Love Languages, Part 1: You in Relationships

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How was your Valentine’s Day? Full of affection, hearts, and chocolate? Wine, cheese, and chick flicks (or sci-fantasy, whatever floats your boat!)? Whether you look forward to the holiday or view it as just another money-maker for greeting card companies, I hope it was a happy day for you.

Although the holiday has passed now, it does highlight something that I think is worth thinking about all 365 days of the year: love! This will be the first of a two-part miniseries in which we explore what love actually look like. Today, we will look at love in romantic and platonic relationships. In Part 2, we will look at what it means to love ourselves.

How full is your love tank?

In the book The Five Love Languages, author Gary Chapman focuses on three key concepts. First, there are five core ways to show and receive love, and we each identify with one or two as our primary languages. Second, your satisfaction in a romantic or even platonic relationship is strongly influenced by how full your “gas tank of love” is (hey, don’t look at me -  I didn’t pick that analogy). And third, your best relationships will be those in which your friends or partner willingly and enthusiastically speak your primary love language.

There are two aspects of this that I want to talk about today: how much your partners and loved ones contribute to your tank being full or empty, and how much you can fill or empty your tank. Single or partnered, we all have social ties that can either make our lives better or bring us pain. And we all walk around with ourselves in our own heads 24/7. So let’s take a look at how you and your loved ones impact your love tank.

Love language: Words of Affirmation

Chapman defines this love language as “using words to build up [another] person.” This includes verbal praise, compliments, expressions of appreciation, and encouraging phrases. In a loving friendship or romantic partnership, your partner might express this by telling you how great you look as you get ready for a date - or hang around the house in your comfy sweats and messy sock bun. You might speak this language by telling a friend how much you appreciate their support and encouragement.

If your primary love language is Words of Affirmation, you’ll also notice its absence in relationships that are toxic or unhealthy. Disparaging remarks, insults, name-calling, backhanded “compliments,” and accusations will all cut deeply. Sarcasm and condescension from a loved one can be especially hurtful for those who speak Words of Affirmation.

Love language: Gifts

Gifts can be anything given or purchased for you specifically because someone thought of you. A gift may be an expensive piece of jewelry or a pretty flower picked along the side of the road. The focus is not the size of the gift, but the intention - to give something you anticipate will bring joy to another person. A friend or partner may speak your language of Gifts by giving you meaningful things of any size. Souvenirs from a trip, flowers when you’re feeling down, or a little “thinking of you” trinket are all Gifts. A caring romantic partner may give special attention to gift-giving holidays such as Christmas or birthdays, to ensure that you feel special and acknowledged.

In narcissistic relationships, gifts may be used to manipulate. If someone says “my love language is gifts” and then proceeds to use gifts as leverage, they are not truly speaking this language. Money, clothing, expensive items, and even favors may be used to pressure the recipient into doing what the narcissist wants. This is not in the spirit of speaking the language of Gifts, which are given with no strings attached.

Love language: Acts of Service

An Act of Service is an action or behavior that you do because you know that it will please your loved one. Some examples of acts of service could include changing the oil in your wife’s car, taking care of the laundry pile that’s been growing in the corner, or mowing your friend’s lawn for them when they’re overwhelmed with new parenthood. If this is your language, it may be especially meaningful that your partner takes out the trash or empties the litter box every week so that you don’t have to. You may speak this language to someone else by taking on a task they find onerous, because you know they will truly appreciate not having to do it themselves.

In an unhealthy relationship, a toxic loved one may twist Acts of Service by guilt-tripping after the fact. They may perform an Act of Service but will never let you forget that they did it - and will expect something in return. Usually that something is compliance, submission, uneven repayment, or undying loyalty. While all healthy relationships involve a level of reciprocity, doing something explicitly to obtain a return should not be the motivation.

Love language: Quality Time

When you speak the language of Quality time, you give your undivided attention to another person. So not Netflix and chill - more like having a conversation without cell phone distractions. Going out to dinner and soaking up the time spent together. Taking a walk where you don’t even have to say anything - you can just enjoy each other’s presence. Many people mistake time spent around each other for quality time. The difference lies in both intention and attention.

In a narcissistic relationship, a narcissist may substitute an excess of together time for quality time. There is such a thing as too much time together. Families who spend too much time together don't have the opportunity to develop as individuals. Enmeshed families may spend nearly all their free time together, but quantity is not the same as quality.

