Maria Droste Counseling Center Fri, 04 Aug 2017 14:53:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Relationships and the urge of ‘fight or flight’ Wed, 15 Mar 2017 20:34:40 +0000 How to Stay When You Want to Flee

Relationships are hard. Maintaining a happy coexistence with another human being even someone you care deeply about has its challenges. Like any living thing, relationships change over time and are bound to have at least some problems.

At the positive and negative extremes (“I love him unconditionally despite what he does that annoys me” or “I cannot tolerate life with her any longer”) the decision to stay or go is generally fairly clear.  In the middle, however, exists a vast expanse of gray area made up of all the reasons you should stay despite sometimes being unhappy, and all the reasons you should leave despite sometimes being happy.  That is where, one might say, the rubber meets the road.

People who leave a relationship as soon as it stops being easy breezy and requires effort may have commitment phobia (also called relationship anxiety). “The causes of commitment phobia are as varied as the people who suffer from it,” writes John Grohol, Psy.D. He has found that many people with commitment phobia are reluctant to commit to a romantic relationship because of their own poor prior experiences or those they have witnessed such as their parents’ difficult divorce.  Other common causes, he says, may include:

  • Fear of the relationship ending without notice or signs
  • An inability to determine and trust that this is the “right” relationship
  • Prior unhealthy relationship (characterized by abandonment, infidelity, abuse, etc.)
  • Trust issues associated with others one has been close to
  • Childhood trauma or abuse resulting in unmet childhood needs or attachment issues
  • Growing up amid complicated family dynamics

Grohol explains that people with commitment phobia typically want to be in a long-term relationship, but their anxiety overtakes that desire. For some, he says, their fear prevents them from getting involved at all. Others may commit at first, but only stay in the relationship for days or weeks. (Grohol, 2015)

When a relationship becomes difficult (however we define that), we are often tempted to blame ourselves, our partner, or both of us as a couple, and doing so gives us an excuse to not do the work that relationships require, writes Linda and Charlie Bloom, authors of several books on making love last. For some, that means starting new relationships, thinking each time that this one will be different (until it isn’t) or just avoiding relationships altogether. Breaking that cycle, however, involves doing the work. The Blooms say this includes:

  • Accepting responsibility for our own happiness and wellbeing, holding ourselves accountable, and acknowledging our ability to enact change. Letting others off the hook and letting go of the idea that someone else is responsible for our feelings.
  • Forgiving those who have disappointed us, and forgiving ourselves for our mistakes and poor choices.
  • Becoming more openhearted, while providing our own security and self-care.
  • Making and keeping a commitment to our own integrity.
  • Assessing our values and living what we say matters.
  • Having patience and trusting the process, which is a lifelong path.

(Bloom & Bloom, 2012)

Many of us have bought in to a number of relationship myths that actually make cultivating a strong relationship that lasts more difficult, if not impossible. Here are a few common ones.

  • A good relationship means you don’t have to work at it.

Good relationships may seem effortless, but they do require attention. Lisa Blum, Psy.D, explains that as long as both partners are trying and you see positive changes being made, that’s a good sign. Problems arise when you are unhappy more than you are happy, when bad patches last long enough to feel normal, or when only one partner is making all the effort.

  • He/She should know how I feel.

Expecting your partner to be a mind reader is unfair and unrealistic. A better measure, Blum says, is whether your partner actually listens to your words when you communicate your feelings.

  • If you’re truly in love, passion will never fade.

Passion ebbs and flows and is not necessarily an indication that your relationship is in trouble. Blum says that daily routines can be the culprit and suggests couples find ways to create time for each other.

  • Fights ruin relationships.

Fights can be really healthy, and an important form of communication and clearing the air,” says Blum, adding that what ruins relationships is not resolving your fights. How you fight matters, too, she says. Showing contempt for your partner through superiority, criticism, accusations, or insults is unproductive. Productive arguments include a mutual decision about how to manage the disagreement.

(Tartakovsky, Blum, 2016)

Another common myth is that couples therapy is only for relationships that are in trouble. While people often wait until they have been suffering for a long time to try therapy, therapy can be more effective at the first signs of conflict. It is easier to address what is happening and develop skills early on, before negative patterns are ingrained and harder to change.

For more information, contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600.


Grohol, J. (2015). What is Commitment Phobia & Relationship Anxiety?. 
Psych Central. Retrieved on March 1, 2017, from

Bloom, L. & Bloom, C. (2012) Do Relationships Really Have to Be This Hard? Psychology Today. Retrieved on March 1, 2017, from

Tartakovsky, M.,Blum, L. (2016). 8 Surprising Myths About Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 5, 2017, from

Family Ties: The Benefits of Prioritizing Meal Time Together Fri, 24 Feb 2017 19:37:37 +0000 “What’s for dinner?” can be the most depressing and difficult question for busy parents to answer. After all, dinner is relentless. Night after night, whether you’re hitting the fast food drive-thru on the way to your kid’s lacrosse practice or taking the time to prepare a home-cooked meal, you’re going to have to do it again and again and again. As busy schedules take family members in various directions, the ability to sit down together for a meal gets even more complicated. Still, experts say it is worth the effort.

According to Anne Fishel, Ph.D, co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, 15 years of research confirms an amazing array of benefits. “Recent studies link regular family dinners with many behaviors that parents pray for: lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy and depression, as well as higher grade-point averages and self-esteem. Studies also indicate that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading, and the stories told around the kitchen table help our children build resilience,” she writes. In addition, Fishel notes, “…regular family meals also lower the rates of obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents.” And all that takes just about an hour a day. (Fishel, n.d.)

Why has dinnertime become so important? “In most industrialized countries, families don’t farm together, play musical instruments or stitch quilts on the porch,” Fishel explains. Gathering for dinner is, therefore, the most reliable way for families to connect. (Fishel, 2015) Unfortunately, long workdays, after school sports and other activities make prioritizing dinner a challenge.

