Dear Vicki

DEAR VICKI

As one year ends and another begins, I feel haunted by the “coulda, shoulda, wouldas.” I’ve made so many mistakes that resulted in a disappointing marriage and a lackluster career. Maybe if I’d had some breaks and encouragement, I would have done better. If I could do things over, I’d make different choices but it’s too late for that now that I am in my latter years. Sometimes, I read the obituaries and cringe when I think how little of substance will be written in mine. I read about successful people or watch them on television and berate myself for not doing more with my life. How can I resolve these feelings of failure?

For many of us, the dawning of a new year heralds in a time of taking stock. And in our senior years, it is a natural task to look back and review our life’s trajectory. In fact, doing so can suffuse our lives with deep meaning and satisfaction. Or in your case, it can lead to feelings of loss and despair.

What makes the difference? Simply, it is attitude, our way of looking at the world.

You’ve fallen into some unhealthy thinking patterns and are viewing your life through this negative lens. No wonder you feel discouraged. Fortunately, these habits most definitely can be changed—at any age. The benefits to your well-being make it worth the effort that it will take to alter your long-standing patterns of thinking.

My first recommendation is that you stop using others as a yardstick to measure your self-worth. Doing so, in essence, is comparing someone’s outside to your own inside. You do not know their limitations, failures and disappointments because you are only seeing the window dressing. Such a comparison is faulty, unfair and damaging to your own self-image.

Next, work on accepting your past choices. Life is about learning. In order to learn, we must make mistakes, much as a toddler does when he is learning to walk. Accepting our human frailty and errors of judgment is critical to our mental health. When we reframe our self-criticism to the notion that we did the best that we could, given our circumstances, we let ourselves off the futile hook of self-condemnation.

Finally, address your patterns of negative thinking. The school of therapy that deals with learning to change negative thought patterns is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Health professionals recognize it as a highly effective treatment for low self-image issues such as you describe. It is also appropriate for issues such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders and substance abuse. To learn more, investigate some of the many books on the market that teach these skills. For example, any of the Feeling Good books by David Burns are excellent. There is even a Dummie’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that provides detailed information and examples.

However, be warned. You are trying to change long-standing patterns of behavior and going it alone can be overwhelming. Rather than giving up and having one more thing to beat yourself up over, I suggest that you find a therapist skilled in cognitive behavioral therapy. Ask upfront for their experience with CBT and insist on setting goals and sticking to them.

To get you started on your path to more positive thinking, pay attention to your self-talk. That’s what we tell ourselves about everything from a situation to our own behavior. It’s our interpretation of the world and our place within it. These thoughts may be rational, based on fact, or they may be irrational, based on incomplete or false evaluations. And they may be positive or negative. What you want to do is to stop those negative blurbs in their tracks.

As a good reminder, wear a rubber band on your wrist. Every time you compare yourself to someone else, snap that rubber band and loudly say “Stop.” Re-direct your thoughts to a positive angle. For example, tell yourself something like, “Every day I’m getting better at appreciating what I do well.” Negative thinking is a habit and like all bad habits, it can be changed. It just takes practice.

Dwelling on regrets is a certain way to drain all of the happiness and joy available to you in the present moment. Instead, invest in yourself today. Learn these valuable skills to make the rest of your life become a positive force. Are you a good friend? A caring parent? A reliable volunteer? Everyone has strengths and gifts. You’ve done many things right because you’ve made it to this stage of life. Letting go of those regrets will free you to find your strengths and to live a life of resilience and renewal.

Family Relationship Stress

Several years ago, I relocated to be close to my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Because he is my only child and I was widowed when he was young, my son and I have always been close. But now it seems that I do nothing right. He acts impatient and critical with me whenever he sees me, which are increasingly rare occurrences. I understand that he has a family of his own, but I am incredibly hurt by his behavior. My attempts to talk to him about this have been unsuccessful.

Let me first empathize with you about these difficult circumstances and then give you some questions to ponder. Your responses may help you to more fully understand what is happening and to move toward a closer relationship with your son and his family.