Love language: Physical Touch

Last but not least, Physical Touch is an expression of love through any form of physical contact. Touch may be sexual or nonsexual, and should convey care and affection. Hugs, kisses, holding hands, and sex may be expressions of the language of Touch. So can platonic shoulder bumps, pats on the back, and high fives. As long as the touch is consensual, welcomed, and received as respectful, it can be an expression of love. It should go without saying that touch can be a physical boundary as well, and that you should not assume your boundaries and a friend’s or partner’s are always the same. When in doubt, ask! And respect the response you are given.

A toxic or narcissistic loved one may use Physical Touch to dominate, coerce, or hurt another person. In these relationships, Touch may be misrepresented as "loving" when it is anything but. When Touch is used to control or hurt another person, that is not love. Nor is it love when Touch is exercised purely for the empowerment or benefit of the toucher instead of the touchee. This does not have to be sexual in order for it to bring pain.

What's my language?

Now that you know all five languages, think about when you feel most or least loved. What love language do you think is your primary one? Which one(s) speak to you least? And which relationships fill up your love tank the most? If you're unsure, take the quiz and find out!

Tune in next time as we explore how you can fill up or deplete your own tank!

Too Much Time on Phones? Schedule an Hour of No Technology with Your Family!

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Technology, we all agree, has gotten out of hand.  We have our phones within an arm’s length away at all times (even in the bathroom, gross)! Research has shown that blue light suppresses melatonin production for more than twice as long as other light wavelengths. This interference can have a significant effect on health, creating problems with the cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems, disturbing mood, and compromising cognitive function. When your rhythms are out of whack, you think, feel, and perform below your best—and over time, your health can be put at risk. That is only how technology affects our body, what about our relationships?

In the majority of families, each member has their own phone. Long gone are the corded single-family phone numbers of which you had your conversations in front of each other in the kitchen! With this privacy comes isolation. Each family member in the same room on their own technology “talking” to others by the click of a keyboard/phone or worse… to their corner of the house in completely separate rooms. Many parents have expectations concerning their children and their phones, i.e. time limits, turning off at a certain time, although themselves are on their computers finishing their work from that day, again not interacting with the rest of the family.

It might not seem like it, but our family members (yes, even your teens) are craving our undivided attention! Schedule, YES more scheduling, a family hour of no technology! Maybe an hour doesn’t feel like enough, but let’s all start with one hour. Putting away your technology will mean a lot to your children and it will teach them how to remove themselves from theirs!

The White Knight Effect

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Raise your hand if you are 1000 times more comfortable speaking up in defense of someone else than defending yourself. It feels so much better to help someone else weather a storm of emotional abuse than to take care of yourself, right? You get to feel like a Jedi Knight! You are standing up for truth and justice, and being a good friend or relative. It’s a great feeling, right?

Now, raise your hand if you’ve ever done that, only to have the other person turn to you and tell you to stop “white knighting” them, get angry with you for stepping in, or otherwise appear unappreciative of your efforts.

But...but I’m trying to help! You may find yourself thinking, as confusion, anger, and embarrassment rush through you. I wish to God someone would defend me, but this person doesn’t seem to appreciate what I’m offering them by stepping in for them. What’s wrong here?

The White Knight effect

On the surface, it seems like it should be obvious: you support someone, and they should show appreciation and gratitude. But people don’t always respond the way we expect them to. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we make a mistake or overstep in a relationship. When we make an offer that isn't received like we hope, we may feel humiliated, awkward, and unsure of ourselves. Sometimes, the problem is that we’ve fallen into a particular role that can have a particular effect: the White Knight Effect.

According to UrbanDictionary.com, the phrase “white knighting” is most commonly associated with online discussion forum behaviors, anti-feminism rhetoric, and/or social manipulation designed to make oneself appear more virtuous than one really is. In the context of this article, the closest parallel is that of forum activity. In the murky world of online chat rooms, community forums, and posting boards, “white knighting” refers to a third party jumping in to defend someone in an online argument. The white knight often does so without fully understanding the context of the disagreement, and generally without the request or desire for such aid from either of the original parties.

In real-life relationships, white knighting may look more like trying to defend your partner when her abusive mother starts gaslighting, belittling, or putting her down. You may try to defend her by telling her mother to back off and leave her alone, or by later (in private) telling your partner how wrong it was for her mother to say those things. Your intentions are good - you know what it feels like to be verbally abused, and you would have given anything to have someone tell you the other person was in the wrong. But when you speak up, your partner gets angry. She says you’re out of line, and that you are making her choose between you and her mother. What’s going on here?

