some good tactics to begin with!) Be sure you’re modeling all of the behaviors I’m about to describe. Remember, you’re not being selfish in the least—you’re guaranteeing a brighter future for yourself and your kids…and their kids after them.

*Teach your kids to love themselves. Despite what you may tell yourself as you tuck your children in at night, the love you feel for them—as boundless and unconditional as it might be—won’t be enough to sustain them throughout their lifetimes. It’s crucial that you teach them from a very early age to love themselves as well. The confidence that comes from loving yourself helps to guard against everything from feelings of inadequacy to living to please others to bullying, all of which can lead to more serious problems like depression. Overall, always be your kids’ biggest cheerleaders. Teach them to focus on all of the unique, positive aspects of themselves instead of dwelling on what they can improve and what they’ve done wrong. And always, always let them know they are loved unconditionally. So many children believe that they are only as good as their grades, their ability to entertain others, or who their friends are. Teaching them that they have intrinsic value starts at home with you.

*Help them to let go of the obsession with perfectionism. It goes without saying that parents don’t set out to harm their children when they push them to succeed—it’s natural to want your child to realize his full potential and take advantage of every opportunity. But the truth is that parents’ high expectations put the most pressure of all on their children, and many kids—especially those whose personalities predispose them to it—get the (incorrect) idea that anything short of perfection is failure. Always think about how your expectations and reactions might affect your child. Releasing him from the grip of perfectionism has to start with you—it won’t happen on its own. Tell him on a regular basis that you love him—not his grades or his sports trophies, but him. Help him to believe that he is adequate and successful no matter what. It’s important to realize that when young people go to college at age 18 (often their first extended time away from home), an unattainable compulsion to be perfect is extremely dangerous, and can lead to serious anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Again, do everything you can now to make sure your children enter the adult world with a healthy perspective on success and achievements.

*Teach your kids to play to their strengths. It’s no secret that we are raising our children in a very competitive world. Many kids—and their parents—feel a compulsion to be good at everything. As a parent, don’t support this notion. Instead, tell your child that everyone is good at some things and not so good at others—it’s what makes us human! Also, help your child to identify what her strengths and talents are and encourage her to pursue those things, rather than activities that make her feel less-than-great. Summer, with its increased amount of free time, is a great time to do this!

*Help your kids develop the power of perspective. Kids live in a small world where even the “little stuff” is a huge deal. (Case in point: Mom, I didn’t get to play on the same kickball team as Jimmy today at day camp!) And as you know from experience, the problems you encounter in elementary school don’t compare to the ones you encounter in high school…which don’t even begin to compare to the ones you face as an adult. That’s why one of the best things you can do to instill the happiness habit in your kids is to help them to develop perspective. From now on, when your child is faced with a problem or disappointment, sit down with him and make a list of all of the things he is good at—for instance, talented soccer player, wonderful big brother, great artist—and then point out how one mistake is a drop in the bucket amidst all of his other successes. Keep the list handy to pull out as a reminder in the future! Remember, when your child is able to accept failure, move forward, and keep a positive outlook, then he will have developed a crucial skill for his adult life.

*Raise your kids to be helpers. As adults, we know how great it can feel when we give back to others. Helping another person—whether it’s through service, teaching, or donating your resources—connects you to the rest of humanity in a powerful way. It also cultivates qualities like selflessness, empathy, and generosity, which are crucial building blocks when it comes to creating healthy, happy kids who grow into fulfilled, balanced adults. So sit down and talk with your kids about what it means to give back and why it’s important and discuss all the ways to do it. Make sure they understand that giving back doesn’t just mean donating money and that generosity is not limited to giving away things you no longer want. Then, make a list of projects that your kids are interested in participating in. Maybe they’d like to help out with a food drive or a bake sale, or perhaps they’d rather volunteer at a local animal shelter or nursing home. Again, because of the relatively large amount of free time your kids have, summer is a perfect time for these activities. Have conversations with them throughout the process, helping them to tap into how philanthropy makes them feel and who they’re helping.

*Give your kids the gift of gratitude. An attitude of gratitude might be a clichéd concept, but I know from experience that having one can change the way you look at and interact with the world. When you realize on a daily basis how fortunate you are—from being born in this country to having food on your table to having a family who loves you—you’ll develop perspective and compassion. You’ll have stronger, more genuine relationships, and you’ll look at the world with a healthy perspective instead of believing it revolves around you. That’s true for kids as well as adults! There are so many things you can do to instill gratitude in your kids. Verbally identifying and naming your blessings as a family is one, and making thank-you card writing a “rule” after birthdays and holidays is another. Another more subtle method is to deny your kids every once in a while. Of course I’m not advocating compromising their well-being, but the truth is, they don’t need every toy they ask for or ice cream for dessert every night. Not getting what they want, when they want it, every time, will help them to value what they do have, and it will protect against entitlement. Making your kids chip in to pay for what they want (whether it’s with money or by doing chores) will have the same effect.

*Make happiness a priority for your family. For many families, things like academics, sports, or other activities are in the top priority slots—and they may not be making any of you as happy as you once thought they did. Make no mistake: What you prioritize in your family unit will become the things your kids learn to prioritize too, well into adulthood. So sit down with your kids and talk about the things that make them happy. Try to get a feel for whether or not their daily and weekly activities fulfill them. Ask questions like, “Does playing softball make you feel good?” or, “What were you doing today when you felt the best?” If you hear surprising answers, talk about what your family could be doing differently. This isn’t a one-time exercise, either. Sitting down on a regular basis throughout the year to talk about how to reprioritize will make a happier family and will give your kids the valuable skill of evaluating their own lives and letting go of the things that aren’t working.