No matter what the root cause of this rift, the result is one of pain and rejection for you, and perhaps for him as well. Particularly because you were close at one time, the loss of this bond cuts deeply. Above all, be gentle in accepting the feelings of grief that arise from this loss. A family rift can be just as devastating as a death. If, at any time, you feel unable to cope with your negative emotions, please see a therapist or physician immediately.

Answer these questions with honesty, but without self-judgment. They are designed to help you find solutions rather than to determine fault.

  • · Was there an identifiable point that instigated this change in your relationship? What was happening when it began? Try to identify what led up to this distance between you. The answer may provide clues to its resolution. If there was a provoking incident, do what you can to clarify misunderstandings and make appropriate amends.
  • · How is your relationship with your daughter-in-law and granddaughter? Remember that your son now comes as a package deal. If there is tension between you and your daughter-in-law, you must address it in order to mend this rift with your son. Include your son’s family when you issue invitations and focus on building warm and respectful individual relationships with both your daughter-in-law and granddaughter.
  • · What else is going on? Consider that your son may be taking other stresses out on you. Yes, that is unfair, but all of us are sometimes guilty of imposing our unpleasant moods on those we love the most. Perhaps his work is not going well, his finances are troubling or there are problems in his marriage. This is not a pass for bad behavior, but understanding these possible contributors may allow you to avoid taking his slights as personally.
  • · What are your other sources of support and entertainment? Since you are new to the area, join a group, church or volunteer organization and develop a life for yourself with an array of friends and activities. Possibly, your son’s irritability is influenced by feeling responsible for your well-being and happiness. When your son sees you busy and involved with your own life, rather than being dependent upon him for sole support, he may feel relieved of a burden that even he is unaware of feeling.
  • · How can you communicate your concerns? After you have addressed any of the above issues, take another look at your relationship. If necessary, consider again talking to him about this rift or writing him a letter with your concerns. Keep a positive focus on the future rather than rehashing what has already transpired. It’s not easy, I know! If you plan a discussion, practice what you are going to say first. If you are writing a letter, do several drafts and review them carefully prior to sending them.

Finally, let me suggest a terrific book that all families could benefit from by reading. Healing from Family Rifts by Mark Sichel is filled with wisdom, empathy and sound suggestions to help keep all of our family relationships humming along more smoothly. Although its intended audience is those among us who have been cut off from a family member, this uplifting book will help anyone foster more rewarding and satisfying relationships with their loved ones. Broken down into 10 practical steps, the book includes real-life success stories, effective communication guidelines and even tips for developing that full life outside of your family ties. It is available at local bookstores, Amazon and many libraries. Check it out.

Conflict about Conflict

My husband and I are almost five years into a second marriage for both of us. Mostly, things are good, except for how we handle conflicts. He hates to argue and walks away at any sign of disagreement. I think some conflict is healthy, if it is handled correctly. When he clams up and won’t talk through our problems, I feel shut out and dismissed. In the end, I think it hurts rather than helps our relationship to avoid issues that may create some heated arguments. How do we solve this difference?

Take a look at the personal growth section in any bookstore and you’ll quickly see that conflict management is a hot topic. Scores of books line the shelves about managing conflict in relationships, business, politics and almost every area of life. In other words, conflict happens! Even seasoned therapists and other “experts” experience conflict about the causes and cures for this common problem.

In order to give a comprehensive answer, I’d need much more information. Different theories approach conflict from various angles and we could explore your past, your expectations, etc. However, the following framework borrowed from the business world may give you fresh insight and foster better interactions.

Research in the field of human relations identifies five strategies for conflict management:

  1. Competition – using authority or personal power to influence the outcome of a conflict, e.g., “It’s my way or else.”
  2. Accommodation – allowing your partner to have his or her way and neglecting your own needs, e.g., “I give up. You win!”
  3. Avoidance – ignoring the conflict and any attempts toward resolution, e.g., “I don’t want to talk about it.”
  4. Compromise – resolving the conflict by choosing a solution that is somewhat acceptable to both partners, but not completely satisfying to either, e.g., “We both give a little and get a little.”
  5. Collaboration – using cooperation and problem-solving skills to find a mutually satisfying solution, e.g., “We find an answer that satisfies each of us. We both win.”