Intercession vs interference

If your partner is not ready to acknowledge abusive behavior as abusive, your intercession may be less support than interference. For you, the abuse survivor who has already been through the painful process of really seeing things clearly for the first time, it seems obvious. But remember, there was probably a time in your life when you accepted abusive behavior as normal. When you would have defended your toxic loved one to anyone who criticized them, because you were conditioned to view that relationship as loving. Or because you were afraid of what you would see if you looked at it too closely.

We may become a white knight out of a genuine desire to help. We may also have an ulterior motive of wanting to be viewed as an ally, a supportive friend, or a defender. When there's an ulterior motive, we may hope for some kind of recognition of ourselves as an ally, a defender, or a Good Person. When you feel compelled to step in and defend someone who doesn’t seem to want to defend themselves, ask yourself this: why am I doing this?

This is not an accusation, but an invitation to be curious about what motivates you to step in as a white knight. What parts of you need to step in and take up sword and shield for someone who doesn’t seem ready or willing to do so for themselves?

What are you hoping will happen if you do?

How will you feel if they don’t react to you with appreciation and gratitude?

Supporting vs superseding

“But Amy,” you say, “what if they need someone to speak up for them to realize they can do so for themselves? Should I just leave them to be berated and cut down without saying anything?” No, you don’t have to simply watch someone get beaten down and walk away with your hands in your pockets. But you also don’t need to be their white knight in order to be a supportive and caring loved one.

There are many ways to show support. I am a big fan of asking the other person how they would like you to support them. That way, you affirm their autonomy instead of assuming that worked for you will feel the same for them. So when you become aware of a narcissistic or toxic dynamic between someone you love and their relative, boss, friend, etc, try something like this:

“Hey sis, Dad was pretty hard on you at the family reunion today. Do you want to talk about it? I’m here if you do, but we don’t have to if you’d rather not.”

“Honey, how does it feel for you when your mom comments on our parenting choices? Is there any way you’d like me to respond when she says you’re not being a good dad?”

“I noticed that when your boyfriend got mad at you, you went quiet and kind of shrank into yourself. How can I support you when that happens?”

You get the idea - ask the other person what would feel supportive for them. And resist the urge to correct them if their response doesn’t align with how you’d like to support them. If you ask and then correct or ignore their response, you supersede their right, privilege, and responsibility to make decisions about their own relationships. Even with the kindest and most loving of intentions, this is not support.

Taking care of your triggers

Seeing someone else suffer abuse without speaking up for themselves may push your buttons. It may remind you of your own painful memories. Be mindful of your triggers, because they may influence how you support your loved ones more than you expect.

Take a step back and invite curiosity toward the parts of you that want to be someone's white knight. Gentle, compassionate curiosity can help shed light on the why’s and what if’s that guide your decisions to intercede or not.

Maybe you have a part that is angry with you for suffering abuse for so long instead of speaking up sooner. Send yourself grace and forgiveness for not being ready sooner.

Or perhaps you have a part that feels rejected when someone doesn't want you to defend them. Honor your good intentions while reminding yourself that we all have the right to make our own choices.

Maybe part of you is angry with the other person for being blind to the narcissism you see so clearly. If that is so, remember that you were once blind, too. And remember that you can forgive yourself for being blind.

When you were ready - when they are ready - you can see what is really there. But no one can be ready until they are. Now how’s that for some Jedi wisdom?

5 Ways to Empower your Daughter

By Gabrielle Schwartz

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Accept yourself

Learning to love yourself is so important to teach your daughter to learn herself, and you both deserve it! You are your daughters biggest influence and if she hears you saying things like, “I’m so ugly” or “I look fat in this shirt” she’s going to pick up on these ideas. With so much body negativity in the media, it’s important for young girls to be surrounded by confident women who are comfortable in their own skin. Try saying more phrases like, “I really like the way these pants look on me,” or “Wow! My hair looks really great today.” Seeing you feel so confident will influence your daughter to do the same.

Encourage her to stick up for what she believes in

Since the beginning of human existence, girls have been told to be “ladylike,” or keep to themselves and be passive. Girls need to know it’s good to speak up for things they believe in and advocate for themselves. Girls shouldn’t feel guilty for speaking their minds even though society tells us we are supposed to keep quiet. Learning to speak your mind is an important skill for jobs, and life choices in general. Girls who don’t learn these skills can get pushed around, which can lead to low self-esteem. Working towards change or advocating for yourself can make you feel proud of yourself, which helps boost confidence.

