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When Helping Doesn't Help

- by Carolyn Bergen

I remember at a baby shower a while back, there was a game that was essentially the "maternity olympics"…there were prizes for the biggest baby, the most over due, and so on. When the "longest labor" event arose, I won. Hands down.

When I was six and a half months pregnant with my youngest Junior Tribe Member (JTM), I began early labor. Through the wonders of modern medicine, the contractions went from three minutes apart to intermittent--as long as I didn't nothing. As soon as I moved around even a small amount, they would act up again. I was in labor for 6 weeks, on bed rest between home and hospital to postpone the birth of the little guy as long as possible. 

Problem was that I had a busy and active household, including a 20 month old JTM that never slowed down. What to do? He needed to be chased after, and I needed to not be off the couch.

There was a delightful woman in my church, who I will forever consider my guardian angel. She would phone each Sunday and ask, "Whaddaya need this week?"

And she would invite me to let her know which days I needed someone for childcare and when we needed meals, and she would ask someone to come clean my house. Numerous folks understood and knew my predicament and had offered to assist. She would call those who were wanting to help and let them know when and how to help.

When my baby was born weeks later and needed only 10 days in hospital, it felt as though the community had birthed him. The support and help of the community prolonged my pregnancy enough that the complications were minimal. He was alive and healthy because the community surrounded us with care--the help was literally life-giving.

I will remain forever grateful…and forever open to supplying meals to young moms who need meals as a way of paying it forward. As a way of acknowledging my gratitude for the help.

We belong to each other. 
We need each other. 
We were created for connection.
We connect by helping and being helped.

It was powerful and humbling to be helped in such a meaningful way.  The community it created around me was one I will never forget.

Years later, when that JTM grew up some, and was in high school, he would ask for my help with his school work. There were times when I would sit with him and we would figure things out together…and times when I would decline to help. 
  • There were occasions where the demands on my times were large and it didn't work to help him…and often he would ask for help the day before the assignment was due even tho he had known about it for several days. It just didn't seem like I wanted him to learn that it is OK to make unexpected huge demands on a person very suddenly. I don't want him thinking that his lack of planning can have him expect others will drop everything to accommodate him. That would be an unkind thing for me to teach him.
  • There were other occasions where the assignment was challenging but I knew to be within his scope. He wanted help because it would be easier to do it with my help, but not because he needed it. I would offer to proof read it when he was done his first draft, but would decline to write the draft with him. I wanted him to know that he can do hard things. I wanted him to know that I believed in him. I wanted him to know I didn't feel like he needed rescuing. I wanted him to feel my confidence in him.
I like helping…especially people I care deeply about. But there was a sense that, in certain situations, if I was helping him, I wasn't really helping him.

Sometimes, helping doesn't help.

Huh?

Yeah, sometimes, helping doesn't help:


1. Helping breeds dependence


Helping should be a hand up, not a hand out. 

Small children might need help tying their shoes because they don't have the fine motor skills to make a bow with the laces. It's not fair to expect a one year old to tie their shoes. Helping is a good idea.

But if you keep tying those shoes, what happens when they move away to start college and you are not there in the dorm to tie those shoes? :)

There needs to be some moments of "just right challenge" where a helper says to the helpee: "I believe in you. I know you can do this. I want to be able to watch you do this on your own. I want to celebrate your success!"

2. Trust is broken during the helping


Say your buddy forgets his coffee card and asks if he can get a coffee off your card. No big deal…and you comply. He says he'll get you back. He doesn't. And he asks you for another coffee the next week. And soon he's bumming one or two coffees off of you with this vague promise…that he doesn't deliver on. Maybe it's not just a coffee--maybe it's huge favours. Trust is broken and relationships are strained.

If your help is taken advantage of--where the helpee repeatedly breaks your trust, violates agreements, doesn't pay you back as promised, keeps "forgetting" and generally uses your assistance to be able to be irresponsible--your help isn't helping. 

It's creating opportunity for bad behaviour. 

Friends don't create bad behaviour opportunities for other friends.

3. Helping requires you to violate your own moral code.


When a spouse asks you to call in sick when they have a hangover--they are asking you to lie for them. When a friend asks if they can copy your homework and hand it in as their own, they are asking you to participate in plagiarism. 

Helping generally doesn't involve violating your own values, keeping secrets, and deception. 

When helping has you feel sick to your stomach, ask if this is a good idea. Give yourself permission to help within what feels right to you. Trust your intuition and let it matter.


4. The situation subtly corners you into helping in ways that feel manipulative. 

Imagine this: 
  • A next door neighbour comes over and asks for a ride to the bus depot because of the need to go visit a sick relative in the next province. You agree to take your neighbour to the bus depot. Once there, out of the blue the neighbour asks if you could provide the money for the bus ticket because she doesn't have the cash. 
  • A family member asks you to go buy liquor…saying if you don't get it he will have to go get it himself…but he's already had 6 beer and he'd prefer not to drive.
Helping is best freely offered. Often help is requested…but when the request comes with pressure, no options
and something in your gut says this doesn't feel right…listen to it. You are allowed to listen to that.


5. The help requested feels beyond your resources.


You may be able to loan lunch money to a co-worker who has forgotten their lunch. You may be able to assist with a cell phone bill for a relative who's had unexpected expenses. But when you are asked to cover someone's rent and the only way you can do that is by not paying your own…that doesn't work.

Helping others comes from within our capacity to offer help.

At some stages of life, you may be able to offer rides to your neighbour to the grocery store…and then for a time your car is full with car seats and children, and your neighbour needs to find other options…and when the oldest starts kindergarten, it is again within your ability to offer help.

6. Your help enables unhealthy behaviour 

There are times when helping another allows that person to continue in an unhealthy pattern. Constantly loaning small amounts of money and not expecting it back may seem kind…but may allow the person a sense of complacency so that they don't pursue career advancement. Meeting someone's every need after surgery may seem kind, but if the person is to be up and moving as much as possible even though it's uncomfortable, you may be setting them up for a poor recovery. 

7. Your help creates strings in the relationship of hidden expectations or resentments

Help is best given freely and within one's capacity to do so. When help is given and received in ways that have covert expectations, it sets everyone up to get upset. Just because you loan someone some cash, they are not obligated to have the same political opinions. If you pay for a grandchild's music lessons, you don't have the right to decide how they are disciplined. Just because you helped provide a ride to school one year, doesn't mean that you are obligated to do so the next year when the schedules and times change and it doesn't work anymore.

8. Your help to another is an important part of you feeling good for yourself


Everyone likes to feel important. And helping has that effect. The danger is that a person helps to get that feeling--it's that feeling that becomes the most important part…and so the helping is done for how it makes the helper feel. 

The helper is looking for a "helper's high"--so the recipient of the help better be effusive in their gratitude. The helper better need the help cuz it's gonna be offered no matter what.

There are many, many reasons and opportunities to help each other. No doubt. Let's keep helping positive.

When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice. Quote by Brene Brown. Poster by Bergen and Associates in Winnipeg, a counselling agency

Ways to keep helping helpful:

Develop healthy boundaries in helping

Everytime you say "yes" to helping someone, you are saying "no" to your availability to help someone else. If you say yes to the school, you may end up saying no to your kids. Choose discomfort over resentment. Helping is important, but without boundaries, it leads to burnout and frustration--and often, needing to pull back from all kinds of helping.

