This week’s episode of Perspectives is part 2 of the conversation with Jen Slacks (click here for part 1), an established family therapist, professor and clinical supervisor. This week Sharon and Jen dive into how they both successfully have and maintain healthy and deep relationships with the ones they love. Make sure to check out and discover how to set boundaries and improve listening skills through a simple model and exercise near the halfway point.
Introduction: Hi I'm Sharon Pearson and welcome to this episode of perspectives. We are so fortunate we have part two with the amazing Jennifer slack and I loved all the feedback we got for part 1. I agree with you she is all of that and so much more. What an incredible human being and just soaking up her views of the world and of herself and of raising a family and of her therapy work it’s so instrumental in how the people around her start thinking about their own lives and how they interact with themselves with the people in their lives and the world around them.
I think one of the other gifts that Jennifer brings is the ability to help people see the world kinder and to soften the edges.
I think I've put that I'm underselling her a little bit here but she has the ability just by being around her to help people have perspective and see things accurately and a little more kindly than perhaps they would have if they hadn't had that time with her. I remember one day we were meant to be catching up and I couldn't reach her and it turns out she'd just been sitting with one of her sons for hours brainstorming with him a challenge he was facing and she was simply not simply she was discussing his values and how to bring his values to the fore in making this decision. She didn't make the decision for him he made the decision that was appropriate to him where he was developmentally where it was in terms of what he wanted to experience how much risk you want to take which challenge you wanted to face what his values were and what that would mean would be presenting itself to him as a path forward. That's what she does.
And you're about to see that or hear that for yourself now with Jennifer as we sit there in the back of her house looking out over where the deer’s hang out in Fairfield Connecticut her chatting about her views on family. Now in this audio she makes it very clear I think she says it that they're not the perfect family and that message is very she is resonating with me. So please make it clear no one's thinking we're the perfect family. I don't want us ever being perceived that way we're not. We have our ups and downs like every family but there isn't so much gold to be mined out of how she thinks about parenting and how she thinks about her responsibility and who she needs to be to allow her children to be who they want to be. And that's what you're about to get just a very short snippet of Jennifer's view of the world and parenting it's only 45 minutes or so but it's a world of beauty to go into. It's just simply wonderful and delightful well to dive into with Jennifer slacks. I trust you love part 2 as much as one has resonated with you and I look forward to all your comments and feedback. And of course if you want to get in touch with Jen she's got a Website And there's a Web site there you can get in touch with her and experience this phenomenal human being for yourself. And yes she works as a therapist which is a question we go to a lot. So anyway enjoy the podcast. We'll chat at the end and I look forward to seeing you very very shortly.
Sharon Pearson: Now let's speak to being human making mistakes having flaws and being in the session as the therapist or the coach and not knowing and how delightful that is. Can you speak to that in your own way?
Jennifer Slack: Yeah. Well talk about in the beginning not delightful. I think I spent the better. And I love sharp people are you know student early in their learning. Students are delighted to hear me say this. I think I spent a good part of my internship thinking ‘oh wow what I really got into the wrong profession. I've just got to finish up the degree because it would be too embarrassing to pull out.’ But I just. It was so fraught and difficult for me. And so not knowing where I was going was felt like a pervasive experience. Yes the occasional OK that was pretty good or the imposter syndrome follow me following me around.
Now I think it is delightful in large most of the time in large part because it has been incorporated into my philosophy which is it's it's not only ok that we don't have all the answers it's really important. We have to match our clients in terms of pacing in terms of tone in terms of you know just in terms of that. To me that's largely connection.
And so when I don't know something I'll just say you know I'm not sure about this or if I if I know there's an important conversation and I know I'm not ready to say it I'll say out loud sometimes you know I need to kind of collect my thoughts if it's OK can we revisit this next week. I want to think through a few different things. And people respond its modelling is what happens in life and Wow a therapist can do it from an expert position. You know it's you get all these extra ingredients that are positive in the act of not knowing.
S: I think it's vital to show my humanity which includes mistakes not knowing you know feeling uncertain and still demonstrating modelling that I'm okay. In a space of uncertainty I'm still okay because I think one of the biggest things we need to all those human beings is I'm going to be able to handle not knowing. Because we really don't like the unknown gene right. The human species really doesn't like the young.
J: That's where anxiety and depression it is come in. Yeah.
