belonging

Mandatory: Making it Worthwhile

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“I don’t want to be here. I’m not going to say anything. I don’t know. Why should I talk to you?” You may find yourself thinking or saying thoughts like these in response to pressures to engage from a program, family, or friends. Perhaps you aren’t ready to share what’s brought you here, or what the challenges are that you are facing in this moment. Perhaps you feel like your personal freedom has been taken away, your choice to participate of your own free will. Understanding that you may feel angry, resentful, or withdrawn, please consider the following in support of getting the most out of something that is identified as mandatory.

 

Blocking or Belonging

You may come from a different background or hold different values from those you come into contact with, so what brings people together in this process? Shared experience around homelessness, financial instability, substance abuse, conflict in relationships, or a lack support can help one feel less isolated and alone in their experience. Although each person’s story is their own, the feeling of connection to others and belonging can go a long way in having an experience feel less mandatory and more voluntary. When you observe others engaging in the program or group, you may find yourself asking:

  • Do I feel I can relate to others in the group?

  • Do I feel this community is healthy, approachable, supportive, and willing to engage me in this process?

  • Do I feel supported by staff and helping professionals to achieve my goals?

  • Do I feel comfortable opening up and working on myself in the presence of others?

For many involved in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), they speak of the community as an equally powerful element as the 12 Steps in to their ability to actively participate in their own sobriety. Due to the friendships they make, they feel they have a connection to others in ways that feel encouraging and uplifting in moments of challenge or struggle.

 

Building Perspective

In addition to identifying a supportive community, how you approach the experience for yourself matters. Do you have realistic expectations of what you can accomplish both short and long term? Can you set yourself up for success in your work with others? When starting this process, it is helpful to understand basic needs as the foundation for progress. Educating yourself on how basic needs such as food, safety, and shelter provide the foundation of stability gives you permission to organize goals for success. Abraham Maslow, who identified this relationship in the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, emphasizes that only when basic needs are met can one focus on higher work around self-esteem, sobriety, and relationships.

 

Relational Rapport

When exploring relationships, research tells us that therapeutic rapport accounts for more than any other factor when measuring progress towards goals set in therapy. In other words, the therapeutic relationship, unconditional positive regard, and power of feeling seen, heard, understood, and supported has positive results on goal progression. If your past experience involves trust or mistrust, being aware of how therapy and/or relationships have helped or hindered you in the past can put current resistance and reluctance in perspective. A few questions that you may find helpful at ask at the first meeting with a helping professional include:

  • What kinds of clients have you worked with before?

  • How do you work with people who are uncomfortable with therapy?

  • What do you do with feedback from clients?

  • What can I expect from working with you?

All of these questions encourage healthy discussion around the therapeutic process and can provide insight into expectations and measurable goals when engaging a helping professional in your own growth process. 

Mandatory can feel restrictive and stressful when viewed as a loss of control or freedom. What better way to reframe it than to ask yourself, what can make it worthwhile? 

“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” Dr. Wayne Dyer

Love Languages: Empty or Full?

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Gary Chapman starts his book The 5 Love Languages, by sharing his concept of love being measured like a gas tank and asking: are we empty or full? This imagery can be pretty powerful in measuring affection, value, and connection to others in our life, not only with spouses or partners, but by family and close friends as well.

 

Languages Defined

Supporting your client with knowledge of the 5 languages can be supportive of self-awareness as well as provide some guidance in how they can potentially strengthen their relationships. You may start by inviting your client to define each of the 5 languages and provide real-life examples that are meaningful to them. You may also provide support in identifying which languages are most important to your client by what they report lacking or voicing in moments of unhappiness. The 5 languages in summary according to Gary Chapman are 1) Physical Touch, 2) Quality Time 3) Words of Affirmation, 4) Acts of Service and 5) Gifts. Below are some examples of what might be expressed within each language type:

  • Physical Touch - hugging, holding hands, kissing, sex, rubbing someone’s back, sitting close, casual touch
  • Quality Time - talking a walk, eating dinner together, lying in bed, taking a drive, engaging in a shared hobby
  • Words of Affirmation - expressing compliments or appreciation through words, such as “I love you, I’m proud of you, I appreciate you, you make my life better”
  • Acts of Service - washing their car, cooking their favorite meal, picking up the laundry, doing an extra chore
  • Gifts - making them a card, buying their favorite food, flowers, chocolate, or trinket because it reminded you of them

Please be aware this is not an exhaustive list in that there are many more examples that a client can identify based on their own experience. Also keep in mind that there are some rules around the languages in how they are expressed.

 

Food for Thought

With The 5 Love Languages come some rules of how they are expressed to be appropriately categorized and recognized as your own. Quality Time for example, defines one-on-one time that promotes connection and conversation. Many couples or families would say they spend plenty of time together in activities such as going to the movies, reading, driving, or watching TV. As you can already guess, these activities do not encourage connection but only proximity in being in the same space at the same time. For Acts of Service, one should keep in mind that the act performed is done authentically and without agenda. For example, one may wash their partners car or run an errand to make their partner’s day easier or bring them joy, not expecting a favor in return. This rule also applies to Gifts in the idea that we aren’t giving someone we love a gift in the hopes that they will return the favor or owe us something in return.

 

Discovery and Depth

Gary Chapman provides great examples of Love Languages in action in his book. For many, reflecting on what they ask for or ask more of, can be helpful in discovering their top Love Languages. The book has a quiz in the back to encourage reflection and one can also access the quiz online for free to determine top Love Languages at http://www.5lovelanguages.com/profile/.

So where do we go from here with a client? Once aware of one’s own languages, you can support your client in exploring their partners or loved ones. For many of us, we express the languages that we prefer or languages that make us feel loved, which may not translate well to our partners or loved ones in meeting their needs. If there is an overlap of the top two languages for a duo, their communication can occur relatively naturally due to speaking the same language on most occasions. If a duo does not have a language in common, it can require extra effort to connect and speak the language that supports your loved one in feeling appreciated and ‘full.’

 

Handing out Homework

This may all resonate with your client on paper, but the real connection between the concepts and experience comes through practice! Assigning low-risk homework of practicing a loved one’s desired love languages can provide your client with evidence of the value of connecting with others in this way. For one client attempting to reconnect with her spouse, she saw a softening and leaning in from her partner when she engaged in their chosen language in authentic ways after weeks of conflict. Actions speak louder than words, which can absolutely apply in helping your client connect with loved ones and also advocate for their own needs in relationships.

In a time when love is sought, defined, and desired, having something concrete for clients to work on can be both empowering and reassuring to their experience in relationships with loved ones. The 5 Love Languages speaks to a desire to connect with others and develop a sense of belonging, best captured in this popular quote by Susan Sarandon in the movie Shall We Dance.

“[In a relationship] you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the mundane things, all of it, all the time, everyday. You’re saying ‘your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’”

Happy Connecting!