Know your Limits

Different people have different capacity. Know what you can offer. Life is a marathon, not a sprint and helping needs to be done in a way that is sustainable over the decades

Know where your heart sings

Know your gifts and natural skills and help in ways that fill you. If someone asks me to sew something for them, I may just want to poke my eyes out. If someone asks me to proofread a paper for them, I'm all over it.
Helping in ways that fit with who you are make helping enriching. 

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Letting our kids fall, fail and fear out of love

- by Carolyn Bergen

I wrote recently about the disintegration of my marriage 10 years ago…watching the one I love become increasingly distant as he disappeared into a new life away from me. 

One of the things I dreaded about his departure was the effect of this on my Junior Tribe Members. Y'see, I've worked with people for years, and have heard many stories of pain from folks whose parents divorced when they were kids. I desperately did not want my children to feel this pain.

But they watched out the window as he drove away, and we all cried together. And despite the fact that he came by the next day to take them out for a bit, and they have seen him regularly since…they still didn't have their dad at home the way it once had been. The house was quieter, and they missed the routine of having him in their lives in what had been a normal and constant way.

It busted me up a bunch to see them lonely for him, and missing the life we had…and to know there was nothing I could do to make it better. We spent the summer that year hanging out together…me and the JTM's…as much as we could. We played tennis, rode bikes, made forts, slept cosily in the forts, ripped up paper when they were angry.

I couldn't make it better, and that hurt.

All I could do was be with them as we all hurt.

It didn't feel like much. But it was all I had.

As parents who love our kids, and want the best for them, I often hear us telling each other: "I just want my child to be safe and happy". We place as priority number 1 in our lives the task of creating happy and healthy children. We do whatever it takes to help them develop proficiency in three instruments, two languages, and four sports. We work to provide innovative play dates with scintillating friends, top educational opportunities and cutting edge electronics.

We hate to see our children become disappointed, and so we go to bat for them with a teacher who seemingly marks unfairly. We avoid having our children's spirits crushed so we ensure that there will be a place on the team before the tryout even happens. We work to keep our children happy by taking them out to the amusement park right after the loss of the big game so they won't feel it.

We pay their fines, do their chores, run interference with authority--all in the endeavour to keep them out of distress--happy.

And in so doing, we prevent them from engaging in the struggle of life that is so necessary as part of being a successful adult. (And often, we do it because we as parents feel like lousy parents when our children are engaging in struggle…and so it protects us from our own painful feelings of inadequacy as parents)

Think for yourself…go back to a time when you learned something really important. When you discovered a strength you didn't know you had. When you were genuinely proud of your own accomplishment. When was that? Think for a moment…come up with a time in your life like that.

Almost certainly, that growth, discovery of strength and pride came out of a time borne of struggle.

It is in struggle that we learn and grow and gain wisdom. Perseverance comes out of the grind…the long haul that seems discouraging, endless…and definitely not "happy".

We as parents need to challenge ourselves about what "good" and "successful" parenting is…for some of us, we only feel successful as parents when our children feel coddled, supported, and safe. There is a powerful pull to have them feel "special" without doing anything to earn it. 

Now, I believe each child merits a strong sense of being loved. Absolutely. And a powerful feeling of belonging. But when you make a big deal out of a child putting his plate in the dishwasher as proof of how special and gifted and hardworking that child is, there is no where to go--because in life, an adult needs to have the ability to clean up the whole table and kitchen after supper. Children can become dependent on external feedback to feel good about themselves…and parents begin to pump up their tires with very little accomplishment. 

We as parents hate it when our children are upset…and often turn it on ourselves as a sign of our own inadequate parenting when a child is frustrated. It's not easy to watch our children struggle…and yet that is what successful parenting requires. 

Parents raise children who will be able to handle the inevitable challenges and difficulties of life, to enable them to struggle through the inevitable frustrations of a lousy boss, unexpected bills, and the grind of showing up at an entry level job day after day. Success comes after perseverance as an adult…and too often children learn that by doing an hour or two of chores, they can earn an Xbox, and they can be surprised at how real life doesn't get them promoted just because they'd like to be in charge.

So…how do I love my JTM's with a fierce mama bear love that only wants the best for them? How do I do right by them in a complicated world of technology that teaches that instantaneous is the norm? How do I help them understand that inevitable slow and painful growth is valuable and significant in a world that values all things instant? How do I be an effective parent when everything in me says to make their childhood pain free and

This is a video that has a lot to say, even in the first 2 minutes and 43 seconds…it can challenge--and revolutionalize your parenting--teaching our children how to sit in the dark--as an important life skill that is our responsibility as parents to teach:

Letting them fall, fail and fear is the way to love my kids…

1. Fall: 

It's no fun watching a child cry out in pain from a fall. No fun at all. 

But the valuable part of falling is learning. Learning that some things aren't a good idea…because to do them hurts! It is pain that teaches us that skateboarding without elbow pads isn't such a good idea…and protective gear is worn…and in years in the future…that same kid wears his seat belt regularly as a new driver.

Falling hurts, but it doesn't kill us. I remember falling off my bike as a kid…I remember hitting a tree riding down the Elmwood sidewalk. I remember the scrape on my belly from the handle bar when I hit it. I remember how it hurt…but I also remember that I healed. And I remember how hard it was--but how worthwhile it was--to get back on the bike. I became a proficient bike rider in my early elementary school years even tho I fell. 

It was important for me to realize that I could get back on the bike, even after I fell. 

Kids need to know that falling hurts. The pain of it can make a person wiser to avoid such nasty pain in the future. A kid also needs to know that even when falling hurts, it might be hard, but it is worthwhile to face that which has created the fall…and to conquer it.

There's no feeling like being able to get back on the bike and ride it.

I think we lose sight of the beauty, the most beautiful things I look back on in my life are coming out from underneath things I didn

2. Fail

Failing sucks. Quite simply. 

No one likes to fail.

And failing hurts. Failing feels like…well…it feels like failure.

And when a person fails, it can feel like a person is a failure, rather than having failed at something.

Failure is a valuable learning tool. 

  • It helps you discover your limits--which, let's face it--we all have. 
  • It helps a person discover resiliency--we all need to bounce back from setbacks in life. 
  • Failure is inevitable. If we don't learn about it in childhood, how will anybody ever possibly be able to handle it as an adult?
  • Failure is often part of the unfairness of life. Life gives us unfair setbacks--a lousy boss, a truly unfair coach/teacher. If you are alive, you will experience injustice--and throwing a tempter tantrum at unfairness won't actually be that helpful. Not allowing injustice to defeat us is a skill that all need to acquire for this messy thing called life.
While no parent relishes failure on the part of a child…please note that:

I would rather have my child hit the ditch at 30 km an hour while a teenager in my care, than hit a brick wall at 100 km an hour as an adult.


  • Children need to learn the high cost of the speeding ticket by paying it themselves--or losing the privilege of driving the vehicle until the bill is paid off--even if it takes a ridiculous amount of babysitting. How often are you gonna speed if it takes you 6 weeks to pay off the bill? (This bit of learning could literally save a life, y'know)
  • Children need to sort out how to handle the lousy performance review at their first job…a parent might coach them on strategies to have the conversation with their boss…but it would hardly be right for the parent to call and demand a retraction of the job review. Why would you steal this opportunity from your child?
  • A child may not get a trophy, may not be a star player, may not get recognition, may not get as much playing time--heck…may not get any playing time. That is gonna feel like a failure. But some day, that child may be the coach…and think about how that experience of being a bench player will shape the empathy level for the bench warmers on that team.