In a very real way, the attitudes and outlooks you instill in your children today will impact the rest of their lives—for good or ill. It’s not too late to make summer 2013 the season your family took a positive turn toward happiness. I promise, you won’t regret it!

 

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Defining Close Relationships

It’s pretty common to hear advice along the lines of, Work on your close relationships if you want to be happier. Heck, I’ve given that advice myself numerous times, and I’ve even written about it on this blog! And yes, I still stand behind it. But I’ve been thinking, What, exactly, defines a “close relationship”? What if many of us are missing out on fulfilling connections with others because we have a skewed view of what they should look like?

The fact is, at various points throughout our lives, all of us (myself definitely included) have maintained close ties with people who just weren’t good for our self-esteem, well-being, and happiness. Or maybe you fall on the other end of the spectrum and tend to back away from any relationship that isn’t comfortable, reasoning that fulfilling relationships should be effortless.

I know it might not be easy, but it’s important to come to grips with the fact that if you want to be happy, your close relationships might not end up being the ones you think they should be. I encourage you to take a little time to think about which relationships are best for your happiness and for your emotional and mental well-being. Here are some things to consider when making your list:

*Are you expecting it to be too easy? I think a lot of us buy into the myth that our close relationships should be easy. If they take a lot of work or become uncomfortable, we tell ourselves that they’re just not right for our lives. He’s my father, you might say. It shouldn’t be hard. I’m going to stop calling him so often. You may question if there’s something wrong with you or the other party, and soon you’re caught up in feelings of blame and resentment. Sadly, this frustration can make us write off relationships too soon. But the truth is, no two people are ever going to be on exactly the same page on a constant basis. All relationships—even healthy ones—take constant work.

*Is reciprocity present? Depending on your personality type, you might dedicate yourself to pleasing your loved ones. But do they put forth the same effort on your behalf? For a relationship to be worthy of being “close,” both parties need to genuinely value the other’s well-being. For instance, if you’re constantly giving and your brother is constantly taking, you’re not close in a meaningful sense. And to be clear, when I refer to reciprocity, I’m not talking about keeping a scorecard. An “I did that favor for him recently, so he owes me this favor right now” mentality will primarily cause frustration and resentment. Reciprocity “works” long-term only when unconditional love is present. And remember, you, as well as all other human beings, are valuable, important, and worthy of respect from the people in your life.

*Does the relationship make you happy right now? Often, we maintain close ties with other people out of habit—especially when it comes to friendships. But it’s important to realize that human beings evolve and change over time. So every once in awhile, take the temperature of your relationships. For instance, Sally and Samantha may have been inseparable in high school, but that doesn’t mean they will have as much in common 20 years down the road. It’s okay to allow some relationships to move to the background of your life. If you hang onto them too tightly, you won’t be able to make room for new, more fulfilling people to enter your life.

*Is this a tie that’s important to you? Maybe your relationship with your spouse or teenager isn’t bringing you much joy right now. But giving up on that person just doesn’t feel right to you. Pay attention to that instinct. Depending on your circumstances, there will be certain relationships in your life that are inherently worth greater amounts of stress, anxiety, and hard work. For many people, spouses, children, and parents will fall into these categories. In-laws, friends, and maybe even certain coworkers might (or might not) be included as well. Make sure you have consciously indentified the people you want to stay in your life and for whom you’re willing to go the extra mile.

Remember, the quality of your relationships—particularly those into which you pour your heart—can make or break the quality of your life. Loving, supportive relationships will majorly enhance your happiness levels. But fractious, unstable, or even distant relationships with your family members and historically close friends can leave you feeling unappreciated, angry, alone, and anxious.

What’s more, the stress and unhappiness that stem from less-than-healthy close relationships don’t stop with you. You’ve probably heard me say (or write) that we are the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. If you’re putting a lot of time into relationships that zap your mood and drain your energy, not only will your own happiness levels suffer; you’ll pass that negative vibe onto other family members, friends, etc. (This is especially important to pay attention to if you have children, because they’ll grow up with the attitudes and outlooks—good or bad—they see you displaying.)

So, to review, make sure you aren’t forcing yourself to stay close to people who just aren’t good for you any longer. It’s a mistake to channel a lot of your energy, time, and emotions toward a particular person out of a sense of obligation, just as it’s unwise to throw all less-than-easy relationships out the window. Consciously distancing yourself from some people while making others a more prominent part of your life doesn’t make you a bad person—it means that you value your emotional health, your quality of life, and your happiness.

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“Thank-Yous” Every Father Should Hear

On Sunday, June 16th—otherwise known as Father’s Day—dads across America will receive ties, tools, and other “toys” from their children. Sure, those gifts (as well as cards, visits, and family meals) are a great way to let Pops know that you love him and that you’re glad he’s part of your life. Like many of you, I am hoping to spend the day with my father and with my son, probably at the beach with Josh and maybe a nice meal later with my dad.

But this year, in addition to the “traditional” Father’s Day activities, I thought about what I could do to really honor my dad in a way he’ll remember and cherish. It didn’t take me very long to think of an answer: Tell Dad thank you and mean it.