While each strategy has pros and cons, people who handle conflict well select and use the one that best fits the situation. For example, you may need to use competition (or force) in dangerous or urgent situations. At the same time, always insisting on your own way is a sure way to evoke resentment and anger. Not a good pick!

As creatures of habits, we become stuck in a comfortable rut, most often using one or two of these styles although all of them are available to us. While certain questionnaires can help determine your primary style, you can probably identify both your personal favorites and those of your partner just by reviewing that list. Right? I thought so!

Furthermore, can you guess which styles are healthiest for couples? Yep, the last two strategies are your best bet in most cases. In particular, collaboration allows us to use our creative problem-solving abilities to foster mutual respect, meaningful rapport and interpersonal intimacy. Hey, that’s the good stuff that translates into love.

Hold on a minute before planning to collaborate all the time. It’s not that simple. Collaboration requires time and effort. Some disagreements are too trivial to justify time-consuming resolutions. Imagine that you and your partner disagree on which movie to see on the weekend. Accommodating and yielding to your partner’s desire to see the latest Oscar contender may serve you best. Aim for balance and consideration in these types of minor conflicts.

Talk with your husband about the five strategies. Without assigning judgment and blame, determine which go-to strategy each of you most often use. Then discuss your next most frequently used choice. Often, just using a secondary strategy will ease the log jam. Give it a try! Also, seek opportunities for collaboration, building your problem-solving skills and arriving at a win-win solution.

Consistently avoiding conflict or stonewalling, with the excuse, “I don’t like to argue,” undermines a relationship. In a similar manner, the person who dislikes going to a doctor risks their health if they use their distaste as an excuse to avoid dealing with medical concerns. Most of us don’t enjoy going to the doctor or dealing with conflict. However, for the health of our body, we overcome our resistance and seek medical care. And for the health of our relationship, we strengthen our bond by resolving differences in a mutually satisfying manner. If necessary, we can agree to disagree with respect in a way that honors our relationship and deepens intimacy.

Keep your eye focused on balance and tolerance. Choose your battles with care, avoid making “mountains out of molehills,” and shrug off those minor annoyances. Learn to ask for what you need. Your spouse is not a mind reader. When you voice grievances, use “I” language to communicate rather than “you” language which tends to blame and shame. For example, “I feel (left out, unappreciated, unloved, etc.),” rather than, “You are so (thoughtless, inconsiderate, etc.).

If you need more help, seek professional assistance without delay. When conflict escalates, becomes chronic, or is destructive. It erodes those loving feelings and sets up a difficult-to-reverse negative cascade of emotions. For assistance in finding a qualified therapist, ask your physician or a member of the clergy to recommend someone they trust. Clinicians trained in relationship skills include licensed counselors, pastoral counselors, clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists and psychologists.

Finally, remember that happy couples stay connected by communicating with many more positive than negative interactions. So, although conflict is a given, keep the tone in your home upbeat by balancing disagreements with appreciation, gratitude and by having fun together.

Check out these excellent books and audio recordings for more suggestions:

  • Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, PhD.
  • The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman, PhD.
  • Divorce Busting by Michelle Weiner-Davis
  • Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson

Looking for Friends

My recent retirement was my choice and I am happy with that decision. However, now I realize that all my friends were work-related acquaintances. I’ve gotten together for lunch a couple of times with the office group, but it isn’t the same. They’ve moved on and I need to do the same. My wife is good company, but I think I’m cramping her style with too much togetherness. How can I branch out?

Making friends later in life is as important as it always has been, maybe even more so. That’s because, as you point out, we lose some of those paths for social interaction that we’ve relied on in the past, like our jobs or the contacts we made through our growing children. Having a social support system is a key factor in maintaining both our physical and mental health as we age.