It’s not (just) about the food.

Many experts recommend eating together as often as possible even if that is just two or three times a week.  However, if having dinner as a family is not possible most nights, consider having breakfast or weekend lunch together. While cultivating healthy eating habits is an acknowledged benefit of regular family meals, the food itself is not the most important part. The real benefit comes from being together and conversing in a warm and engaging atmosphere, ideally without the TV or other distractions.

Are you picturing your kids staring down at their plates and grunting one-word answers to your questions? Is your typical family meal more like a battleground? If so, you may need a little help to get some positive interaction going. Here are a few tips:

  • Ask specific questions. Instead of, “How was school?” try asking questions like, “Who did you sit with at lunch?” or “What was the best thing that happened today?”
  • Use questions to further the discussion (“And then what did you do?” or “How did that make you feel?”) but be careful not to turn the conversation into an interrogation.
  • Stay away from difficult subjects. Keep mealtime relaxed and friendly. Save reprimands about homework, boyfriends, and messy rooms for another time.
  • Talk about shared experiences. Recalling funny stories reinforces bonding. Remembering times your children overcame a challenge builds their confidence in their ability to solve problems.
  • Get your kids to talk to each other. This alleviates the issue of one child dominating the conversation and builds their relationship with each other as well.
  • Talk about your own day. Share positive experiences and also things that didn’t go well, or mistakes you made, and how you dealt with them.
  • Encourage your children to find their own solutions to problems that come up. Offer guidance without stepping in to fix the issue.
  • Have fun. Not every conversation has to be a teachable moment. Just enjoy each other’s company.
  • Listen! Don’t ask a question and immediately start thinking of your next question or response. Be patient and actively listen to what others at the table have to say.

(Griffin, 2012)

Finding Other Ways to Connect

When mealtimes are truly elusive, or, even when they aren’t, you can take advantage of other times to engage with family members.

  • Try using the conversation starters above to talk with family members while you’re in the car. (This will require everyone to disconnect from phones, tablets and games.)
  • Get outside for an impromptu walk or just sit on the deck and watch the clouds (or stars).
  • Plan a family outing together and then take it.
  • Embrace technology. Keep in touch throughout the day with email or text messages.
  • Don’t give up on family dinner; just make it easier. Involve the rest of the family in planning and preparing a meal, including shopping and cleaning up.

If it has been awhile since your family has spent quality time together and you are sensing some tension, take it slowly. You may not be able to resolve everything in one meal or outing, but over time, with some patience and trial and error you will start to see positive changes. When issues are more serious than you can handle on your own, however, don’t hesitate to get help. Family therapy is an excellent way to improve communication and re-build relationships. For more information, contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600.


Fishel, A. (n.d.) FAQ. Retrieved on February 22, 2017, from

Fishel, A. (2015) The most important thing you can do with your kids? Eat dinner with them. The Washington Post. Retrieved on February 22, 2017, from

Griffen, R.M. (2012) Family Dinners: Tips for Better Communication. Retrieved on February 22, 2017, from

Improved Self-Image Starts with How You Think and Act Thu, 16 Feb 2017 21:01:54 +0000 “Why are you drinking?” demanded the little prince.
“So that I may forget,” replied the tippler.
“Forget what?” inquired the little prince, who already was sorry for him.
“Forget that I am ashamed,” the tippler confessed, hanging his head.
“Ashamed of what?” insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him.
“Ashamed of drinking!”
from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Is substance abuse (or any harmful or self-defeating behavior) a symptom or a cause of poor self-image? Maria Droste therapist Marta Oko-Riebau, MA, LPC, says it’s both. From the dialogue above, you can begin to see how easily that circle develops for the little prince’s acquaintance. Which came first – the shame or the drinking?

Marta practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which looks at how thoughts, feelings and behavior interact and impact self-image. “You cannot directly change feelings. Telling yourself that you’re not going to be anxious or depressed won’t have the desired effect,” she says. “You can, however, change thoughts and behaviors, which can ultimately have a positive effect on your feelings and improve your self-esteem.”

The cognitive piece of CBT addresses what are known as cognitive errors. These are distorted thought patterns that lead to false conclusions and reinforce negative feelings. Some examples are: all-or-nothing thinking (“My project is a failure because it isn’t perfect.”); overgeneralizing (“I will never get a job because X Company didn’t hire me); catastrophizing (“He’s never going to forgive me”); or mind reading (“I know she hates me).

Learning to recognize these errors and make adjustments is something you can learn with practice. She explains that we all look for evidence that supports our thinking, even if our thinking is faulty. She works with her clients to recognize the errors and make small adjustments. It is important to note, however, that the goal is not to only have happy thoughts, Marta stresses. “In therapy, we work on having balanced thoughts that the client can believe.” So, rather than thinking, for example, “I love the way I look at my current weight,” which may be too big a leap for someone to make, start with something like, “I feel good about the way I spoke up in the meeting today.”

Marta works in this way with one young woman:

As a young teen, Leah (not her real name) developed a unique style. When she was bullied at school, her parents dismissed it as normal teenage growing pains and had a this-too-shall-pass attitude. However, it didn’t pass and Leah’s insecurity grew. She withdrew from activities and continued to have a difficult time socially, as well as at school and at work. At 18, she struggled with low self-esteem that centered on her looks, despite the fact that she is objectively attractive.

Marta worked with Leah on changing her thoughts around not being attractive. “She filtered everything through that belief,” Marta explains. “She felt she was constantly being judged because, in her words, she was ugly.”

In therapy, Marta explained to Leah that she was using her interpretation of events as evidence to support her belief, rather than the events themselves. Instead, she encouraged Leah to look at the evidence objectively, in particular, the evidence that did not support her negative belief about herself. “She came up with someone who recently complimented her smile and someone else who asked her out,” Marta says. “Eventually, when I asked her what she liked about her looks, she was able to say, ‘I like my smile.’” 