I know that stereotypically speaking men aren’t supposed to be very “touchy-feely.” But I promise you—speaking as a father myself—when it comes to your kids, all of those rules go out the window. I cherish every “I love you,” “thanks,” and genuine smile I’ve ever gotten from my son, Josh. It’s incredibly heartwarming and fulfilling to hear directly from your child that he or she thinks you’ve done a good job as a parent.

Unfortunately, because our parents tend to be such constant presences in our lives, we often take them—and everything they’ve done for us—for granted. No, your dad probably wasn’t perfect (no parent is!), but chances are, he helped you become a capable, responsible, and fulfilled adult, and he always wanted the best for you. Father’s Day is the perfect time to think about all of the specific ways in which your dad has impacted your life. As I plan to do, I hope you’ll also spend some time reflecting on your relationship with your father and give him the gift of heartfelt thanks.

To help you get started, here are eleven “thank-yous” that might just make your dad’s Father’s Day perfect:

  • Thank you for almost always making time to come to my games, concerts, and awards ceremonies. I know you were under pressure and busy a lot of the time, so your priorities taught me that family and relationships are always more important than work and outside achievements.
  • Thank you for supporting me when I decided I’d rather be in the school band than play basketball. The fact that you clapped loudest at our concert let me know unequivocally that you love me for who I am—especially since you were the star point guard during your own high school days!
  • Thank you for making me help with yard work and home improvement projects on the weekends. I may not have enjoyed it at the time, but you taught me the value of hard work. Because of you, I take pride in a job well done, no matter how large or small!
  • Thank you for teaching me to ride a bike, and especially for encouraging me to get back up and try again when I fell. I learned that persistence and practice pay off, and that the results can be fantastic!
  • Thank you for coaching my YMCA sports teams. You showed me what good sportsmanship looks like and taught me why it’s important to shake hands after every game, even if we lost! In all aspects of my adult life, I know how to lose (and win!) with grace because of you, Dad. And even though I’ve aged out of Little League, I also exercise on a regular basis and try to stay physically fit.
  • Thank you for disciplining me and telling me why you were disappointed. I certainly didn’t enjoy being punished, but now I have a strong set of core values and a firm sense of right and wrong.
  • Thank you for teaching me how to drive and for remaining patient throughout the process—I know I wasn’t always the nicest student. Now I can merge, parallel park, and back like a pro. (But I’m still trying to beat your least-number-of-stops-on-the-way-to-the-beach record!)
  • Thank you for showing me that there’s a difference between being aggressively confrontational and being politely firm. Because of you I stick to my convictions and don’t let others take advantage of me while remaining respectful.
  • Thank you for making executive decisions on everything from where to eat dinner to when to leave the neighbors’ holiday party to which movie to watch on family night. These examples may seem insignificant, but over the years you taught me the value of knowing your mind and acting decisively. You saved me a lot of waffling, hemming, and hawing!
  • Thank you for always treating Mom with respect, patience, love, and sometimes a little mischievousness. You taught me how to treat someone you love and what a strong marriage looks like. Now I have a great relationship—and a lot of fun—with my own partner.

And for men specifically, I also suggest some version of this acknowledgment:

  • Thank you for teaching me the “essentials” like how to tie a tie, iron a crease into slacks, shine my shoes, and shave. While I might not put all of those skills to use every day, I always take pride in my appearance…and I think I do “clean up” nicely!

Whether you write your own personalized thank-yous in a card or share them with your dad in person, you can rest assured that this will be a Father’s Day he’ll remember forever. Here’s to you, Dad!

 

Making Mother’s Day Meaningful

In case you haven’t checked your calendar recently, Mother’s Day is coming up: Sunday, May 12th, to be exact. What are your plans? Are you going to send some flowers or a card, chat with your mom on the phone, and congratulate yourself on doing your duty as a child? Assuming you live close enough, will you stop by for a special visit?

If so, you’re in good company. Thousands of other Americans will be doing the same thing. And no, of course there’s nothing wrong with flowers, greeting cards, calls, or visits. They’ll all let your mother know that you appreciate her enough to put prior thought and energy into making her feel special.

But this year, I encourage you to go beyond a canned card. As you probably know if you’re familiar with my message, I believe that it is incredibly important to put sincere and consistent work into improving your closest relationships. Hopefully, your mother falls into that category! If, like me, you are blessed to still have your mom, don’t take her for granted. The fact is, the future isn’t guaranteed to us—we can count on only the present moment. So don’t lose any time—accompany that bouquet of flowers with something your mom will remember and cherish long after the blooms have faded.

Especially if you’re a parent yourself, think about the things you’d like to hear most from your own kids, now and in the future. Perhaps they might include: I have always known that I’m loved. You have given me the tools I need to build a fulfilling life. I know that you always did your best to be a good parent. Allow me to share some of the most important life lessons I have learned from you. And so on! Then, share these important truths with your mother—maybe even consider writing them down in that greeting card. Often, they’re the types of things we deeply feel but rarely verbalize.