But for all our life experience, we hold onto the idea that making friends is something that just happens effortlessly. Wrong! No matter what stage of life we are in, making friends takes both intention and effort. Truly, it’s always been that way. Even kids must make an effort to have friends.

Let’s start with that intention. Accept that making new friends is both a challenge and an opportunity. It’s going to take some work but it will be an adventure too. Decide to make at least one attempt every week and hold yourself accountable by keeping a record of your efforts. It’s a great way to see what works for you.

Where do you start? Here are some suggestions:

  • · Be a sport:

Find an athletic activity you enjoy or one you would like to learn. Avoid solo activities like jogging alone if your aim is to meet others. Instead, join a hiking group, a senior golf league or take tennis lessons. If you’re stuck for ideas, check out www.meetup.org for local activities and events.

  • · Give of yourself:

Volunteer your way to new friendships. As a bonus, this will also help you to develop a sense of purpose (something that many retirees desire). Many communities, such as Anne Arundel County, offer a dedicated volunteer center that helps match your skills and interests to a community need. Contact them at www.volunteerannearundel.org or phone 410 897-9207. Choose a group activity where you work alongside others. Answering phones at home isn’t the ticket to making friends.

  • · School rules:

That’s right, go back to school! Stimulate your mind and meet new people. Community colleges offer a wide range of classes for retired folks at a nominal fee. Steer away from lecture classes if you’re looking to ramp up your social life. Instead, choose participation classes such as photography or watercolor painting.

  • · Keep the faith:

A large sign in our community says: “Rethink Church.” Indeed, revisit your faith or find a new one that suits your beliefs. Attending a weekly service may enrich your spiritual life but, by itself, probably won’t help you connect with others. Look for small group activity within the church or synagogue. It may involve Bible study, a cleanup crew, a soup kitchen or membership in a choir.

  • · Go Clubbing:

You guessed it, join a club. Look in the newspaper for listed book clubs, art clubs, political clubs and more. Check them out. Also, investigate the listings in online newspapers such as www.Patch.com that provide excellent coverage of local organizations. And don’t forget the Rotary and other civic clubs. Once more, the trick is to become involved by volunteering.

Now what? So, you’ve taken the first steps. You made it your intention to make new friends and you’ve signed up for a class, joined a club, taken up a sport, and gone back to church. Great! You’re busy, but that’s not enough. This is the toughest part for many of us. You have to take it to the next step and reach out to these casual acquaintances.

Take courage! Keep your sense of humor and a relaxed attitude and decide to take the initiative. By now, you’ll have met at least a few likely souls who seem worth getting to know on a deeper level. Invite one of them to grab a cup of coffee after the meeting or for a drink after a round of golf. If they say no, that’s OK. Maybe next time, they’ll be free.

“You must kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince!” So, says a slogan on a pillow that I spotted in a local gift store. This holds true in making friends, as well as in romance. Some of your efforts will just not prove fruitful. Some people are too busy, too lazy or simply not interested in becoming friends. Don’t give up! Remember that even natural extroverts strike out sometimes. My rule is to reach out three times to someone that I’d like to get to know better. If at that point, I’ve hit a brick wall, I move on and pat myself on the back for trying.

There’s a whole world of new friends out there and now you have the time to invest in meaningful connections. What are you waiting for?

Mending Fences

I’ve lost touch with a good friend and don’t know what to do about it. Kathy helped me through one of the most difficult times in my life. When my husband died, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. She was my lifeline for that terrible year as I picked up the pieces and decided to move to be closer to my adult children. After I made that decision, Kathy started to distance herself and almost seemed angry that I was moving to another state. It was subtle, but I knew from her words and actions that she thought I was making the wrong choice. I guess I became defensive and made some comments to other friends about her lack of support. She confronted me about those comments on the day that I moved and we parted angry and upset with each other. It’s been almost two years since I moved and we’ve never been in touch. I still miss her and hate that we are no longer friends. I am so grateful and still love her for how she helped me when I needed it most and wonder if there is any way to mend things. Over time, I’ve come to see her side of things too. Maybe her pulling away had more to do with just feeling abandoned by my planned move. But what can I do now? We live far apart and it’s not like we can have coffee and patch things up.