Acknowledgment and praise

Even when girls don’t feel super confident, it’s important to acknowledge them and validate their feelings. If you hear them say something like, “I feel so fat,” so many people rush to tell their daughters how wrong they are, but that can make girls feel less validated and doesn’t actually deal with their feelings, but rather brushes them off.  An alternative response would be to make sure they know that what they are feeling is very real and something almost everyone goes through, and also to encourage them to think about things they do like about themselves, so they realize on their own that they are beautiful, smart and accomplished.                     

Control as much media as you can

It’s really hard to control what girls are exposed to with the internet and with peers, but controlling what message comes from the media you have in your home is a great way to prevent girls from having the idea of one “ideal” body drilled in their minds. This doesn’t mean you should block the TV from showing anything but Animal Planet, but being mindful of what magazines you have laying around the house or what shows you watch when they are around, can be ways to have a little bit more control over what they are exposed to.

Encourage her to be her own self

Girls are going through so many changes throughout middle school and high school, that it can be really hard for them to know who they are. It’s important that girls learn to discover who they are and what they are interested in without the influence if their peers. Girls sometimes change what they like or things about themselves to relate to other girls, but it’s important that they know that they can relate and fit in with other girls by being authentically themselves.


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Our Strong Girls Group supports girls as they both discover their authentic selves and develop the skills, confidents, and courage to navigate their world from a place of self-respect and strength. Let’s give these girls the skills they need to master adolescence before their self-esteem starts dropping.


Gabrielle Schwartz is an 11th grader at Germantown Friends School.

“For the month of January, my school requires the juniors to participate in an internship, and I chose to intern at The Center for Family Empowerment. Interning here has given me the opportunity to learn so much about psychology. Through research and being immersed in the practice, I have realized the importance of self-empowerment and empowering others.“


Confident Girls Grow Up to be Confident Women

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By Gabrielle Schwartz

Girls and boys are equally confident until they are about 12 years old. By age 12, girls start to have lower self esteem, and less self confidence. Not only do young girls live in a society that tells them they aren’t good enough, but girls are highly influenced by each other around this age. If everyone else seems to be self deprecating, low self esteem begins to be something girls do to fit in. The longer young girls learn to live hating themselves, the harder it is to change their mindset and become more confident.

With social media and powerful influencers all around us, it’s really easy for everyone to  be constantly comparing ourselves to the “ideal” body and looks that are presented right in front of us all of the time. This is why it’s so important for girls to be confident enough to know who they are and make decisions for themselves. Girls who are insecure are more likely to give into peer pressure or be influenced by their surroundings because they might not have the courage to speak up or might feel like it will help them fit in. Insecure adults tend to be more soft spoken and it's important that women grow up to be powerful and successful. That is why it’s crucial that girls start learning how to love themselves and feel good about themselves as young as they can. Girls need to learn skills to be strong enough to not give into societal pressure. They need to know that they don’t need to be passive and not feel enough before those insecurities take over them.


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Our Strong Girls Group supports girls as they both discover their authentic selves and develop the skills, confidents, and courage to navigate their world from a place of self-respect and strength. Let’s give these girls the skills they need to master adolescence before their self-esteem starts dropping.


Gabrielle Schwartz is an 11th grader at Germantown Friends School.

“For the month of January, my school requires the juniors to participate in an internship, and I chose to intern at The Center for Family Empowerment. Interning here has given me the opportunity to learn so much about psychology. Through research and being immersed in the practice, I have realized the importance of self-empowerment and empowering others.“


Phones Can be Good...Sometimes

By Gabrielle Schwartz

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All of this new technology is scary for everyone. No one quite knows the effects it’s going to have on us in the future, so how can you encourage your kids to use their phones for good? I know what you’re thinking, “What could a 16 year old know about parenting?” Well the answer is I have no clue, but I can tell you how I have worked with my parents to figure out how to make my phone experience a little bit more positive.

First, I gave my phone a little makeover. I deleted all of the apps that were really distracting. For me that was mostly games, since I haven’t been ready to let go of my social media (yet). I started downloading meditation apps and  more educational apps such as ones that quiz you on fun facts or SAT prep. Not only did this encourage me to use these types of apps more, but it helped relieve me from the temptation to constantly be on my phone. I feel a little bit more accomplished and motivated when I chose to use these apps instead of distracting ones that I don’t really benefit from, such as Temple Run.  Although I do consider my Temple Run score to be one of my greatest accomplishments, and some would even say I’m a Temple Run wizard, it is certainly a distraction and takes away from my life in the real world.