Cognitive errors filter experiences in a negative way. Leah learned to catch herself doing this and correct her thinking.

While thoughts impact feelings and behavior (McLeod, 2008), Marta and many other CBT practitioners find that addressing behavior can be most effective in accomplishing positive change, particularly when self-medicating is part of the problem. She encouraged Leah to find actions she could take right away to improve her self-image.

One thing she was able to try was changing her posture, to stand and sit in a more confident way.  Another was to say “hi” to three people, smile and look them in the eye. Leah found that when she did this, people would smile back.  Over time, she became more positive about herself and her future, including her plans to go to college.

“Self image is made up of all the ideas one has about one’s personality, abilities, etc.,” explains Marta. “When it comes to substance abuse, a positive self-image combined with healthy self-esteem is a huge protective factor.”

People who choose to use substances, or engage in other unhealthy behaviors, tend to surround themselves with others who do the same. “Healthy influences in your life are important. For teens, that includes family and other significant positive influences,” Marta says. “People with low self-esteem rely on their coping mechanism of choice, even if it is potentially harmful. Parents who are attentive not just when a crisis arises but throughout their child’s life will have a greater impact. Have the conversation instead of just hoping it’s not happening to your child.”

Most people, at some time, experience these cognitive errors that lead to negative feelings. So when does it become a problem? Marta explains it is a problem when you can’t get past it and it interferes with daily functioning. “When you are spending way too much time thinking about it. When it prevents you from doing what you want, and interferes with daily activities.”

Often society puts pressure on us to be a certain way that is contrary to how we truly are and this can negatively affect our self-image. “American society is very extroverted. Someone who is not that way may feel at a disadvantage and therefore believe a change is necessary,” says Marta. “Rather than forcing yourself to act in a way that is not natural to you, find things that are in line with your personality. Perhaps the issue is not that you don’t like to socialize, but simply that you prefer to engage with others one-on-one or in small groups rather than going to loud, crowded parties. Self-awareness is the first step to successful change. Ask yourself, ‘Is it better for me to accept this about myself or is it better for me to change it?’ Embrace the parts that are true to you and find balance.”

Lastly, Marta says, practice self-compassion. “Change is difficult and doesn’t happen in a linear fashion. When something doesn’t go well or you feel you’ve made a mistake, give yourself a break.”

Are you struggling with poor self-image and low self-esteem? To learn more about how CBT can help, or to connect with a therapist, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.


McLeod, S. (2008) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Simply Psychology. Retrieved on February 1, 2017, from

A Look at Human Connection, Post-Election Fri, 03 Feb 2017 21:39:55 +0000 Moving Out of a Fixed Perspective through Compassionate Discourse

You made it through the holidays and those challenging, awkward, possibly heated dinner table discussions about the election. Some of those people you may not see again for another year, yet with a new president in office and much change and uncertainty coming, we still need a way forward.

Many people are struggling to find the right balance between the passion they feel for their own views and beliefs and a desire for peace and mutual respect. You may be asking yourself: Do I take a stand, get involved and take action, or do I ignore the news and retreat into a bubble of ignorance in the name of goodwill? How do I engage with those who hold different views without making them enemies? How do I show compassion for all without compromising my own values?

The goal of compassionate discourse isn’t to find a nicer way to prove you are right, but rather to find a point of connection. Relationship, not only shared words or emotions, can be a vehicle for mutual understanding and respect. This is how hearts and minds begin to change, even if the result is just being more open to listening.

Have you ever come across a characteristic or behavior of someone you love that is ultimately a deal breaker for you and you have to cut ties? Have you had the experience of wrestling with such an issue and then ultimately being able to acknowledge the challenge, recognizing your continued love for the wholeness of the person despite their flaws? “Relationships are about having the strength to persevere through difficult terrain, finding empathy for the other even when you are at odds, and recognizing when the relationship needs a time out or to come to an end,” explains Sandra T. Mann, PsyD, therapist and Director of Clinical Training at Maria Droste Counseling Center.

As you choose your next steps, find yourself in an uncomfortable place, or engage with someone who has different views, keep these tips in mind:

  • Acknowledge that different perspectives exist and ask permission to further the discussion. None of us wants to feel blindsided by a tense discussion and sometimes we’re not in the right space to engage.
  • Stop shaming, blaming, and stereotypes. We tend to think and speak in generalities (“Republicans do this…” or “All liberals think that…”). Try to focus on your experiences and those of the other person. How does a particular incident or policy affect you directly? Why is it so emotional for you?
  • Consider the possibility of middle ground. “So many issues are polarizing—your side or mine, us vs. them—which only fuels conflict,” Mann acknowledges. “Are there pieces of the issue you do agree on? These can be places to discover shared values, build rapport, and recognize a place you might coexist that lies between.”
  • Be prepared to listen, especially when you don’t agree; be sure you aren’t just planning your response. Listen for any areas of agreement and build from there.
  • Acknowledge the needs of others to take time to process. “We aren’t all masters of verbal debate or thoughtful deliberation,” says Mann. She suggests that if you, or the other person, need more time to respond, take a moment to slow down and breathe.
  • Check in with yourself, and remember the high-pressure environment. The inauguration and marches just happened, and new developments continue to pop up in the news, through social media, and in email.  Emotions are still high from all perspectives. Some on both sides are feeling empowered, while others feel disempowered.
  • If possible, take the conversation offline and meet in person. Online discussions can easily lead to misunderstandings because they lack the ability to hear tone of voice or see body language and facial expressions that inform and give greater context to what is being said. It’s also much easier for those not used to being assertive to engage more aggressively, perhaps with less foresight about the repercussions. And let’s not forget those quietly observing, and the impact our words and more impassioned discourse have on them.
  • Find a stopping point. You are not likely to change someone’s worldview in one sitting. Achieving even an element of open-mindedness is a success. End when the conversation is in a place of agreement (even if that is just acknowledging and allowing space for the emotional response you both have to the issue). Acknowledge things you learned about the other person’s perspective, invite feedback, and revisit the topic again later.