S: And the more rejecting the unknown the more shut down as we're going for. So we need to demonstrate how comfortable we can be sitting in a space of I have no idea. Yeah I'm gonna do the journey with you. I just have no idea how we're gonna do it. I would say those words in a session I have no idea. Shall we find out together.
J: And I have made loads of mistakes more mistakes than I could could possibly remember. And I will say to clients that was a therapy mistake. Most of the time I love her opportunities to do repair work. I mean we you know one guarantee is we hurt each other and we blunder and we step on but we can go back and repair and it together and be stronger for it. So a relationship like any other we have a wonderful opportunity to model that and experience that with clients. And sometimes a therapy mistake might be the end of a relationship therapy relationship. It doesn't happen very often but then I think there is a commitment to taking that regret that learning and using it to deepen your practice and paying it forward that you're more aware for that the next people how to do certain things differently that it never just needs to sit in a lump of regret. As if mistakes happen if they do it's ok.
S: Where do you go philosophically in terms of families when you work with a family with children involved. Is there a different philosophy there is or an additional piece that might be important to bring up well.
J: I think it is largely in keeping with this conversation that it's with I mean relationships have to be you have to be able to connect everyone in the family has to be able to be authentic and them their true selves which is going to be different than any other family member. And that that can be OK and that they don't have to agree. How can people disagree and not have it interfere with the connection. And I think that sort of in a nutshell it all sort of comes back to that when it comes to families so couples relations and parents with kids like it's okay that you disagree. Let's just get that out there. deal with the disagreement is what matters how that gets embedded in your patterns of relating with each other.
S: I'm hedging into boundaries here because you are the boundary Queen.
J: I was dubbed that.
S: It's the full title you've been given. I know. So I just I wanted to start bringing in the work you do with.
J: Well thank you structural family therapy. Yes.
S:Yes. So who did you draw on. Well you had boundaries before you had that so term but it gave you the articulation of what you had instinctively.
J: Well and I think I had the very good fortune of living across the street with a woman who was sort of a second mother and is now a friend and a mother and she's a wonderful family therapist. A wine garden. So I have learned implicitly a lot of this stuff just before I had any words or language from me from the age of 10.
S: That's fantastic.
J: Give her some credit. Cool. And so she knowing all about boundaries just modelled that for me and interacted with me along those lines. And my parents also more deeply respectful about my autonomy. And so now I've forgotten where.
S: Well I just want to just dive into with no particular outcome in mind your philosophy around boundaries the role they play in your life and in your role as a therapist because the central Jen to who you are your values your boundaries your standards for yourself and the people you your life with and what you expect of relationships. It's phenomenal you. That needs that's part of how you do what you do.
J: So I think it's about being aware of how we're feel. It starts with our own individual awareness and giving ourselves permission to be aware of how we're feeling and it's OK we might be feeling uncomfortable what's going on. Let's run the radar scan OK. Yes I'm feeling anxious about something or nervous or excited or. And then you know it can be it's as important to catch it on the excitement end of it so that we are kind of managing our energy that we're not that we're as it can be on the distressed end of things. So how do you bring that to life. I think emotional regulation is we can without awareness of how we're feeling it can be very hard to come back to a regulated state.
J: And that can be you know under par or over par. But if what we're if we're making an investment or we care about connecting with another person there is co regulating that has to happen too. So if we're up here we're down there you're certainly in a therapy perspective that needs to be addressed and I think
S: there's no room for emotional reactivity or lack of awareness in a therapist or a coach when it comes to a session. We need to be aware of and in check with and self regulate and self manage what we feel.
J: Yeah yeah exactly.
S: Link that to boundaries for me.
J: To me that is it's you being aware of your individual system which of course is connected with other systems including the person you're sitting with but it's you being able to take stock of what's going on for you and when if you're feeling angry that's a signal system of a real or perceived violation of some kind. Something's being asked of you or tasked of you that you're not ok with or you're perceiving that that there is a mandate in there somewhere that's not feeling fair or I mean these are anger gets such a bad rap does it's such an important cool emotion. And if we're so afraid of anger.
S: Women aemany women who are afraid of dying
J: and men are too. And and kids are.
S: And don't you raise your voice for me is how dare you speak to me like that.
J: Go to your room where you use that tone.