Another meaningful way to spend Mother’s Day is to look through old photo albums with your mom (and with your dad too, if he’s still around), reliving good memories, telling funny stories, and explaining how your mother’s influence earlier in your life has shaped who you are today (and maybe even how you have decided to raise your own family). It’s not universally true, of course, but mothers often act as the glue that holds families together—they dry tears, they mediate when quarrels happen, they make sure that homework is done and that baths are taken, they motivate, encourage, advise, and so much more. What a blessing it would be for your mother to hear that you remember these things and that you see them as invaluable gifts she gave you growing up!

On the other hand, what if your relationship with your mother isn’t that smooth? What if the two of you aren’t very close? If you’re on speaking terms, I encourage you to take a step toward mending any rifts that may exist. No, you might not want to spend Mother’s Day rehashing old arguments or disagreements, but you can tell your mom that you’d like to work on these problems in the future because you love her and value your relationship.

And what if you don’t plan on talking to your mom on May 12th? Or any other day, for that matter? Sadly, I know that this is the case for too many people. Well, at Oneness University, which I recently attended in India, I learned that the most important relationships we have are with our parents. In fact, Oneness teaches that if you have a bad relationship with your mother in your heart, your life will always be filled with troubles. Thus, the best step you can take is to try to forgive her in your own mind, for your own well-being. Do your best to take a step forward and understand what your estranged mother might have been dealing with in her life when she treated you in a negative way—what might have caused her to behave the way she did.

At the end of the day, think about what you want to feel on Mother’s Day and determine how you can achieve that desired outcome. You may find yourself rejoicing in having the world’s greatest mother, or you may be at peace knowing that a potentially volatile situation is being handled in a way that honors your physical health and mental well-being. Remember, celebrating your mother is important—but the most important thing of all is being authentic and showing love to yourself first.

Getting Real with Your Spouse in 2013

In my last blog post, I offered some suggestions on how to get more real with yourself. To review, I believe that living a life of true authenticity is one of the keys to happiness; after all, if outside influences are determining who you are, what you do, and how you develop, you’ll feel confined, dissatisfied, and stressed, and it’s unlikely that you’ll truly love yourself for who you are right now.

Once you have begun to work on being more real with yourself and feel that you’re making progress, you can begin to inject more authenticity into the most important external relationship in your life: your marriage. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Happy wife, happy life.” It’s true—and if you happen to be a wife instead of a husband, so is the reverse! I promise, making authenticity a priority in your marriage will set the stage for the kind of happiness that will help both of you to create an absolutely unforgettable life together.

Here’s the catch: For most people, building an authentic marriage isn’t easy. It involves going the extra mile, having conversations you’d rather skip, and making changes in your behavior that don’t feel pleasant at the time. Think about it: You might choose to stick with the status quo and avoid the argument that would accompany telling your spouse that you feel taken for granted. Likewise, it can be easier to point a finger at your spouse rather than admit that you’re part of the overspending problem, too.

However, when you commit to working through these areas of your marriage, you’ll find that resolving future conflict becomes easier, you’ll feel less frustration and resentment, and you’ll enjoy being with your partner more. In an authentic marriage, both partners are free to be themselves while abiding by limits, boundaries, and guidelines that are designed to keep the relationship healthy and free of misunderstandings. Each person feels safe and comfortable opening up to and leaning on the other. That’s a gift that money can’t buy, because you can’t fully allow yourself to love and be loved if you aren’t willing to be vulnerable.

Ultimately, an authentic marriage is incredibly freeing, and will give your everyday happiness levels a huge boost. Here are some things to think about if you want to get real about your marriage in 2013:

* Stop burying your feelings. Have you ever bitten your tongue and allowed your spouse to do something that made you angry? Do you tell yourself that it’s worth feeling disappointed and let down if your partner is happy? If so, stop! Your feelings are legitimate, and stuffing them down not only robs you of happiness, it also denies your spouse (and you!) an opportunity to learn about each other and find a solution that makes your relationship better. Of course, I’m not saying that you should scream, shout, rant, rave, and accuse to your heart’s content. However, you shouldn’t be afraid to experience emotions and share your feelings in a gentle but firm way, even if it rocks the boat a little.

* Know what you want. And share it! Just as you shouldn’t bury your feelings, you also shouldn’t keep your desires and needs to yourself. Whether you’d rather go to the mountains instead of the beach on this year’s vacation, you want to redistribute the household chores, or you’d like your spouse to watch the kids so that you can take a break and spend an evening with your friends, be up front. Remember, if you are constantly denying yourself and sacrificing for the good of your family, your happiness—and thus your ability to be a good partner, parent, and friend—will suffer.

* Put away the finger. …the one you use to point with, that is. The blame game can be convenient and satisfying, but it’s rarely honest. Problems that crop up in marriages usually involve dropped balls at both ends of the court. For instance, here’s a common complaint: My spouse doesn’t listen to me. It’s easy to claim that the fault is all your partner’s; that she ignores you out of spite and doesn’t care enough about you to give you her full attention.

But is that the whole story? Do you approach her when she’s preoccupied or in the middle of another activity? Have you explained to her that you think there’s a problem? Do you give her your complete attention when she’s trying to talk? Usually, whatever the issue is, you’ll find that you aren’t completely blameless.

From now on, stop pointing fingers, which can lead to more frustration and conflict. Instead, accept the fact that you are responsible for your own satisfaction within your marriage. No, you may not be able to control everything your spouse does. But you can control how you react, how you handle problems, and what you are willing to tolerate. Rather than playing the blame game, commit to facing facts, taking responsibility, and resolving conflict.