3. Fear


Fear paralyzes. 

Fear has folks move away from that which is frightening…retreating into safe spaces where the heart doesn't thump and the breath slows.

I hated watching my JTM's be frightened as children. It took everything I had in me not to console them by somehow making it all ok, by doing some advance work three steps ahead to smooth the road by: 
  • letting him avoid the event
  • running interference and taking the heat for him
  • calling ahead and explaining things
I'm not about throwing my kids to the wolves for the heck of it. Not at all. I sought and still seek to support my kids in their fear…but I have worked to sit with them in it, rather than removing it. I work to give them the "just right challenge" so that they face a fear without being flooded by it.

Life as an adult is scary, huh? Applying for a promotion, falling in love, getting a car loan, going to a new friend's party, beginning a difficult conversation with a loved one, getting pregnant, getting fired, firing someone--all these are terrifying.

Knowing how to draw on one's courage and move forward in an uncertain and vulnerable situation--terrifying--but infinitely worthwhile. 

Giving our children the ability to feel their fear and being able to lean into it and move through it? 

Priceless!!

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It

Last fall, a JTM's team lost the big game. The biggest game of their lives. Days later some of the athletes were still struggling with the disappointment and frustration of the loss…they had expected to win and they didn't. 

I asked my JTM about this…why had we had a pleasant ride home even right from the game the very evening of the loss. His response was quick: "Mom, some of these guys have never had anything bad happen to them…this is the worst thing in their lives." 

This was the experience they were challenged with to learn about sitting in the darkness…my son could roll with this loss because of what he had already learned about holding space for pain and discomfort.


Proximity

- by Sabrina Friesen

I am grateful. I have colleagues that I work with daily in our offices that I respect and admire. They wow me with their insights and wisdom. If you could hear our walls talk, you would hear stories of wonder--the work with the therapists do with our clients is incredible.

Sabrina Friesen is one of these wise and wonderful colleagues of mine. I am fortunate to know and work with her…and she shares with us here on the blog today...

Our house had recently been under the weather.  Like reaaalllly under the weather.  I don’t even want to add up the number of visits to the doctor we have collectively had in the past three weeks.  I’m not sure about you, but when people don’t feel well here there are a few things that happen:

  1. We wear our pajamas all day. 
  2. We drink indiscriminate amounts of juice and/or tea.
  3. We watch TV.  Lots of TV.

On a particularly gnarly Saturday a little bit ago, with the one then-healthy member of our family shipped off with friends and the two boys happily watching sports, I set myself up in our dark basement with tea and tissues and hours of Call the Midwife on Netflix to keep me company in between the coughs.  I can’t remember the last time I sat for hours (and hours, and hours) and just watched a show.  It was kind of magical.

For those of you who aren’t fans, I don’t blame you.  It’s about midwives (and babies) and they say things like placenta.  It’s definitely not a show for everyone.  But this period drama about a nurses’ station run by nuns and staffed by midwives in the East End of London, England in the 1950’s is quite captivating for me at least.  It’s a show about people, social classes, community, and life and death and what it means to intersect in the lives of others.  

What can I say, I’m a therapist – I am all about people and their stories.

if we deny love that is given to us, if we refuse to give love because we fear the pain of loss, then our lives will be empty, our loss greater

In the final episode I watched, one particular scene stood out to me.  A midwife, Nurse Noakes, who was pregnant and ready to pop with her own wee one at any time was sitting with Fred, the handyman at the nurses’ station.  Fred was holding his own brand new granddaughter, whom the nurse had just helped deliver.  As he held this wee bundle and caressed her teeny tiny baby feet, he said to Nurse Noakes:

“I grew up in me barefeet.  My dad spent more on beer than he did on shoe leather.  I used to think, ‘When I have kids I’m going to give  them shoes, hot dinners, a happy home.  And I managed all three.  ‘Till Hilter intervened.  When the bomb dropped I wasn’t there. 
And that’s what makes you a parent, Nurse Noakes.  Proximity.  You can’t sell that in the shops.”

Merriam Webster defines proximity as the state of being near.

Proximity.  

It’s a word I use in session with clients when we’re talking about relationships.  I hold my two hands up in the air, thumbs and fingers together – with fingers pointing towards each other as if they wanted to kiss.  It’s my (very poor) visual of two people engaged and looking at each other.  This closeness, with fingers representing faces, is a relationship ideal.  


Two people near to each other, looking at each other, close and accessible.  


This is the kind of connection we so often long for in relationship.

But unfortunately for us, relationships are often fraught with disappointment, frustration, and hurt feelings.  What happens to those two hands that are close and pointed at each other is that somewhere along the line, one person gets hurt.  

Maybe it’s a parent who is hurt that their kid lied to them again, so we emotionally (and sometimes physically) turn away and become cold and distant.  We’ve turned the back of our head to them, and the proximity and accessibility we once shared is now gone.  Imagine the two hands that were once pointed towards each other now far apart, with one turned away.  The other looks on, seeing only the butt of the person they love and want to reach.  

Ouch.

Maybe it’s a ‘joke’ that your husband told at your expense at the latest work function that got under your skin.  That pain might lead you to give him the cold shoulder, maybe move over on the couch, or turn over in bed when he puts his hand on your back and wants to draw near.  

Maybe a friend hasn’t responded to the email you sent her last week, or the phone call from yesterday, and you feel like you’re the only one putting in work.  So you exclude her from the girls’ night text and plan a fun night without her, maybe even ignoring a call as you’re getting ready to head out for the evening. 

I think that handyman Fred is really on to something here with this whole proximity business.  

What does it mean to be accessible to someone else?  What does it mean to exist in the state of being near? 

I can tell you what it isn’t.  

Proximity is not staying close enough so someone can step on you again, and again, and again.  It’s not becoming a doormat who never leaves, or taking another blow to your confidence so someone else can feel important.  Proximity doesn’t mean staying so close when it doesn’t feel good.  

I simply wonder if there are ways to get a little space without doing the whole turn-around-so-you-can-see-my-behind thing? 


I don’t think a lot of us like to feel alone.  

More specifically, I don’t think we like it when someone we value and depend on all of a sudden disappears on us – be it physically or emotionally (or both).  This can be excruciating, and leaves us thinking all sorts of nasty thoughts about how they must not love us, how we’re not enough, and how we did it wrong again.  Or maybe you get vindictive, dreaming up ways to stick it to them so they can pay for how badly they hurt you when they left you there all alone. 

Sometimes my pre-schooler gets under my skin.  We are a lot alike in our propensity towards intensity and we get into these seasons where we trigger each other to no end.  Now I love this kid with some ferocious mama love, and I adore the intensity of joy and delight and celebration this little brings into our family.  

But sometimes I get so mad that I can’t be in the same room as her.  I could storm out and slam the door, ignore her, and take a moment to calm down.  That could work.  But it feels kinda yucky leaving her there, not knowing where I went or what happened.  

I am all too aware that she might come to think that, “when I don’t act the way she wants – my mom can’t be with me.”  And that thought nearly breaks my heart, because it has way less to do with her attitude and way more to do with my hurt feelings and sense of inadequacy as a parent.  