The next thing I did was create an empowering playlist. This seems really simple, but it has made such a difference. I put songs on my playlist that motivate and lift me up.  For me, that involved a lot of Beyonce, but your playlist can be anything you want it to be. I listen to it every morning as I get ready to start my day and it reminds me that I have the power to make my day great and that’s what I chose do. Music can have so much power and personal connection that I automatically associate these songs with positivity, just as I associate my shower with cleanliness. Our phones allow us to have every song we could ever want right at our fingertips, why not take advantage of that?

When my playlist doesn’t do the trick, I turn to podcasts. There are so many podcasts that are really easy to download, and are empowering and inspiring. Spotify has a huge selection of empowering podcasts, which is where I normally find the ones I like to listen to. Spotify also has really funny ones which help me laugh more throughout the day. These are also great resources to use when you are feeling stressed or anxious. It allows you to sit and be stimulated without your face planted in a screen. It can also be the perfect distraction when you can’t seem to calm your mind.

No one should rely on their phone, but it’s hard for teenagers who have become addicted to the validation they get from social media. Receiving a “like” can give the same feeling as receiving a compliment. If you could receive 50 compliments in a row, wouldn’t you post too? This is artificial happiness that teens can be addicted to, so knowing when to stop can be very important. It’s important that teens learn internal validation and self confidence, so they become less reliant on these small doses of appreciation. Learning to be a confident teenager is like learning to love kale: almost impossible, but the more you try it the easier it becomes. The important thing to remember is less social media time, more self love time. Social media doesn’t need to have the power over us to make us feel bad!

When teens are with our friends, we don't need our phones! As much we might say we need them, we can have fun without them. Putting our phones down and getting out of the house is so important in order for teens to build social skills. As sad as it is for parents, we are going to have to leave eventually and start our own lives, which can be very hard if we don’t have good social skills. We learn how to be better communicators by communicating more. I know it’s a crazy concept. Getting out and doing things can be really hard to plan, but that prevents the Friday night hangout I know all too well, where everyone is sitting together, but on their phones, doing their own thing.

What if some teens don’t want to put their phones down? Give them a reason why they don’t need it. If my parents just tried to take my phone away and didn’t give me a good reason, I would feel like they were punishing me rather than helping me. Explain how bad phones can be when we are glued to them and how learning to do things without relying on our phones is really important, and teens will be more likely to want to put it down. If I’m with my friends and we are all sitting on our phones and my mom comes in and explains to us how important it is to learn social skills because we all want to do really well in our future college and job interviews and our phones can’t help us grow in that way, I will first be mortified, but it will be very hard to argue with my mom because she is right! Helping teens understand how detrimental our obsession is with our phones will encourage us to get off them more. Although it doesn’t always seem like it, we are understanding creatures and can sometimes admit that our parents are right.


Gabrielle Schwartz is an 11th grader at Germantown Friends School.

“For the month of January, my school requires the juniors to participate in an internship, and I chose to intern at The Center for Family Empowerment. Interning here has given me the opportunity to learn so much about psychology. Through research and being immersed in the practice, I have realized the importance of self-empowerment and empowering others.“


How Can We Change Our Thoughts as We Scroll Through Our Feeds?

By Gabrielle Schwartz

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Social media can bring so much negativity to how we perceive ourselves. As I scroll through my feed, I know I’m not the only one who can’t help but compare myself to the perfect beach pictures on Instagram. Believe it or not, social media doesn’t have to be a source for insecurities. Here are a few ways to change your thoughts as you scroll through your feed.

You’ve Got the Power

Don’t forget, you can choose who you follow! Fill your feed with accounts that make you happy and don’t put you down. There are accounts filled with positive affirmations, beautiful artwork, and inspiring photography. Maybe an account with funny videos or cute puppy pictures will make you smile. Filling your feed with accounts like these can make you feel better about yourself or even just put a smile on your face. There is no reason to feel obligated to follow accounts that leave you feeling bad about yourself. The first step to eliminating these people is to start by identifying them. What type of accounts make you feel angry or insecure? Once you have identified them, let the unfollowing begin!

Reality Check

Remember that what you see on someone's Instagram isn’t always what it seems. A picture captures one moment of someone’s life, and no one truly knows what’s going on in the person’s life just from their Instagram. These pictures might seem like someone has everything, but that’s just the image they are choosing to put out of themselves. It’s best to feel appreciative of everything you know you have rather than dwell on what you think someone else has. Also, remember that pictures can be edited! With even a simple download of an app people can change their appearance or surroundings. Choose to focus on authentic beauty rather than feel jealous of someone else's altered image.