If the current divisive social and political climate is making it difficult for you to function and/or is impacting your relationships, we can help. Contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600 for more information or to connect with a therapist.  

Note: These tips were adapted from SURJ’s Thanksgiving Toolkit – Bringing Justice Home. ( We adapted them in an effort to be more inclusive of all perspectives.  


6 Tips for Creating Positive Change This Year Thu, 12 Jan 2017 23:39:03 +0000 The New Year is a natural time for reflection, for taking stock of where we’ve been and looking ahead to where we’d like to be. More often than not, we are critical of the past and overwhelmed by the prospect of making real change, so despite our best intentions our New Year’s resolutions often fail before Valentine’s Day.  That doesn’t mean real change isn’t possible, though. While New Year’s resolutions may not be worth the paper they are written on, there are effective strategies for incorporating positive change into your life this year.

Start with what is already good.

Instead of looking back at all the things that didn’t happen or that went wrong over the past year, start by making a list of your accomplishments and what went right. If you do find yourself thinking about the negatives, try to reframe them in a productive way that gets beyond regret or blame. What did you learn from the experience that will help you going forward? Who showed up for you in an unexpected way? What resources did you (or could you now) find within yourself to help you get through? What new opportunities came (or could come) out of the disappointment?

Understand your motivation

Our resolutions often fail because they aren’t in sync with what truly resonates with us. Why do you want to lose weight, be in a relationship, change jobs, make more money, travel more… or any number of things we typically feel compelled to do?  Is it because it’s what your parents, your friends, or society believes is right for you? Take some time to think about what you really want. Forget about what you think is possible, and simply put your attention on what makes you feel happy, empowered, peaceful, and connected.

Design your vision

Vision boards are great physical reminders of what we want to see in our lives. There are several ways to create one, but how you use it can make the difference between keeping you on track and creating yet another distraction.

A vision board is a picture you create (using photos and empowering phrases that show what you want to achieve) and then put in a prominent place (i.e. next to your desk or by your bathroom mirror) in order to keep your goals top of mind. Proponents advise making the board as specific as possible about what you want in one or more areas of your life, so that you can fully visualize having whatever it is. For example, instead of general statements such as “I want to be happier” or “I want to make more money,” use the board to show what that would actually look (and feel) like. Is it a new house, a better car, a romantic relationship, travel, a certain job? Include images that clearly picture the life you want.  Let your imagination go and don’t worry about how you will get there. Simply accept that it is possible.

Combine your vision with action

Even baby steps count. Small actions every day can eventually add up to big results. When you are faced with a choice, go with the option that moves you closer to or at least in the direction of your vision. And keep in mind that not choosing is also a choice, but it doesn’t create any forward momentum. 

Be flexible

If your vision is too specific, you may miss opportunities to get what you want because they don’t look exactly like the picture in your head (or on your vision board). The more you can let the journey unfold, and appreciate where you are right now, the shorter the distance to happiness and positive change becomes. 

Be kind to yourself

Getting to your goal is rarely a straight line.  Setbacks will happen, but how you view them can greatly impact where you end up. When something doesn’t work out as you’d hoped, or you backslide, see this as an opportunity to reaffirm your intention, to redefine your goals, or to move in a direction you hadn’t considered before.

Provided here are just a sample of strategies you might try, but there are countless tips for reframing your experiences, thoughts, and feelings to fit your aspirations for the here and now, as well as the year ahead and beyond. As is relevant in so many other aspects of life, what works for one person will not always (sometimes ever) work for another. The trick is sampling a variety to find what best suits you. Therapists can make idyllic guides when it comes to reflecting on your experiences and wanting to bring positive change into your life. If you are interested in more information, please call the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.

When December isn’t Merry and Bright Thu, 22 Dec 2016 16:00:34 +0000 The holidays are a time for celebration and happy gatherings with family and friends. Some people, however, find that celebrating the holidays in the traditional sense brings anything but peace and joy. Rather than looking forward to it, this time of year is something they just want to get through and put behind them.

The holiday season may be filled with stress and anxiety for a number of reasons:

  • The pressure to over-commit both time and money.
  • Other people’s desires that take center stage and ignore yours.
  • Forced togetherness with family members you don’t get along with, or worse, who trigger past trauma.
  • The expectation to be around people when you’d rather be alone, or being alone when you’d like to be with others.
  • The need to appear happy when you aren’t.
  • The effort it takes to please others by pretending to be someone you’re not.
  • The pressure you put on yourself because you’re not happy or you feel as though you don’t fit in.

Many people find joy in the holiday traditions from their childhood, which they recreate for their own families. However, the holidays may not conjure warm memories if, for example, your upbringing involved toxic relationships, fallout from a bitter divorce or other estrangements, substance abuse, neglect, or trauma such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Perhaps when you were growing up your family celebrated in a way that didn’t resonate with you (they were strictly religious and you wanted to have more fun or they made it all about presents and appearances and you wanted to be more spiritual). As an adult, you may find it challenging to create the festive season on your own terms, but it can be done.

There is no single right way to celebrate.

Even if full-on happiness is too tall an order, you can try for whatever brings you peace. Writer Katrina Woznicki and her husband have little extended family and none that they care to spend time with during the holidays. Woznicki’s parents and brother struggle with mental illness, and “a long history of illness, abuse, trauma and anger,” she writes in a New York Times article. Her husband is an only child whose parents are deceased and he has no other relatives nearby. Holidays are spent with the two of them and their 12-year-old daughter, who is aware that their experience does not match those of her friends or what she sees on television celebrations with lots of family.