Instead of pulling away and disappearing on her, my typical response (when I don’t absolutely lose my marbles and go into loud-mama mode, because, folks, that happens too!) is to let her know that I’m feeling frustrated and need a time out.  Then I lock myself in my bathroom for a few moments and hope to goodness she doesn’t come hunting me down, because that just might push me over the edge.

When feelings are hurt, what does it look like to take a few steps back?  Imagine the kissy fingers are now not so close.  Maybe an arm-width’s apart even, but the “faces” are still pointed at each other.  They know where the other is.   It’s distant, but they can find each other, and if both take steps – they are steps toward each other instead of away from each other.


What do you do when you see someone’s behind?  Do you run towards them and chase them down?  Do you turn away too?  Do you stand still and wait for them to turn around?

What about when your feelings are hurt, what does that look like?  Who sees your backside and loses sight of you?

I wonder, what does it look like to back up from someone you love but to still remain proximate?  How do you deal with the inevitable bumps and bruises that come with being close, but stay accessible to those you love? 

Maybe we’re going through all the right motions, and doing the right things.  Maybe we’re fighting like cats and dogs and are on the brink of calling it quits.  If handyman Fred is as wise as I think he is, he’d probably say neither of that really matters, so long as we can see each other. 


Nudging and being nudged

- by Carolyn Bergen

One of my favourite things that happens in therapy is this:

A couple comes in for an initial session. There is tension between them. They are fighting. They have forgotten how to be friends…they have forgotten they are friends. They begin with the complaints…He works too hard. She complains too much. yada yada

As the session progresses, we continue talking…and I'll ask them what they are looking for in counselling. And one of them will develop a far off look and want the way it used to be…when they were friends, and laughed, and were supportive, and had each others back, and gave each other the benefit of the doubt.

And I'll ask more about that. And they'll tell me about how they have been with each other in better days…and they will recall the friendship, and the support. And they tell me, in any one of a 1000 different ways of the story of love in their lives. And it might have laughter, or tears, or be a little crusty around the edges, but we take a look at "the big picture"

And then I'll tell them that I can work with them on this. That it doesn't have to be this way. That I want to work with them on this, and we will work to get them to where they want to be.

Next, he comes in…and he tells me things are much better between them…and he's not actually sure why, but she sure is a lot easier to get along with. She's softer and kinder and he so appreciates the way she has been with him…it makes it warmer at home and he's relaxing.

Next, she comes in…and she tells me that something happened to him after the first session--not exactly sure what, but he's more patient, and he's tried harder to let her know what's happening…and the way he has changed makes her feel different in the relationship.

I love those times when folks come in and give the other credit for the shifts towards warmth and connection in their relationship.

It's the nudge of the session…merely remembering and recalling the good times in the presence of another. Hearing that the other loves and cares and is committed…when one hasn't been quite so sure that the other is "all in" means a lot.

It is cool to see this happen quite often at our offices…before we as therapists feel like we've actually had opportunity to get in to doing some real therapeutic work, we often see shifts in the couple's relationship…simply because they've been nudged to remember things that got a little buried under the day to day stressors of a relationship.

Simply reminding themselves of the goodness that is possible somehow begins to open space for friendlier ways of being…which nobody is taking credit for--because the space is created unconsciously and unawares.

Companies change the context for us all the time…to subtly change our focus and create incremental shifts in our behaviour that have us buy more, eat more, and spend more. The book, Nudge, by Thaler and Sunstein speaks of these nudging strategies. For example, if all the prices in a menu are listed in a single column on the one side, folks will quickly scan the prices and base much of their decision on cost. It the price of the menu items are added at the end of each paragraph of the description of the meal, the eye pays much more attention to the food, with the cost being less of the decision maker. People buy more expensive food. Another example…which seems almost silly in its simplicity and effectiveness: The airport in Amsterdam painted flies (as in, the insect) in the centre of men's urinals in the bathroom. It gave something for men to aim at. There was 80% less urine outside the urinal.

(Women all over Winnipeg are now investigating water proof paint and looking for insect stencils for the inside of the toilet bowls as you read this, huh?)  ;)

The idea of nudging behaviour in a positive direction is one that I think we all win when we spend some time pondering.

Business is realizing that small changes can make a difference. 
  • The Google offices have pre-plated desserts that are small servings--switched up from huge platters of cakes where folks can serve themselves. Having seconds for dessert is another trip to the dessert counter…and so people eat smaller portions of stuff that is best consumed as small treats.
  • Another company, realizing that when spending a week or more teaching/telling people about the policies and values, having them understand corporate culture etc. saw that they scared and intimidated new employees, priming them to be formal and on-edge…not exactly conducive to creative and innovative productivity. They switched to asking new employees questions about how they were best successful, what they needed to be at their best, and how their new employer could help them reach their potential. These new employees had lower rates of turnover and their customers rated them as being more effective.
  • If an employee is invited to consider retirement planning…how much money in a pay check to set aside for RRSP's for when s/he is retired…maybe decades from now--it there is a picture of that employee that is age advanced so s/he is looking at themselves as a senior citizen, they are much more likely to put a greater amount in savings to help that person in the future.
The study of these behaviours is known as "behaviour economics", which Google describes as:
Behavioral economics definition as shown in Google
"Yeah, but Carolyn" you say, "your blog is about connection, not a business blog. Why you filling our heads with this business stuff?"

So glad you asked! :)

It's about the opening story…creating subtle shifts that gently invite the sort of behaviour you desire is hugely more effective than simply telling people what to do. 

Somebody can pour the first glass of wine…and doing something thoughtful and gentle with another often engages them to reciprocate. 

She got home from work one evening and fed the kids and put them to bed and she was tired to the bone. And he was late again. Late again. And even though he was late and the house was a mess, she knew that he would walk in the door, pour his glass of wine, and sit down at the kitchen table and relax. He’d sit and relax. She couldn’t even remember what relaxing felt like. She was always either going like hell or sleeping. Somebody had to keep the family running.

She stared at his bottle of wine on the counter. Then her eyes wandered over to their wedding photo on the wall. Clueless, she thought. We were cluelessBut happy. Look at us. We were happy. We were hopeful.

God, please help us, she said silently.

Then she walked over to the counter and poured a glass of wine for him. She put it next to his book on the kitchen table, the place he loved to sit and relax, and she went upstairs to sleep.

He tiptoed into the house fifteen minutes later. He knew he’d missed the kids’ bedtime again, he knew his wife would be angry againand he prepared himself for her steely silence. He hung up his coat and walked into the kitchen. He saw his glass of wine, and his book, and his chair pulled out for him. He stood and stared for a moment, trying to understand.

It felt like she was speaking directly to him for the first time in a long, long while...