Turn Jealousy into Positivity

It can be hard to not feel jealous or insecure when scrolling through your feed, but the only way to overcome those judgments are to turn those thoughts into positive ones. For example, maybe you're scrolling through your feed and suddenly you come across a bikini model lounging on a beautiful beach on some deserted island. Scrolling past those pictures can make you feel bad about your body or jealous that you didn’t fly first class to Fiji on Tuesday, but turning those insecurities into acceptance or motivation can make you feel good. Remind yourself that you’re just as beautiful as the person in the picture and that you can be just as fulfilled with your life and yourself as that person can. Remember that you didn’t feel as insecure a minute ago and this picture doesn’t have to change anything about how you view yourself. Disassociate yourself from this image and admire it for that person, rather than hating things about yourself. It’s hard to feel as though you have control over how you feel about certain situations, but this is currently a scenario where you can choose to feel unaffected by someone else’s life. Stop comparing yourself to them. You can only be as amazing as you let yourself be, so why not choose to be amazing?!


Gabrielle Schwartz is an 11th grader at Germantown Friends School.

“For the month of January, my school requires the juniors to participate in an internship, and I chose to intern at The Center for Family Empowerment. Interning here has given me the opportunity to learn so much about psychology. Through research and being immersed in the practice, I have realized the importance of self-empowerment and empowering others.“


Living Life More Positively

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By Gabrielle Schwartz

I can tell you first hand what It’s like to be a teenager in high school, and how much negativity surrounds you living as a teenage girl. As I’ve been attempting to empower the people around me, I constantly ask myself, “How can I make my world slightly more positive?” I decided the best way to do that was to make the people around me more positive. I was struggling empowering my friends and family when I realized I had missed a key step in creating a more positive environment for myself: empowering myself. This seemed to be much harder than I thought, but here are a few ways I empower myself that have helped to make my life even a little bit more positive.

I went straight to my Mom’s constant advice, which is meditation. Although meditation and yoga aren’t the right thing for everyone, learning to use your breath in a positive way can be useful in overcoming anxieties and calming your mind. I like to practice deep breathing throughout my day, but it took me a whole year to figure out how to use my breath in a helpful way. When I’m faced with moments of anxiety, I clear my mind with six deep breathes. By the time I’ve finished my sixth breath, my body has eased up and my stresses don’t take up as much of my mind.

I didn’t find the breathing aspect of meditation to be enough to empower myself, but when I started to recognize my thoughts, my mind suddenly stopped producing as much negativity. I find myself constantly searching for validation from others, but relying on and wanting constant reassurance from peers isn’t realistic. I’ve found that acknowledging my thoughts, the bad and the good, fulfills my search for validation. It allows me to understand my feelings to a deeper level and helps me to see that my feelings are real. I struggled with this at first, but writing down the emotions I’m feeling when I feel them helped me to get in the habit of recognizing my thoughts.

Starting off the new year, I decided to make goals for myself. I realized that doing things to make myself proud built up my confidence to a whole new level. It can be something as small as feeding my dogs or waking up early and showering, but these are positive productive ways to make myself feel good about who I am. Making a checklist of small reachable goals can be a great way to feel accomplished and keep your mind focused.


Gabrielle Schwartz is an 11th grader at Germantown Friends School.

“For the month of January, my school requires the juniors to participate in an internship, and I chose to intern at The Center for Family Empowerment. Interning here has given me the opportunity to learn so much about psychology. Through research and being immersed in the practice, I have realized the importance of self-empowerment and empowering others. “


Pick Your Hard

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Here we are again, another January filled with messages advising us of our need to change. Change your hair, change your body, change your lifestyle, change your perspective. In January the motivation and drive to create change reaches a fever pitch as we recover from the holidays, leading to resolutions and goals that may or may not be met. We promise ourselves we will upend our life, start fresh, and never look back.

And we start out on that path with all the energy and enthusiasm you could ask for. We hit the gym in our brand-new fitness gear (30% off at Generic Big Box Store, this week only!), get a sassy fresh haircut, and put on our best new face.

But then something happens. We become tired from overextending ourselves in our quest for self-renewal. Or we realize we bit off too big a bite to chew all at once. Maybe we miss a day of working toward our goal and become discouraged. Or we find ourselves struggling against the inertia of daily life, remembering why we haven’t followed through on making these changes before.