“Over the years, I’ve tried to create different Christmas memories,” Woznicki writes. Those memories include traveling to fun and interesting destinations and sometimes participating in the traditions of other cultures. “Our Christmases may appear nomadic and lacking in tradition, but my hope is to teach our daughter that Christmas or any holiday doesn’t need to fit a conventional mold… Sometimes you have to forge your own circle or find other circles with which to share the joy and compliments of the holiday season, and that’s okay.” (Woznicki, 2016)

Holiday sadness and loneliness

Holiday sadness can also come from an awareness of what is missing. “This time of year we remember people we’ve lost, especially the older we get. We think about the people we love who live far away,” writes Susie Moore, life coach columnist for the website “Perhaps we rue what we cannot afford to do or what we can’t afford to give to others. We might think back on the entire year and feel we have not achieved what we’ve wanted to. It’s melancholic just acknowledging these truths…” (Moore, 2015)

Moore offers ways to help overcome your sadness. Here are a few she suggests:

  • Do something nice for someone else.

The holiday season offers many opportunities to help others, from volunteering at a local homeless shelter, to performing random acts of kindness, to writing a thank you note to someone who’s helped you in the past year.

  • Treat yourself.

It doesn’t have to be extravagant, and certainly not more than you can afford, but a gift to yourself can be just what you need. “Treating yourself is an important act of self-care,” Moore writes.

  • Focus on what’s going right.

“No matter how troubled your year has been, there is always light when you look for it,” says Moore.

(Moore, 2015)

Holiday stress and anxiety

If avoiding your family or others you find challenging during the holidays is not an option, you can still have some control over your experience. The American Psychological Association (APA) offers these strategies for coping with some of the holidays’ toughest challenges.

  • For dealing with continuing family problems, be realistic. “If you have bad feelings about someone, try and avoid him or her and not make an issue of it but don’t pretend that all is well. This will enable you to feel true to yourself and less stressed out,” the APA suggests.
  • For money concerns, know your spending limit. Resist the pressure to overspend. Doing so is stressful, and that stress continues during the year when you have to pay your bills. Showing love and caring is not about how much you spend. It truly is the thought that counts!
  • For time commitments, learn to prioritize. Choose the invitations and activities that matter the most, and don’t stress over saying no to everything else. Over-commitment can be a struggle for couples that are pressured to spend time with both sets of in-laws, or have to travel long distances. Finding a balance that doesn’t leave you feeling worn out and resentful (such as choosing an alternate day to be with one family, or going to each one every other year, or simply choosing to stay home).
  • For coping in general, trust your instincts. “Most people dread the holidays because their inner experience is so different from what is being hyped. You should trust your own instincts and don’t try to be what you’re not,” explains the APA. “Keep up your normal routine and know that this day will pass too.”

(APA, 2016)

When the holiday blues continue beyond the holidays

The holidays can be a time that exacerbates deep feelings of sadness, stress, anxiety or trauma. If you need help during the holidays or even after the festivities are just a memory, there are many resources. Contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600 to schedule an appointment with a therapist.

If you or anyone else has considered self-harm, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1(800)273-8255

Survivors of sexual abuse can contact the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN): 1(800) 656-HOPE or

Survivors of domestic abuse can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800)799−7233.


Woznicki, K. (2016) The holidays aren’t a big, happy family celebration for everyone. And that’s okay. The Washington Post. Retrieved on December 20, 2016, from

Moore, S. (2015) How to Deal When the Holidays Aren’t Exactly Happy. Retrieved on December 20, 2016, from

American Psychological Association (2016). More Coping with Holiday Stress Tips. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 20, 2016, from

Why do we ‘set the stage’ around the holidays? Wed, 21 Dec 2016 17:54:55 +0000 Have you ever noticed that most commercials around the holidays depict charming scenes of happy, well-dressed families and immaculate homes decorated to perfection, but most holiday movies center on something (or everything) going wrong?  The reality we strive for takes a team of set designers to pull off, but the reality that we connect with is often the one that lets us off the hook even if it is just to say, “At least we’re not that bad!”

As unbelievable as movies like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or even It’s a Wonderful Life are, the magazine image of the perfect family holiday gathering can be just as unrealistic. So why do so many of us feel the need to try especially hard for perfection when it generally leaves us exhausted and stressed rather than joyful? Because, at least in part, we want people to see us in the best light, and affirm to us that we are good enough.

The fact is judgment abounds this time of year. We judge ourselves in relation to others. (My sister’s house is always immaculate, and mine is always a mess.) We judge others in relation to us. (I can’t believe my brother lets his kids run around like that.) And, we feel others judge us. (My mother-in-law is going to blame me if we’re late.) We even judge people for being judgmental. (Mom is going to spend the whole day comparing me to my cousin who just graduated from Stanford.)

People are much more complex than any single trait, or even a handful of traits. Judgment is a simplistic and reductive way of seeing people because it doesn’t take into account all the experiences, biology and circumstances that have shaped them. John D. Mayer, PhD, a psychology professor and author, points out that judging aspects of someone’s personality (even our own) is an imperfect act, even if that judgment is accurate and made carefully. “Most judgments are particular, focusing in on one single part of a person,” he says. When it comes to being judged by others, he explains, “It’s easy for us to get overly-focused on the one point of criticism. Our attention has a way of singling in, laser-like, on the issue at hand. Most of us, I suspect, feel that we’ve become our flaw. And, if the comment was said among like-minded people, perhaps everyone’s attention is directed collectively to our alleged limitation.” (Mayer, 2013)

Mayer adds that his own instinct when confronting someone’s judgment of him is to do several things: 1) focus solely on the perceived flaw so that it distorts his self-image, 2) feel shame, 3) deny the flaw, 4) react with anger (not necessarily expressed directly) toward the person who pointed it out, 5) feel depressed by his own limitations. None of these, he admits, are helpful.