S: Go yeah go to your room
J: we sit with we sit with our kids and every other a minute in every other emotion and with anger we banish them. That's when they need regulating the most. And they need to be. It needs to be unpacked. What's going on for you honey what's. You know what made. What's making you feel like this. Let me know this is good to know. Here's the other thing that I think we confuse all the time and it does come down to boundaries and connection and authenticity. We make the mistake of conflating listening with agreeing.
S: Yes. how did we get there haha.
J: You see this when it topples. Yeah. Then you see it with parents and I'm tempted to say adolescence but parents and kids of all ages where people attempt a boundary maneuverer by doing some nonverbal or verbal rejecting of what the other person is saying instead of listening.
And the thing is people don't realize it. So just that little piece of what we call psycho education is so liberating that people for people to realize by listening I'm not actually threatening my own boundaries and I'm not telling you you're right. It just means I can stay in connection with you through this very difficult content that we disagree around.
S: Let's do a role player on that. So I'm going to be. I'm going to say something about how I'm angry with you and it's role play so people can literally see how you do it because how you do it is beautiful.
I really feel you let me down with bloody blah. I'm really pissed off.
J: I'm so glad you're telling me that. Yeah. Tell me more please tell me what I did. I really want to know what your experience has been. And I am so sorry.
S: We'll go. One was to. Well you bloody bla. And then you didn't bleed said you bloody blah. You didn't. I don't feel you did that. I'm really. Why didn't you do that.
J: Okay first of all that must have hurt so much I can really understand why you're upset with me and why you were hurt and why you felt let down. And I am so sorry and I am so glad you were telling me this. Yeah I really really care about you and our relationship. And and then we move into doing the actual repair right there. It's really simple.
S: Yeah. So as to the next step. Because I love the next step where it's the Reach Out will how shall we. Because you and I had a moment of this years ago when we had your stuff found on my stuff and teach you your stuff. Yeah it was your stuff first.
It was definitely about I really. That was all Major. Just
S: So our stuff bumped and the way we navigate that I was pretty pissed. We were both drunk but we still navigated it beautifully. We moved to repair. Would God let you speak to it. So how do we move to repair. Because I love that.
J: So I think. But what what. for me. It happens and it happened in a context of trust authenticity and connection. So that I knew it was OK for me to be truthful and tell you about my feelings.
And that I wasn't so consumed by how is this going to land on Sharon. That it prevented me from speaking my truth people in the name of not wanting to hurt each other. Yeah they clam up. So I we had established we kind of what I call like set the set the table before you sit down to eat.
We set the table and then we were able to get into it. And it was so affirmed and coached and we're doing this because we care about our relationship. That it was just going to be productive expression of disagreement or anger or whatever came up.
I mean these feelings are there not just OK they're essentially inevitable to human growth relational growth. We're only comfortable from neutral to positive we're not comfortable with the full spectrum of neutral.
S: How could I have done if in 18 years if we're doing a real relationship not bump every now and again only I mean there's an inevitability. And you really you bring a lot of stuff
J: so I have to say you know people experience perpetual dissatisfaction in relationships. what about your relationship with yourself. Your stuff bumps up against your own stuff sometimes. So imagine having that not happen in an existing relationship with another person. It's inconceivable. And if it's not happening there isn't that much depth in the relationship.
S: Well that's the beautiful thing is. So one of the pieces to that that I want to add that we do and that is so effective that I do in my mind a circle and you do in your inner circle is then we negotiate and that sounds like such a hard word. But I know what we do and what I do and what you do in all the relationships that are close to us it's we'll have how shall we do this next time well.
J: say the words with rules of engagement before heading forwards. Out loud I need space. I'll do this as well if I say this I mean for me to give you this space then I'm gonna need to hear this. And then we figure it out. Here's the beauty of it. The research shows that it's not solve the solving the problem I make. I can't I can barely remember the content.
S: Not now I don't.
J: I just remember the process around at hand our relational growth that was what felt so warm and exciting and affirming and that's how it goes. Problems don't have to be solved they have to be dealt with and respected and aired.
The problems go away or if they don't we can live with problems we can live with perpetual disagreement. In marriage with kids because guess what. Life sucks a lot of the time.you know what and you but it doesn't have to interfere with your connection.
Another big part of how that's done we do it however we want a language that is we talk about this a lot the non-defensive nature of communication.