So…imagine what it would be like to invite different behaviour with the people in your life, not by telling them what you need for them, but by creating the environment that is conducive to them doing something that is desirable?
  • Instead of bugging the kiddos to do their homework instead of playing video games, begin to sit at the table after supper with a book to read, and maybe take a few notes with a notebook…learn a new skill, or brush up on the latest for work. Do that regularly for a few weeks…no big speeches needed…and create opportunity for the child to join you at the table with their schoolwork as time passes
  • If you and your family decide y'all want to eat better sized portions, set the table with a smaller sized plate. No big deal, just subtle cues to encourage a better style of consumption.
  • If you decide that it is a better choice to exercise Saturday morning rather than read the paper and drink coffee…put your running clothes on before you go to bed…some of you might think this is gross. But if on waking up, you're ready to go…wouldn't it be that much easier to get up and out the door?
  • If you need to have that difficult conversation about finances with your partner, how could you set it up? (Hint: Exploding at your partner on opening up the credit card bill may not set the environment in the optimal way!) What about saying something like: "We're both gonna hate this conversation…it's gonna make us uncomfortable, and we're gonna have to work hard not to get furious with each other, cuz $ talks can stress the strongest couple, but let's set aside an hour on Thursday night to invest in a brighter future because we care so much about each other. I'll write down some agenda items for us to focus on, and I'm gonna invite you to do the same. I'm scared to have this conversation, but we're worth it!"
Subtly attending to the details of how a conversation are set up, to how a conversation is framed, to environmental cues, to the energy and stress levels of those involved--all of these can change a situation around.

This isn't manipulation, this is sensitive attunement--creating optimal circumstances to increase comfort and safety to allow all to operate out of their best selves.

Redemptive Suffering

- by Carolyn Bergen

Sometimes a conference is just a conference. 

Sometimes, a conference pokes pretty deep.

Today--well, I got poked. Deep.

I attended the Storyline Conference this week, hosted by Donald Miller. He has written one of my favourite books, A Million MIles in a Thousand Years…something I wrote about several times almost 3 years ago when I first read it

He challenges a person to write a story about their lives that is interesting and captivating…a story that is compelling and meaningful. If someone made a movie of your life, would it get bogged down cuz all you wanted was a new Honda and a move into a three bedroom home?

One of the critical parts of story--any story--in a movie or a book or a tale well told--is that the main character has a conflict…a challenge that s/he must overcome. And part of how a character is developed in the plot of a movie is how negative life turns are somehow, over time, valuable opportunities to grow and develop and mature, gaining skills and qualities that ultimately help the main character triumph.

Donald Miller had us think about some of the negative life turns of our own life…and how, in the words of Victor Frankl, we could see them from a redemptive perspective.

Victor Frankl was a psychiatrist, a guy who hung out with Sigmund Freud. He felt strongly that it was possible to find redemption in all suffering.

Frankl felt redemption could be found in all suffering.

And right about now, as you are bald with chemotherapy, or grieving the loss of a partner, or just having lost a job, you're thinking, "Wait…huh? Like, seriously?" Some suffering is just plain suffering, eh?

Let me just say, Frankl earned the right to say this. He was Jewish man living in Austria in the 30's and 40's. He lost his wife, mother and brother to the horrific actions of the Nazis. He himself spent time in concentration camps. It was in those camps, that he encouraged men not to despair and end their life with suicide when everything seemed hopeless and desperately bleak. He encouraged the men to only die at the hands of the Nazis…thereby actively being part of the atrocities of the Nazis to show the world what was happening.

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” ― Viktor E. Frankl, poster by Bergen and Associates Counseling in Winnipeg

I found myself, in the middle of the morning, drifting away from Miller's words towards old memories…a time exactly 10 years ago when I was in the midst of despair, watching my life as I had known it crumble both behind my back and before my eyes.

It sucks to watch your life fall apart over a number of months, desperate to do anything to save it--but seeing that any sort of struggle to rescue it only sped up the pace of the disintegration. 

I silently bore witness to my my marriage dissolving

A marriage therapist, helpless to do anything to save her own. Yeah, ouch. Yikes. ohmigosh…no, no, no, no. But yes--and helplessly so.

Short of changing my gender, there was absolutely nothing to be done. Nothing

So 10 years and 9 days ago, on October 22, 2004, I wrote a letter to the love of my life that contained these words:

What few questions you have asked me over the last month have been targeted at finding out what it would look like for me...if you decided to leave.  I never wanted to be single again, I wouldn’t have invited it, but neither do I want a husband who is bound to me out of guilt or obligation.  If you need to go—go.  A relationship will not work if you don’t feel you can be in it…not facing that doesn’t make it go away.  So…if you need to do homework...let’s do it.If you need to figure out all the logistics in order to free yourself to truly look inside of you in a way that up until now you have been too terrified to do, then let’s do it. 

In that letter I went on to I speak about how it would be hard if he left, but I knew I would continue…a previous loss of children which I write about annually on June 18th every year had done its redemptive work:

I thought I would die, (I remember wishing I would get hit by a bus), I thought the grief would make me go crazy, I thought I couldn’t go on without them coming back and so on.  But, as I have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, I did.  I still miss them, I still wish it wouldn’t have happened, but I have a good life and found ways to find joy.  So…to sum up this paragraph, I will go on, and I will find ways of making my life rich and meaningful, even as I struggle

The marriage counsellor, the one who helps others connect meaningfully with a partner, lost the connection with hers. And I was devastated

But, today's challenge was to explore the redemptive perspective of that most terrible experience. 

[insert deep breath here.]

Bergen and Associates Counselling exists…I love our clinic…we offer quality therapy using state of the art programs that are scientifically proven to improve results. We have three clinic spaces in two different locations, offering services 7 days/week. We are told that we have a solid reputation in the community. Hundreds of people are impacted by the sessions and services we offer. Every. single. week.

We receive cards and letters from folks who tell us their marriages are stronger, their kids are healthier, their lives are more fulfilling, their depression has lifted, and their anxiety is no longer crippling because of the work that has happened within our walls. 
People's lives are changed cuz Bergen and Associates Counselling exists.

Bergen and Associates Counselling was never planned. 

I never intended it to happen.

It was born out of necessity--as a single mom I needed to find a way to provide for my children while also being present with them in the mornings before school, and in the afternoons after school--and everyone knows most couple therapists are generally busiest in the evening. I brought in colleagues to work with me.

We've created something remarkably special that we can provide to the people who walk through our doors…and it never would have happened if I wasn't scrambling to survive.

I have discovered parts of myself I never knew existed. I have been provided with leadership opportunities that others think I am capable of…who knew? I didn't. I have strength to push through difficult times that I couldn't have known about without this difficult times. I learned that I can be terrified and still get something done well enough--in a way that oftentimes, others don't even realize how intimidated I am. I was pushed to think through issues of suffering and loneliness in ways that have carved me gentler…more compassionate and understanding. I think I'm a better therapist.

I know what it's like to want something so bad you can hardly breathe. I know the absolutely physical pain borne by those in grief…the physical ache that bears heavy and constant for a long time. The fatigue that happens with grief and loneliness that cannot be shook--it's exhausting to feel like you've lost a part of you, and to figure out how to live when an essential part of you is gone. I know what it is like to have the breath knocked out of you and the struggle to inhale seems too much. 

Yep, been there. Done that. Bought the T-shirt--and wore it night after night trying desperately and in vain to have it keep me warm.

I know now we never get over great losses.

I have written over 750 blog posts in the last 5 years. No married person has time to write that much. It made sense for this introvert to write and post as a vehicle to let people know about our work. Not only has it let Winnipeggers know about our work, it has informed and challenged people about issues of connection and relationship all over the world.

I spend time weekly with Dahlia on CJOB680 discussing topics of connection and relationship in our lives. I speak at women's groups and retreats, corporate training events, and healthcare education. I never intended to do any of this. I am a Certified Daring Way facilitator, delivering workshops developed out of the work by Dr. Brené Brown. I likely would have done very little of this--these opportunities were born, link by link, strand by strand, out of activities of Bergen and Associates Counselling. They were not in my life plan prior to 10 years ago.