* Let go of the need to always be right. Being honest with your spouse about how you feel and what you want is important. But it doesn’t always mean that you will—or should—get your way. After all, sometimes your spouse will be “right.” Maybe his plan for paying down your debt is more sustainable than yours. Perhaps the loving thing to do would be to order Chinese food, even though you don’t particularly like it, because your spouse had a terrible day at work.

Any relationship involving two people, especially marriage, must involve compromise and sometimes sacrifice in order to stand the test of time. So don’t think of yourself as a doormat, but do get in the habit of asking yourself, Would I rather be right or happy? Is my spouse making a better point than I am? Is this worth fighting about? Will pursuing this issue help our relationship or hurt it?

* Extend the same courtesy. As you strive to live more authentically within your marriage, allow your spouse to do the same. If she makes a good-faith effort to be honest with you, try to be understanding and kind, even if you don’t like what you’ve heard. Be willing to go the extra mile to make sure that her needs are being met. And don’t try to manipulate or force her into being the person you want her to be if the change in question isn’t one she feels good about making. The truth is, when both of you are allowed to be your most authentic selves while still prioritizing the health of your relationship together, you’ll have created a best-odds scenario for a happy and healthy marriage.

* If nothing else works, ask yourself THE question. Is my husband or wife the right person for me…or is he or she only a person to whom I happen to be married? First, let me say that if you are already married, I firmly believe that you should put your best efforts toward constantly improving your relationship. And if you are considering separation or divorce, I strongly suggest talking to a marriage counselor before making a final decision. That said, it’s also the case that sometimes, despite our intentions and desires, marriages don’t work. Maybe you and your spouse have different core values, want different things out of life, or simply aren’t compatible anymore. Or perhaps you have committed to a life of growth, positivity, and authenticity, and your partner refuses to support you and evolve with you.

Ultimately, more than almost anything else, your marriage can make or break the quality of your happiness. So if you genuinely believe that your spouse will not or cannot enhance your life, he or she may not be “right” for you.

Once you have clarified that you want to make your marriage work or that you want to move on, state your intention clearly to your spouse. Then act on your decision. If you have decided to stay married, realize that this is a turning point in the quality of your relationship. If things are unsatisfying or average right now, a commitment to authenticity can turn the tide. And if your marriage is already good, authenticity will make it absolutely fantastic.

Here’s one last piece of advice on how to make your marriage authentic: If you love your spouse (and I certainly hope you do!), verbalize that feeling every chance you get. I can tell you from experience that when your husband or wife knows how much he or she means to you, the obstacles you must face together will seem a lot less daunting. Plus, you’ll both feel more comfortable striving for authenticity because you will each know that you are valued and accepted, just the way you are.

Getting Real with Yourself in 2013

In our society, “authentic” is a positive buzzword. If you’re authentic, you’re honoring your own values, desires, and goals. You’re honest with yourself and with others, and you aren’t being deceptive or fake. Most notably, you are comfortable in your own skin.

Yes, this definition of authenticity sounds nice. But here’s the problem: I don’t think most of us come anywhere close to being as authentic as we think we are. From our mannerisms to our career choices to the cars we drive and the places we vacation—and everything in between—our choices are often influenced (or dictated outright) by others. And we don’t consciously realize it’s happening!

That was the story of my life before my quest to find happiness. I was so concerned with fitting in, being liked, and becoming the man I thought I “should” be that I wasn’t very authentic at all. I had convinced myself that I had chosen the life I wanted, but in many ways, it was really the life that my society, my community, and even my (well-meaning) family and friends wanted for me. If you are familiar with my story, you know how that turned out: my workaholic lifestyle and the compulsion I felt to do, be, and achieve more drove me to the brink. And—newsflash!—when you have a breakdown, you are not living a very authentic life.

In the following years, my mindset, beliefs, habits, and choices have evolved quite a bit. Some of these changes have been met with approval; others have raised a few eyebrows. But the point is, I am constantly learning more about what it really means to be true to myself, and I am a happier person because the expectations of others no longer play such a large role in my decision-making.

For my next three blog posts, I am going to look at the concept of authenticity in more detail by sharing what I’ve learned about getting real with yourself, your spouse or partner, and your friends. I hope that what I have to say will help you to make 2013 the Year of Authenticity, and to take a major step toward living a happier life.

First up is being authentic with yourself. Yes, the relationship you have with the person in the mirror does matter. Either you know who you are, what’s important to you, and what makes you happy—and choose to honor those things—or you don’t. And the difference between those two paths is profound.

When you choose authenticity, you’ll learn to accept yourself as you are—warts and all. You won’t feel compelled to be, think, or do things a certain way, and the expectations of others will merely inform you, not control you. You’ll feel freer, more confident, and more empowered, and you’ll also find that the amount of stress in your life diminishes. What’s more, being authentic in your own decisions and actions will attract more positive relationships into your life. Those who love and value you will seek you out, and those who don’t will drift away. Overall, “getting real” with yourself will help you to reach your fullest potential.

Here are my tips on being authentic with yourself:

*Redefine your priorities. Stop using other people as a template to determine how your own life should be. Balance and happiness look different for everyone! If you’ve never done so before, sit down and think about what would bring you the most contentment and fulfillment. Maybe you’re okay with living in a small home if it means you’ll have more money to travel, for example. Remember, as long as you aren’t harming anyone or breaking the law, it’s okay not to “fit in.” But when you shift your priorities because of what other people think of your choices, you’re veering away from authenticity.