It’s clear that this was a deep and meaningful friendship to you and it is worth trying to save. But you’re right that the physical distance between you poses an additional challenge to healing this rupture.

Why not start with a heartfelt letter? Try this: Write the letter saying everything that you want to say. Then, set the letter aside for a few days or so. After that time, go back and strike out every line and word in which you defend yourself or blame her. Keep the focus on your gratitude and love, on how much you miss her, and on what you would like to happen between you now. A simple “I’m so sorry for my mistakes” is sufficient and there is no need to beat to death whatever went wrong between the two of you. It’s past history that you both know too painfully well.

Focus on the future. In your letter, tell her that you’d like to get reacquainted if she is open to it and schedule a time for a phone chat. Take your cue from her response. Perhaps, she misses you too and is also hoping for an opportunity to reconnect. However, be prepared that she might have moved on emotionally and be uninterested in resuming your friendship for a variety of reasons.

If she responds positively, keep the connection growing with phone calls and maybe visits after a bit. If you get rebuffed, try to cherish the positive memories that you have of Kathy and let go, knowing that you tried to mend things. And remember that there are different kinds of friendships. Some people are friends for a reason, some are friends for a season and some are friends for a lifetime. You can make the first move in reconnecting, but it takes two willing souls to make a friendship work.

The Online Dating Question

After my wife’s death nearly two years ago after a long illness, I’ve slowly developed some interests and hobbies. However, I miss having a companion and am considering an online dating service. I’ve scouted a few out (and feel a little guilty doing so,) but haven’t registered for any. We had a wonderful marriage and nobody will ever take my wife’s place. I guess I still have some life left in me though and I’m healthy. What do you think I should do?

Of course, nobody can take your wife’s place and it’s normal to feel a bit disloyal when you consider opening yourself up to a new relationship. However, think of it this way. If your wife had been left behind as a widow, wouldn’t you want her to make the most of the remaining years of her life and find happiness where possible? You also deserve the same consideration from yourself. The fact that you miss having a companion can be viewed as a compliment to your wife’s memory!

As a man, the good news is that the odds of finding another woman to share your life with are quite good. There are many more available women than men. The tricky part will be connecting with the right one. If you’re hesitant about taking your search online, have you thought about telling your friends that you are interested in dating? Perhaps they know someone and are just waiting for your cues to make an introduction. Also, look around community groups and organizations that interest you for women who enjoy the same activities.

However, if you’d rather meet someone in a more private manner or just have difficulty in making that first move, online dating services are a great invention. These services have caught on to the trend that savvy, vibrant and single seniors are looking for love and friendship too.

You’ll have lots of company and more choices than you can imagine. These services provide a relatively inexpensive way of capturing a snapshot of more than a person’s mere physical appearance. Their profile will also provide a glimpse of their interests and personality in a convenient form. Even the manner in which that the profile has been prepared is telling. If it is prepared with care and infused with personality, the writer of the profile will probably reflect those same qualities in person. And much of the awkwardness of first dates may be eased by knowing something of your prospect in advance. By the time you actually meet, you’ll have exchanged e-mails and know something of the person instead of starting out cold.

A few caveats are worth mentioning, but they shouldn’t scare you away. When choosing a service, you might want to consider one that charges a membership fee. These do provides some screening and may be a bit safer for that reason. Still, make sure you check the site out thoroughly prior to joining and be sure that you understand all the dues and rules. Be aware that some services include an automatic renewal which will be charged on the credit card that you provide. Acquaint yourself with the cancellation policy so that you have no unpleasant surprises should you decide to withdraw from the service.