My Junior Tribe Members attended a different school than they would have otherwise attended because of the curve ball our lives took after I became a single mom. They have both made deep, significant lifelong connections that will alter the course of their lives, in life changing ways. One has a sports scholarship after excelling at volleyball…only because of that school change. 

I love my life…I love making a difference in the lives of our many clients, of interacting with therapist and administrative colleagues on a team that loves working with each other. We make each other stronger. They make me stronger. I am grateful for all my colleagues, clients, and experiences have taught me. I am grateful for the impact we have.

The death of my marriage was painful--I was lonely, sad, disillusioned and broken--for a long time. It is something I never wanted to have happen. 

But it did. It ended, without my having any input into the whole thing. I didn't get to decide. I wouldn't have been able to predict what would happen. It seemed bleak and impossible. 

But beauty rises out of ashes. 

And the gorgeousness of my life sometimes takes my breath away. 

Sweet redemption.


Don't rain on my parade

- by Carolyn Bergen

Quote by Randy Pausch: The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.  Poster by Bergen and Associates

I love when art imitates life. I love watching a 16 year old girl say its her dream to sing, and as she starts singing, "Don't rain on my parade"…guess what…Simon Cowell rains on her parade. He pours monsoons over it, drenching her parade soaking wet. 

And I love how she lives her song

She's got gumption, audacity, chutzpah, and piss-n-vinegar and then some…cuz she's got game…and she gives'er better than ever. 

No way Simon Cowell is gonna rain on her parade.

Jodi Bird triumphs--big time. 

And the little guy shows that the big guy doesn't win. 

Sigh…don't we all need to be inspired a little?

I LOVE this video:



Mindfulness

- by Carolyn Bergen

Join me in a little experiment? 

Get comfortable. Shake out your arms and legs. Take a couple of deep breaths. Check to see if your shoulders are relaxed. Breath in and out again slowly.

And spend a long minute simply noticing this picture, and also notice what you notice about this picture:

A strawberry is an excellent tool for mindfulness based activity

What did you find your eye drawn towards? Leave a note in the comments below…it would be interesting to hear what you each saw when you looked at this picture.

Did you look just at the fruit? Or the plate? Did you notice the way the lights and shadows highlight? Did you see the glistening on the fruit? Did you notice the bright contrast of the green stem? Did you imagine the flavour? Imagine feeling the texture of the strawberry's flesh in your mouth?

After spending a single minute in the middle of a busy day or evening, now notice how your body feels. Monitor the effect of this simple and brief exercise

Many find that when you simply focus on a simple object, life slows down. You notice the pleasure of just noticing the strawberry. It's really beautiful, isn't it? When is the last time you admired a strawberry? When was the last time you slowed down to simply admire the simple beauty of anything?

This, in a very basic form, is an example of mindfulness.

Christopher Bergland says that a kickstart to mindfulness is simply this:

Stop. Breathe. Think about your thinking.

Mindfulness matters. 

A few things about mindfulness:

1. Mindfulness is a focusing with self regulation of attention.

It is a calming…a quieting of the "noise" that we all have in our heads to be able to focus on the immediate experience. This allows for a greater ability to recognize what is happening within our awareness of the present moment.

Like…feel your left foot in your sock right now. Notice the surface and feel of the seat underneath your butt. The ability to be aware opens up possibilities to see things that otherwise might not be noticed.

2. Mindfulness is noticing what is happening without judgement. 

What is happening is neither right nor wrong. It just is. It may not last, or it may. It is allowing what is, to simply be, without wishing it away.

It allows space for what exists, to simply exist.

Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).” – James Baraz Poster by Bergen and Associates in Winnipeg

3. Mindfulness is noticing with innocent curiosity

Curiosity is simply exploring, wanting to notice. 

Curiosity pays attention.

Curiosity wants to notice for the sake of noticing.

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana"Mindfulness gives you time. Time gives you choices. Choices, skillfully made, lead to freedom. You don

Examples of how mindfulness matters:

Some examples of how mindfulness matters in recent weeks from the net:

  • Ellen Langer says that a group of women who did heavy, physically demanding housework were asked if they worked out regularly. They reported they did not. This group was then divided into two groups. One group was encouraged to think about their job as a workout of physical activity in and of itself. This group lost weight and their blood pressure went down. The other group continued their labours as per usual. Their weight and blood pressure remained the same. Both were still working their same usual job.
  • The Dalai Lama is coming to British Columbia to meet with students.  Victor Chan has worked to educated socially and emotionally intelligent students by introducing mindfulness to the school classroom. He notes the correlation between social and emotional fluency and better academic outcomes. Learning self regulation such as used in the famous marshmallow experiment is a helpful mindfulness tool that is predictive of future wellbeing

  • Renee Cullinan writes about the value of mindfulness in business. In the fast paced world of business that pushes productivity and efficiency, one might think that mindfulness would be a lead balloon to success. But, in fact, she makes a valid case for how mindfulness can increase productivity. She asks folks in business to answer questions about: "How many hours do you spend in meetings?" and "How much of the time in those meetings is wasted?" By having staff be mindful of their responses to these questions, they are able to make better choices about how to use their time more wisely and effectively.

Some examples of how mindfulness has been helpful to me in my own life:

  • I wear a Nike fuel band around my wrist that measures my activity every day. I have a target set for "3000 fuel points" (about 12,000 steps) per day. The Nike fuel band helps me be mindful of my activity. This evening, halfway through writing this blog, I checked my points and realized I was only half way to my daily points. I took a break and went walking…it was a beautiful evening, and I had a chance to listen to some music and call a good friend. I reached my goal and had a fair amount of activity…because of how the Nike band enables me to be mindful of how active I have been that day.
  • I gave a workshop today with some folks about suicide awareness and prevention. I was deliberately mindful of my internal workings leading up to the workshop. I was acutely aware of how I regretted my decision to agree to do this…who do I think I am to speak on this topic to a group of capable professionals. But I worked to be mindful beyond the loud noise of the internal dialogue telling me I was outta my league. I also was mindful of the other bits of things I noticed. I reviewed my notes and was pleased with how they seemed to make sense to me. I remembered how I have so often felt ill equipped before hand and then been profoundly grateful of the experience's richness after. I remembered how other people have encouraged me to do things like this. I remembered the times I have lectured on the topic of suicide with students at various times. Being mindful of all of that had me actually be fully present with the participants as they came…and I wasn't even particularly anxious when I arrived.