*Be honest about your capabilities. Living within a reasonable timeline is just as important as making choices that make you happy. So whenever you identify a change that you need to make, pat yourself on the back…then figure out a realistic way to reach it. Remember, you know yourself better than anyone else. You know when you’re pushing yourself too hard, taking on too many responsibilities, and crossing the line from “challenged” to “stressed.”

Even for the sake of healthy progress, moving too fast isn’t an authentic way to live. So if your coworker lost 20 pounds in two months, for example, don’t hold yourself to that deadline. It’s okay if your own weight loss takes much longer, as long as you’re shedding pounds in a healthy and sustainable way. The same thing goes for money. You know how much you can comfortably spend, so don’t go into debt in order to keep up with the Joneses!

*Stop hiding. Even though I’m an extraordinarily open person, there are still things about me I’m sure I’d rather the world not know about. Whether it’s an episode in your past, a somewhat-taboo desire you’re harboring, or your reasoning for making a particular choice, I’m sure that you also have “secrets.” I’m not saying that you need to shout these closely guarded tidbits from the rooftops, but you should be honest with yourself that they exist. You may want to write about them in a journal, or even share them with your partner or a trusted friend. If you are ignoring or rejecting any aspects of yourself, you aren’t being authentic.

*Get in touch with your emotions. We all bury emotions we think we “shouldn’t” have and fake feeling things that we believe we “should.” You know what I mean: My coworker is doing her best—I shouldn’t be angry that she’s slowing me down. Or, I hope she doesn’t get that promotion—she’ll gloat about it forever. Or, It’s been three months since my mom died—I shouldn’t be crying this much. Better paste a smile on my face. Hello—that’s not being authentic! I’m not saying you should give yourself a free pass to act on all of your emotions (especially the negative ones), but you should acknowledge that they exist and allow yourself to experience them without the need for apology.

Also, when you know you’re not at your best, remember that it’s okay to take a step back from the situation you’re in. If you can feel your blood pressure rising exponentially, tell your spouse that you need to wait a few hours to discuss the monthly bills, for example. In my experience, ignoring what you really feel and faking a different attitude usually doesn’t end well anyway!

*Own up. When life doesn’t go your way, it’s tempting to dodge the blame. Often, it’s very easy to point the finger at another person, at the status quo, etc. But authentic people don’t place themselves in the role of the victim. Realizing that you, and only you, ultimately hold the key to your own happiness and success can be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s true. And it is the key to turning your whole life around. For as long as you dodge the responsibility to create your own reality, other people will do it for you…and you may not like the results.

*Put yourself first. Putting ourselves last and ignoring our own needs is a common American malady. But the fact is, taking a half-hour to soak in the tub before bed is not selfish. Admitting to your spouse that you need more help with the house and the kids is not a sign of weakness. And letting yourself splurge on that new jacket does not mean you’re irresponsible.

Honoring your needs and acknowledging your desires is an important component of authentic living. And giving yourself permission to stop doing all the time so that you can simply be is crucial. Personally, spending quiet time in meditation and staying connected to my Higher Power help me to identify the things I really need and want.

*Do some deep cleaning. From beliefs to belongings to relationships, we tend to keep things around long after they’ve served their purpose or become unhealthy. It can be painful and will definitely take some brutal honesty, but it’s important to declutter your life. Do you really think you’ll fit into those old jeans anytime soon? If not, donate them to charity. Do you enjoy looking at the giant painting in your living room? If not, take it down. Does the friend you’ve known since childhood build you up or criticize you? If it’s usually the latter, allow the relationship to drift away. Holding on to things that no longer enhance your life also holds you back from authenticity.

Until you learn to get real in these ways, you won’t be able to make much progress in being authentic with others in your life, and you definitely won’t experience true happiness. Ultimately, being authentic with yourself comes down to one thing: really loving yourself and accepting yourself for the unique, one-of-a-kind human being you are. When you believe that you don’t have to change yourself to be worthy and valuable, you’ll begin treating yourself with much more kindness, honesty, and yes, authenticity.

Look at the Little Things…and Be Grateful

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

—Robert Brault

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, there’s a lot of talk about thankfulness. It seems to me that most of us are in the habit of focusing our gratitude on grand statements made on this once-a-year holiday. You know what I mean: “I’m thankful for my family, my friends, the fact that I live in America, my health, etc.” And that’s great—we should be thankful for those things. But what about the days when there’s not a turkey in the oven and family gathered around the table? Do you take the time to be grateful in the everyday?

It’s easy to get caught up in the hectic pace of everyday life: bills to pay, deadlines to meet, carpools to drive, and homework to be done. It’s also easy to focus on the negative aspects of those everyday moments: The chores seem endless. The bills keep piling up. Your kids misbehave, the dog makes a mess, and you can never, ever seem to find time to do anything for yourself.

But believe it or not, there are actually plenty of things that we can (and should) be grateful for in these mundane moments. Think of it as thanks-living. After all, you have a house to clean, when others may have none. You have bills to pay for things that keep you comfortable, like your heat and electricity. You have children who are healthy and full of life and a fun-loving pet that puts a smile on everyone’s face. And so on.