Also, be forewarned that while presenting yourself in your best light is recommended, some folks cross the line into fantasy land by using photographs taken a number of years and pounds ago. This misrepresentation can also extend to personal information written in a profile. Certainly, this is not the norm, but being prepared for this can reduce disappointment down the road. When you do meet an interesting woman, take it slow. Just as when you meet any stranger, be cautious, but not paranoid, until you get to know them better.

As for your own profile, take time to prepare it carefully and select a realistic, recent head-and-shoulder shot that is well-lit, clear and shows you off for your best. If you’re unsure of what to write, peruse the profiles of others to get some ideas. Be yourself, be upbeat, and be honest. Work on a couple of different drafts till you are satisfied and, if possible, check it out with a friend or family member for input before submitting it to a service.

There are a number of dating services around and some that specialize in senior dating. Use a search engine on your computer and see what comes up. Some of the more well-known services are Match.com and eHarmony.com. However, there are many choices, so do your homework. The best one for you is an individual choice and choosing well will increase your chances of success. While I cannot recommend any particular dating service, check out eDatereview.com for some comparisons and reviews about various sites.

One of the best predictors of happiness in a future relationship is a past, successful marriage. You’ve got that going for you so I say go right ahead and sign up—-after you check everything out first, of course. Be careful, be safe, but have fun. You deserve it!

It’s Complicated

In the last year or so, I’ve gone through a tumultuous time of change and loss. I’m now faced with some important decisions about how I’m going to live the rest of my life. It’s complicated, but the gist of it is that I can’t put off these decisions any longer. However, I’m stuck and undecided. I’ve sought advice from my friends, my pastor and a psychologist. It’s crazy but I’ve even gone to a psychic! Much of the advice has been conflicting which just confuses me more. How can I decide whose advice is best and how do I know what is right for me?

Although this is a very general question, let me take a crack at it. First, I am sorry for your loss and know that indecision is a painful place to be. And while seeking professional assistance is often helpful, particularly for complex issues, it, indeed, can be confusing and sometimes even misguided. Practitioners in any field vary greatly in their worldview, education, approach, professionalism and simply in their talent. Beware of swallowing lock, stock, and barrel any advice given by anyone. Remember: You are the only expert on yourself and your situation.

When I studied to be a professional counselor, I learned with dismay that the answers to every client’s problems were not going to be found in a book or in a class. In fact, as a therapist, I realized that the most important skill to acquire was the ability to help my client discover his or her own truths. You must look within yourself for the answers to what is right for you rather than relying on any expert who, at best, can only guide you.

Sounds like a scary thought, huh? It’s not as difficult as you think, so keep reading. You’ve already done much of the hard work! You’ve consulted with a variety of “helpers,” which I hope have assisted you to clarify the issues. And you’ve gotten some feedback on, perhaps, aspects of the problems that you had not considered. You’ve probably come up with several courses of action and have considered the pros and cons of each. These are some of the challenges that professional consultants should assist you in accomplishing. Their job is not to tell you what to do; if they’ve done that, run!

Reflect upon the advice you’ve heard. Has it been aimed to help you hear your own voice? If the advice has been respectful, knowledgeable, thought-provoking and on a level that is easily understood, you’ve been in good hands. However, if the guidance has been overbearing, bossy, preachy or superior, watch out. Do you feel like the advice-giver has listened and understood you? Or have you felt discounted, dismissed, or as if the person you are consulting has jumped to conclusions without hearing the whole story? You’ve received a lot of information. Use these observations as guides for discerning what advice has merit.

You’re making progress! Now, another word of caution: In times of turmoil, simplify. And a good rule of thumb is to avoid making major life-altering decisions for about a year after any significant loss. You need that time to stabilize and heal. If that’s impossible or you’ve already allowed this time to pass, give yourself a little more breathing room by eliminating any needless demands and distractions. Solitude and space are necessary for you to go within and hear your own voice.

If you have little privacy at home and can afford it, consider checking yourself into a bed and breakfast where you can rest and focus just upon the decision at hand.

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