Why does this happen?

Captain Obvious here: Things are hard

It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: change is hard. I mean, it’s hard. No matter how positive a change may be, we may not be fully on board with ourselves trying to make it. We may have parts that have good reason to want to stay in this place of relative comfort, or at least familiarity - because who knows what’s out there, over that horizon? Sure, there could be greatness. But there could be monsters, too.

Most people read these articles and seek out therapy because the parts of them that want to do things differently are talking louder than the ones that want to stay the same. But that inside argument may go back and forth quite a lot. And both sides have valid and important arguments. Staying the same means you don’t have to face the unknown. If you never challenge your toxic mother-in-law, you don’t have to deal with the wrath and recriminations. If you never tell your dad how his favoritism hurts you, you don’t have face even more rejection. There are risks you can avoid, if you choose to remain where you are.

Of course, what hasn’t been said so much is that it is also hard to stay the same.

Staying in your familiar role in a narcissistic or emotionally abusive relationship is a choice. A choice that requires sacrifice. A choice that requires immensely hard work to retain your sense of self and your will in the face of continued toxicity.  A hard choice.

The difficulties you face in daily life may not change much, because your capacity to influence them is restricted by your decision to remain. It may be an agonizing choice. It may be one that you struggle with for months or years before coming to a decision. And far from being a failure or sign of weakness, I think of it as simply this: a choice that is hard.

Pick your hard

I’ve seen memes on my Facebook feed, among other places, saying something along the lines of “Being overweight is hard. Getting fit is hard. Pick your hard.” Personally, I don’t think that weight and fitness are necessarily correlated - there are some incredibly strong weightlifters who would also be considered overweight or obese - but there’s one aspect of that quote that I like. Pick your hard is an accurate description of a choice that family members and loved ones of emotionally abusive people face every day.

It is hard to stay put in a bad relationship where you suffer pain every day. It is hard to paddle upstream and try to shift a family dynamic that may have existed for numerous generations. Every day presents the choice: Pick your hard.

You may not make the same choice every day, and that is okay. Maybe today, you feel strong, supported, and badass. So you choose to speak up for yourself and call out your gaslighting boss for giving you misleading or manipulative directions. And maybe next week, you’re exhausted from fending off the onslaught of passive aggressive memos that follow speaking up, so you simply roll your eyes and pretend not to notice it. Each day, each interaction, you pick your hard.

It's not always bad

Let me not frame this as a sentence that life will always suck, or that you’re doomed to always struggle. I truly do not believe that this is the case. There will be times when picking your hard feels like a daily, or even constant, series of choices. There will be other times when you make your choice and then life goes on pretty smoothly for awhile.

Sometimes, when the hard you pick most often is change, the momentum builds to the point where you are not forced into the choice as often - because people learn that you are not the same person anymore, and their old tactics and strategies are much less effective. Getting to that place takes time, focus, and the wherewithal to pick that hard more often than not.

Sometimes you will choose not to fight that battle, or to take a break from being the only one to stand up and say “this is not okay.” That doesn’t make you weak. It means you are choosing a different hard right now. If changing a troublesome relationship is your ultimate goal, you’ll pick a different hard when you’re ready to. So try to give yourself some grace and compassion for the times when the hard you pick is not the one you want. You will get there. Change can be a lonely road, but I believe in the journey you have chosen.

What I know about you

In closing, here’s what I know about you. Whether your journey is straightforward or features pauses, reboots, and detours, you will get where you want to go. There will be lonely times and hard times, but there will be joy and pride as well. Here is what I know about you as you pick your hard each time; from the classic and enduring “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss:

All Alone!

Whether you like it or not,

Alone will be something

you’ll be quite a lot

 

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.

There are some, down the road between hither and yon,

that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

 

But on you will go

though the weather be foul.

On you will go

though your enemies prowl.

On you will go

though the Hakken-Kraks howl.

Onward up many a frightening creek,

though your arms may get sore

and your sneakers may leak.

 

On and on you will hike.

And I know you’ll hike far

and face up to your problems

whatever they are.

 

You've got this.

The Post-Holiday Letdown

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The decorations are coming down. The ornaments have been put away. The trees are out on the sidewalk, and most of us will be ok with not seeing another candy cane for 11.5 more months. Most holiday obligations have been fulfilled, and now we just have to find places to put all the stuff we accumulated throughout the holiday season. It’s a little bittersweet to put away the twinkly lights and special decor, but can also be a relief to be done with the busy-ness of the season.