Instead, he suggests taking a moment to find a broader perspective. “Each of us is a rich, multifaceted individual, a person who carries out many different roles and responsibilities as best we can, and each of us needs the help of others. In that broader context, my flaw may not seem so serious and it is easier to accept what may feel like a personal defect,” he says. Another thing to keep in mind is that someone else’s judgment of you is just their perspective on who you are, “and though there may be truth to it, other opinions are possible. If my attention is broad enough, and I feel connected to other people, I’ll also feel humility—a oneness with other human beings based on the sense that each of us is imperfect.”

The concern over being judged by our family members or friends can lead us to take on more than we are capable of doing in an effort to please them. The resulting stress can have negative consequences. Stress creates a physical response with the release of chemicals such as endorphins, cortisol, and adrenaline. “When the stressor(s) are perceived as too great with which to manage or cope effectively, we can feel overwhelmed,” explains clinical psychologist Marla W. Deibler, PsyD, a nationally recognized expert in anxiety disorders. “This may manifest itself as experiencing intense emotion (i.e., anxiety, depression, irritability, anger), maladaptive thought processes (i.e., worry, rumination, unhelpful thoughts, doubt, helplessness, hopelessness, guilt), and behavior change (i.e., lashing out, crying, panic attack).” (Deibler, 2012)

Not exactly how most of us envision a picture perfect holiday! For starters, then, forget the picture perfect part. Before you start scrubbing the guest bathroom to a brilliant shine, lining the table with precisely matched place settings, slaving over the dinner from scratch, breaking the budget for those unique gifts, or whatever it is you’ll do to put your best foot forward for your next holiday gathering, take a moment to consider your options. Ask yourself whether you are putting your efforts where they will really matter in terms of your own well-being and the enjoyment of your guests. 

Try these tips, inspired by Deibler, to beat holiday stress and enjoy the festivities, rather than obsessing over them:

Change your thoughts. When you notice your thoughts turning to worry about things you can’t control, or things that haven’t happened yet, change them to more helpful thoughts. Focus on one task at a time, and enjoy the process rather than fretting over the outcome. As your cooking or decorating or even cleaning, redirect thoughts about how it all will turn out or what people with say and instead, enjoy the process of doing that one thing.

Plan ahead. Organize your time so that you aren’t doing it all the day of the event. Allow yourself some down time to do something relaxing or fun. Plan your budget in advance, as well, to keep from overspending.

Don’t overdo it. If cooking the entire meal is overwhelming, ask others to bring their favorite dishes, simplify the menu, or incorporate pre-made foods.  Choose the aspects of the occasion that are most important to you, and let some of the other details go, or hand them off to someone else. It is okay to ask for help, or to politely decline requests for your time and energy if they are more than you can manage.

Be flexible. It’s okay to let go of some traditions, especially in the name of simplifying!

The holidays don’t have to be stressful or overwhelming. If you struggle with letting go of those negative feelings around judgment or pleasing others, however, and need strategies for finding peace, contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600 to connect with a therapist.


Mayer, J.D. (2013) On Judging and Being Judged Over the Holidays—2013 Edition. How we react to other people’s comments about us. Retrieved on December 16, 2016, from

Deibler, M. (2012). 10 Tips to Beat Holiday Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 17, 2016, from

Parenthood: What’s Normal? Mon, 19 Dec 2016 22:12:10 +0000 “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous.
It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
– Elizabeth Stone

Although parenting is one of the most common human experiences, for those who don’t have children and even for those who do, there is still a fair amount of mystery around how to do it well and why it is so hard. Author Elizabeth Stone’s quote seems to imply a couple of somewhat unsettling points. First, that raising a child means there is a part of your life over which you no longer have full control, and second, that, to the rest of the world, your child is a reflection on you. These two ideas, taken together, account for much of what is challenging about being a parent. 

Parenting makes us vulnerable on multiple levels. Our kids depend on us; we feel judged by others about how we parent; and, we’re reminded of all our issues around how we were raised and our relationship with our own parents. We often set the bar very high, and as a result, feel like we’re failing much of the time.

“Parenting is the hardest job because it brings up all our stuff; we’re constantly wondering if we are doing enough or the right thing,” says Maria Droste therapist Kim Stromgren, MA, “and parents rarely get any credit until their kids are 25 or 30 and realize the magnitude of their parents’ sacrifice and love; and develop compassion for their humanness and imperfections. It’s also challenging because many people did not have healthy parenting role models to emulate or look to for validation.”

Parenting roles – What are we actually doing?

In decades past, the proverbial 2.4 kids were raised by a cheerful, self-sacrificing, stay-at-home mom and a gainfully employed, rarely home dad at least on television.  Mom kept the house in order and made sure they all had food and clothing. She baked cookies, cared for the kids when they were sick, and generally made them feel better through their trials and tribulations. When they got in trouble, however, Mom would typically say, “Wait until your father gets home,” because he was the one who administered the discipline.

Today’s families are much more complex and varied (and let’s face it, they always have been), and the demands on kids and parents seem to be more stress inducing than ever.

Stromgren explains that according to developmental psychology, the primary caregiver’s job is to nurture and protect, while the secondary caregiver’s job is to promote independence and self-esteem associated with ability and confidence. Kids need both messages, she says, and that can be a challenge for some families.  Traditionally, women (mothers) have been considered the primary caregivers and men (fathers) the secondary caregivers, and as such it has been hard for both parents to understand that they may be providing different support for their children, but each approach is equally valuable. Gender lines and roles continue to evolve; however, and there is no hard-and-fast rule that says only women can be nurturers and only men can instill independence. The fact that both types of parenting happen is much more important than who does what. In fact sometimes both parents, typically adaptable personalities, teach both messages equally well. Single parents must provide both messages and know the importance and challenge of this and same-sex couples, who are somewhat liberated from gender roles, also navigate how to best provide messages of nurturance and independence.