I don't know that what we're describing is possible for someone who's going to get defensive and one of the things I say to if I'm in a conversation with someone and I want to share with them a truth that I feel will improve our relationship. I'll say I'm looking to improve our relationship. I'm sensing an opportunity here because something's coming up for me that I feel is blocking it. I would love to have this conversation with you and I go to the conversation and I get defensiveness and I say to that I appreciate that you're feeling defensive about it for us to move forward. We need to find a way not to protect ourselves right now but to be open to this conversation. We don't need to do that but I think it's important to say that there are ways of navigating the conversation even in the face of defensiveness. Could you speak about that in terms of your personal life.
J: Well that's where I would say maybe you know getting back to transparency and sort of doing a little philosophical statement that along the lines of what we're talking about in some ways it's the it's the most intimate act it's such a vote of trust.
When one person can go to another person and talk about things that are challenging not just around other people but the closest and hottest zone is the interpersonal one right there. And it requires so much trust to be able to be truthful in that context. And so to just language that and say it this is this is about connection and love and trust that I feel like I can say this. And I believe that relationships grow stronger from this. And it's only because I care that I'm bothering to have this conversation with you.
S: So one of the things we were talking about when going to the content of what happened for you. But sometimes it's not received in the relationship we thought we had. Is not the relationship right. That we thought we had.
J: Right. That's true. And then there is loss. There is often experience of loss and hurt and you know who knows what's going on there. Maybe the other person is not able. And they haven't done the work yet to be able to have an open conversation and feel threatened maybe their wounds that happened in the relationship that you're not aware of that they're not bringing to your attention. So you can't address it. And then what can you do.
All you can do is attempt and sometimes we just get into that zone of Yeah that sucks. You know I was going to. Life does have that.
S: It does.
J: We can't it's you know we can't make everything harmonious and connected but
S: we can't fix everything
J: we can't fix everything and it won't always work out right.
S: It won't always go away.
J: Right. We can't fix every relationship. There are so many things that are outside of our control. Most things most things. Yeah.
S: When it comes to let's move into relationship with family. You have three children. And whenever I'm on stage I say I know one person one family who's raised their children and I know with close proximity I know you have raised your children you and your husband have raised your children to be closely in touch with their feelings their thoughts their values their priorities their boundaries their emotional activity.
You have taught them how to navigate and negotiate relationships and difficult conversations in ways that just blow my mind. Where would you like to start with that I would love to share.
I am so thrilled to be out to share with the world what I know about my Jen and how you've done this all these years. It's beautiful. And your three children off now in college or they're working all around the world between them using things they're all positive all positive in their attitude they're all hopeful they're good. They're all in hopeful careers where they're adding value to the experience of others.
Let's go right back because I knew them when they were just small. What philosophically were you bringing. Huge question give me started somewhere and we'll figure out where to go.
J: So my parents philosophy is a direction that I tried to live by and try to parent into. And this is not me coming from a position of parent expert. What so ever. It's just these are the principles that I believe in and that I end that work for me when I achieve them. My kids would be the first ones to say we are not perfect.. Mom's parenting hasn't been perfect. That doesn't exist. but at least they can tell me that you can talk through it. Yeah and when there is a rift I'm the first to know about it and we are able to work through it.
S: So I think his humility in whatever we do regardless of what we think we've mastered or hitting towards is vital. Yeah the Unknowingness is a lot bigger than the knowing
J: For sure. Well said yes. As my father who just died last year who was just an incredible mentor for me and so many different ways used to say respect the person who seeks the truth be wary of the person who has found it.
I love that I love it and I think when parents or anyone's hearing this. This isn't just for parents what we're talking to. This is every relationship. Thematically there's a consistency in what you share is bringing authenticity transparency vulnerability the flaws that we all have their inevitable. No one's got it made no one's go to altogether and we're all working through stuff right. That is a constant.
J: Exactly.And it's okay hiding it. It's is not OK. Because we're all there we are. We're all all of us a same. We're all connected.
S: So when let’s do a really specific one because this one comes a lot up a lot in my conversations with my clients and students you child is angry and the parent shares it triggers them into anger. How do you manage that parent.
J: I didn't hear that.
S: Yeah. Sorry. So the child brings their anger. And the parent chooses to go into anger at their anger.