Some examples of mindfulness that I have observed with others:

  • My Junior Tribe Member was able to self regulate as a toddler. He was able to calm himself in the middle of chaos with the assistance of an empty Playtex nurser bottle that he would hold while he would suck two fingers. During one particularly nasty asthma attack, he was closely monitored at Children's Hospital. Pumped full of medication that made his system race incredibly fast, he could control his heart rate by focusing on the comfort of the bottle and his fingers by 30-40 beats per minute. He was a pro at self regulation. I've never forgotten his ability to control his body even in the face of a very significant health crisis and aggressive medical treatment…I often think back to that event to challenge myself to regulate myself in the face of significant challenges.
  • I spoke recently with a friend who is grieving the loss of her husband some months ago. She has been mindfully grieving his loss…noticing with curiosity the different emotions that bubble up as she mourns. She became aware of the guilt she felt over some incidents in the last months of his illness where she questioned if she should have been/done "more". Talking through the guilt in her experience and being aware of the guilt part of her grief and exploring that was huge in her being able to come up for air in her grieving. Just simply being "profoundly sad" would not have been fully accurate and wouldn't have given her what she needed to take the next step in grieving. 
  • Sometimes, when I am with clients they tell me in broad strokes how they are feeling. e.g. "I am sooo pissed off". One of the things we do is have them become mindful so as to be aware of the nuances of their anger. Is it jealousy? At who, and over what? Is it resentment? Is it because they feel taken advantage of, or cheated? Is it because it reminds them of an old feeling of rejection from years gone by? Is it because this is the 10th time they have had the same wounding and they are wearing thin of patience? Is it because underneath, they are feeling profoundly sad and it is just easier to be angry externally than to vulnerably feel the sadness? (and then feeling the sadness in the session has the anger spontaneously evaporate)
MIndfulness is an incredible tool that can allow us to better be aware of ourselves and our environment in ways that allow us to more effectively move through our lives.

For those of you who are interested in what a mindfulness practice could look like (and believe me, volumes have been written about this--and it can range from full on meditation practice to deliberately slowing down to check in oneself periodically) take a peek at one possibility by a well respected authority on the subject:



The Ups and Downs of Family Gatherings

- by Carolyn Bergen

This weekend is Thanksgiving. In a couple of months will be Christmas. Several months after that will be Easter, then Mother's Day, Father's Day, and July Long Weekend…all of these occasions for times with family.

The week running up to Thanksgiving can be a preoccupied one at a counselling centre. And the week after it, is definitely affected as well.

Here is what I know about hosting family gatherings:

1. People often put unfair value into hosting family gatherings.  The very act of hosting the big dinner is unconsciously turned into a measuring stick of how important one's family is.

Hosts put a lot of pressure into the "perfect gathering" where everything is perfectly cooked, there are multiple salads, and everyone gets their favourite pie. The decorations are specially made, and the centrepieces are planned ahead of time. 

It's like there is a belief that one's love is measured by Martha Stewart-esque perfection and intensive labor.

And the whole thing is no dang fun…just a pile of stress.

And there is little joy in the hosting…and sparse little time for actual lovin'--the laughter, the sharing, the casual conversation…the joy of simple connection.

2. Hosts who invite and encourage help host gatherings that are often more fun.

If someone offers to bring something--say YES! Have a mental list of side dishes or desserts that can make your life easier so when people offer, you know what to say. When people stand up at the end of the meal to help carry dishes into the kitchen to load the dishwasher--say THANX!

Quite frankly, I love it when people accept my offer to bring something. I feel useful. When I'm only making one dish, it gives me a chance to google a new recipe and fuss a little. It's nice to know that there is one less thing for the host to do. And it increases the sense of community when those who can, are able to contribute something.

When I grew up, and we were at my Oma and Opa's house, there was a monstrous crew at the table with all the children and grandchildren--a tiny house and no dishwasher. Cleanup was part of the fun of the evening. It wasn't something that we tolerated to get to the fun…it was part of the fun. The dishes were washed in the kitchen sink and the pots and pans were washed by a second crew in the laundry sink.

Get over making it "perfect", and welcome friendly and casual chaos that has people feeling welcome and comfortable to be their own imperfect selves.

Here's what I know about attending family gatherings

1. In 2014, family gatherings can be a huge hassle and no-win situations, with competing and overlapping invitations. A couple may both have divorced parents with separate homes, and their children may have non-custodial parents. There are times when there isn't time to accept all the invitations. There is no making everybody happy.

Without making tough choices, a person could rush from one huge turkey meal to the next, and still feel like they are disappointing a parent, a step parent, an ex-partner…dragging around exhausted and frazzled children who hate the whole thing.

Give yourself permission to develop a realistic and quality schedule that works for all those involved…yourself and your kids included. Alternate occasions…skip some expressing regrets and the reason behind the choice. Don't expect everyone to understand all the time. Sometimes even those who do understand will be disappointed. That's OK. Disappointment is part of life and it doesn't kill anyone, and its a sign that you are wanted. 

Develop a sustainable rhythm early on…create space for new traditions. Having Thanksgiving time with one family either one week early or late may make it a more special experience and something that can be cheerfully anticipated.

I think the family is the place where the most ridiculous and least respectable things in the world go on. Poster by bergen and Associates. Quote byBetti

2. Doesn't matter how old you are, when you sit down at your mama's table, there is a tendency to feel like a 12 year old.

You know what I'm talking about, huh?

Old insecurities, petty jealousies, sibling rivalries suddenly come out of no where and hijack your normally sane and mature mind. Seeing siblings around the table can bring up feelings we forgot existed.

A person can find themselves experiencing all sorts of things that one hasn't felt or thought about for years…and then acting in a manner that is more consistent with being an adolescent than a fully grown adult.

  • A successful businessman suddenly feels like he's just a twerpy little brother
  • A capable young mom feels like she is performing (and failing) in her role with her sisters watching
  • An son who runs his own business cowers as his father criticizes his new haircut
Long forgotten parts of ourselves get tapped into when we enter into contact with people whom we have known in another context and in another time. Our body feels the familiar space of what it was like long ago, and it all floods right back.

Expect it. Plan for it. Plan things to remember that you might want to gently remind yourself: "When he pokes at me, it makes sense to respond like I did 20 years ago, but I'll be OK. I'm a grown man/woman and I may not be perfect, but I am much more than this poke".

3. Alcohol is an unfortunate and big part of most of these gatherings.

Lemme just be really crass about a very real truthful equation: 

Alcohol + family gatherings = Good business for counselling offices


Quite simply: you can't unring the bell, people.

The Tuesday after a long weekend where there are family gatherings generally have a few messages on the answering machine from folks who have experienced the trauma of a family gathering gone wrong. And generally, there was alcohol involved in the downward spiral.

Alcohol loosens tongues. People say things that shouldn't be said, or in manners and times they shouldn't be said. People say things that aren't true…but those things aren't forgotten.

4. Family gatherings challenge alliances.

I'm not just saying this cuz I'm writing this with Survivor playing on the television in the next room…alliances are huge at family gatherings.

It's painful for a wife to go to her in-laws for Thanksgiving and watch her husband be more loyal to his parents than to her:

  • He laughs when they criticize her
  • He is silent when they make comments about her parenting
  • He agrees to the summer vacation next summer with his folks even though they decided ahead of time that they wanted to vacation alone.
It's agonizing for a husband to go to his in-laws for Thanksgiving and watch his wife be more loyal to her parents than to him:

  • He asks her not to leave him alone with her dad…and she disappears with her mom to a neighbours house for a few hours
  • His father in law asks pointed questions about his not getting a promotion, and how little income he makes, and challenges him to "try harder"…and she is silent
In family therapy, we often think of families in diagrams…and we position family members with dots relative to each other. In healthy families, husbands and wives are closer to each other than others. If a spouse is closer to parents than to his/her partner, the foundation for marital struggles is huge.

Another part of the alliance is supporting your partner…sure, you didn't grow up with his parents, and maybe his dad has bad breath and tells bad jokes…but it's his dad. Going to a family gathering is an act of love.

Does your partner know you have his/her back at the family gathering this weekend?