Goodness of fit

Parenting is complicated by the simple fact that children have their own personalities, thoughts and feelings. When do you rein them in and when do you let them find their own identities? Goodness of fit refers, in part, to how well a child’s temperament fits with the people around him. (The Center for Parenting Education, n.d.) When a parent and child have goodness of fit, their relationship is less combative. They like the same things, have similar temperaments, and have an easy rapport with one another. Sometimes that is the case with a parent and one child, but a second child is completely different. Everything that works with one, fails with the other, and so a new set of strategies is needed for that child – one that may not come so easily to the parent.

Parenting in the Information Age

“Kids today know far more than we did pre-internet,” says Stromgren. Because there is much greater access to all sorts of information, parents are no longer necessarily the greatest influence on their children. 

While this is true of much younger children, the impact may still be felt the most with teens and pre-teens who are beginning to assert their independence.  “Frustration comes from having conflicting agendas,” Stromgren says. “Don’t back off on issues of safety,” she adds, but allowing teens to explore new ideas and express their opinions is a necessary part of development. “Kids today tend to have broader views.  Parents can improve communication by listening to their children’s perspective and not only acknowledging how an issue impacts their generation, but maybe even allow it to expand their own knowledge and beliefs.”

All types of families have struggles

Single parents don’t have someone right there to share ideas or responsibilities, so they are on 24/7, which can be exhausting and lonely. Two-parent households have the challenge of triangulation and disagreement. Whatever the issues, connecting with other parents and seeing that you are not alone in your feelings or experiences can be very helpful in lowering that parenting bar to a realistic level.  Chances are, you are doing just fine.

If, however, the stress and struggles are too great, and are negatively impacting you and your family on a daily basis, counseling is an excellent way to understand what is going on, and to heal without projecting or repeating patterns. “A lot of parenting happens in the dark, without a good role model, and therapy can offer validation for that experience,” says Stromgren.

For more information on parenting resources, or to speak with a therapist, contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600.


The Center for Parenting Education (n.d.) Understanding Goodness of Fit. Retrieved on December 8, 2016, from:

Teens and Adolescent Behavior: What’s normal? Sat, 03 Dec 2016 01:47:10 +0000 Adolescence, those unmistakable years between childhood and adulthood, is famous for being one of the most challenging times of life for the teens themselves, for their parents, and for all the other adults they interact with. This is the developmental stage best known for pushing buttons and boundaries, so it’s no wonder that even the most attentive parents can be confused by what is normal and what is cause for concern.

Not since early childhood have these kids changed so quickly physically, emotionally and intellectually. Keeping up with all that change can be exhilarating and exhausting for everyone involved.

Some behaviors that are completely normal seem strange and annoying, while some concerning behaviors may be inappropriately dismissed as “just being a teenager,” explains Maria Droste therapist Dawnelle Tilden, MA, LPC, LAC.

Teens are learning to flex their independence muscle. They experiment with risk-taking as they try on adult behaviors, but the line between healthy risk and dangerous risk can get blurred. As teen hormones take on a life of their own and emotions run to extremes, many parents take a white-knuckled, grit-your-teeth-until-it’s-over approach. Some are too hands on, others not enough. How do you find the right balance?

For starters, says Tilden, “Let’s de-stigmatize adolescence.” For all its mystery, many adults seem to be able to sum up teenagers pretty quickly: they’re loud, unruly, disruptive, lazy, and inconsiderate… On the other hand, not all teens are jerks, and many feel the pressure to succeed. Getting into college requires advanced courses, flawless GPAs, and a slew of extra-curricular activities like sports, music and volunteering. The stakes are high, not just for acceptance into a good school, but for scholarships as well. Plenty of teens also have paying jobs.

Normal or troubling?

The difference between normal teenage behavior and a red flag is all about degrees, says Tilden. Here are some examples:

Normal: Your son is 30 minutes to an hour late coming home.
Red flag: Your son stays out all night.

Normal: Your daughter spends less time with the family because she stays up late and then sleeps until 2 in the afternoon.
Red flag: Your daughter stays away often without checking in, misses dinner regularly, and never brings friends home. When she is home, she has music in her ears and doesn’t engage with anyone in the family.

Normal: Your son sometimes yells and acts disrespectful when he disagrees with you.
Red flag: Your son never shows any respect and makes no effort to communicate.

Normal: Your daughter is overly explosive and emotional in reaction to a particular situation.
Red flag: Your daughter’s emotions are constantly intensified. She rarely or never comes to an even keel.

Tilden encourages parents to stay open. Teens may pull away and be less communicative, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want their parents’ support. “They often think their parents are too busy with work, other siblings, and home responsibilities. They don’t want to add to the stress so they don’t initiate conversation when they have a problem,” she says. Tilden, who is also Director of Substance Abuse in Cherry Creek Schools, understands that when teens are distant and uncommunicative, it can be draining for parents to make the effort to connect. Nevertheless, she advises, most teens want that connection even if they don’t show it.

“When kids are young, parents are all about the community of people enlisted to manage the logistics such as carpools, play dates, shared babysitting,” Tilden explains.  “As kids get older and more independent, that happens less and less. Parents stop talking to other parents and lose that support system.”

As teens take on more responsibilities, parents do lose out on some of that time they spent together. Teens drive and no longer depend on their parents for rides everywhere. Busy schedules can mean fewer meals together. Parents who encourage their teens to advocate for themselves may not discuss schoolwork as often.

“Parenting doesn’t stop just because your child is now an adolescent. While giving them greater independence is a necessary part of their development, it’s not okay to just leave them on their own to figure things out. Teens still need you,” says Tilden.