And now there’s that other thing that begins to happen around this time of year: The post-holiday letdown. The crash after the sugar rush, the jarring return to “normal life,” the explosive exhalation that comes after holding your breath for the better part of six weeks. The moment when you wake up and realize it’s all over for another year, and you have to go back to work today.

 The big exhale

In The Return of the King, on the eve of one of the greatest battles for the fate of Middle Earth, Gandalf spends a quiet moment of reflection with young Hobbit Pippin. Pippin observes that the city seems very quiet on the eve of battle. “It’s the deep breath before the plunge,” Gandalf says gravely. We spend a lot of time on that deep breath before the busy, tense, exciting, and hectic holiday season. We prepare, psych ourselves up, strategize our boundaries and exit strategies, and practice our polite-but-firm no’s. But sometimes we forget something: The exhale after the plunge. 

Have you released that breath yet? Perhaps you’ve found yourself feeling still keyed up, or finding it hard to relax and settle back into daily life. Maybe you fled with relief into a normal workweek, only to find yourself unexpectedly irritable, short-fused, or easily overwhelmed. Are you ready to cry over nothing, snapping at your partner, or suddenly revisiting griefs you thought you’d long since let go of? 

Welcome to the letdown

While the lights are shining on pretty wrapping paper and sparkling pine trees, we can sometimes forget about or distract ourselves from the painful side of family gatherings. We can focus on how this year, your MIL’s passive aggressive comments didn’t bother you so much, or how you didn’t have to witness a screaming match between two relatives. Or you can put all your attention on firmly redirecting that aunt that insists on foisting her outdated and unsolicited parenting advice where it isn’t wanted.

It’s after the lights die down and the sparkly distractions fade that the letdown happens. When there’s nothing else to distract us from the hard part: the realization that despite all the hard work you’ve done to heal, recover, and build a better life for yourself, you can still be hurt by people you love.

Whether the pain is caused by direct nastiness, distance and detachment, or simply the lack of caring that you’ve come to be so familiar with, the pain can be shocking. The reminders that some things don’t change that much, no matter how much you have changed, can burn. And the grief that follows can be devastating in its intensity.

The letdown can be beautiful

Before one of their songs skyrocketed to popularity through its appearance in A Walk to Remember, surfer band Swtichfoot was relatively unknown. One of my favorite songs from an earlyish album is entitled The Beautiful Letdown. Although the song has a religious bent, I think there is relevance to those who struggle with their outsider status within their own families.

It was a beautiful letdown

When we crashed and burned

When I found myself alone

Unknown and hurt

It was a beautiful letdown

The day I knew

All the riches this world had to offer me

Would never do

 

In a world full of bitter pain and bitter doubt

I was trying so hard to fit in until I found out

I don’t belong here

 

What makes the letdown hard is that we are forced to again confront the pain of being part of a family that does not see, unconditionally love, or respect us. Being ignored, devalued, and pressured to fall in line hurts. And the holidays tend to bring out the narc in most narcissists. 

What makes the letdown beautiful is that it is a reminder of something very important: you don’t belong here because you have chosen to break that chain. You stand out because you don’t fall in line anymore. You have chosen a different path. The letdown is painful, but there can be beauty in it as well.

Honor your grief

Even seeing the beauty in being an outsider doesn’t fully negate the pain of being around abusive or disinterested family members, and I don’t want to imply that it should. If you find yourself breaking down all over again about those childhood memories, or feeling the pang of jealousy as your dad fawns over your sister’s boyfriend and ignores your family, you have a right to your feelings. Honor and send compassion to your grieving parts. This may be the first time there’s been enough room in your awareness for them to voice the pain they still carry. That pain is real and valid, and they deserve your care.

Those parts may still hold even the tiniest bit of hope that maybe this year would be different. No matter how much your pragmatic parts anticipate the same old-same old, those hopeful parts may have still been wishfully thinking of a different outcome. Disappointed hopes can be heard through the letdown.

Nurture yourself

You may not be a New Year’s Resolutioner (I’m not), but this could be a lovely opportunity. An opportunity to practice self-kindness and care for your wounded parts in the aftermath of the letdown.

What do your sad parts need to hear from you right now? Give them a hug and tell them.

What relationships do you find supportive and fulfilling? Build on those.

Where do you feel seen, loved, and appreciated? Spend more time there.

Be kind to yourself. Replenish your depleted reserves. Feel the letdown, and then pick yourself up and remember that you are beautiful and loved.