Family gatherings at Thanksgiving (and other times of the year, for that matter) are a complicated tricky business. They can be painful, triggering, and a ton of energy. The can be tricky to schedule and navigate. They can be exhausting at multiple levels…and can feel like a minefield for new wounds or the reinjury of old ones.

Family is essential because we all yearn to feel like we belong to something greater than ourselves.Laura Ramirez Poster by Bergen and associates in Winnipeg

They can also be times of laughter and reconnection, increasing the strength of the ties that bind family to one another. Stories are re-told, and there can be collective sadness and joy at the memories that are reminisced. Family gatherings increase the glue that connects people…there is benefit from that strength in difficult times ahead. Favorite foods shared remind those around the table of common roots in ways that strengthen the soul.

With careful and deliberate boundaries and planning, courage to be authentic to one's values, and vulnerability to open oneself up to connection, family gatherings can be times of goodness.



Yes I can--with the faith of another

- by Carolyn Bergen

My favourite number is 2.

It has been for a while. One Junior Tribe Member (JTM) has worn 2 on his jersey for quite some time…and another wears 11 (which added up, equals that).

But now "TWO" is really and truly my favoritest number, forever and ever.

Its because of this pint sized little hockey player in the video below. Now, many of you won't take the time to watch the full two minutes and forty five seconds of this video, because in this day that is too long to watch such a slow moving video.

But the slow movement is the truest, awesomest beauty of it.

The puck is on the blue line…a pro player can get it to the net in a second. Even a mediocre hockey player would take 5-10 seconds.

It takes the littlest guy a full two and half minutes to get from the blue line to the goal…and Number 2 is with him the whoooooole long dang time of it.

Number 2 doesn't give up, doesn't take over…Twoster hangs in there, steadily encouraging, helping, shielding, running interference for, and generally just plain ol' persisting to help the little guy reach his goal. HIs patience is something I long to emulate.

Being there for someone else isn't easy. Sometimes its a thankless job, because truthfully…the best helpers disappear into the background so when the goal is achieved, the one being helped can celebrate the victory 

(cue up "arms raised over head" in the last few seconds of the vid--doesn't every pint sized hockey player dream of raising his/her hands after a goal?)

My favourite little twoster understands the value of buffering a bit…letting the other person concentrate and do something at their own pace. He sees that sometimes you have to hold people off or get in their way so that the process can continue its own painfully slow natural course to accomplishment. He knows that given enough time, the goal will be reached and so sometimes, the hardest part of helping is just hanging in there, not taking over, letting it all happen.

I know that it won't work for all of you, dear readers, to watch it to the end…but if you can create the time, please do so. It had me in tears watching the whole relatively-painful-to-watch sooo-slow eeeeking towards the goal at slower-than-a-snail's pace. But along the way, Twoster taught me some lessons about helping in ways that have challenged and changed me in good ways. 

The beauty is in the slowness…take a breather, be mindful, slow down, and watch what a difference careful helping makes. 

Be an awesome Twoster?! 

Being a number 2 can make such a difference in someone else's life.


I know nothing in life comes easy But I am willing to get my hands dirty Keep my head held high and my heart open wide Poster by Bergen and Associates Counselling. Quote by Jason Barry, songwriter for 2013 Guelph Hockey Tournament:  Yes I can, in 2013


Trust is an emotion.

- by Carolyn Bergen

Trust is an emotion--a distinctly human feeling.

And normally business likes to think it runs on facts, and we think that feelings don't belong. People who "deliver" regularly--who do everything they promise they are going to do--they are reliable…it doesn't mean people will trust you. You know…you have a good long term friend who messes up…yet you still trust him/her right? It's because s/he and you have a common belief system, a history, and a set of values…we become more confident to take risks and explore…because we trust them, we know they have our backs.

Leadership will tell a person what to do. And it might work, but leadership in and of itself isn't trustworthyWhen a person in leadership has the trust of those they lead…then they have authentic authority

Authority and leadership…so not the same thing. Trust is the difference.

Simon Sinek tells this story:

Imagine you want to go out on a date, but need a babysitter for the evening. You have two choices…you can get a 16 year old girl from down the street that you have known for years with very little babysitting experience…or a 32 year old who has 10 years experience. Who would you choose?

Yeah, I'd pick the young girl from my community too.

We'd rather have people that we have multiple points of connection with than well qualified people who we don't know what they believe and what their values are and where they come from.

The emotion of trust develops in a "high touch" and high frequency sort of way. We need confidence and frequency to develop trust…trust happens in drops, and fills the trust bucket gradually.

Picture this…you have a positive interaction with another person--it's like a little string. A single string isn't very strong and could break easily. You have a thousand small interactions with that person…little moments of connection. A thousand strings…well, that forms a net.

A net can hold a lot more weight…and with that level of trust, weightier stories can be shared.

We all long to be known…we want to tell our stories and be heard…but the strength of the bond between us needs to be able to hold the weight of the stories.

There's a few things I know about the strings that hold trust:

Strings are developed best in proximity. 

It's hard to develop trust online. We have these "mirror neurons" in our brain…you know that reflex to yawn when others yawn? On MRI's, the parts of our brain that have us smile light up when we see others smile…we connect and build trust when we are with another person in a way we can't when things are done online. 

Trust is about human interaction and real conversations. 

When we are in face to face something extra happens that can't happen online. When two people "shake" on a deal, it means something more than if they just agree to it verbally. That physical act of shaking hands and looking each other in the eye seals the deal.

Nets of trust are developed over time.

The net that develops that holds the weight of major trust develop in the smallest of moments, with small strings and little threads gradually building strength. 

  • Remembering someone's name. 
  • Asking about something they told you a week ago. 
  • Following through. 
  • Showing up on time. 
  • Being there
  • Listening
Big grand gestures of trips and pay raises and large gifts--they're nice--but trust is built with small threads and thin strings over time.

Nets of trust can be ripped apart

The net that develops with thousands of small threads can be destroyed in an instant. 

Picture this: You take a child for walks regularly…and they meet dogs along the way. The child who meets dogs that are the same size, and sniff and lick or held on a leash by the owner. Then one day a dog pulls the leash away from the owner's hand and bounds up to the child, knocking the child over. The dog snarls and bites the child.

The next day, the child refuses to go for a walk at all…so as not to encounter any dogs at all. The child now doesn't trust any dogs…because despite many friendly dogs, one really bad encounter with one nasty one sours the species. 

Trust is like that.

I am not angry because you lied to me, I am angry because I can

Nets of trust can slowly erode with neglect

Disengagement is the most subtle way to break trust.  It's sinister and subversive. To pretend to "be there" and be trustworthy, but to be preoccupied and not be following through…and then to deny it when it's raised. That erodes the net slowly over time in difficult and painful ways.

Trust is vital to survival…it is the precursor to connection…which we all require for life.


(This video has some great ideas…the middle is a little boggy…but the first and last 5 minutes are really helpful to our discussion)


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Blog ~ A Thoughtful Look at Life

November 20, 2014

Fear, Failure and Falling: It's every parents' instinct to protect our child from pain. But what problems can we create in protecting our children from the curveballs of life? A profound video and some thoughts on sitting with our children in the dark.

Proximity: How to find ways of staying close when times are tough. The importance of finding ways of staying connected and reconnecting after the crap of life creates distance.

Redemptive perspective on tragedy…a very personal take on the topic arising out of the Storyline conference I attended this week in Chicago.


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