When you begin to see and feel small doses of gratitude on a regular basis, you’ll notice that you’ll start to feel happier, and you’ll experience an amazing shift in perspective. You’ll notice the negatives less, and the positives more.

To make habitual gratitude a part of your everyday life, start by making a list each day. Carry a small notepad and pen with you and jot down the little things that you feel grateful for as they occur to you (or type them into a list on your smartphone!). The act of physically recording them will help you to stop and truly think about each moment of gratitude. (You might also share with others how thankful you are for the small things. It will not only remind you to stay on your toes, but it might also inspire them to start the same practice!)

As this becomes a habit, you’ll find that you no longer need an actual list to remind you to be grateful.

To get you started, I wanted to share a list of “little things” that I’ve been grateful for recently.

  • A hot cup of coffee
  • Clean sheets that just came out of the dryer on my bed
  • A phone call with an old friend
  • The smell of my favorite dinner cooking in the kitchen
  • A great talk with my son

Remember, your list doesn’t have to be profound. Sure, at times, it may be, depending on life and your circumstances. But that’s the beauty of this whole thing. Life isn’t always profound. It ebbs and flows. And when we can learn to be grateful for the things we have each day, no matter what circumstances life gives us at that particular moment, we will discover one of the keys to living a much happier life. This Thanksgiving I challenge you to make a promise to yourself and to your family for the year ahead: to be grateful on this day, certainly, and during all the ones that follow.

Lastly, remember that your kids develop their mindsets, attitudes, and habits based on yours. So realize that engaging in thanks-living isn’t just something that you’re doing for yourself—it’s a gift you’re giving to your children, and to their children after them.

I’d love for you to share your own “little things”—in other words, simple pleasures that bring you joy—in the comments section of this post!

 

 

Going Deeper: Why We Shouldn’t Stop at Small Talk

Recently, a friend forwarded me a New York Times article titled “Talk Deeply, Be Happy?” As this person had suspected, it was right up my alley. It reported the results of a study on conversation. Turns out, the more meaningful conversations you have, the happier you tend to be. (And on the other hand, people who engage in more small talk are generally less happy.)

For me (and I suspect for many of you as well), these findings didn’t come as a surprise. After all, decades of experience have taught me that I feel much more alive and engaged when I’m having a meaningful conversation than when I’m chatting about the weather or something equally mundane. However, the article did get me thinking: Why do “deeper” interactions make us feel so good? And if our conversations might directly correlate to our happiness levels, how can we infuse more of the meaningful kind into our lives?

Well, I think the answer to my first question—Why do “deeper” interactions make us feel so good?—is pretty simple: Our lives are driven by and centered around relationships. Whether you’re an extrovert who thrives in a crowd or an introvert who prefers small-group settings, that statement remains true. So any time you have a meaningful conversation, you’re getting to know another human being better. You’re learning about his or her opinions, motivations, and plans. You’re forging a deeper connection.

The fact is, everybody wants to feel valued and appreciated. And when someone encourages you to go beyond the facts and share your very own emotions, views, and beliefs, you get that feeling (and vice versa). It’s like your subconscious is thinking, Wow, out of all the things this person could be doing, he or she is choosing to hear my take on the world. I must be pretty special. Plus, by hearing from someone else, you’re learning new things and expanding your worldview.

Now, on to my second question: How can we infuse more meaningful conversations into our lives? Here are a few of my ideas:

*Seek out people who like to go deeper. This tip is pretty obvious—if you want to have more meaningful conversations, spend more time with people who feel the same way. For instance, you probably know “that” coworker or friend who is always willing to get into a good-natured debate, no matter the subject. Set up a weekly lunch or coffee date! And on the flip side, you probably know someone who, despite your best efforts, insists on sticking to sports scores and celebrity gossip. I’m not saying you should avoid all contact with people in this last group—just don’t beat your head against the wall in a fruitless attempt to delve into their emotions and motivations.

*Let others know you enjoy their conversations. If you think someone else is particularly insightful, entertaining, engaging, authentic, etc., let them know! In my experience, “I honestly enjoy talking to you” is one of those compliments people don’t give or receive very often. However, that one simple sentence might be all it takes to draw someone even further out of his or her shell and into more frequent discussions.

*Join groups of interesting people. I have noticed that often, our relationships with the people we love and spend the most time with can fall into ruts. It’s not that you don’t want to engage more meaningfully; it’s just that (to give one example) you and your spouse get into the habit of only going through the next day’s schedule and reporting any significant news before falling into an exhausted sleep each evening. A good way to break this pattern is to expose yourself to new individuals and situations. If you have time, think about joining a book club, taking a woodworking class, or even gathering a group of neighbors to walk around the block in the mornings. Getting to know others will give you the opportunity to introduce new subjects into your conversational repertoire—which will, in turn, give you new stories to tell and new subjects to talk about with your close friends and family.

*Be interested, not interesting. No, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to talk about things that other people will find informative and entertaining. Rather, I mean that your number one goal when you talk to someone else should be to find out as much as possible about him or her. When you try to dominate the conversation, you’ll all too often end up looking selfish and arrogant. But when you show a genuine curiosity in others, you’ll encourage them to go deeper, to open up, and to be honest. And you’ll probably also find that they, in turn, want to know about your thoughts and opinions—giving you the opportunity to tell that story you wanted to share in the first place. So the bottom line is, if you want to encourage a meaningful conversation, start by asking thoughtful questions and truly listening to the answers you receive.