She offers these tips:

  • Keep communication open. You never know when your teen will take the opportunity to connect with you.
  • Create space for your teen to talk with you spontaneously. Just being in proximity in the car, making dinner, watching TV can give your teen an opening to bring up an issue, talk about something that’s happening, ask questions, or share feelings. Be sure to give him or her your full attention, and resist the urge to jump in and offer quick solutions or judgment.
  • Don’t shame yourself. Parents make mistakes at all stages, and the teen years are no different. Just learn from the situation and move forward.
  • If you have any concerns or questions, reach out to a professional. Many therapists at Maria Droste offer free consultations or initial phone calls.

If you are unsure whether your teen is heading for trouble and you want to speak to someone about what’s going on, contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600 for information or to connect with a therapist.

The Sacrifice of Always Being Right Tue, 01 Nov 2016 18:14:47 +0000 The need to be right is a common human trait. We all want to look our best in front of others, but when does that need cross over to being more destructive than constructive? And is it useful in the first place?

Every four years, we are faced with particularly visible examples of people doing their best to “be right.” Election season has become a contentious time. People get so personally invested in their positions on candidates and issues that there is little chance of persuading someone to consider a different perspective. Rather than conceding any ground, let alone finding middle ground, we often dig in our heels or move ever closer to the extremes.

The political tension is not a figment of our collective imagination. All one has to do is watch cable news shows, listen to talk radio, or spend time on Twitter or Facebook to see just how prevalent the need to hold tight to our convictions is in this country. But if you need more confirmation, a Pew Research study shows that from 1994 until 2014, the number of Americans holding mixed political views (those in the center between liberals and conservatives) decreased from 49% to 39% and the percentage of people holding liberal or conservative views increased from 10% to 21%. Not only are people more invested in their own beliefs, they are also more certain the other side is deeply wrong. The percentage of Republicans who have very unfavorable views of Democrats rose from 17% to 43%, while the percentage of Democrats who hold negative views of Republicans grew from 16% to 38%. (Doherty, C., 2014)

Listening to what passes for political discourse these days, it’s not hard to find people twisting logic and reason into complicated knots in order to make a case for their, or their candidate’s, position. The need to be right can overshadow one’s true beliefs, values or opinions, along with compassion, respect for others and even personal happiness.

How did we get this way?

“Our educational system is rooted in the construct of right and wrong. We are rewarded for what are deemed to be correct answers… Being right affirms and inflates our sense of self-worth. As students we learn to avoid as best we can the embarrassment of being wrong,” writes Mel Schwartz, LCSW.  (Schwartz, 2011)

Our core beliefs merge with our identity. Being right can equate to being smart, being good, or being successful. While everyone makes mistakes or is wrong at some time, we tend to be uncomfortable when it happens to us, and we do what we can to avoid that feeling.

In addition, there is a certain amount of security and safety that comes from adopting the shared beliefs of those around us our families, our faith communities, our cultural heritage, and our classmates and peers. Without that security, we can feel lost and vulnerable.

“It comes down to fear, of both the known and the unknown. ‘What harm might befall me if I let go of this position?’” says Matthew Wise, PsyD, therapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center. “Human self-preservation is a powerful force that drives our need to be on one side of something.” Surrounding oneself with like-minded people increases our steadfastness. “There is safety in numbers,” says Wise, and, he continues, that furthers the idea that “either you are with us or against us.”

We need to ask the question, Wise adds, what are people protecting themselves from? Perhaps it is simply vulnerability. He explains that common thinking is, “If I move on this issue, I’m exposed. I’m by myself. I’m not with a team.” Add to that the risk of rejection from those they’ve aligned themselves with and, for many, that is enough to keep them from looking too closely at their own beliefs, or opening up to the possibility that there is more than one way to be right. 

Judgment plays a role as well. We look at others who are different from us in some way and form an opinion. Often that judgment is based on nothing more than a superficial impression. How a person dresses or speaks, an attitude he conveys, or something she says is enough for us to sum up someone’s character. We make decisions about people based on the information we have, regardless of how limited that information may be, without taking any time to get to know them or understand them.

Those beliefs about others stick with us. Sometimes they are applied to whole groups of people. When we talk about a culture, or a religion, or a political party, it is easy to forget that each of those groups is comprised of individuals who may share some common beliefs, but not likely all their beliefs. We all bring a range of experiences to the table that influence who we are. Accepting that someone else has a valid argument or opinion means accepting that our own beliefs and judgments may be flawed and that is not always easy to do.

How can we start to come together?

Coming into a situation determined to convince someone why he or she is wrong and you are right is unlikely to be successful, given the inherently confrontational nature of such an endeavor. Instead, Wise says, “Meet people where they are. Try to set judgment aside and get curious, rather than being antagonistic.”

Schwartz posits that true learning comes from the complex questions we ask. “If you think about it, the most intriguing questions are those that don’t offer simple answers. Even more, they drive our thinking into greater complexity and curiosity,” he says. Schwartz also recommends delving into what informs our beliefs as a way of inviting discussion. “Learning the art of inquiry enables opposing beliefs and attitudes to surface in an endeavor to appreciate the other’s lived experience and values. When our mind shuts down there is little chance of altering our perception. As such, our conversations aren’t generative and there is a lack of new learning.” (Schwartz, 2011)

Would you rather be right or be happy? An intractable need to be right can negatively impact personal and workplace relationships, cause stress and prevent you from communicating effectively. A better understanding of where that need comes from in your life can help you move beyond being right to being more open, happier, less judgmental and less critical of others. Contact Maria Droste’s Access Center at 303-867-4600 for more information or to connect with a therapist.


Doherty, C. (2014) 7 Things to Know About Polarization in America. Pew Research Center. Retrieved on October 24, 2016, from

Schwartz, M. (2011) Why Is It So Important to Be Right? Accepting being incorrect without any loss or embarrassment. Psychology Today. Retrieved on October 20, 2016, from

Schwartz, M. (2011) What Informs Your Belief? Psychology Today. Retrieved on October 20, 2016, from