J: Yes. Right.
S: Speak to that.. How you unpack that and how you approach it differently. So if this you what do you think's going on when the parent makes their child's anger about them
J: Yeah well I think there is this wonderful. And I'm blanking the name of a therapist. It's called collaborative problem solving and it's a triangle. It's very simple and the base of it is regulation. The middle zone is relationship and the tip of the iceberg is reason so that it's just a fantastic teaching tool for students and just for people in life that the first job I think is in anger is that you are aware of it and you do something to regulate so that you're not just on reactivity mode. That is not going to work well in the parenting context.
S: It is not okay.
J: It's not OK. It's not about you at that moment. Your child has something to say. Your client has something to say. It's your job to have a turn listening and then to validate it in some way. It doesn't mean you have to agree with them. It doesn't mean your child's mood is proportional. It doesn't mean they're not being a pain in your rear end. It means you just have to make space for them to express themselves.
S: And let's talk about why why is that important. Let's really just spell that piece out.
J: I think well for kids it's the building blocks of them coming to know themselves and knowing I'm okay and my thoughts and my feelings are normal and that my mom loves me even if I'm a pain in the rear end and then it helps and then I think talking about it and mirroring back and you
S: can at least hold that and come back a bit. Yeah there's more to that one and do the contrast frame because if we don't do that for the child the child has the crazy making experience of. I thought I felt angry. I'm being told I shouldn't feel angry right. I'm now wrong to a fault anger right. And there's my future plan telling me they have anger issues right.
That is a lonely
J: or you know a kid will say I hate my brother or I hate you. And then parents wills correct them.No you don't.
S: Yeah that's not nice to say. Yes I do. I think you and guess what.
J: You know people can hate and love it the exact same time. Yeah and they're entitled to use their words to figure out how they're feeling as best they can and you know it's something like Oh I'm so sorry you feel that way and that must be that's a really big way to feel and tell me more
S: and I know what you do is let them process it fully. On their terms and then it goes away it goes.
J: I love it near the next minute. Exactly. And then they're bringing you guessed it baby drawings on them and everything's great.
S: But the importance of letting the child or anyone but a child and we're talking now experiencing emotion fully to completion to own label to experience it have it mirrored back and witnessed fully without judgment. They release it and now they know how to it. It's not sitting in it.
S: That's that's that it is that important. I just wanted to really labor the whole audience of letting that child have their experience without ask the big people thinking we know better or we can correct or they should know better. The other thing to talk about is a child is an emotional being way more than we are. We've added a lot more reason and self-control hopefully and self-regulation. So management is self-comforting. The child hasn't learned self-comforting yet so if we interrupted they don't learn how to experience it in self comfort and know their ok
J: and the self-comfort begins with other comfort. It's the nurturing and the loving and the soothing and the attunement. And when your child's crying you do go to them and then they learn I'm worthy of being made to feel better and then they find their thumb and self-comfort
S: Yeah. So I really wanted to. I really just wanted to unpack there fully I think we still have it that there was so many ways we looked to that then that hopefully will give the listeners a sense of its importance and how it is a priority in our conversations. Then you were going move on to what you do next.
J: Well so there is the regulating piece which really matters and it can we just pause to just say it's hard.
S: Oh yeah it's a mess work yes
J: because kids trigger their parents and they know where the trigger buttons are. Yep and a lot of the time you're running on four hours of sleep you're exhausted you're freaked out about work the next day you've got. So this is it. It may sound easy
S: and you've got your own issues.
J: It is not easy stuff exactly right. But like anything practice makes it a lot easier. And the beauty of not reacting is how much less energy it actually ends up taking. just doing and everyone had to kind of figure out their own self-regulation and people have what were different things work for different people. But taking deep breaths finding something that loved you look at taking a bird's eye witnessing perspective as your kid is having a little you know they're his highway it is doing and you just hunker down buckle up let it ride you know so it's hard but it's it's doable it's just it's a skill it's a skill that people weights
S: if we don't do it then it becomes really. Exactly. This is hard. I'm not doing it and having a lifetime of not having you know that is so frugal.
I mean there are more effective immediate controls. Very true.
J: Hitting your kid sending them away. Locking them up. You're doing something like that in their bedroom or sending them away. Which does not mean I agree with you. It does mean it's OK for you to express yourself and I can take it.
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