 

 

 

Treating the Dorm Room Blues

Time really does fly. It seems like back-to-school just happened, but somehow, we’re already staring fall break in the face! Realizing how far we are into the school year has caused me to think about a topic that’s really close to my heart: the often-difficult time young people can have adjusting to college. If you’re a longtime follower of my blog, you may remember the posts I wrote last September regarding depression and anxiety on college campuses. This year, I’d like to share my thoughts on homesickness.

I think that many parents probably feel a huge sense of relief when their child gets into college. Years and years of hard work (your child’s and your own) have finally paid off. She’ll be having the time of her life, you think to yourself multiple times a day. Or, I just know he’ll fit in and do well—he was made for that school. Then you get the call: “Mom, Dad, I miss you. I’m homesick. I don’t think I like it here as much as I thought I would.” Now you’re shocked, bewildered, and maybe even a little disappointed. College (not to mention paying for it) has been the ultimate goal for years—what’s going wrong?

Actually, homesickness is more common than you might think. According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 65 percent of all college freshmen suffer from homesickness and the condition often continues into subsequent academic years. And now that the initial adjustment period of moving in, attending new classes, and making friends has ended, homesickness is starting to hit many students full force. At this point in the semester, many young people are reaching the I’ve-never-been-away-from-home-this-long milestone, and they’re missing their old surroundings, routines, and support systems.

I’ve been there. As you may already know, I struggled with homesickness and separation anxiety throughout my childhood and into college. In fact, as a college freshman, I didn’t hesitate to drive 45 minutes to my home on a near-nightly basis. To this day, sticking it out and graduating from college in spite of the difficulties I had in adapting remains one of my proudest accomplishments. And while I don’t want to needlessly alarm parents, I also know from experience that if not addressed, homesickness can lead to more serious issues such as anxiety and depression.

If your child calls home expressing feelings of homesickness, it’s important to know how to address the situation. Here are some of my tips:

*Don’t downplay your child’s worries. “Don’t worry,” you might instinctively want to say. “You’ll get used to your dorm and your classes, and I know you’ll make friends quickly.” Squelch that impulse. If your child calls home and says that she is worried or misses aspects of her “old” life, always talk to her about what could be causing her feelings. Is she under a lot of academic pressure? Does she like her classes? Does she have problems with her roommate? Remember that adjusting to college is different for everyone: Some may take days; some may take months. If your student does not seem to be adjusting at all and has been homesick for weeks, it might be good to suggest that she look for resources through the counseling and wellness department at her school.

*But don’t rush to school to pick up your child, either. If your child seems to be experiencing a normal level of homesickness (i.e., not depressed or experiencing dangerous levels of anxiety), then it won’t help him if you rush to his rescue. You can help in small doses from home, of course—just don’t drop all of your weekend plans to make a last-minute collegiate road trip or immediately start researching local colleges for a transfer. Learning to rely more fully on oneself without a parent in the next room is something that we all have to do sooner or later. And if your child goes through these growing pains now, he’ll be setting himself up for more success in the future.

*You can help take the edge off by making a few plans together. In an unfamiliar new environment, it can be difficult for your student to accurately picture what next semester, next month, or even next week might look like—and that uncertainty might be feeding her feelings of homesickness. In this instance, simply making plans to see you or to visit home in the near future might be just the remedy the doctor ordered, as long as the discussion is confident and encouraging. Also, take advantage of technology like Skype and set (and keep) a weekly date. However, do not make a pick-up bargain (if you start to feel homesick or if it doesn’t go away, we will come get you). Kids can end up using this as a crutch—after all, what incentive do they have to proactively build a fulfilling college life for themselves if they know Mom and Dad are on the way?

*Help them to re-create the security they feel at home at school. Part of the insecurity that new students feel when they are living on their own for the first time stems from the loss of the routine and comforts they were used to at home. For example, figuring out simple tasks like laundry and grocery shopping can be daunting when you’ve always had your parents’ help. If you suspect that this issue is impacting your child’s happiness at college, send a pre-emptive email or care package full of advice and guidance. For example, you might include a sample schedule for laundry and instructions on how to wash darks vs. whites. Or if your child cooks for himself, talk about what grocery staples he should have on hand and perhaps send him recipes for a few of his favorite homecooked dishes (with shopping list included!).

*Realize that you and your child aren’t locked in. Yes, you have paid a deposit, moved your child into her dorm, and maybe even started to tackle those daunting tuition payments. While this does signify a big commitment, it’s important to realize that your child is not locked into remaining at her current college. And if her homesickness doesn’t abate despite your best efforts, she shouldn’t stay there long-term. Some students, like me, may not be able to find a healthy balance far away from home. In this case, know that transferring to a school that’s closer to home is an option, and may be the best possible alternative. I’ll be honest: I think that attending a university only 45 minutes away from my parents’ house might have saved my life. I’m not sure how well I would—or wouldn’t—have coped with my anxiety had they not been so close and so continually supportive.

While anyone who has been to college knows that it isn’t one big never-ending party (nor would most parents want it to be!), it should still be a positive, fulfilling, and growth-inspiring period in your child’s life. If your child’s happiness seems to be compromised at any point by homesickness, be ready to listen and educate yourself on what you can do to alleviate the pressure. It is my hope that together you and your child will be able to achieve the amazing college experience both of you have been hoping for.